Built a few years before the Titanic, Belfast's Edwardian-style domed City Hall is the center point of downtown. It's a good place to begin an examination of the city and its history. Free tours are offered of the ornately designed building and there is an exhibit detailing the city's development.
The Titanic story continues just outside in Donegall Square, where there are several memorials related to the ship, including a year-old garden dedicated to victims of the disaster. The only monument to record the names of all the victims, it is a stirring experience drawing crowds and flowers left in remembrance of relatives.
Across from City Hall is the Linen Hall Library, a great place to check out exhibitions related to Belfast's past and to grab a quick snack. The library celebrates its 225th anniversary this year with a series of exhibits and talks, many relating to the city's history. The Linen Hall procured the first printed copy of the American Declaration of Independence outside the United States. It also has an extensive collection of materials relating to the Troubles.
The city's other sites include Stormont, home to Northern Ireland's parliament. It is set in a beautiful park, but access is limited to its Great Hall and guided tours by special arrangement. St. George's Market, a Victorian architectural confection, offers a variety of vendors selling local produce and bric-a-brac on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Check for hours.
Visiting Belfast requires a bit of preparation. It's not a city to parachute into without exploring beforehand a bit of its history and how the Troubles have evolved into today's political environment.
"In reality, while there remains a threat from dissident republican terrorists and rioting in a handful of flashpoint areas is possible, Northern Ireland has rapidly changed for the better," commented a Scottish journalist earlier this year.
Hartley, the former lord mayor, begins tours of Belfast Cemetery this way: "I remind visitors that they can either like or dislike the history they will be confronted with. ... they can agree or disagree with the politics of those who lie buried in the graves they visit. But whatever they think, be they Catholic or Protestant, Unionist or Republican, the history found on the headstones ... is the complex history of Belfast."
WHEN YOU GO
Belfast International Airport is served by nonstop flights on United Airlines from Newark. There are ferry connections to Scotland and England, and frequent train service to Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland, where there are more flight connections to and from the United States.
A broad selection of hotels is available in the central city. I stayed at the modern Hilton, adjacent to the city's Waterfront Hall entertainment venue, and at the venerable Merchant Hotel, housed in a former bank and with a wing of brand-new rooms. Other choices include Premier Inn Belfast Titanic Quarter, the Malmaison and the Europa, called the world's most bombed hotel during the Troubles, a title now in its past.
For more general information, visit Tourism Ireland at www.ireland.com.
For information on all of Northern Ireland, including events and lodging, see www.discovernorthernireland.com.
For the latest on what's happening in Belfast and transit: www.gotobelfast.com. Linen Hall Library: www.linenhall.com
Titanic Belfast visitor experience: www.titanicbelfast.com
Carl H. Larsen is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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