Monday, May 27, 2013

President Obama's Guide To Belfast

President Obama is coming to Belfast next month. They'll probably drag him to the usual tourist spots, but if I were him I'd try and see some more interesting sides of the city instead. These are the top 10 places I'd go to: 

1. The Crown Bar: yes it is a bit of a tourist trap, but it's still worth visiting. A pub owned and run by the National Trust, lit by gas lamps and with its original Victorian fittings. A visit here really is like stepping back in time. My name is carved under the table in one of the snugs.
2. The Titanic Museum: My dad and sister used to work at Harland and Wolff shipyard and I wish the company were still making ships rather than memorialising their least successful vessel ever...I was opposed to the whole concept of this place but a lot of people seem to like it so why not check it out. 
3. The Game of Thrones set: Since you're already at the Harland and Wolff shipyard why not visit the Game of Thrones set in the old Paint Hall. Castle Black, bits of forest, The's all here.
4. Carrickfergus Castle: 12th century Norman Castle only 10 minutes from the centre of Belfast. This place has got quite a history having been attacked by the French, the Scots, the Irish, the Americans and even the Nazis. The castle is built on the rock where King Fergus Mor Mac Erc's ship ran aground in the seventh century which, naturally, gave Carrickfergus its name. The castle is only a few hundred yards from where I grew up but don't let that put you off. And if you're hungry while you're in Carrick do check out my sister's pub The Joymount Arms, a literal stone's throw away from the front gate, where they do a fabulous Irish Stew and the best pulled pint of Guinness in the town. 
5. Milltown Cemetery Belfast: Although a little macabre it's very interesting to walk around the gravestones of the Republican Plot.
6. Belfast City Hall: actually the city hall isn't that exciting but it's a well proportioned building in Baroque Revival style made with clean Portland stone. Stir up some controversy on your visit by asking why there are no flags flying...
7. Queens University: the alma mater of Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and their circle and the place where Philip Larkin lived and worked. A nice oasis of calm in the middle of the city.
8. No Alibis Bookshop: best bookshop in Ireland if you ask me. Easy to find on Botanic Avenue. Mention my name to the bald guy and you'll guy a 10% discount. Either that or you'll be unceremoniously booted out. 
9. HMS Caroline: the only surviving warship from the Battle of Jutland in 1916 which, remarkably, is still floating on an obscure pier in Belfast. Well worth a visit. 
10. Cyprus Avenue: about a 10 minute walk from the centre of Belfast, just off the Upper Newtownards Road, visit the street that helped inspire two of Van Morrison's most famous songs: Cyprus Avenue and Madame George.
One thing that may be hard to resist is to take a Black Taxi Tour of the major paramilitary murals and scenes of violent incidents during the Troubles, but resist it you should; many tourists do this on their trip to Belfast but personally I find the whole idea a little bit vulgar.