Due to its turbulent history during the 20th century, many travelers have overlooked Belfast in Northern Ireland as a must-see destination. Fortunately, that perception is changing. Belfast is home to some of the world’s top museums and attractions, and stunning castles and UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Giant’s Causeway are only a day trip away. Even better news for wheelchair users is that Belfast is very accessible, from hotels and taxis to sidewalks to attractions. And you won’t find kinder or more helpful people anywhere else on Earth! Here’s my guide for ten incredible – and wheelchair accessible – things to do during your visit to Belfast.
1. Titanic Belfast. Titanic Belfast, named the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the prestigious World Travel Awards in 2016, is located beside the Titanic Slipways, the Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices and Hamilton Graving Dock, the very place where Titanic was designed, built and launched in 1912. Titanic Belfast tells the story of the Titanic, from her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to its maiden voyage and subsequent place in history. The self-guided Titanic Experience extends over nine interpretive and interactive galleries, which explore the sights, sounds, smells and stories of RMS Titanic, as well as the city and people who made her. On entering, visitors can step back in time and learn about the thriving industries and exciting design innovations that led to the creation of RMS Titanic, the largest and most luxurious ship in the world. Pass through the original Harland & Wolff gates to continue the journey to the Shipyard and the dark ride that uses special effects, animations and full-scale reconstructions to recreate the reality of shipbuilding in the early 1900s. There’s not much time to catch your breath, as you’re greeted with a panoramic eagle’s eye view of the actual slipways on which both the Titanic and the Olympic once rested, as well as experience the excitement of launch day in 1911. Then it’s all aboard to experience an eclectic range of exhibits, models, interactive databases and elaborate computer generated imagery which illustrate the ship’s opulent fit-out including exact replicas of the cabins, and journeys through the dining areas, the ship’s engine rooms, working interiors and deck promenade, where visitors can see and hear the oceans and feel the engines rumbling. Guests then move on to paying tribute to the loss of this magnificent ship and the 1,500 men, women and children who lost their lives on her tragic maiden voyage, and experience the aftermath, the inquiries and the sensational news reports of the time. The story is then brought up to the present with the discovery of the wreck and into the future with live links to contemporary undersea exploration. The circulation space within the building is fully accessible for wheelchairs. Titanic Belfast has a number of wheelchairs which can be reserved on request by contacting the ticketing office on +44 (0)28 9076 6399. In conjunction with Shop Mobility, Titanic Belfast can arrange for mobility scooters to be available for the duration of your visit (subject to availability).
2. Belfast City Hall. In 1888, Queen Victoria granted Belfast the status of the city and it was agreed that a grand and magnificent building was required to reflect this new status. City Hall opened its doors on the first of August 1906, at a time of unprecedented prosperity and industrial might for the city. The new City Hall was designed by Alfred Brumwell Thomas in the Baroque Revival style and constructed in Portland stone. The incredible building cost £369,000 to complete, the equivalent around 128 million pounds today but remains an extraordinary beacon of success and civic pride for Belfast. City Hall has many connections with the famous ocean liner Titanic. Viscount William Pirrie who was Lord Mayor in 1896-1897 just before City Hall’s construction, was also managing director of Harland & Wolff Shipyard. He is the man credited as having the idea for both ambitious builds. He used many of his skilled workmen in the fit-out of City Hall which is why the interiors today are considered an incredible insight into the finish of Titanic’s lounges and suites, the ship’s carving panelling being very similar. Free public tours are offered every day, and are fully wheelchair accessible (as is the city’s history exhibit). Led by an experienced guide, tours last around an hour and include the history of Belfast City Hall and its finest features. The tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Visitors must register 10-15 minutes before the tour is due to depart at visitor exhibition and guided tours reception.
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3. The Ulster Museum. The Ulster Museum tells the unique human story of this part of Ireland and its collections will take you to all corners of the globe. The engaging and stimulating history galleries tell the story of the people of Ireland from their first arrival on the island until the present day. Visitors can gaze upon the fabulous treasure from the Spanish galleon, Girona, the best Armada collection to be seen anywhere outside of Spain. Another ‘treasure’ and a firm favourite with all generations is Takabuti, an Egyptian mummy from the 7th century BC. For those interested in Northern Ireland’s recent history, it is sensitively explored in the newly developed Troubles Gallery. The science galleries are a ‘must-see’ for anyone with an interest in the richness and diversity of the natural world. The collections uncover the story of life on earth from the earliest times and explain the forces that have shaped the environment in which we live. Highlights include ‘Peter’ the Polar Bear, a Minke Whale skeleton, Edmontosaurus dinosaur, as well as numerous exotic butterflies and insects. See Game of Thrones® immortalised in a giant, Bayeux style tapestry, 80 metres long, at the Ulster Museum. From Winterfell to the Iron Islands, this epic tapestry brings to life the infamous events, locations and story of the most popular television series of all time. And best of all, admission is free. Fully accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are available on the ground floor and on levels 2 and 4 of the Museum.
4. Belfast Botanic Gardens. Botanic Gardens was established in 1828 by the Belfast Botanic and Horticultural Society, in response to public interest in horticulture and botany. Originally known as the Belfast Botanic Garden, the site contained exotic tree species and impressive plant collections from the southern hemisphere, many of which can still be seen in the park. Today, the park is popular with residents, students and visitors and is an important venue for concerts, festivals and other events. The Tropical Ravine contains some of the oldest seed plants around today, as well as banana, cinnamon, bromeliad and orchid plants. The listed building dates back to 1887 and has been restored with many of its original Victorian features reinstated and preserved. Like the Palm House, it shows how technology allowed gardeners to cultivate unusual species in a greenhouse environment. Features of interest include a plant-filled sunken glen, flowering vines, tree ferns and leaf silhouettes. The ravine is split over two levels with an open reception area on the ground floor, and the building has been modernized to make it more energy efficient with new triple-glazed windows installed to retain heat and create the right environment for the tropical plants it is home to. Visitors can learn about the conservation work and plant collection through interactive and digital exhibits. The Palm House contains a range of tropical plants, hanging baskets, seasonal displays and birds of paradise, and is one of the earliest examples of a glasshouse made from curved iron and glass. It shows how advances in glasshouse technology allowed horticulturists to grow exotic plant species during the Victorian period. The building was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, who also helped design parts of nearby Queen’s University. The foundation stone was laid in 1839 and the two wings were completed in 1840 by leading ironmaster, Richard Turner. The dome was added in 1852. The main entrance to the Palm House has three steps, but there is a flat entrance through a door at the end of the building to the left of the main entrance.
5. Queen’s University. Founded by Queen Victoria, the Queen’s University in Ireland was designed to be a non-denominational alternative to Trinity College Dublin which was controlled by the Anglican Church. The University was made up of three Queen’s Colleges – in Cork, Galway and Belfast. Although it was the first University in the north of Ireland, Queen’s drew on a tradition of learning which goes back to 1810 and the foundation of the Belfast Academical Institution. The main Lanyon building was opened in 1849 and is a Northern Ireland landmark. Named after its architect, Sir Charles Lanyon, the striking building is the central part of the campus and has been voted one of the most beautiful university buildings in the world. Lanyon was also responsible for designing other Belfast landmarks such as Belfast Castle, Crumlin Road Gaol and the Customs House. Since then, the University estate has grown to more than 300 buildings – many of them listed for their architectural importance. Situated at the heart of Queen’s on the first floor of the Lanyon Building, the Naughton Gallery is one of Belfast’s most exciting visual arts spaces. Presenting a rolling programme of contemporary exhibitions, the gallery has presented work by a range of local and internationally-renowned artists including Robert Crumb, Adham Faramawy, Stanya Kahn, Sarah Maple, Locky Morris, Cindy Sherman, and Tom of Finland. The University’s extensive permanent Art Collection comprises gifts, bequests and purchases since the foundation of Queen’s College in 1845. The wide range of works includes paintings, prints, works on paper, sculpture, furniture, metalwork, and silver. The Collection is on display throughout the University, with an impressive hang of over fifty portraits in the Great Hall. With free admission and open six days per week, the Naughton Gallery welcomes visitors from around the world, and has been recognised as one of the leading university galleries in the UK and Ireland. The Lanyon building and its courtyard are fully accessible, and the elevator to reach the Naughton Gallery on the first floor (the second floor in US-speak) can be accessed with staff assistance in the gift shop.
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6. Belfast (St. Anne’s) Cathedral. St Anne’s Cathedral, also known as Belfast Cathedral, is a cathedral of the Church of Ireland in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is unusual in serving two separate dioceses – Connor, and Down and Dromore – and is the focal point of the Cathedral Quarter in Northern Ireland’s capital city. Built over a period of 80 years, the foundation stone to Belfast Cathedral was laid in 1899 and the nave was consecrated in 1904. The new cathedral was built around the old parish church, which remained in use up until 27th December 1903, when the last service was held in it. The parish church, with the exception of the sanctuary, which was incorporated in to the new cathedral, was then demolished. In 1981 the North Transept was finished and in 2007 the addition of the Spire of Hope was made to the cathedral. Belfast Cathedral is sinking into the soft grey mud, silt and sand known as Belfast ‘sleech’ on which St Anne’s is built. Take a look up the central aisle and you will see the undulations in the marble floor. Unlike most Cathedrals, there is only one Tomb in the Cathedral – that of Lord Carson of Duncairn, Carson was born in February 1854 in Dublin. Trained as a barrister, Carson led the anti-Home Rule movement in Westminster where he stood as a Member of Parliament. The 1,517 lives lost in the tragic sinking of the Titanic, built here in Belfast, are commemorated in a beautiful hand-crafted funeral pall which was dedicated in St Anne’s Cathedral a century after the disaster. The Regimental Chapel, consecrated on the anniversary of D-Day in 1981, contains many important historical artefacts including Books of Remembrance, the font, lectern, and chairs presented by families in remembrance of soldiers who had lost their lives. The mosaic roof of the Baptistery is of exceptional interest, being a magnificent example of art peculiarly adapted to the Romanesque style of architecture. Its emphasis is on space, both on the walls and domed roof. The Cathedral can be accessed using two spiral ramps in front of the main entrance, then through a doorway to the left of the main doors.
7. Linen Hall Library. The Linen Hall Library is a unique institution. It was founded in 1788 by a group of artisans as the Belfast Reading Society and in 1792 became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge. It adopted a resolution in 1795 “that the object of this Society is the collection of an extensive Library, philosophical apparatus and such products of nature and art as tend to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry.” It began to acquire books (with a particular focus on those relating to Irish topics, publishing, for example Ancient Irish Music by Edward Bunting in 1796) and also other items which could be used to advance knowledge. The society declined in the later 1790s however, as it owned no permanent premises and struggled with official attempts to control radical thought, though it survived a crackdown after the 1798 rebellion thanks to the efforts of Rev. William Bruce. In 1802 the Library moved into permanent premises in White Linen Hall (from which it took its name, though legally it is still the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge). The Library struggled, however, through most of the 19th century. It became more conservative, attempting to exclude students from Queen’s College and debating whether or not to include fiction. As the Library’s centenary approached it was hit by another setback as it lost its premises in White Linen Hall to make way for the construction of the new City Hall. The Library moved into a warehouse in Donegall Square (previously used for linen), which was designed by Charles Lanyon and his firm, and which the Library occupies as of 2009. Fully accessible tours of the library are offered Monday through Saturday at 11:30AM for £5.
8. St. George’s Market. There has been a Friday market on the St George’s site since 1604. The present award-winning St. George’s Market, built between 1890 and 1896, is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. As well as being home to some of the finest fresh produce, with customers travelling near and far to sample the delights of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday markets, it has become one of the city’s most popular places to visit. Since its multi-million dollar refurbishment in 1997, this charming Victorian building offers one of the most vibrant and colourful destinations that Belfast has to offer. The Friday Variety Market is open 6am to 3pm. Around 248 market stalls sell a diverse range of products from Atlantic shark and zips, to antiques and fresh fruit. The fish section alone contains 23 fish stalls and holds the reputation for being the leading retail fish market in Ireland. You can also listen to live music from local solo artists. The Saturday City Food and Craft Market is open 9am to 3pm. Enjoy the best food tastes and smells brought by local producers, as well as a fusion of tempting continental and speciality foods from around the world. Customers can sample the produce, relax with a coffee and a newspaper against a backdrop of live music from top local bands and solo artists. The Sunday Market is open 10am – 4pm and is a mixture of the traditional Friday Variety Market and Saturday’s award-winning City Food and Craft Market. It has a special emphasis on local arts and crafts, offering more local craftspeople the opportunity to show off their talents. Live music from top local bands and solo artists also ensures that visitors are kept entertained. Products on sale include local, continental and specialty foods, scented candles, clothes, handmade jewellery, antiques, art and souvenirs.
9. The Duke of York Courtyard Murals. There’s a small alleyway branching off of Commercial Court in the Cathedral Quarter, right next to the entrance to The Duke of York pub. If you’ve ever heard of the band Snow Patrol (they sing the popular song “Chasing Cars”), their first gig was at Duke of York. The alley and the small courtyard it opens up to is covered in stunning murals that the city of Belfast is well known for. Belfast is certainly steeped in street mural history. Long before The Troubles, city facades in Belfast served as canvas for political expression. Political murals were once more of a vehicle for Ulster Loyalists commencing in the early 20th century. Republican themed murals began to emerge in the late seventies compelled by events like the Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike death, in protest of the IRA to be treated in accordance with rules for prisoners of war. Architecture around Belfast served as the outlet to mark territory, fueling combat-style dueling murals between Republican and Nationalist factions. While toned down, these murals still exist around the city demarcating catholic and protestant neighborhoods. Since the Good Friday Agreement, Peace Walls constructed over the past twenty years divide neighborhoods and serve as additional canvas for graffiti and sociopolitical expression. By contrast with the typical narrative style of Northern Ireland political murals, the newer artwork flaunted across the walls of the Cathedral Quarter is distinctly varied and modern – and exhibits the work of world-renowned visiting artists, as well as brilliant locals.
10. The Big Fish. If you’re visiting the Lagan Lookout, or admiring the Customs House, you’ll notice a big fish sculpture beside the Lagan. It was created by John Kindness, and the most interesting thing about this fish are its beautiful blue scales, which are made up of ceramic tiles describing different scenes from the city’s history. This 10m (32ft) salmon was commissioned in 1999 to celebrate the regeneration of the River Lagan and the historic importance of the site. The outer skin of the fish is a cladding of ceramic tiles decorated with texts and images relating to the history of Belfast. The story behind the “salmon of knowledge” is that a man named Finnéigeas lived beside the river Boyne in Cuige na Mí. He had chosen that place because it was always beside flowing river water that poetry was revealed to him. Near to his cabin grew the nine hazel trees of knowledge.Their branches overhung a deep pool in the River Boyne. Nuts of wisdom fell from these trees into the pool and in that pool lived, the salmon of knowledge. The ancient druids had foretold that whoever first ate of this salmon would possess all the wisdom in the world. Now it is said that by kissing the sculpture, the fish’s wisdom will be passed on to you.
Are you ready for an amazing accessible adventure in Northern Ireland? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so I can help you arrange a visit to Belfast!
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