‘It’s about time you came to Northern Ireland! Why didn’t you come earlier?’
I had just greeted my friend, Dan, who picked me up from Belfast City Airport after my Flybe flight from Leeds Bradford. After we did a manly hug, he asked me that question.
To be honest, I didn’t have an answer. But by the end of my four-day stay in Northern Ireland, I should have been asking myself that question.
Just why didn’t I come to Northern Ireland earlier?!
I had such a brilliant time that far exceeded my expectations of this small corner of the United Kingdom that ended with me leaving promises that I wouldn’t leave it so late next time.
When Dan moved here from London a few years earlier, he kept asking when I was going to visit him in Belfast. I batted away his requests with (in hindsight) feeble answers that life got in the way and that I had other travel commitments ranging from Portugal in 2013 to Barcelona earlier on this year.
Now if he asks me again to visit him, I’ll be for sure will be making arrangements to visit this green and wild region made famous worldwide thanks to its film settings for the popular Game of Thrones television series.
It was the beginning of the first weekend of May when I arrived. The May Day bank holiday beckoned when people across the United Kingdom celebrated their first taste of warm Spring arriving to these shores.
Of course, I wanted to find out what made Northern Ireland tick, how Belfast has healed itself after the ‘Troubles’, and what sights and activities should I be experiencing to discover that Northern Irish steel.
But the choice to find this all out this didn’t lay in my hands.
It, instead, fell to Dan and his Northern Irish best friend (or PA as Dan jokingly calls her), Victoria. As locals, they would be showing us the best of Northern Ireland and their lifestyle to fill a long weekend.
I was both apprehensive and yet, excited.
So let’s find out what they had in store for me on my first day in Northern Ireland?
Coffee served with an Accent
After picking us up from Belfast City Airport (fly here, it’s so much closer to the city than Belfast International Airport), Dan couldn’t wait to show us a popular coffeehouse. Set in the Christian Fellowship Church in East Belfast, we could see this was a community centre for anyone. It’s a Christian place where you could hold church services, play indoor sports and more.
But their piece de la resistance has to be their funky and colourful cafe. In urgent need of caffeine, both Ian (another friend who came with me) and I grabbed coffee, while Dan finished his work, and had our first brush with true Northern Irish people.
By that, I mean their accent.
Oh, Northern Ireland gets a bad rep for their accents and I just couldn’t see why. Friendly, cheeky and startling, the Northern Irish accent was so refreshing. I could easily fall in love with it so move on over Welsh accents, you have competition! So thanks to the glamorous waitress who served us, our trip to Belfast got off to a flying start.
Find out more about the accents below:
As Dan had another job to get to teaching sign language, he told us to check out Belfast’s jewel in their crown. It was the Titanic Belfast.
Ian had already been to Belfast before and he couldn’t stop raving about the place and how he wished he could have spent longer time here then.
So it was agreed. We would go and discover the birthplace of the ill-fated White Star Line ship, the Titanic.
Made of glass and struts, the Titanic Museum soared high. In fact, it was the same height of the Titanic itself. Even before setting foot into the place, you could appreciate how grand the ship was especially to those who saw it launch from these dockyards in 1912.
Inside the Museum, I craned my neck to see right to the ceiling, held up by supports, giving you yet another impression of how Titanic was built. But first off, after paying for our tickets (see prices here) we took the escalator up to start our tour of the museum.
It may surprise you that you start with the history of Belfast from medieval times, going through the Industrial Revolution and then into the 20th Century. Surely, you may be thinking, that we should start with the Titanic?
It was a great way to get in the Belfast psyche and you start to care about the profound spirit of its people that faced hard-working conditions and disease once Belfast established itself as a major ship building port worldwide.
Soon enough, you were faced with the building of the grand ship. Comprehensive and interactive displays allows you to find out the inner workings and you could even actually go on a mini roller coaster ride to watch the ship being forged! Then you browsed through the finished product through larger than life screens where you could observe the class system through different decks. Then BANG! It was the launch where you could join in the celebrations!
After a test run in the Irish Sea, the Titanic was sent on its maiden voyage, only for it to never return. Leaving Belfast, it picked up more passengers at Southampton in Britain, Cherbourg in France and an Irish port. Then, it could be sent off across the Atlantic to New York taking with it many people of different nationalities in search for a better life and the American dream.
This is where the emotional part of the Titanic Museum really excelled itself.
Creating similar conditions of cold air, dark atmosphere, save for the light of the stars, audio voices penetrates through the stillness of the place that throws you back in time to experience the devastation unfolding in front of you. You’re guaranteed to have a whole mess of emotions pass through in crashing waves. You’re faced with the sight of inscribed telegram messages that passed between ships in the area that stopped with CQD…
With that, you have the chance to learn more about those who died and those who survived like ‘Molly Brown’ who campaigned for safety on ships. As a result, measures have been passed to strictly enforce these measures that still ring true to this day.
The last part of the Titanic Museum inside is the discovery of the remains of the Titanic. You have the chance to be interactive to find out what treasures has been discovered since. I can say for certain that the ‘Heart of the Ocean’ still hasn’t been discovered… damn you old Kate Winslet!
At the end of the tour, it amazed me afterwards to discover I had spent three hours in this museum without a thought to how long I was here for. So it was high time to visit the gallery and help myself to a Titanic Beer.
Dan caught up with us again at the gallery and hearing our stomachs rumbling, he knew just the place for us to dine!
We passed by the gift shop first and briefly checked out the exterior of the Museum but I knew that the pride Belfastians had in Titanic and its sister ships, the Britannic and the Olympic was deeply instilled in me. It was the perfect way to discover the heart of Belfast and its indomitable spirit down to its roots.
Now I was ready to explore Belfast and Northern Ireland.
Le Coop Restaurant
Check out Kasha of Lines of Escape review here: Fried Chicken Heaven at Belfast’s Le Coop.
Festival of Fools
As luck turned out, I was here for Belfast’s Festival of Fools that took place throughout the weekend. Stumbling out of Le Coop Restaurant, we were soon faced with the sight of the festival’s opening act, the Belfast Youth Circus.
It was very delightful affair, with crowds gathering cheering on the underdogs or gasping with amazement at the feats these young people demonstrated to us with their acrobatics and tomfoolery.
It struck me there and then that Belfast really knows how to enjoy and look after themselves. Wherever I went, you could always feel that Belfast had a very close knitted community that showed off a proud heritage, once thought ripped apart throughout the 20th century, ending with the Good Friday Agreement.
Secret Garden @ Filthy McNasty
Dan was ready to show us off the nightlife in Belfast. And again, he knew just the place. Walking past Belfast City Hall from St Anne’s Square, we were soon in the University district. And he simply pointed to an old-fashioned pub on the outside with this name emblazoned across:
Oh er. Where had Dan taken us? I had visions of an S&M strip club (Mum, please be assured I haven’t been to one) and I thought payment of a beer would be with ten lashes of the whip.
Thankfully it wasn’t.
Stepping inside, the smell of old beer greeted me and old men shuffled gruffly in the corners. It was also dark and dingy. I turned around to ask Dan why he took us to this place? Was there any historical significant importance here or was he taken us to be beaten up for not coming to Northern Ireland earlier?
‘We’re not staying here, come on,’ he beckoned to us to ton on through back.
Stepping through yet another door, my fists poised to thrown some girly slaps punches, my eyes were assaulted at the sight. It couldn’t have been anymore different than the one we had just walk through.
This is the Secret Garden.
Cheesy pop music blared through in this secret garden, colours of the rainbow sparkled through and hipsters relaxed on comfy bean bags or chrome plastic chairs. It was utterly and completely camp.
I loved it.
The thoughts of the dredges of Belfast conservatism and tough talking locals were soon swept away by the party loving animals of Belfast in this University city.
Unknown to many tourists, this is where locals go to hang out and play. So after buying rounds of beer and catching up with each other, it was just a fantastic Friday evening to spend in Belfast. So much so, that I completely agreed with Belfast and declared I would send my children here to University…
Maybe that was the beer talking…
But even so, I knew I would be looking forward to the rest of my four-day weekend in Northern Ireland if anything was going to go by today.
Meanwhile, I better get home and be up bright and early to face the wild Northern Irish coast to take in the sights of the famous UNESCO attraction – Giant’s Causeway.