Europe Travel

Recent history boosts Belfast appeal
Recent history boosts Belfast appeal

Sometimes promising older kids a European vacation full of history, architecture and art museums isn't enough to get them on board. But shipwrecks, "Game of Thrones," eye-popping graffiti and a vibrant music scene? Now you're talking.These are just a few of the attractions that today's Belfast offers families, along with a dose of history recent enough to pique the interest of even the most hard-to-please youngsters.Hands down, the biggest draw for families in Belfast is Titanic Belfast, a blockbuster interactive museum that has welcomed 2 million visitors since it opened less than three years ago. Visitors are taken in stages from the construction of the ship, complete with videos and audio effects, to its watery death at the bottom of the ocean. Kids can wander through re-creations of portions of the vessel, from the engine room to the various classes of cabin; relive the moment of impact and the sinking through the words of surviving passengers via a multimedia display; and view a facsimile of what the ship looked like when it was discovered in 1985.The building itself, which was designed to resemble the ship's hull, has become an iconic part of the city's landscape from its perch on the Lagan River, and visitors tend to stay awhile, shopping and dining at the Titanic Store, Bistro 401 and the Galley Cafe.'Thrones' zoneJust behind the museum is another, smaller building that, despite its unprepossessing appearance, has boosted the city's profile and economy dramatically in recent years. This is Titanic Studios, where many interior scenes of "Game of Thrones" are shot. Fans of the HBO series can participate in tours through VisitBelfast (www.visit-belfast.com) that take in filming locations here and around Northern Ireland. In fact, so much of the series is shot in Belfast that the sight of the series stars dining and shopping in the city are said to be commonplace. Kids are likely to be intrigued by the preponderance of splashy, colorful murals that enliven the Victorian facades of the city's architecture, a lot of it depicting famous musicians who either hailed from Belfast or made their name there. Two of the most famous are located on the walls of the Dark Horse pub, across from the Duke of York Public House (www.dukeofyorkbelfast.com) in city center, but families out for even a casual stroll will find dozens more. My visit coincided with the Sound of Belfast (www.soundofbelfast.com), a weeklong festival that takes place in November. Along with concerts at venues around the city, the festival includes an "American Idol"-type competition of musicians ages 14 to 24 with a live audience and music talent scouts from the U.K. The good news for young music lovers is that the city is overflowing with performance venues geared to a younger audience year-round. Those with only time for one venue can try the Oh Yeah Music Centre (www.ohyeahbelfast.com) on Gordon Street, which not only hosts live bands but also offers workshops for young musicians, displays artifacts from the punk rock era in Belfast and acts as a starting point for musical tours of the city.We spent an afternoon with local music expert Paul Kane on an Oh Yeah Music Tour that comprised multiple stops around the city where big-name bands played, while Kane acted as DJ, playing relevant music at each stop. A highlight was Ulster Hall, where the Clash provoked a riot in 1977.For an even more personal insight into the importance of punk rock to Belfast, we joined Terri Hooley's Alternative Walking Tour, led by the irrepressible Hooley, founder of the Good Vibrations record label, whose roster included the Undertones and other punk acts. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of music to the city, Hooley explained, because it brought young Catholics and Protestants together during the Troubles, a time of extreme political, national and religious conflict from the 1960s to its uneasy end in 1998. Some of Europe's most famous political murals are located in East Belfast for visitors who want to know more about the city's difficult history, but East Belfast is also known for being the birthplace of two of its most famous sons, musician Van Morrison and C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia series.A new, self-guided Van Morrison walking tour of East Belfast was launched in August via a booklet with QR codes that send content and music to your smartphone, and a new C.S. Lewis trail map leads visitors to a statue of the author opening the wardrobe door from the first book to the C.S. Lewis Reading room at Queen's University and other sites.The Morrison and Lewis tours were developed to create interesting public spaces in East Belfast, a previously overlooked section of the city. Visit www.communitygreenway.co.uk.Other attractions throughout Belfast include the Beacon of Hope sculpture, known locally by the irreverent moniker "The Doll With the Ball," in Thanksgiving Square and which honors the concept of reconciliation and peace; the multimillion Victoria Square shopping center, which draws about 17 million people a year and boasts restaurants, nightlife and some of the best views of the city from the top deck; and Vertigo (www.wearevertigo.com), an adventure center with ziplines, trampolines and indoor ski and snowboard lessons for kids.Finally, for kids who like museums, the Ulster Museum houses everything from dinosaurs to fine arts and a special gallery dedicated to The Troubles, while foodies in the family can spend a happy few hours sampling the wares at St. George's Market on the Waterfront.A new Visit Belfast Welcome Center in Donegall Square North across from City Hall offers a currency exchange, a place to leave luggage, free WiFi and information on a variety of tours.Where to stayThe four-star Europa Hotel is a 272-room property on Great Victoria Street that was once so riddled with bullets during the Troubles that it was nicknamed the Hardboard Hotel, due to planks of wood constantly replacing its shot-out windows. It also held the distinction of being the most bombed hotel in Europe, having been blasted 33 times by the Irish Republican Army. Now it is elegant, peaceful and posh. Rates from $182 per room, including breakfast. See www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast.Where to dine Hadskis (www.hadskis.co.uk) on Commercial Court offers locally sourced, eclectic dishes. Holohans (www.facebook.com/Holohans), on a barge on Lanyon Quay, serves a high-end interpretation of Irish cuisine. Coppi (www.coppi.co.uk) in the Cathedral Quarter is an Italian eatery named for Angelo Fausto Coppi, a Tour de France-winning cyclist in the 1940s and '50s. Graze (www.grazebelfast.com) on Upper Newtownards Road offers gourmet fare, like smoked haddock tempura and duck confit, in a casual, bistro-like atmosphere. Deane's at Queen's (www.michaeldeane.co.uk/deanes-at-queens) is owned by one of Belfast's celebrity chefs, Michael Deane. The restaurant,in South Belfast, will reopen in February after renovations. 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