An Archaeologist’s Guide to Belfast

Courtney Mundt
PhD Candidate, Queen’s University Belfast

 As an American who has lived on the island of Ireland for eight years (four years in Dublin and four years in Belfast), I almost forget what it is like to first come to Ireland’s second largest city. Although it is a small city compared to Dublin (the capital of the Republic of Ireland), Northern Ireland’s capital is packed with a variety of people, architecture, history and cultures that is distinctly different to Dublin. While it is a city that has seen the rise and fall of the linen industry and shipbuilding, an architectural boom in the Victorian era, the destruction caused by the Blitz during World War II, the hardships of the Troubles and the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, Belfast is now bouncing back once again into a vibrant city with plenty of “craic” (fun) for you to enjoy while you are here for EAA 2023!

One of the best things about Belfast is how walkable it is. From Queen’s University to the city centre is only a twenty-minute walk, and there is a lot to take in during those twenty minutes! However, you can always grab a bus from in front of the Student’s Union, rent a bike at one of the bike stations on campus, or order a taxi or Uber. First, though, you have to be prepared for your journey. Make sure you have a comfortable pair of walking shoes, some “sunnies” (sunglasses) for the summer sun you will get to see in August and September, either a “brelly” (umbrella) or a rain jacket to protect yourself from the (always present!) possibility of rain in Belfast, and a water bottle (reusable preferred but there are plenty of convenience stores along the way).

Queen’s Quarter

Now that you are all set, we will explore the Queen’s Quarter first. The campus of Queen’s University has the brand-new Student’s Union Building, with its own shop, lecture halls, study areas and bar. The Lanyon Building is the most photographed building at Queen’s, with its Gothic-and-Tutor-inspired façade hiding the Great Hall, the Canada Room, the Quadrangle courtyard and the Queen’s Gift Shop. See Figure 11.   The Lynn Building (now The Graduate School) was the university’s original library. The McClay Library’s impressive tower stands watch over Queen’s University and the Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens are located right next to Queen’s. These have acres of lovely lawn, a rose garden, the Victorian Palm House glasshouse and the modern Tropical Ravine for a day out. Within the Gardens is the Ulster Museum, which showcases the art, natural sciences and history that make Ulster what it is today. See Figure 12.

Figure 11. The Lanyon Building, Queen’s University Belfast (Photo by C. Mundt)

Figure 12. Ulster Museum (Photo by C. Mundt)

To the right of Ulster Museum is Stranmillis Road, a popular area for Belfast locals and Queen’s students. While it may seem gloomy with Belfast’s oldest cemetery (Friar’s Bush) right behind the museum, the businesses here keep things lively. At the intersection of Stranmillis Road, Malone Road and University Road is Maggie May’s, a cafe chain that has become a Belfast staple with its Ulster Fry breakfast, burgers, milkshakes and more. The Jeggy Nettle pub has a lively traditional atmosphere and is a great place to dogwatch as it is one of Belfast’s many dog-friendly pubs. Along this road are plenty of restaurants such as Wellcome (voted the best Chinese restaurant in Belfast in 2022) and ORTO, a local favourite for a slice of pizza. At Maggie May’s, you can walk to the right along Malone Road to find more places to eat such as Wing It, the Abacus Chinese Restaurant (my person favourite), and the more upscale Blank Restaurant (which serves Irish farm-to-table cuisine).

Down from the McClay Library is Common Grounds Cafe, known locally as “Aleksandar’s Bakery”. Amongst Queens students and staff alike it is well known for its quiet work atmosphere, great coffee, and delicious Croatian-inspired food (try the giant scones!). If you walk back from Aleksandar’s Bakery to Botanic Avenue, you will be greeted by a variety of shops, restaurants, and cafes. Between Molly’s Yard, Tribal Burger, Town Square and another Maggie May’s, you will not go hungry, regardless of your dietary needs. If you are in need of “a cuppa” (tea or coffee), Kaffe O, Clement’s, Caffe Nero and French Village have you covered. Botanic Avenue also has several charity shops and bookshops if you feel like you need a quiet respite between EAA sessions.

Dublin Road

To get to the city centre, continue down Botanic Avenue, through Shaftsbury Square onto the Dublin Road. The Dublin Road has a traditional Irish pub called The Points, which is a great spot to check out if you are looking for a “trad sesh” (traditional Irish music session). There is also the newly-built Trademarket. See Figure 13. It is a covered market that hosts a variety of food and craft vendors. Walking further down you will find the Pug Ugly’s pub, with The Bone Yard (its beer garden) located behind it. Walking further down and crossing Howard Street, you will be at the back of Belfast City Hall.

Figure 13. Trademarket, Dublin Road (Photo by C. Mundt)

Figure 14. Belfast City Hall (Photo by C. Mundt)

While Donegall Place is the main shopping area for Belfast visitors with the new Primark as its focal point, it is the area around this that you want to see. Behind Primark is Kelly’s Cellars, one of Belfast’s oldest traditional Irish pubs. The rustic interior, outdoor seating area and live traditional Irish music and dancing make it a great spot to relax with a pint and a pizza. Next to nearby Castle Court Shopping Centre is Madden’s Bar, another traditional Irish pub with an even cosier atmosphere in which to grab a pint of Guinness. Down from Primark is Winecellar Entry, one of the old trading alleys which will lead you to White’s Tavern. Founded in 1630, it beats Kelly’s Cellars as Belfast’s oldest surviving pub, and features a cosy older section, a newer covered garden and great food menus, as well as a fantastic mural of the island of Ireland in the outdoor seating area.
From the city centre, you can either go back and pose for photographs in front of Belfast City Hall, hop on one of the red City Sightseeing buses to learn about every quarter of Belfast including the Peace Wall, go shopping in Victoria Square Shopping Centre (which has a great view of the city from its Dome) or walk down Donegall Place to the Cathedral Quarter. 

Cathedral Quarter
The Cathedral Quarter is named after St. Anne’s Cathedral. St. Anne’s was designed by Belfast natives Thomas Drew and W.H. Lynn in the Romanesque style and was constructed from 1899 to 1903. While this quarter was once a trade hub filled with warehouses and a maze of cobbled streets, it is now the centre of Belfast’s nightlife (cobbled streets still included!). From the front of the gorgeous Merchant Hotel, you can wander the cobbled streets to any number of other pubs and restaurants, but everyone’s favourite spot is The Duke of York and The Dark Horse. See Figure 15. These pubs are one of the most photographed parts of Belfast with the cobbled Commercial Court lit up by the LED umbrellas and signs above. Another nearby favourite is The Dirty Onion and Yardbird on Hill Street, a dog-friendly outdoor pub and music venue with attached restaurant.


Figure 15. Commercial Court, The Duke of York (Left) and The Dark Horse (Right) (Photo by C. Mundt)

The River Lagan

If you walk back down Hill Street to the High Street and look left towards the River Lagan, you will see one of Belfast’s unique landmarks – the Prince Albert Memorial Clocktower, or “Belfast’s Leaning Tower of Pisa”. See Figure 16. Built from 1865 to 1869 in honour of Queen’s Victoria’s late husband Prince Albert, the 43-metre-high sandstone clocktower leans 1.22 metres due to its unstable foundation of reclaimed marshland. The 2002 restoration project restored the clocktower’s appearance and stability, while still keeping its (now beloved) tilt.

Figure 16. Prince Albert Memorial Clocktower (Photo by C. Mundt)

Walking past the Clocktower and crossing the A2 road you will find The Big Fish on the Lagan Lookout, across from the Customs House. See Figure 17. The 10-metre sculpture is covered in blue and white ceramic tiles that describe Belfast’s history and is based on the Salmon of Knowledge from Irish mythology.

Figure 17. The Big Fish, Lagan Lookout (Photo by C. Mundt)

Walk to the right and follow the Lagan to find the Beacon of Hope wire sculpture, the Waterfront Hall, and ICC Belfast before getting to St. George’s Market on May Street.  Built from 1890 to 1896, St. George’s is the last surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast. Thanks to National Heritage Lottery-backed funding, the market was restored and reopened in 1999 and now hosts 200 market stalls that sell everything from handmade crafts to food. Named the UK’S Best Large Indoor Market 2023, it is open Friday to Sunday with varying stalls per day.

Walking back to the Big Fish and across the Donegall Quay Bridge you will find the famous Titanic Quarter. 

Titanic Quarter

The Titanic Quarter is home to the SSE Arena, which hosts live music and sports, including the Belfast Giants ice hockey team. Going past this will get you to Titanic Belfast, the self-guided museum about the RMS Titanic. See Figure 18. This infamous steam liner was built here in the Harland and Wolff shipyard of Belfast before its fateful maiden voyage ended on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912. This museum allows you to experience what it was like in Belfast and on the Titanic before and after the sinking with nine interactive galleries. Docked near the museum are two floating museums - SS Nomadic, which was originally built to ferry mail as well as first- and second-class passengers to the Titanic in Cherbourg before the Titanic set off across the Atlantic; and the HMS Caroline, a vessel which saw action in WWI, WWII as well as during the Cold War before it was decommissioned and docked in Belfast in 2011.

Figure 18. Titanic Belfast Museum, Titanic Quarter (Photo by C. Mundt)

Belfast’s nearby metal sentinels are the Samson and Goliath Cranes, two 140-metre-wide Harland and Wolff yellow shipbuilding cranes that symbolise Belfast’s industrial heritage. The Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company was founded in 1861 on Queen’s Island by Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. This company built not only the Titanic and its sister ships the Olympic and Britannic between 1909 and 1914, but they also built naval ships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers during the World Wars. Goliath was built in 1969 and is 96 metres high, while Samson was built in 1974 and is 106 metres high. They are named after Biblical giants and were constructed to help with shipbuilding as they can lift loads of up to 840 tonnes 70 metres into the air.

All in All…
Thanks for coming along on this brief tour of Belfast – hopefully something has piqued your interest! While EAA is offering plenty of trips around Ireland, take some time to immerse yourself and experience our city’s colourful day- and nightlife. Wherever you end up, I hope you have plenty of “craic” (fun) while you’re here for EAA 2023!

Féach tú i mBéal Feirste (See you in Belfast)!


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