Northern Ireland is one crazy corner of the English-speaking world. But that’s a good thing. You can get your history lessons and slowly fizzle your liver away within mere blocks of each other. The Irish have always had that striking reputation as…“Out there” (We’re sure the English had nothing to do with it), and depending upon what you do with your time in Belfast, you can experience that first hand.
The city itself has a sort of perpetual emotional hangover from The Troubles hovering over it, and to understand what has shaped such a small piece of earth for such a long period of time, there’s really only one way to do it: Through the eyes of a local on a Black Taxi Tour.
1. The Tour
Now, some people will get all worried that, “Oh! They’ll kidnap you! Don’t let them see your cross! You might get a Protestant driver!” (From the eyes of the frightened Catholic, of course), but there is nothing you could do better with your travels in Belfast than take a good two hours of one-on-one time to see the story of The Troubles from both sides, all in a way a tenured college professor couldn’t even deliver.
The heartfelt personal experiences of the driver, or of the people they knew, sometimes giving their own life for their beliefs, is truly soul-shaking. A three-time heightened “Peace Wall” separates the aforementioned Protestant and Catholic sides of town so they wouldn’t be able to sneak over in the middle of the night and bomb each other.
The tour runs by murals depicting scenes ranging from honoring “Catholic Killers” to poems of peace, summing up the seething, bitter, unrelenting hatred the two sides still hold for each other, and the hope that’s on the horizon through new generations.
It will make you question humanitarian, political and religious spheres like you never have before. And for the price of give or take £30, there is nothing in the world you could better spend your money on to experience, to grow, to understand the human experiment first hand.
2. Giant’s Causeway
Besides self-growth exercises in Belfast, there’s natural beauty surrounded you all around Northern Ireland. One cliche, but an extraordinary (by definition) place to visit, is the Giant’s Causeway. The drive up to the tip of the Northern end of the Isle takes you from the rolling green hills of postcard-worthy Ireland to craggy lands that look like they just landed from another planet. It all feels very touristy with the organized bus tours and crowds of people, but it has such a unique presence that none of it will matter.
The oddly-shaped hexagon columns rising from the Irish Sea are a result of lava cooling and compression over thousands of years. While you might wonder, “I drove two hours to look at some rocks?!” there truly is a special aura to the place. Plus, Bushmills distillery is just down the road when you need a little whiskey to warm you up.
3. Gaelic Football
All throughout the lands of Ireland, one sport reigns supreme: Gaelic Football. Imagine the finesse of rugby paired together with the tooth-mashing,
soul-crushing, bone-snapping hardcore devastation of football (re: soccer), throw in a few kegs, years of bitter rivalry, pride and unrelenting emotions, and you have yourself a nice day at the ole’ stadium. Wait…nah, rugby is the soft one. Dumb American tip #2,022: Don’t wear team colors on game day, and don’t wear any uniforms in the bar. But, then again, you can come back from Belfast with the best souvenir of all: your front teeth…in your pocket.
4. Guinness and Mussels
Mussels are a way of life in Northern Ireland. Cold water, rain falling every 22 minutes, goopy seafood that slimes down your throat…it just goes with the territory. Mussels were an export that once put Belfast on the world map, and have become regular pub fare on a menu dominated by deep fried doom. They don’t get any fresher than straight from Belfast Lough, but finding the hidden pubs and restaurants that get them from the docks is half the fun.
5. The Stumble
Ah yes, the Irish. They sing and drink, and, they…drink and drink! While Dublin might have Temple Bar, Belfast has massive amount of pubs with more than a few characters to spare. Bars like the Crown Bar Liquor Saloon built in the late 1800′s are plentiful in Belfast, as is live music, at 4 p.m., on a weekday. In the summer, Hen parties, also known as bachelorette parties, from the all over the Emerald and British Isles swamp the pubs, and make for some pretty entertaining scenes. And costumes. And spills. And, “Hey sweetie, you’re a cutie!” Well imagine that…a British Cougar… Regarding the music, you have traditional Irish folk dancin’ at every other pub, but you also have a brash amount of American pop cover bands. You should probably know Bohemian Rhapsody by heart. And Sweet Home Alabama, which doesn’t even make sense, but singing about the American South in Northern Ireland is all part of the experience. Do go. Do drink.