My Ireland Travel Guide // Part 3 of 4: Northern Ireland: Belfast, Giant’s Causeway & Bushmills
I have traveled to Northern Ireland three times and enjoyed all my visits. Yet, this is my first post about Northern Ireland. I’ve been blogging for over a year and haven’t posted once about the United Kingdom territory. I decided Northern Ireland definitely deserves a blog post! And that is a statement not many bloggers would have typed 20 years ago, if blogs existed. 20 years ago, crossing the border from the Republic of Ireland and visiting Northern Ireland for leisure would have posed safety risks. Today, Northern Ireland and it’s capital Belfast are statistically safer than most major USA cities*.
Honestly, my underlying reasoning for avoiding all posts about Northern Ireland is that I don’t even want to pretend that I understand the conflict that troubled the warring parties within Northern Ireland for so many years. However, through travel and conversations, plus the Netflix documentary The Art of Conflict (click here to watch the trailer, and put the subtitles on), I do feel informed on the matter. Keeping in mind, when the peace treaty was signed April 10, 1998 I was 9 years old. Continuing to be totally honest, I knew very little about any Irish history, let alone Northern Ireland history before moving here. If I could go back, I’d take that European history class in high school.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the official name of the peace treaty signed in Belfast since it was signed on Good Friday (my timing of the post is completely coincidental). The peace treaty and its success have been a beacon of hope for other countries struggling with conflict. Ireland has acted like a consultant for countries like South Africa and Columbia*. I should note the treaty is definitely flawed, but 20 years of peace, after 30+ of conflict, should be recognized.
Former President Bill Clinton played a pivotal role in 1998 ensuring the treaty was agreed upon and signed. The past week he was in Dublin and Belfast to recognize the continued success and compromise between these two parties. Fun fact, Bill Clinton is well liked in Ireland, like very well liked. He received both the freedom of Dublin (1995), and the freedom of Belfast (2018), prestigious awards given to acknowledge significant contributions to the cities. Extra fun fact, in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry a statue of Bill was erected simply because he played golf there. The statue is of him teeing off, ha! But maybe you already knew that…because you took European history or were older than 9 in 1998.
At this point you might be thinking, come on Lauren, this is a travel guide, why am I reading your watered downed version of The Troubles? I feel that to truly visit and appreciate Northern Ireland this minimal background (I urge you to read more) is necessary. You can definitely cross the international boarder, stop at an ATM to grab some Pounds, and head on your way to the Titanic Museum and avoid all things related to this history. But that’s not the route I took when experiencing Northern Ireland and if history-themed travel is of interest to you, you will definitely learn something new in Belfast from the locals.
I found the most informative way to learn more about Belfast’s history was through this tour. It’s a 90-minute tour in a very UK-esque black cab. Come prepared to listen intently (that Belfast accent is thick), and pile in and out of the cab multiple times to see the political murals and Peace Wall.
The tour does it’s best to present the Nationalist (Catholic, identify as Irish) and Unionist (Protestant, identify as British) sides, but the tour is conducted by people who would identify as Nationalists. For example, our guide, who was very respectful, served 12 years in prison as a political prisoner. How could he possibly be unbiased? Furthermore, I wouldn’t want him to be unbiased. It’s just worth noting.
The murals are said to be away of communication. When their government or party were not listening, they would paint their message instead.
The Peace Wall was also a talking-point on the tour. The gate still closes at night separating the Catholic and Protestant sides. While the concept of a wall makes me sad, it works for the community today, so who am I to judge.
As I walked away from the tour my mood was somber. I commend Northern Ireland for 20 years of peace but I did feel that nonviolent conflict was definitely still a part of everyday life in Belfast.
Switching gears, this museum rocked! I walked in with no expectations and left very pleased. The entire experience here was superb. And while portions of the tour are somber, thinking of all the people who lost their lives in the Atlantic, if you liked the movie Titanic (c’mon, right? Of course, you liked it) or just Titanic-themed anything you’ll enjoy your time here.
This extensive museum is located in Belfast because the ship was built by Irishmen in Belfast. And since going to the museum I’ve re-watched Titanic, they mention Belfast multiple times. How did I miss that? I only saw the movie 8x the year it was released.
Restaurants & Pubs
I apologize, both my trips to Belfast were more history/sight-seeing based and the restaurants I dined at in Belfast are not worth mentioning. What is worth mentioning is that Belfast has become a thriving food scene. Lots of new restaurants and cocktail bars. Do plan ahead and make reservations. One of the reasons I can't recommend any restaurants is because I poorly planned our meals, and we were turned away from multiple restaurants because they were booked for the night.
I would compare this natural attraction to the Cliffs of Moher, beautiful coastlines, with cliffs and lush green hiking trails. But what makes this attraction different are the thousands of naturally made hexagon stones covering the beach (pictured above). They’re stacked as pillars that form little hills. The visitors center does a great job creating a fun story around the attraction, a giant named Finn actually created all the hexagonal stones, who knew!
Many tour buses will take off from Dublin and venture to Giant’s Causeway, which is a great way to travel here, or by car plan for 3-hours one-way, with Belfast making a great halfway point.
We actually decided to spend the night in Bushmills (5-minute drive from Giant’s Causeway) and ventured to the famed Old Bushmills Distillery for some local whiskey. Make note of the tour times before showing up. Unfortunately, we were too late for the tour and only had time for one drink in the pub before they closed. Oh well! Dinner at Tartine Distillers Arms did not disappoint.
Lastly, on our way back to Dublin we took a little detour to see The Dark Hedges, a newly popular spot since becoming a Game of Thrones filming location. My picture does NOT do it justice. Simply search this location on Instagram and you'll see what I mean.
Thanks again for reading! If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 you can read those posts here:
See you soon with the conclusion to my series: Wexford!
I did not mention my trip to Derry/Londonderry. I enjoyed my time there but it was brief. If you have questions about Derry I'd be happy to connect one-on-one. Please reach out!
*Sources Rick Steves Ireland Travel Guide, The Irish Times, RTE