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Welcome to Northern Ireland

There is something like six different counties within Northern Ireland and each is fairly small, with Belfast and Derry being its two biggest cities, so it is easy and fast to see much of the country without having to spend weeks. In fact, although you wouldn't get to really understand the people, probably three days is plenty of time to see the many interesting sites and experience a decent amount of culture (much of which revolves around having a pint). Without trying to describe the history of the division in Ireland on this website (although the history is detailed and very fascinating, there are better authorities than us to explain it, likes of the black cab drivers), Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and is essentially governed from London under the British Government. That doesn't appear to stop them having the true Irish spirit though!

crown saloon

Crown Saloon

st georges markets

St George's Markets

We travelled to Northern Ireland over the Easter weekend, and combined with the World Irish Dancing Championships (from what we could see was for junior girls and resembled a 'Little Miss Sunshine' contest with dresses, make-up and curls everywhere), the City of Belfast was just about full. A good bet for accommodation in Belfast (and across the UK in fact) is Premier Travel Inn ( In Belfast it's about 5mins walk from Europa Bus Station and the city, it's clean, friendly and around 60GBP per night plus an optional continental or full breakfast from 5.25GBP. Arriving on Friday night (Easyjet flies directly from Amsterdam) we headed straight to the Crown Liquor Saloon for a pint and dinner. The Crown is Northern Ireland's best-known pub and has a great tiled interior with a number small booths. Of course, it was lively downstairs, as was the restaurant upstairs. If you're expecting warm, friendly and efficient service from the Irish, the Crown is not the place to find it! Although not excessively busy, we (and a couple from Canada we got talking to) waited more than 30mins to be seated for dinner in a pub. One of the bar staff was also feeling the pressure of his job by giving out grief to the patrons. This was a characteristic we found frequently right across the weekend, and again, although it was a busy time, we have certainly seen worse and sure that summer brings in bigger crowds of locals and tourists alike. Perhaps everyone is just too relaxed. Despite this, the fish & chips and pints of Guinness went down well. Saturday was a day for seeing what Belfast had to offer in the daylight. It started in a great way with breakfast at St George's Market on May Street, near the Waterfront. More of a number of 'homemade stalls' than a commercial market, the fresh scones, breads, juices and coffee were fantastic! After the first round of breakfast, we walked to the Waterfront on the River Lagan, which looks to have been recently developed and is nice, but would be more pleasant in warmer weather (it was very cold and windy the entire weekend).

gibbo marking the wall on the black taxi tour
Gibbo marking the "wall" which is part of the black taxi political tour

murals in protestant area
One of the many murals in the Protestant area of Belfast

It was then back to the market for another coffee and scone, before being picked up for a Black Cab tour (, 25GBP for 90min tour) and a brief overview of relegion and politics in Belfast / Northern Ireland. Our driver, Pat, took us along Shankill Road (Protestant / Unionists) and Falls Road (Catholic / Nationalists), taking a few of the backstreets in between to show us murials dedicated to certain events or people, the gates that separate the two communities (which are often still closed today during the nights and on weekends despite the Good Friday Agreement reached 10 years ago) along with the massive wall that has got higher and higher over years to prevent either side from sending missiles over the top, and finally the office of Sein Fein. For the uneducated like us, this tour is extremely interesting, eye-opening and sobering, especially coming from a 50-something man like Pat, who (most likely) saw much of it firsthand. Not cheap, but you most likely wouldn't drive or walk around yourself, so consider it money well spent. After the black cab tour, we once again went back to St George's market for lunch, this time a mixture of olives, sundried tomatoes and bread. Superb! The market is open from 9am - 2pm on Saturdays.

The High Street in Belfast (Royal Avenue) is much like those of other cities, with most of the big brands available, and incredibly busy on a Saturday afternoon, so like in most other cities, it's best to avoid. However, at the end of Royal Ave is City Hall, an impressive domed building that is surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns. The building is visible from many parts of the city (not to mention the Belfast Wheel, a copy of the London Eye that sits within the grounds) and is a real centre-piece. Heading north, again by foot as Belfast is incredibly small and easy to navigate, we found the Cathedral Quater, where surprisingly, St Anne's Cathedral dominates the skyline. After visiting many churches around Europe, we certainly have church fatigue, but St Anne's is worth popping into for a walk around or guided tour. It has also recently added a Spire of Hope that "proclaims Christian hope to the city, to the island of Ireland and to the world". Just down the street is the Belfast Exposed Contemporary Gallery of Photography, a small space the highlights exhibitions of some local photographers, along with a number of bars and restaurants. We popped into the Duke of York pub, a good little establishment just off Hill Street for a pint of Bass. Highly recommed this drop (a recommendation that can be supported by five more pints of the stuff later that evening). We tried to book Nick's Restaurant across the street for dinner that night, but like many eating outlets around that time, it was full so cannot comment on the place. Another pub, the Cloth Ear, is nearby and looked decent too. We ended up heading to Irene & Nan's bar, a chilled-out lounge that would fire up later, around 6pm for a pre-dinner drink before a 2min walk to The Grill House on Donegall Square South (directly behind City Hall). Well, for an early evening, this bar was on fire and we didn't know if this was the starting or finishing place for most people. Clients ranged from a group of guys in full-on golf attire (obviously straight from the course) to attractive ladies in their best dresses. A good atmosphere though in an African-style setting with excellent food (only had to wait 30mins for a table - many places won't take reservations - despite the waiter telling us 1hr 15mins) and very reasonable prices.

city hall
City Hall on a glorious Belfast day 

university square
University Square in the trendy Queen's quarter

Another area that may be good for dinner is Queen's Quarter, down Lisburn and University Roads, towards the Botanic Gardens and Queen's University. Visiting during the day, there are a number of cafes along Botanic Avenue that are good for a coffee, and the university buildings themselves add a nice feel to the area. A mix of upper class and grunge, something like Newbury Street in the Back Bay Area of Boston. With the large Irish population in that US city, it's no surprise that areas of Belfast remind of us Boston, particularly the red-brick houses.

Travelling out of Belfast to the rest of Northern Ireland is easy. Well, we thought it was easy as we had booked a one-day tour with Paddywagon Tours, but they provided the wrong information on the pick up spot, so we stood there for 30mins waiting in the Europa Bus Station whilst the bus was around the front at the Europa Hotel (lots of people combine the two) before driving off without us! A few hurried phone calls got us another tour and on our way along the rugged coast to Giant's Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Dunluce Castle. Our driver, Davey, from McComb's Executive Travel ( believed the best way to keep a coach load of tourists in line was to threaten them regularly. Most of these threats revolved around leaving you behind if you weren't back exactly when he wanted. To prove his point, after exactly 1hr 20mins at Carick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (it took us 1hr 15min to do and we were hammering along, so very a tight schedule) he started the coach and began to drive off without some of the passengers! Only at the carpark entrance did these passengers realise they were meant to be on that coach and jumped onboard, coping a mouthful from Davey for their troubles. He wasn't a friendly chap, that's for sure, but perhaps it was because he had to work on Easter Sunday. Regardless, an excellent trip to some stunning locations. Firstly, the Northern Ireland coastline is pretty dramatic, and the road follows close to the shore for most of the trip. Combined with stormy weather, the sea certainly did not look inviting. Sit on the right side of the coach or car as you travel up the coach for the best view.

rope bridge
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge - hang onto your hats. A definite highlight and must see 

giants causeway
The truely amazing Giants Casueway made up of hexagonal rocks

dunluce castle
Dunluce Castle

Highlights along the way included the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge that links the mainland to a small island 20m away and sways around in heavy winds (most of the year!). Once crossing, views from the small island out to sea and along the coastl are awesome, despite the fierce wind blowing at your back or in your face. The crossing itself provides a small thrill as the wind rocks the rope bridge and you look to the sea crashing on the rocks 30m below. To cross the bridge it costs 3.70 GBP pp and tickets can be bought at the little hut 1km back up the coastline. Further along is the magnificent and mystifying Giant's Causeway. Spread across a fairly large area of the coast, the Causeway is a formation of rocks that are almost-perfectly shaped hexagons (or one of those shapes) and stacked neatly in pillars. All of which is completely natural and was the result of volcanic activity some 60 million years ago. It's about a 1km walk from the carpark area, but once there you can spend about an hour climbing over and admiring the formation. Truly stunning and deserved of it's World Heritage Site listing. The strange thing about the tour that we went on was that you were rushed at some sites (for example, a stop at Dunluce Castle was scheduled for 30mins but we were given 5mins instead!) but then had all the time in the world at the Giant's Causeway (like 2.5hrs). In addition, we arrived there at 3pm, so far too late for lunch and too early for dinner. However, if hungry, The Nook bar & restaurant serves up traditional and modern pub food and is a good place to warm up with coffee or a pint (when in Ireland...). There's also a very brief stop along the way at Bushmill's whiskey distillery where you can try a range of aged whiskies, if that's what you fancy (we didn't), but don't overstay otherwise Davey will already be coasting back to Belfast...

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