City Highlights

City Highlights, Belfast, Ireland (A)

Welcome to Belfast! This tour is intended to show you the highlights of the city from City Centre to the Botanic Gardens. This walk offers something for everyone: landmarks, shops, taverns, architecture, etc. The tour does not allow time for official tours, heavy shopping or a long meal, but hopefully enough time for you to enjoy the sights and familiarize yourself with a taste of what Belfast has to offer. Have a great time!
How it works: The full article is featured in the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" on Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Download the app to your mobile device to read the article offline and create a self-guided walking tour to visit the sights featured in this article. The app's navigation functions guide you from one sight to the next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Sights Featured in This Article

Guide Name: City Highlights
Guide Location: Ireland » Belfast
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 3.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.4 Km or 1.5 Miles
Author: Jill Sharon Bouchillon
Author Bio: I am from the South, United States. My family moved to Belfast so I could attend school. We loved it here so much, we decided to stay! Whether in the city or in the country, everywhere we go in Northern Ireland, we are always welcome, including the dogs! I am always finding in a new facet of this community that I love and hope you enjoy touring the city as much as I enjoy living here.
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Victoria Square Observation Deck
  • Albert Memorial Clock Tower
  • Custom House Square
  • Lagan River/Mc Hugh's
  • High Street
  • Donegall Square and City Hall
  • Linen Hall Library and Scottish Provident Building
  • Wellington Place and College Square
  • Great Victoria Street
  • Robinson's Saloon and The Crown
Victoria Square Observation Deck

1) Victoria Square Observation Deck

Opened in March of 2008, Victoria Square is a showcase of more than 50 stores, restaurants and cinema. Visitors enjoy the observation deck, accessible from the centre bank of elevators and stairs. It offers a panoramic view of the City Centre and surrounding area from underneath building’s glass atrium. One of the most notable sites is the famous yellow twin gantry and slipway of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the White Star ships Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic were constructed in the early 1900s.

Looking out beyond the city, Cavehill is the large hill distinguished by the rock projection locally called “Napoleon’s Nose.” Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, is said to have thought the site resembled a sleeping giant. Cavehill is also home to Belfast Castle, the Belfast Zoo, and Cavehill Country Park.

The rest of the view from the atrium shows the Victorian architecture of nearby buildings such as the copper-domed City Hall and those of Donegall Square. Plenty of new construction can be seen as well such as the Hilton Hotel, BT and others that have helped revive the area.

The bright yellow Jaffe Fountain can be seen by looking down. In the 1870s, the fountain was created as a memorial to Daniel Joseph Jaffe. He moved to Belfast from Hamburg, Germany with his family in 1852 and opened a linen trading business. The family prospered and are credited with numerous acts of charity in and around Belfast. Exit Victoria Square by the fountain.
Albert Memorial Clock Tower

2) Albert Memorial Clock Tower

Standing 113 feet tall is one of Belfast’s most famous landmarks: the Albert Memorial Clock Tower.

In August of 1849, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Ireland. Their purpose was to meet the Irish people who had been suffering from famine, political and religious division, and mass emigration. Their first and only visit to Belfast was a huge success and did a great deal to unite the local political factions and offer hope to the community. The royal couple remained very popular in the area and a number of buildings, streets, and even towns were renamed in their honour.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, loyalist town fathers held a competition among local architects to design a tower in his memory. Willam J. Barre, whose designs are known for their Gothic Revival style, was awarded the project and construction began in 1865 and completed in 1869. Samuel Ferris Lynn created the sculpture of Prince Albert. It looks up the High Street, which is the approximately location of the couple’s tour through the cheering Belfast crowds.

Considered to be a mix of French and Italian Gothic design, the sandstone tower was built on reclaimed marshland from the Lagan River and River Farset. Unfortunately the heavy-set building on the soft soil caused it to tilt. Belfast’s “leaning tower of Pisa” received a multi-million pound restoration in 2002 to solidify its base, clean away the city grime, and repair extensive damage from WWII and a massive IRA bombing in 1992.
Custom House Square

3) Custom House Square

Collection of taxes and regulation of commerce were an important part of trade and industry to the British Empire. In the 1850s, Belfast’s location as a port in addition to the linen, tobacco, and shipping trades, generated tremendous revenue. In 1857, the foremost architect in Belfast, Sir Charles Lanyon, designed the HRM Custom House in the Italian Renaissance style and grandeur. In addition to commerce, the Custom House was a gathering place for locals. From the late 19th century well into the 20th, orators shouted speeches to willing listeners, who at times, numbered in the thousands.

Unemployment, war, and the Troubles derailed this area into urban decay. The Laganside Corporation was established by the government in 1989 to revitalize the waterfront district of Belfast. In 2005, using public and private funds, Custom House Square received a £4 million facelift. The idea was to maintain historic integrity while modernizing the area. For example, the Calder Fountain, Belfast’s first and oldest drinking fountain for horses, was restored. At the same time, a new children’s area and modern sculptures were also added. Two pieces, ‘The Speaker’ and ‘The Hecklers,’ celebrate the historic Speakers’ Corner. The renovation also includes a water feature installation that marks the course of the River Farset. Now a pedestrian square, this is also a great outdoor venue that is buzzing with some kind of activity almost every weekend ranging from live music to bungee jumping.
Lagan River/Mc Hugh's

4) Lagan River/Mc Hugh's

Just across the street from Custom House Square is the Lagan River. The face of this area has changed dramatically over the course of several centuries. Originally, the River Farset flowed into the Lagan River long before there was a Custom House. Instead it was a mudflat that ultimately gave Belfast its name- Béal Feirste, meaning the ‘Mouth of the Farset.’

The Laganside Corporation and the Department for Social Development worked to rehabilitate the area for residential and commercial development. The Lagan Weir project, visible between Queen’s and M3 bridges, was put in place to regulate the flow of the river. When the mudflat is exposed, the smell is truly awful. With this problem controlled, businesses thrive here and it is a beautiful place to live.

The area was also opened to contributions from local artists. The Big Fish is the obvious and accurately named ceramic tiled salmon. This sculpture is an exhibit in one of three art trails along the Lagan River.

Across the river, the Odyssey complex houses the Belfast Giants’ hockey arena, an IMAX theatre, concert venue, bars and restaurants. This spot also gives another great view of the H&W gantry.

As you walk toward High Street, checkout McHugh’s pub. Established in 1711, it is in the oldest building in Belfast. Historically of mixed repute, stories still circulate about drunken patrons and their lady “friends.” Today it has been refurbished and is a wonderful place to have a pint and listen to traditional Irish music.
High Street

5) High Street

“Going to High Street” in the UK are buzz words for shopping! Belfast’s High Street becomes Castle Place which intersects Donegall Place to create a shopping mecca for any budget. For souvenirs, The Wicker Man (right on High Street) offers traditional gifts, while Carroll’s (left on Castle Place) offers chachques and t-shirts. Major department stores BHS and Dunnes are just next door. Castle Court, right on Donegall Place, is a shopping mall with Gap, Laura Ashley, etc. To the left, Donegall Place offers high-end shopping across from City Hall.

For those less interested in shopping, the alleys off of the High Street and Castle Place are called “entries” which offer some hidden gems. In 17th century Belfast, commerce would spill into these side streets such as Pottinger and Winecellar Entries.

Pottinger’s Entry (left), is named for a noble Ulster family known throughout the British Empire. Down this side street, the Morning Star public house (pub) still stands since 1849. There is also an entry to Anne Street, leading back to Victoria Square.

Further up and across the street is the Winecellar Entry by the Bank of Ireland ATMs. In the centre of the entry is White’s Tavern. Established in 1613, it is considered the oldest tavern in Belfast. On a cold or rainy day, the ambience makes for a great spot to shake off the cold with a bite to eat or a pint.

Whether you are out for shops or hops, you are in the centre of activity in Belfast.
Donegall Square and City Hall

6) Donegall Square and City Hall

Donegall Square is named for the former Irish Peerage of the Marquess of Donegall, a title held by the Chichester family of Devon, England. Sir Arthur Chichester was granted the title of Baron in 1613 and was presented with a Royal Charter from King James I, creating the town of Belfast. Although he had no direct heirs, his family held a distinctive history in the area. You will see a number of locations named in their honour, including Donegal in the Republic, although spelled differently.

Reopened in October of 2009 after £11million refurbishment, City Hall showcases the best of Belfast. Its history began in 1888 when Queen Victoria granted a Royal Charter establishing Belfast as a city. By this time Belfast was already a centre of new engineering, manufacturing and shipping, thus in 1896 the city fathers organized to secure the White Linen Hall in Donegall Square as the site for the new city hall. Paying £30,000 for the site, construction began on the Renaissance building in 1898, spanning eight years and totalling £500,000. The interior of the building is decorated beautifully with murals, stain glass windows, and bronze statues. The marble staircase and rotunda are the most distinctive features. Tours of City Hall are available on a first come/ first serve basis that last roughly one hour.

The grounds of City Hall are equally impressive. There are five memorials: the Korean Memorial, Titanic Memorial, Queen Victoria, Sir Edward Harland (of the H&W shipbuilding company), and the massive Belfast War Memorial.
Linen Hall Library and Scottish Provident Building

7) Linen Hall Library and Scottish Provident Building

In 1788, the Belfast Reading Society formed The Linen Hall Library so that members of the lower classes could have access to books. From there, the library experienced phases of decline and expansion, including the gain of its current home at 17-19 Donegall Square in 1918. Over the next sixty years, the library did its best to maintain and expand its collections in its new location. Unfortunately, the WWII blitz and civil strife made it difficult for the library to stay afloat. Its doors were nearly closed in 1980. Recognizing its importance as a centre for Irish history and heritage, the community fought back with a campaign to reignite its public image by granting free access to the public. Today the library offers resources for tracing genealogy, archives containing massive collections of newspapers and periodicals, and collections focusing on Northern Ireland’s history, culture, and publications.

Across the street is the Scottish Provident Building which straddles Donegall Square West and Wellington Place. Originally completed in 1902, the marble building’s architecture reflects the boom time of Victorian Belfast. The symbols of local industry are visible in the middle section of the edifice: shipbuilding, linen trade, rope making and the printing press. Other figures on the Wellington Place side of the building give credence to the various faces of the Empire: Scotland, Sudan, India, Canada, and of course, Ireland and England. Today it serves as an office building to several top tier businesses of Belfast.
Wellington Place and College Square

8) Wellington Place and College Square

Walking from Wellington Place towards Great Victoria Street, there are several prominent landmarks. Designed by Samuel Ferris Lynn, the statue referred to as “The Black Man,” stands prominently in the street. It is of Dr. Henry Cooke (1788–1868), a native of County Down. Cooke accumulated a great deal of education that included medicine, law, and the Presbyterian ministry. He was influential in local politics and religious reform in the Presbyterian Church. By 1829, his ministry was so prolific that a church was built for him on May Street behind City Hall.

Behind Dr. Cooke is the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (known as Inst.), founded in 1810 by George Augustus Chichester, the 2nd Marquess of Donegall. Its purpose was to offer boys of Protestant and Catholic backgrounds a more well-rounded education than what was offered by other local schools. Today, it remains a prestigious academic institution, setting the bar high for achievement.

As you turn left onto College Square, a huge building takes up the end of the block. This is the Church House, built in 1905. It is the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The building’s architecture is principally Scottish, reflecting the denomination’s origins in the Church of Scotland. The bell tower resembles that of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburg. Still in use today, the building was renovated in 1992 creating The Spires, a commercial conference centre. Crossing over Howard Street to Great Victoria Street, a look up Howard Street offers a lovely view of the building and its elaborate windows.
Great Victoria Street

9) Great Victoria Street

Great Victoria Street is a cloister of Belfast’s most familiar and famous sights. The Grand Opera House is one of the most unique buildings in Belfast. The pronounced features were designed by Frank Matcham, a Victorian architect known for his innovatively designed theatres throughout the UK. Opened in 1895, it was Belfast’s venue for variety shows and galas, until it became a cinema in 1949. It remained as such until 1972, when it failed during the Troubles. Narrowly escaping demolition, the building was refurbished and reopened in 1980. Today the Opera House is thriving, offering 1063 seats in the oriental-styled auditorium for a full schedule of musicals, ballets and concerts.

Next door is the world-famous Europa Hotel. The opulence of the grand foyer and hotel lounge make it difficult to believe that the building was bombed thirty-three times by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles, making it the “most bombed hotel in Europe.” Two explosions in the early 1990s were powerful enough to cause the Opera House serious damage. Now, the 272 room hotel has opens its doors regularly to celebrities, prominent political officials, and visitors to Belfast.
Robinson's Saloon and The Crown

10) Robinson's Saloon and The Crown

Across the street from the Europa Hotel are Robinsons and the Crown Bar Liquor Saloon. Robinson’s Saloon is a unique place to go have a pint, check the ponies, or have a meal. Originally opened in 1895, the saloon reflects the Victorian period style with tile floors, large fireplaces, and cosy atmosphere. The building is large enough to house five venues: BT1, Roxy, Fibber Magee’s, Bistro, and of course the saloon. Bt1 in the basement and Roxy found upstairs will appeal to the late night crowds looking for a more chic outing. Fibber Magee’s is just behind the saloon and a stages traditional music in the evenings. Robinsons also displays artefacts from Irish history. Relics from the Titanic are encased in the saloon while other objects of from Irish history decorate Fibber Magee’s.

Just next door is the Crown Bar Liquor Saloon. It is the most famous watering hole in Belfast! The Flanagan family renovated the bar from a train station pub into a Victorian gin palace in 1885. The family hired Italian craftsmen to install the tile, wood and glass work, creating the ornate interior. The gas lighting and the snugs add to the atmosphere making the Crown just as popular amongst tourist and locals today as it did more than a century ago. When you stop in for a mandatory pint, make sure note the tile crown on the floor as you enter. If they aren’t too busy, ask a bartender the tale of walking on the crown!

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