To properly appreciate Central Belfast, visitors must begin their wanderings at the heart of the city, the magnificent City Hall, located on Donegall Square. North of City Hall is Donegall Place, a teeming shopping mecca that leads to the Cathedral Quarter and the Arts School. Towards the east, you’ll find the River Lagan while Donegall Pass lies to the south. The Westlink carriageway borders off Central Belfast from the western suburbs.
Despite being safe nearly all the time, the streets of Central Belfast are surprisingly nearly empty after 8 p.m., reflecting years of curfews during troubled times. Obviously, the night life in Central Belfast is a lot more serene than, say, other cities of Britain and Ireland. But it does have its own allure, as typified by the following popular attractions.
1. City Hall
This is undeniably the grand centrepiece of Central Belfast, home of Belfast’s Council chambers and administrative offices. Visitors can join the daily guided tours (free) and marvel at the rich sense of history. In the grounds there’s a statue of Queen Victoria and a memorial to the victims of the RMS Titanic, which was built in Belfast’s shipyards. A series of broad pavements and grassy squares surround the main City Hall structure and serve as a favorite romantic hangout of couples. South African visitors often note City Hall’s resemblance to the City Hall in Durban and they are right. Both were designed from architectural drafts from the British Empire’s drafting office at the turn of the 20th century.
2. Saint Anne’s Cathedral
Like City Hall, Saint Anne’s Cathedral is also located on Donegall St. at the other end of Royal Avenue, the main shopping vista. This stunning building lies at the heart of the “Cathedral Quarter,” which is currently being redesigned as the city’s cultural district. The area has many excellent cafes, bars and architectural structures that bring to mind the industrial and commercial heritage of Belfast.
3. Belfast Central Library
For historical documentation on the city, head to the Belfast Central Library, an exquisite example of Victorian architecture located on Royal Avenue across the road from the Cathedral. Its newspaper library features extensive archives of all the major newspapers in Northern Ireland.
4. Belfast Exposed
Located at 23 Donegall Street, Belfast Exposed is the lone photo gallery in Northern Ireland. It regularly features historical and cultural exhibits that are free and open to the public. Basically an upgraded exhibition space in a refurbished warehouse, Belfast Exposed has an impressive and well-maintained library. It also provides local photographers with darkroom and processing facilities. Gallery hours are from 11 am to 5 pm.
This diminutive shop at 40 Fountain Street is a fabulous forum promoting the architectural artistry of Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland. It is presently operated by the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA).
6. Ormeau Baths Gallery
Located on Ormeau Avenue, the OBG is another lively and vibrant art gallery operating under the auspices of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
7. Titanic Boat Tour
For £5, tourists can take a boat tour to the shipyards where the ill-fated Titanic was built. A large portion of the shipyards are presently being developed in a commercial and residential neighbourhood known as the Titanic Quarter.
8. Belfast Big Fish
Big Fish is located right next to the Lagan Weir, which controls the flow of the Lagan River. The Lagan Weir also hosts the Lagan Lookout, which features an impressive exhibition on Belfast history and a model of the Titanic. At night, the entire complex features romantic lighting which makes it a favourite haven of couples.
9. The Waterfront Hall
Located to the north of Donegall Square, the Waterfront Hall is the main concert and conference venue in Central Belfast. Its main auditorium is renowned for having the best acoustics of any performance hall in Europe and regularly hosts major musical shows. Since it was constructed in 1997, the Waterfront Hall has been a significant contributor to the Belfast economy, generating £10 for every £1 spent on its construction.
10. The Bar Council & Bar Library of Northern Ireland
Its doors may be closed to the public, but it is worth a visit if only to appreciate its striking architectural design. Designed by local architects Robinson McIlwaine, the Bar Council & Bar Library of Northern Ireland appears to be one seamless building, but is actually two dramatically different designs, a result of having two clients with vastly different budgets. The northern side features the elaborate, opulent and expensively designed residences of Belfast’s barristers while the southern side houses the cheaper and modestly designed Royal Courts of Justice Stamp Office (a tax-payer-funded government agency).
11. Belfast Print Workshop and Gallery
Located on Waring Street, the Belfast Print Workshop and Gallery usually features fine exhibits of local artists. It also doubles as a workshop where local artists can print their work.