Sandy Row 

It is a short 10 minute journey around to Great Victoria Street.  This was the original terminus of the Enterprise; the Great Northern Railway used to have an elaborate Victorian station here. It was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the Europa Hotel, shopping centre and bus terminal.



The current simpler station has two island platforms.  There isn’t enough capacity for the Enterprise to turn around here, but frequent services on Translink’s four remaining lines: Londonderry, Larne, Bangor and Portadown, all pass through here.  A new enlarged station, Grand Central, is currently under construction close by and will open in a few years; the Enterprise should then move across.

The view from my hotel bedroom window, a few blocks away, is interesting. In the distance I can see snow-capped hills, and right in front of me is the inner-city district of Sandy Row.  From the colourful murals visible on the sides of the buildings it is easy to discern that Sandy Row is a loyalist neighbourhood; this is my first introduction to the sectarian divide that Belfast is famous for.

An information board in the little square opposite the hotel explains that Sandy Row is one of the oldest residential streets in Belfast.  The local industries included brewing and tobacco but here linen was king, dominating through the 19th and early 20th centuries.  A massive mural in the background depicts King William III and celebrates his victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

A plaque at the foot of the mural explains that the King passed through Sandy Row on his way south to the battle. Since 1752 the victory has been celebrated by the loyalist community on the 12th of July each year.  Sandy Row itself is host to some of the parades and bonfires that have become famous beyond Northern Ireland.

A little walk around the area reveals more loyalist murals and banners, naturally in the year of her Platinum Jubilee and death, the Queen features large, but there are also signs opposing the Irish Sea Border set up as part of the Brexit settlement and under fierce debate at the moment.

Yet, all these seem benign in comparison to what went before. On the information panel there is a photograph of the mural that used to be where King William is now.  The panel also explains that the replacement of the old mural, with its depiction of a masked Ulster Freedom Fighter, did not come easy and only happened after a long and detailed consultation.

Taxi to the Troubles

Before I see anything else of Belfast, I have decided to get a better overview of the sectarian divide and the violence which engulfed the city from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998.  I have booked one of the taxi tours, now offered by a variety of companies, that offer a quick trip through the republican and loyalist areas explaining some of the history along the way.


Mike picks me up in his black cab just across the way from the Sandy Row Murals. He invites me to sit up alongside him in the front so I can see more.  We head out of the city centre and within 5 minutes we stop on the Falls Road in front of a very different mural. It has an Irish tricolour and celebrates the 32 counties (Irish Unity) movement. In the background are the famous Divis flats, a republican stronghold, on the top of which the British Army once placed an observation post.

On the way here I have already had the basics; Mike is the same age as me, Catholic, born in Belfast and once had connections with the Irish National Liberation Army.  Working for the tour company is a side line, he averages “one of these” a day, and the rest of the time he is a regular taxi driver. He is going to show me the Catholic Falls Road first and then we will come back down the Protestant Shankill Road. There will be several stops along the way.

Mike comes armed with a whole file of old photographs to show me each time we stop. There are shots of British helicopters hovering over the Divis flats, people passing through checkpoints to get out of central Belfast before it closes for the evening,  and several scenes of carnage after bomb attacks.   He also has rubber bullets to share with me.


I find the whole tour fascinating. Not only does Mike have an excellent knowledge of the background history, but he has obviously lived through the whole period.  He responds eagerly to any question I can think of, however daft it is.  He has a great sense of humour too; the whole sectarian issue can seem a little crazy to an outsider, and whenever I remark as such, he bursts out laughing and says, “I know, it’s bizarre”.

Nevertheless, I get the impression that there was a time when he didn’t think it was quite so bizarre. The explanations I get in front of the Bobby Sands mural and in the memorial gardens in Bombay Street are more impassioned than anything along the Shankill Road.  The drivers working for the taxi tour companies, many ex-political prisoners, come from both communities: “You had a 50% chance of getting a Protestant driver today”,  Mike explains.

We pass through large gates, closed at night, and turn alongside the wall that divides the two communities, keeping them separate and effectively helping to maintain the peace.  A third of these walls in the city date from after 1994.   Mike tells me he would never have dreamed of driving around this area during the Troubles and even now wouldn’t be comfortable walking about.

To illustrate the last point, he tells me about one of the walking tours that cover some of the same ground we have been driving.  There is a Catholic guide on the Falls side and he hands over to a Protestant guide on the Shankill side. Interestingly, he adds, the Catholic guide murdered one of the Protestant’s relatives and the Protestant himself killed one of the Catholic’s friends.  Now they just nod at each other and hand over the group. Mike laughs and adds “I know, it’s bizarre”.

We make more stops at Protestant Murals and see memorials festooned with poppies whilst heading down the Shankill Road towards the City Centre.  I am keen to get Mike’s opinion of the future of Belfast.  He is optimistic: “The place is getting quite prosperous, when I was young it was difficult for a Catholic to get a job, now if anything, it is easier than being Protestant.”

The future of Ireland itself is more difficult.   “Dublin is full of drug problems, and reunification will probably be determined on economic grounds than political.”  He personally wouldn’t vote for a united Ireland, although it is very complicated; he is no longer a practising Catholic and his nephew is going out with a Protestant lass.

As we pass a large Orange Hall on the way back into the city, I ask Mike if I should have any worries  about drinking in the pubs of central Belfast.  “None at all, just enjoy yourself,  the city centre is neutral territory and the Guinness is too good to miss.”

Back in the centre we go past the Royal Courts of Justice, the thick wall at the front was put there as protection because it kept getting bombed by the IRA Mike explains. “I know, it’s bizarre” he laughs just before he drops me around the corner.


Belfast Centre

I spend the rest of the afternoon getting a grounding in the basic geography of the city.   Mike’s optimism and his passion for Belfast is infectious and I feel positive as I admire the impressive City Hall just across from where he has dropped me.

I wander around and I am quickly impressed.  It definitely feels quite prosperous and the place has a distinctive buzz. It is obviously unfair to compare cities, but with the maritime setting, Victorian architecture and extra-friendly locals, it reminds me a bit of Liverpool.



They have divided the place up into “Quarters” for easy navigation. Immediately to hand there is the City Centre with its impressive new Victoria Square shopping centre and plenty of cool looking shops and cafes; the Cathedral Quarter, surrounding St Annes, with colourful cobblestoned streets, warehouse restaurants and beer gardens; then heading past the impressive Albert Clock, the River Lagan and the newly developed waterfront area, the Titanic Quarter, beyond.


Back closer to my hotel is the Linen Quarter with old mills now in use as offices and restaurants. Great Victoria street, where the beautiful Opera House and the Europa Hotel are located, is the main thoroughfare here.  The Europa is the most bombed hotel in the world; apparently, it was hit 36 times during the troubles.

I love the four days I spend wandering around Belfast.  Best of all, just as Mike had promised, the pubs are really friendly, and the Guinness is fantastic.

Click here for Belfast Pub List  



The first of two trips I make outside Belfast is to Whitehead, a large coastal village about 40 minutes along the line that heads for the port of Larne.  The trains run every 30 minutes and part of the journey hugs the coastline with views out into Belfast Lough.



Whitehead boomed in the late 19th century with the opening of the railway. This soon necessitated the creation of a separate excursion platform that now forms the basis of the railway musuem.  (Link to Irish Steam Preservation) My main reason for visiting the town is to see the museum, but I stay afterwards and walk to the lighthouse and back.

The Blackhead Path was created by the Victorians, and partly funded by the railway, in order to encourage more visitors to come to Whitehead.  Later and a little further away, the more dramatic Gobbins Path was built for the same reason and has recently been restored.

On a cold but sunny afternoon, walking conditions are perfect and I spend a happy couple of hours walking along the coast to the lighthouse and back.  Going is a little difficult in places with a bit of remaining snow on the ground, but the views, across to Scotland, are spectacular.


Food and Drink

I take the opportunity to try a few of the local dishes during my visit.  A quick internet search reveals Belfast’s most famous dish as the Ulster Fry, a local take on the English breakfast. Whilst Northern Ireland has plenty of healthy food, some of the old favourites might be on the artery-clogging side.

On my first evening I head over to John Long’s, a venerable old chip shop just outside of the city centre. The slightly menacing exterior including wire mesh protection over the windows, gives way to a wonderful welcoming interior.


The friendly staff direct me to a seat in one of the charming little booths.  It feels like a journey back in time and not at all in a bad way.  The people opposite start chatting to me almost immediately, explaining the menu and making a few suggestions.

A Belfast pastie is a lump of mashed potato, minced meat and herbs deep fried in batter.  A “pastie supper” is one such pastie served with a generous helping of chips.  The pinkish colour of the pastie filling seems slightly strange but I have to admit the thing is delicious.  I return to Long’s again later in my trip and sample their fabulous fish and chips.

St George’s Market is the city’s last surviving Victorian market.  It is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday but has a slightly different character on each day. I visit on Saturday when it is themed as a food and craft market.


Alongside handmade crafts, there are plenty of stalls selling local and not so local ingredients including meat, fresh fish and cheese.  The place is full of options for sitting down to eat and drink too, and as it is early morning it seems a good place to try a Belfast breakfast bap.

The bap is a large hard crusty roll, almost half the size of a small loaf. It has an almost burnt, though delicious, taste.


The hard texture of the bread is ideal to host a hearty filling of the ingredients of a typical Ulster fry: bacon, egg and sausages.  I enjoy mine without the egg, with plenty of sauce it is fabulous, nonetheless.


I also sample a couple of old pub favourites that I have enjoyed in Ireland before.  It is difficult to beat a pint of Guinness, a bowl of hearty Irish stew and a slice of soda bread.


Although perhaps a glass of Belfast Stout with a plate of champ (mashed potatoes and scallions) topped with some Irish pork sausages and an onion gravy comes close.



For my second day trip out of the city, I take a train towards Bangor and alight after about 7 miles at Cultra.   My main reason for coming here is the Ulster Transport Museum, just a 5 minute walk from the station, and its various railway exhibits.     Link to Historic Irish Railway Companies

However, having spent most of the morning and satisfied myself I have seen everything at the Transport Museum, I make a 10 minute walk up a steep hill to spend a few more hours at the nearby Ulster Folk Museum.

The museum houses several old buildings that have been collected from various parts of Northern Ireland and rebuilt together to create a village, Ballycultra, and several surrounding farms and country cottages.  The whole thing is set in the early years of the 20th century.

The project has been going since the late 1950s and aims to recreate and thus preserve the Ulster way of life.  There are guides dressed in period costume, but the emphasis is on the craft demonstration with activities such as printing displays, needlework and the like.

The whole site is quite extensive, and it takes me around three hours to get a good look at everything. It is practically deserted and, selfishly, I think it is better for that. I wander around popping in and out of the shops, churches, bank and recreated cinema, without ever seeing another soul.

In a farmhouse outside the village one of the guides is sitting by a fire all by herself creating a patchwork rug.  I sit with her for a while chatting all about the history of the place, Northern Ireland in the late 19th century and her experiences of closing the museum during COVID.

Harland and Wolff

Standing in the gardens in front of the City Hall is a memorial to the 22 Belfast citizens lost in the 1912 Titanic disaster.  9 of the names inscribed on the memorial are the “guarantee group”; a team of men from the builders, Harland and Wolff, led by Managing Director, Thomas Andrews.   The Titanic looms large over Belfast and brings in a fair amount of tourist income.

From the memorial, the “Titanic Trail” leads to the Titanic Quarter, which stretches along the River Lagan and covers the old Harland and Wolff yard. This is now one of Europe’s biggest urban waterfront developments.  On my last day I follow the trail to learn more about the city’s shipbuilding heritage.


Founded in 1861, Harland and Wolff gradually transformed Belfast into one of the world’s greatest shipbuilding locations.  As the signs along the trail explain, this was all done by the skill of the designers and the local workforce; Belfast had no natural advantage: all the materials had to be imported.

Harland and Wolff had a close relationship with the White Star Line and built almost all their ships including, of course, Olympic and Titanic.  The two sisters were ordered in 1908 and designed in the Harland and Wolff drawing office at the centre of the shipyard.


The building with its iconic curved glass roof still survives and is now the bar of the Titanic Hotel.   I stop by for a drink and look outside towards the slipways where the two identical ships were built, to a single set of plans, side by side.


The “Titanic Experience” building now sits just across from where the two bows of the ships under construction would have been.  Pretty much where the yellow dot is on the photograph below.

The bows of RMS Olympic (foreground) and RMS Titanic (background) in 1910 (Public Domain)

I knew the museum would be closed for a bit of a refurbishment before I planned my visit.  I decided that it would make a great excuse to return to the city and see more of Northern Ireland in the future.  Apparently nicknamed “the iceberg” by some locals, the exterior of the building is nonetheless impressive; it is the same height as the ships’ hulls and the middle prow points towards the river and the two slipways.

Looking away from the building, they have erected two rows of vertical steel girders to mark both slipways.  The Titanic one is paved and has a painted outline of the ship’s deck plan, whilst the Olympic slipway is part grass, with the green bits supposed to represent the proportional loss of life in each class.


I walk to the place where the stern of the Olympic would have sat just before her launch in 1910 and look back towards the museum where her bow would have been.  Although not as long as later ships like RMS Queen Mary or today’s cruise liners, the 882 foot length was very impressive for the time. At 45,300 tons Olympic was the largest moving object on earth in 1911 and almost half as large again as the world’s largest ship to date.

Launch of RMS Olympic 1910 (Public Domain)

Olympic’s maiden voyage to New York in June 1911 was a great success and the order for a third sister was placed with Harland and Wolff almost immediately.  Britannic was built in the same slipway as Olympic and launched in 1914. She never saw passenger service, acting as a hospital ship in the First World War and sunk in the Aegean Sea in 1916.

In contrast to her two unfortunate sisters, Olympic had a very successful career not only as a transatlantic liner, but also as a troopship in the First World War, where she earned the nickname “the Old Reliable”.  She remained popular throughout the 1920s and was only retired in 1935 after 24 years in service.

It is good to see that Olympic has not been completely forgotten by the people of Belfast and there are references and photographs of her in the Titanic Quarter.   There was quite a bit more back at the Transport Museum in Cultra, including decking and wood carvings from one of her famous first class staircases.

The impressive SS Nomadic museum ship sits behind the Titanic Experience and I spend a good hour exploring her.  The last White Star Line ship still in existence and now restored in her original colour scheme, Nomadic was built at Belfast at the same time as Olympic and Titanic.  With a French crew, she operated as the first class tender ship at the port of Cherbourg where the giant liners called but could not dock.


As I finish off my trek, I walk past the giant Harland and Wolff cranes, nicknamed Samson and Goliath and dating from 1969-1974, adjacent to the Titanic Quarter.   They sit over a massive graving dock and have become icons of Belfast.  No ship has been launched from the yard since 2003, but maintenance is still carried out.


At the end of my time in Belfast I fly back to London from the city airport named after another of the city’s icons: George Best (1946-2005).   I want to return here again soon; in four days I feel I have only just touched the surface and there is still plenty to see in Belfast and beyond.


2023 – Ireland – “Enterprise” (Part 1)

List of 13 Belfast Pubs

Information on Historic Irish Railway Companies

Information on Irish Steam Preservation