Belfast is one of the most visited cities in the UK, and the second most visited city in Ireland. Naomi MacKay lists a number of attractions suitable for inclusion in a group itinerary
The city’s most popular attraction is Titanic Belfast (www.titanicbelfast.com), a £97-million building designed to look like the bows of ships with the emblem of the White Star Line. Known locally as the Iceberg, it’s the biggest Titanic museum in the world – a reputation even more deserved following the opening of three new galleries.
Two hours is recommended to enjoy the entire experience, which will take the visitor from Victorian Belfast and its vast shipyards, to the conception and construction of the ship, its launch, tragic maiden voyage and its rediscovery at the bottom of the ocean.
Guests can see and hear the ocean and feel the ship’s engines rumbling at the Palm Court Café. Then, using the technology seen in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and Universal Studios’ Hogwarts Express attraction, they can meet Fredrick Dent Ray, a dining room steward and survivor.
Groups should book ahead via the website.
If you fancy heading out onto the water afterwards, head to Donegall Quay for a Titanic Harbour Boat Tour (www.laganboatcompany.com) to see where Belfast began more than 400 years ago. The commentary tells how the port has developed, from its industrial shipbuilding past to today’s Titanic Belfast attraction. You’ll also be able to see the Titanic Dock and Belfast's only seal colony.
Hire of the Joyce T Too (maximum 35 passengers) costs £200 and Mona (maximum 70 passengers) costs £300.
Another ship-based attraction is HMS Caroline (www.nmrn.org.uk/exhibitions-projects/hms-caroline), the last surviving ship from the Battle of Jutland. This World War One warship has been renovated and will be reopening in May 2016 to mark the centenary of the battle.
Other sights to add to your list include the Albert Memorial Clock, which, until its recent renovation, was Belfast’s version of Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. This Gothic-style tower was erected in memory of Prince Albert. You should also make time to see the Alice Clock – the only automaton clock in Ireland – situated in the piazza at the Fountain Centre (www.fountaincentrebelfast.com).
Take a visit to Belfast City Hall, which was built in 1906 in the Classical Renaissance style. Free tours are available from Monday to Saturday and last around an hour. See where debates take place and explore the beautiful grounds of the Stormont Parliament Buildings (www.niassembly.gov.uk). Tours take place twice daily.
There are three more historical buildings to explore – St Anne's Cathedral (www.belfastcathedral.org) is the main church of the Church of Ireland and is built in neo-Romanesque style. The chapel houses the tomb of Sir Edward Carson, the historically significant former leader of the Ulster Unionists. The cathedral quarter is one of the oldest and most historic districts in Belfast.
Just outside the city, Belfast Castle (www.belfastcastle.co.uk) sits on the lower slopes of Cave Hill County Park, promising spectacular views over Belfast and the Cave Hill visitor centre.
Crumlin Road Gaol (www.crumlinroadgaol.com) was built in the 19th century and once held almost twice as many prisoners as it was designed for. A tour takes in the Governor’s Office, the execution cell and flogging room. If you’re brave enough, take the Paranormal Tour to hear spooky tales of unexplained happenings.
More history is on offer at the Ulster Museum, which is home to an Egyptian mummy, dinosaurs and modern masterpieces. Admission is free, and group visits must be booked in advance – call 028 9044 0100.
If your group fancies some retail therapy, then head to Victoria Square Shopping Centre (www.victoriasquare.com). It’s one of the biggest and most expensive property developments undertaken in Northern Ireland.
Head up to the glass dome’s viewing gallery for a view across the city and over to the Belfast Wheel. Travel from this shiny new centre to one of Belfast’s oldest attractions – St George’s Market. The Friday Variety Market dates back to 1604. The Saturday Market has speciality foods, crafts, plants and local artwork, while the Sunday Market focuses on local arts and crafts. There’s live music to entertain visitors at the weekend.
For a trip out of the city, half an hour away is Antrim Castle Gardens and Clotworthy House (www.antrimgardens.com/the-gardens/antrim-castle-gardens), with its unique 400-year-old gardens spread over 60-acres. Art exhibitions, a garden visitor shop and a garden coffee shop is available, plus free guided tours for groups booking in advance.
The George Best Belfast City Airport (www.belfastcityairport.com) is just three-miles from Belfast City Centre, with direct routes run by Aer Lingus and FlyBE. The Airport Express 600 bus service runs from the airport terminal to the city centre.
Belfast International Airport (www.belfastairport.com) is a 30-minute drive from the city. The Airport Express 300 service operates between the airport and Belfast city centre.
Stena Line, P&O Irish Sea and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company run routes from England and Scotland.
The train journey from Dublin to Belfast takes two hours (www.translink.co.uk)