1 Welcome to Belfast

Welcome to Belfast! Birthplace of the Titanic and known as ‘Linenopolis’, in the 1900s Belfast was home to the world’s largest linen industry and shipyard.

For many years that followed, though, Northern Ireland’s capital city was riven by political conflict and violence. Since the end of the Troubles however, Belfast has begun a process of regeneration and renewal. Belfast has been transformed from a city of industry to a centre of culture.

This walk explores the stories of Belfast’s evolution. It was originally created as part of a series that explored how our towns and cities have been shaped by some of the 206 nations in the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.


Royal Avenue, Belfast circa 1890
Wikimedia Commons


Remain in Arthur Square and stop by the large metal sculpture.

2 Spirit of the city

Arthur Square is home to one of the modern symbols of the city. This large sculpture is called ‘The Spirit of Belfast’. Created by Dan George, it was unveiled in September 2009. It is sometimes known by the nickname ‘the Onion Rings’. It is made from steel and at night is lit up in different colours.

As well as a piece of modern art, The Spirit of Belfast symbolises the city’s historic status. The steel in the sculpture is an important reminder of Belfast’s heritage. In the nineteenth century steel was used in huge quantities in Belfast for shipbuilding. Many grand liners were built in Belfast, most famously the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

Belfast was also a centre of the linen trade. The sculpture’s shape with weaving, swirling lines is meant to recall the weaving of linen. By the turn of the twentieth century Belfast produced so much that the city was known as ‘Linenopolis’. We will hear more details about both these trades later on.

The Spirit of Belfast is symbolic in another way. Until recently Belfast was in decline and in the grip of ‘The Troubles’. The Troubles refers to the political upheaval in Northern Ireland that erupted into violence from the late 1960s. For over thirty years Belfast was at the heart of the conflict.

But take a look around today, at the pedestrianised streets and modern shop fronts of this busy, retail-based city. The Spirit of Belfast was installed as the centrepiece of Arthur Square’s regeneration. The sculpture epitomises a city undergoing major redevelopment.


The Spirit of Belfast
Nick Stanworth © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Leave Arthur Square by turning into Ann Street. Continue along Ann Street and look out for the small passageways on the left. Walk past the first two and turn into the third one called Pottinger’s Entry. Stop by the Morning Star pub.

3 Entry into the past

From a symbol of modern Belfast here is an entry into its past. Pottinger’s Entry is one of the city’s five oldest streets. The Entries, as they are known, are narrow alleys that date back to at least the 1630s.

Pottinger’s Entry is probably the most famous today. It was once home to several newspapers including one of the world’s oldest - The News Letter, founded in 1737. At the other end of the Entry is a tiled mural celebrating the local newspaper trade.

Pottinger’s Entry takes its name from a prominent local family. In 1689 Thomas Pottinger was the first Presbyterian mayor of Belfast. He claimed his family were the first from Belfast to trade extensively internationally. The most famous family member was Sir Henry Pottinger. Henry worked for the British East India Company and became an envoy in China. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 which ended the First Opium War between Britain and China and led to Hong Kong becoming a British colony. Henry became Hong Kong’s first governor.

For many years Pottinger’s Entry was left to deteriorate. But the alleyway has recently been restored as part of the on-going rejuvenation that has invigorated Belfast’s heritage and added new aspects to the city.


Sir Henry Pottinger, 1845
Wikimedia Commons


At the end of Pottinger’s Entry turn left onto the High Street. Cross over at the traffic lights and head up Bridge Street. After a very short distance turn right onto Waring Street and then almost immediately cross the road at the traffic lights and walk up Donegall Street. Opposite the cathedral is a small park. Stop when you find a small statue among a few trees.

4 They shall not pass

This area of the city is the Cathedral Quarter, named after Belfast Cathedral across the road. For now let’s concentrate on this small statue of a soldier’s head. This is a Spanish Civil War memorial.

The Civil War was fought between 1936 and 1939 and ended with the overthrow of the Spanish republican government. A nationalist dictatorship was established under General Francisco Franco who would govern Spain for another 36 years. This memorial is to the 21 Northern Irish soldiers who died in the war fighting for the International Brigades.

The International Brigades were military units made up of volunteers from different countries. They travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans. Alongside Northern Irish troops, men from at least 20 other nations volunteered to support the Spanish Republican forces.

Look at the bottom of the statue and you can see the inscription ‘No Pasaran!’ This Spanish phrase means ‘They shall not pass’. The Republicans used this phrase as a slogan of resistance. It has since become a political slogan adopted by soldiers and political groups around the world.


Spanish Civil War memorial
Nick Stanworth © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Cross over the road to Belfast Cathedral. Go inside if it is open or stop outside the front entrance.

5 Black Santa

Belfast Cathedral is not actually a cathedral in the truest sense as it isn’t linked to a bishop. It was completed in 1904 although a church stood on this site from the late eighteenth century.

One of the most Cathedral’s famous traditions is the annual ‘Black Santa’ collection each Christmas. It started in 1976 when the then Dean, Sammy Crooks, decided to raise money for charitable causes by collecting outside the Cathedral.

With a small barrel for donations and dressed in his black Anglican robes, Dean Crooks sat outside the Cathedral all week before Christmas. The local press described him as “Belfast’s Black Santa” and the name stuck. It also set a tradition.

Every Christmas the Dean begs outside the Cathedral for a week. Money raised usually goes towards local charities, though sometimes funds are donated to international causes. Examples include aid for the victims of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami.

Inside the Cathedral, the Military Chapel of Remembrance features memorials to those who fought in both World Wars and honours servicemen who were awarded the Victoria Cross. Also look for an unusual prayer book written on rice paper by a prisoner of war in Korea.


Belfast Cathedral
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


From the Cathedral entrance turn left. Walk back down the left side of Donegall Street. Pass an alleyway on your left then stop by the entrance to a second alleyway with a murals on the walls. Turn into this alley.

6 Commerce and art

We have now reached Commercial Court. The first things to notice are the murals at the entrance. Look for one painted in the style of the Spanish artist Salvador Dali. Besides melting clocks and floating shapes, it contains many Belfast city centre landmarks. We will visit several of them along the walk.

Commercial Court gets its name from once being the commercial heart of Belfast. Today it is lined with colourful period signs and hanging baskets of flowers. This area once had a very different feel.

In the past this was an extremely busy street. There would have been a constant hum from craftsmen working and traders bargaining with customers. The air  filled with smoke from an iron foundry and at the end of the court was a cock-fighting pit.

Look out for several bronze plaques which record pottery firms, whiskey merchants and the iron foundry that once occupied this district.

Over the years newspapers also made their home here. To this day the area is regarded as Belfast’s Fleet Street and The Belfast Telegraph, The Irish News and Sunday World are still based close by. The Duke of York bar is a regular watering hole for journalists, lawyers, politicians and trade unionists.


Commercial Court signs
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


After walking through Commercial Court turn left onto Hill Street. See how many plaques and period signs you can spot. Turn right onto Gordon Street. Stop at the end in front of the row of silver bollards.

7 Penny for your thoughts

At this stop are more artistic contributions to Belfast’s cityscape. Look closely at the car park bollards. They are shaped like stacks of coins and are part of a public art piece called ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’.

This artwork by Peter Rooney was unveiled in 2003. In the last two decades a series of Art Trails have been created along Belfast’s River Lagan. We will visit some of the artworks today.

Take time to look at the top of each bollard. The top coin on each stack contains a picture related to the development of Belfast and the Cathedral Quarter. They include foodstuffs imported and traded in Belfast docks - like bananas, grapes, wheat, barley and tobacco. There are also traditional Irish images like the Gaelic Harp.

Also look for portraits of Sir Arthur Chichester. He founded and expanded modern Belfast from the early seventeenth century. A navy officer who fought alongside Sir Francis Drake, he arrived in Belfast in 1611. As Baron Chichester of Belfast, he built a castle that helped to establish Belfast as a town.

Nearby we can’t miss another art piece - the two purple pylons with figures standing on chairs. Named ‘The Calling’ it is based on the theme of better communication between people since the end of the Troubles. These pieces are good examples of how Belfast has promoted itself in recent years as a city of culture.


Penny For Your Thoughts column
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Cross over at the three sets of traffic lights slightly to the left. This is a very busy main road so take extra care. Turn onto Corporation Street which heads towards an overhead bridge. Stop underneath the bridge with the car park on your right. Look for a large envelope sculpture on one of the bridge columns.

8 Hidden journeys

Drivers and pedestrians travelling under this bridge can see a series of large black and white photographs on the left hand columns. These old pictures, inside frames shaped like car mirrors, show various people who have left Belfast over the years.

This is part of another public art piece by Peter Rooney. Called ‘Wheels of Progress’ it explores the history of migration to and from Belfast. On the other side of the road some of the columns in the car park are decorated with passport and luggage stamps. These stamps contrast with the old photographs in an attempt to illustrate the transfer from old to new.

The change from the old to the new is a recurring theme in the Laganside Art Trails. Where one side of the road marks people who have left the city, the other represents where they went. During the Troubles many people left Belfast for countries around the world. Though the photos in rear view mirrors suggest loss, the colourful passport stamps suggest gain from a new life in a new home.

Try and read as many of the stamps as you can. How many countries can you find? Some of the more obscure stamps include Benin, the Maldives, Guyana, Togo, St Lucia and Cuba.


Detail from Wheels of Progress
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


When you are ready continue under the bridge. Turn right on Corporation Square. Stop outside the church with the square tower. The church is open on Wednesday afternoons, in which case go in. If the church is not open remain outside.

9 The Seamen’s Church

We are now approaching Belfast’s port. This church is our first reminder of the city's vast maritime industry. Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church dates from 1856 and was built by and for the Seamen’s Friendly Society. This society was founded in 1832 to promote the religious improvement of sailors.

This church is named after Belfast businessman John Sinclair, who was one of the Society’s major benefactors. Today it is probably one of the most charming and unusual churches in Britain.

It was built as a place of worship for families working on the docks. Inside, 50 seats were reserved each service for visiting sailors. During the late nineteenth century the congregation prospered as the docks thrived. By the 1940s over 1,000 families worshipped here.

Rows of dock workers’ terraced houses stood nearby. They were demolished in the 1970s to make way for Cross-Harbour Bridge that we have just walked under. Some 250 church families were relocated and the church was left isolated.

The spirit of the Seaman’s Friendly Society prevailed however and the church was refurbished. It is now a tourist attraction for its large collection of seafaring artefacts. Many have been donated over the years by the seafaring congregation and visitors from throughout the world. 

Examples include ship wheels, compasses, bells and diving gear. The church collection boxes are shaped like lifeboats while the pulpit features the prow of a former Guinness barge. 

Another artefact inside is a model Shorts Singapore Flying Boat. These planes were used worldwide by the Royal Air Force before the Second World War. Shorts were founded in Belfast in 1908 and were the first company in the world to produce passenger aircraft.

The Sinclair Seamen’s Church is a virtual museum of naval and seafaring history - a visit is highly recommended. 


Sinclair Seamen's Church organ and pulpit
Nick Stanworth © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


If you went into the church leave when you are ready. Fom the church door turn left. Stop in front of the building next door; the Harbour Commissioner’s Office.

10 A shipping palace

We are now outside the Harbour Commissioner’s Office. The Harbour Commission looks after the operation, maintenance and development of the Port of Belfast.

Belfast’s port grew from an ideal natural location. The city is at the entrance to Belfast Lough, a large coastal channel that leads to the Irish Sea. But in early years Belfast's docks suffered from shallow water and awkward bends that were difficult for ships to use. After a new channel was built in 1837 the port grew rapidly. Ships brought products to Belfast from all over the world, including sherry from Spain, tobacco from America and fruit from southern Europe and the West Indies.

This grand building first opened in 1854 and is designed in the style of an Italian palazzo, or palace. The clock tower allowed ships in the harbour to regulate their arrival and departure from the docks.

Inside the lobby of the Harbour Commissioner’s Office is a superb stained glass window that illustrates this period of international prestige. To see it please ask for permission at the office desk.

The window shows Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, holding the world in his hand. By his side a cornucopia (a horn of plenty) symbolises prosperity. Around Neptune are four images that symbolise Belfast’s major industries at the time the Harbour Office was built.

A nautilus shell represents Navigation, a spider’s web is for linen spinning and a bird building a nest represents weaving. The Canadian beaver represents engineering. It also records that most of the timber used in Belfast for shipbuilding was imported from Canada.


Harbour Commission window detail
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


When you are ready head to the corner of Corporation Square as the road sweeps right. Stop by the set of railings. Look through them to the large yellow cranes.

11 Samson, Goliath and Titanic

Through the railings we should be able to see two of the icons of Belfast. The huge yellow cranes, affectionately known as Samson and Goliath, are used to unload ships. They belong to the Harland and Wolff, a company synonymous with Belfast’s development. 

Harland and Wolff were formed in 1861 by Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. Their company built many famous ships, including the RMS Titanic and HMS Belfast. At the company’s height it employed 35,000 people. Their success meant that by the turn of the twentieth century Belfast was the biggest shipbuilding site in the world.

The Titanic remains Belfast's most famous ship. This huge liner was built in a specially constructed dry dock, which is still the biggest one ever made. On completion the Titanic was the height of luxury travel and the largest passenger steamship in the world. Supposedly unsinkable, on 14 April 1912 it hit an iceberg off Nova Scotia in Canada. By the following morning it had sunk, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people. It was one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history.

Despite the disaster the Titanic remains a source of enduring pride in Belfast. The dry dock and pump house used to build it are now paid visitor attractions. In 2012 Belfast celebrated the Titanic’s centenary year by opening a new museum and interactive visitor centre. Belfast Titanic Museum is next to the cranes – look for the distinctive grey, square building. This museum is becoming a new icon of the city and shows how Belfast continues to develop from its industrial past.


RMS Titanic at Harland and Wolff shipyard, 1911
Wikimedia Commons


Follow Donegall Quay round to the right. Continue underneath the bridge and then turn onto the riverside path. Keep the river on your left and continue until you reach a large fish sculpture.

12 Fish out of water

This river we can see is the Lagan. Although a relatively small, the Lagan played a huge role in Belfast’s development. During the Industrial Revolution many trades were located along the riverside. Besides shipbuilding, these industries included making tobacco, rope and linen. A large gasworks was also based here.

Today most signs of this riverside industry have gone. But in recent years concerted attempts have been made to regenerate the Lagan. In 1989 the government set up the Laganside Corporation which built new houses and the Lagan Weir we can see today.

These riverside developments have greatly improved the water quality. Otters, trout and salmon have all been seen in the water and the Lagan is now used for leisure industries like rowing and angling.

To celebrate the rejuvenation of the Lagan this 10-metre long fish sculpture was unveiled in 1999. Named ‘The Big Fish’, it was created by artist John Kindness. The fish’s scales are a mosaic of tiles covered with images of Belfast’s history. They include newspaper articles, drawings and photographs.

Look out for a period advertisements and photographs, including one of the Titanic being built. See what else you can find!

Before we move on, look across the road at the office tower with the colourful window frames. It is called ‘The Boat’ and the front is shaped like a boat’s prow. Once again the design for a modern landmark comes from a historic industry. Along the riverside are many other new additions to the cityscape. We will visit some more of them soon.


The Big Fish
Nick Stanworth © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


With the river behind you cross over at the traffic lights. Continue towards a square with a clock tower. At the entrance to the square stop by a memorial fountain on the left.

13 Animal and musical harmony

This water fountain is another piece of Belfast’s history. It celebrates Commander Francis Anderson Calder RN. He was the founder of the Belfast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The fountain was erected in 1859 and doubles as a water trough for cattle and horses.

The Belfast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made history in its unprecedented struggle for animal rights. Just a year after its inception the Society successfully lobbied for the Act of Parliament ‘relating to the cruel and improper treatment of animals’ to be extended to Ireland.

This fountain is a survivor of 10 that were constructed by the Society for the use of Calder’s four-legged friends. It’s strange to think that among the bustle of people in a growing city there were also cattle roaming around Belfast, possibly going to or from the docks or even to market.

To the right and slightly ahead of the fountain is a small square in the ground split into nine bronze tiles. Go over to it and step on some of the squares and see what happens...

You should hear bells chiming! Under each tile is a small bell, each one makes a different note. These dance chimes were designed in the 1970s by Alfons Van Leggelo for the German company Richter Spielgeräte. They are popular in pedestrianised towns and cities throughout Europe and America.


Richter dance chimes
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


From the dance chimes continue across the square and turn right in front of the Customs House. Stand by the blue plaque on the wall outside.

14 Posted abroad

The old Customs House is another example of Belfast’s grand architectural heritage. It was built in 1857 in Italian Renaissance style by the architect Charles Lanyon. He also designed the Sinclair Seamen’s Church we visited earlier.

The Customs House became very important as Belfast became one of the great Victorian industrial and trading centres. Suitably, one of the most successful and well-travelled Victorian people worked here. In 1853 the writer Anthony Trollope worked in this Customs House for the General Post Office.

Trollope grew up in London then spent time in America and Europe before moving to Belfast. It was after working at this Customs House that he developed and introduced pillar boxes for collecting mail. Trollope's job as a Postal Surveyor meant he travelled across the world, which provided great inspiration for his novels. In an era when few people ventured abroad, his books were a popular source of intrigue.

Before leaving the Customs House have a quick visit to the other side of the building, facing the river. Look up and see if you can spot Neptune again carved into the facade. He appears beside statues of Britannia and Mercury, the Roman messenger god. These figures symbolise Belfast’s part in British Empire’s rule over the waves in the nineteeenth century.


Anthony Trollope, 1870s
Wikimedia Commons


Once you have walked around the Customs House head towards the clock tower at the back of Queen’s Square. Walk to the front of the clock tower so you are facing a statue and a there is a long road behind you.

15 Foundations

This tower is another Victorian structure, the Albert Memorial Clock. It was made as a memorial to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. His life-sized statue faces the High Street.

The tower’s design is a mix of French and Italian styles and was chosen after a competition. There was controversy however as the prize was initially given to the design which came second! After public outcry the contract was eventually awarded back to the winner, William Barre.

The clock tower is made in sandstone and was built between 1865 and 1869. Look closely and you may notice it isn’t totally straight. In fact the tower leans to one side by about four feet.

The reason is because it was built on a wooden base on marshy land reclaimed from the River Farset. This river runs nearby in a tunnel underneath the High Street. The Farset is a tributary, a smaller river that flows into a larger one - in this case, the Lagan.

Though we cannot see the Farset it was central to Belfast’s creation. In fact Belfast was founded very near this spot we are standing on.

The name Belfast comes from the Irish ‘Béal Feirste’ or ‘mouth of the ford’. Belfast’s first settlers made their homes at a ford - a shallow crossing - over the Farset.

It is incredible to think that Belfast’s foundation site is out of sight. But as the teetering clock tower shows the Farset is unseen but not forgotten!


Albert Memorial Clock
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Retrace your steps and re-cross the square. Stop outside McHugh’s Bar on the right hand side.

16 A broad taste

This bar is the oldest building in Belfast city centre. In 2011 it celebrated its 300th birthday! Although the building has been expanded and restored over time it still has many historic features. Inside are roof beams from the eighteenth century.

When the docks were at their busiest in the 1900s this would have been a lively spot. The bar’s riverside location made it an ideal watering hole for visiting traders and local dock workers.

As we would expect of a Belfast bar, Guinness has a strong presence. On the back wall of McHugh’s is a colourful Guinness mural. Please be careful if you walk round to see it as the single-lane road beside the bar is an access point for Belfast bus station. The pavement is narrow too so please take extra care to watch for cars and buses.

Guinness is one of the world’s most renowned brands. Nearly 2 billion pints are sold every year. The firm was established in Dublin in 1759 making it over 250 years old – that’s still over 50 years younger than McHugh’s Bar. 

Today Guinness is brewed in nearly 50 countries. The drink has a particularly strong history in Africa. Overall about 40% of worldwide Guinness volume is brewed and sold in Africa, with Nigeria and Cameroon two of the top five consumer countries. 


Guinness sign
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


When you are ready, return to the front of McHugh’s and turn right. Cross back over the zebra crossing. Follow the riverside path with the Lagan on your left. Cross over the first bridge. At the second bridge stop by the metal sculpture of a woman holding a hoop.

17 Beacon of hope

As we have already heard, the Lagan riverside has been transformed in the last two decades. Public art has played a key role. This sculpture is another example.

Since it was built in 2007 it has become a symbol of modern Belfast. It was made by Andy Scott and is officially called the Thanksgiving Statue - though it is known by many nicknames including ‘the Beacon of Hope’, ‘the Thing With the Ring’ and even ‘Nuala With the Hula’!

The impressive 20-foot sculpture shows a female figure standing on a globe. The figure borrows imagery from Celtic myths and holds a hoop called “the ring of thanksgiving”. The globe below represents international peace and harmony. The statue’s location, next to Queen’s Bridge, represents bridges being built across divides in the community.

Suitably the statue has an international background. This site is called Thanksgiving Square after the designers were inspired by a visit to Thanksgiving Square in Dallas, Texas. 


Beacon of Hope
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Continue along the riverside road now called Oxford Street. Keep going until you see a mural of childrens’ faces painted on a building on your left.

18 Dreams for the future

This is another artwork in the Laganside Art Trails. This piece by Rita Duffy is called ‘Dreams’. It comprises four metal panels showing portraits of children.

You should also be able to see the word ‘dream’ written in many different languages. They include Sanskrit, Japanese, Russian, Tagalog (the language of the Philippines), Chinese Mandarin and many more. See how many you can identify.

The word ‘dream’ in many languages and the portraits of the children symbolise harmony worldwide - children dream no matter what language they speak. The artwork also shows how Belfast has become an increasingly international city.

The metal panels themselves are symbolic of Belfast’s ship building past. Like many of the artworks we have seen, ‘Dreams’ reflects the scope of Belfast’s industrial history and potential future.


Dreams mural detail
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Continue along Oxford Street with the mural on your left. Head towards the round shaped building by the river. Stop on the steps outside this building.

19 The shape of things to come

We are now in front of Waterfront Hall. Completed in 1997 this multi-purpose building was the first major example of the Laganside’s redevelopment.

Buildings such as this came about on the back of the IRA Ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Both helped to end sectarian violence in the country. The Agreement was brokered by the major political parties in Northern Ireland with help from the British and American governments.

Following the Agreement investors have had the confidence to fund new developments, such as this Hall. Since it opened the Hall has welcomed over 5 million visitors, staged almost 4,000 concerts and art events, and hosted over 2,400 business conferences.

The design of the Waterfront Hall is based on the Berlin Philharmonic Hall in Germany. The dome at the top of the building is coated in copper which will turn green as it ages. As a result the domed roof will match the Victorian buildings in the city centre.

Many of these buildings – including the Customs House and Sinclair Seamen’s Church – were designed by architect Charles Lanyon. In his honour the Waterfront Hall’s address is Lanyon Place. As we have seen many times on our walk today, modern Belfast reflects the city’s heritage.


Belfast Waterfront Hall
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Walk back to Oxford Street and turn left. At the first junction cross over at the traffic lights and turn right on to May Street. Stop outside the market building on the left hand side.

20 Market forces

Our next stop takes us back in time once again. St George’s Market is Belfast’s last surviving covered market. There has been a market here since 1604 when it would probably have included a slaughterhouse and meat market.

The building we can see today dates from the 1890s. The design includes Roman-style arches and a Latin inscription above the entrance. The motto, ‘pro tanto quid retribuamus’, translates as ‘so much what shall we give in return?’ - a sign of the amount of goods for sale.

The market originally sold local dairy produce, poultry and fruit. Over time it developed to include foods, antiques, books and clothes. This mixture still attracts thousands of visitors every week. Besides offering shoppers some of the finest produce, the market has become one of the city’s most popular visitor attractions, especially since a £4.5 million refurbishment in 1997.

Markets are held Fridays to Sundays. The Friday Variety market is famous for fish, while Saturday sees traders offering speciality foods from around the world. The Sunday market focuses on arts and crafts complete with live music.

The market is a good example of how some of Belfast’s local industry sites have developed into vibrant and colourful visitor destinations. If you are around during the market’s opening hours do take time to explore.


Flowers outside St George's Market
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Continue along the left hand side of May Street. Stop when you reach a red bricked building with a round blue plaque on the wall. The building is next to a tall white office block with a large glass front. Stop by the plaque.

21 The road ahead

Our next two stops are about Belfast’s roads. This blue plaque celebrates John Boyd Dunlop, one of the inventors of modern tyres. Born in 1840 in Scotland, Dunlop studied as a veterinary surgeon. He moved to Belfast in 1867.

Like many cities at the time Belfast’s cobbled roads were extremely rough. Most vehicles, horse-drawn or motorised, had solid wheels made of iron or even wood. Few journeys were comfortable.

After seeing his young son painfully trying to ride a tricycle along Belfast’s streets, Dunlop realised that the bike’s solid tyres were a problem. He wrapped the wheels in thin sheets of rubber and glued them together at the edges. Dunlop inflated the rubber and created a cushion of air between the road surface and the wheel. He had invented the pneumatic tyre!

In 1888 he patented the design and set about production. As with many great ideas Dunlop’s design was not unique. Forty years earlier, Scottish engineer Robert William Thompson had patented rubber tyres. Dunlop’s patent was declared invalid - but Thompson never developed his patent commercially, so Dunlop was allowed to expand. Within a decade virtually all vehicles used pneumatic tyres.

In 1896 John Dunlop retired and sold his company for 1,500 shares. This meant he made surprisingly little money from his idea. By his death in 1921 the company that bore his name had sales and manufacturing bases worldwide. i


John Boyd Dunlop blue plaque
© Albert Bridge via Geograph.org.ie


Continue along May Street and take the third left on to Adelaide Street. Continue to the junction of Franklin Street then stop.

22 Streets around the world

The next feature of Belfast’s roads we are going to look at is their names. We are currently on Adelaide Street, named after the city of Adelaide in Australia. International street names often reflect a relationship with countries overseas or tell us when the street was built.

Several of Belfast's street names reflect the city’s importance as a port and trade hub. As well as Adelaide Street, Belfast contains a Cairo Street, Damascus Street, Jerusalem Street, Palestine Street and Delhi Street.

Belfast is also twinned with places worldwide, including Nashville in the United States, Bonn in Germany, Hefei in China and Wanju in South Korea. Town twinning is a way to create economic and social links with other countries. Often a twinning relationship is based on something shared – such as a common trade, a similar geographical feature, or a sporting connection.

Town twinning also helps to promote international understanding at a local level, particularly through business partnerships and school exchange visits.


Adelaide, Australia in 1839
Wikimedia Commons


Turn right and into Franklin Street. After a short while turn left into Bedford Street. Stop part way along outside the Ulster Hall.

23 A varied programme

We are now at another Victorian building at the heart of Belfast’s cultural life. This is the Ulster Hall which opened in 1862. It was designed by William Barre who, as we heard, designed the Albert Memorial Clock tower but nearly didn’t receive his prize.

From the outset the Ulster Hall was a multipurpose venue and hosted many famous figures of the age including opera singer Jenny Lind, tenors Enrico Caruso and John McCormack and readings by novelist Charles Dickens. During the Second World War the Hall was popular with American soldiers who were posted in Belfast. Apparently a shipment of American oak arrived in the city in mysterious circumstances to resurface the dance floor!

Other people who have appeared here since range from Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, to rock bands The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, who played their song ‘Stairway To Heaven’ live for the very first time here.

Other attractions include the Mulholland Grand Organ. Built in the 1860s it is one of the oldest pipe organs still working. The Hall also contains thirteen paintings on the history of Belfast made in 1902 by artist Joseph W Carey. As we can see there have been a real variety of performances over the years and this diverse programme keeps the Hall a well-respected and popular attraction. 


The Ulster Hall
Nick Stanworth © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Retrace your steps and turn left back onto Franklin Street. Continue until you reach Amelia Street. At the end of Amelia Street is a colourful pub on the right hand side. Continue round the corner and stop in front of this pub.

24 The Crown jewel

This colourful bar really lives up to its Americanised name. With its wooden swing doors, bright coloured tiles and gas lighting it looks like a watering hole from the Wild West.

The Crown Liquor Bar was built in 1826 as the Railway Tavern in a much plainer style. The changes came in 1885 when the bar’s then owner, Patrick Flanagan, persuaded skilled Italian craftsmen who drank there to redecorate it after hours. There were a high number of Italian workers in Belfast in the 1880s as they were recruited to build and decorate new churches in the city.

The results of the makeover are spectacular. Just look at the tiled walls and stained glass windows. Take your time and see if you can spot exotic shells, pineapples, and fleurs-de-lis motifs. There are even some clowns!

Interesting flourishes inside include ten booths or ‘snugs’, each one a different shape. They were built to offer privacy to more reserved Victorian customers. They all retain their original gunmetal plates for striking matches and a bell for alerting staff.

Probably the most famous bar in Belfast during the Troubles, the Crown survived 42 bombs. These days it is busier than ever. Long owned by the National Trust, the Crown has featured in films and television series and is one of the real landmarks of the city.


The Crown Liquor Saloon
Nick Stanworth © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Continue a short distance along Great Victoria Street and stop opposite the Europa Hotel on the other side of the road.

25 The hardboard hotel

The four-star Europa is a modern development compared with some of our recent stops. It was built in 1971 and is Belfast’s biggest hotel.

During the Troubles most of the journalists covering the news stayed here. The building became Europe’s most bombed hotel, earning the nickname 'the Hardboard Hotel' because windows were almost always boarded up. High profile journalists were regularly evacuated but despite being bombed 33 times, The Europa it never closed. It became a symbol of resilience to the violence.

Since the attacks ceased The Europa has welcomed many international visitors, such as presidents, film stars and musicians. Most famously American President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hilary Clinton stayed here during visits to Belfast in 1995 and 1998. Their rooms were renamed the Clinton Suite.

In 2011 the Europa was one of the official venues for the MTV Europe music awards and welcomed pop stars from around the world. The building is a stark reminder of the hostilities in Belfast during the Troubles but also provides a symbol of the peace and international harmony since.


Europa Hotel
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Continue a short distance and stop across the road from the Grand Opera House.

26 A grand design

Next door to the Europa Hotel we can see a rather different building, the Grand Opera House. It opened in 1895 and has played host to some of the greatest names in theatre and music. They include Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti who made his British stage debut here in 1963.

The theatre was a huge success from the outset, hosting a vibrant programme of opera, drama, pantomime and musicals. At the end of the Second of World War the venue was at the centre of the celebrations. The American general, later President, Dwight D Eisenhower was a guest at a gala performance attended by Allied military leaders.

With the introduction of television the theatre suffered significantly and became a cinema. In 1972 it closed. But with demolition looking a certainty the Grand Opera House became the first listed building in Belfast.

It was saved by its design. The Theatres Trust described the Grand Opera House as probably Britain’s best surviving example of Oriental style theatre architecture.

The Grand Opera House was one of almost 150 theatres designed by architect Frank Matcham. Matcham was inspired by the Oriental architecture of China and India. If we look at the Grand Opera House today we can see why it has been called ‘the Matcham Masterpiece’.

Look at the minarets or domes on the roof by the name plate. You may have seen similar ones on mosques or other Eastern religious buildings. Also notice the round windows with flower leaf patterns, another Oriental motif.

After a massive restoration project the Grand’s doors re-opened in 1980. The theatre became a catalyst for the regeneration we have seen in much of Belfast city centre. Today it is once again one of Belfast’s major entertainment venues.


Grand Opera House detail
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Continue along Great Victoria Street. Cross over Howard Street and Wellington Street. Then turn right into Wellington Place. Walk along the left hand side and stop when you reach the Linen Hall Library.

27 Linenopolis

The Linen Hall Library was founded in 1788 as the Belfast Reading Society. It is the oldest subscribing library in Northern Ireland and its unique book collection has become the centre of Irish historical and cultural studies.

The Library got its name in 1802 when it moved into a former linen factory, the White Linen Hall which used to stand across the road (where Belfast City Hall is today). The Library’s current home was also a former linen warehouse.

Linen production was one of one of Belfast’s major trades. Linen was first produced commercially in ancient Greece and Spain. In Belfast the trade was first recorded in the twelfth century. Belfast’s first Linen Hall opened in 1739 and the trade grew rapidly after industrialisation in the eighteenth century.

Besides industrialisation, Belfast linen boomed from the 1860s because of the American Civil War. The United States were a major cotton producer but the War disrupted cotton supplies into Europe. This ‘Cotton Famine’ led to the linen industry filling demand and many Belfast linen mill owners made enormous profits.

By 1900 there were 35,000 linen looms in Ulster, compared to 22,000 in the rest of Western Europe. Some 900,000 spindles ran in Belfast alone - more than in any other country in the world. Belfast became known as “Linenopolis”. The grand buildings that line Donegall Square today were nearly all built from the wealth of the linen industry.


The Linen Hall Library doorway
© Man Vyi via Wikimedia Commons


With the Library behind you cross the traffic lights to the left. Turn right and stop across the road from the ornate building on the corner of the square with ‘Scottish Provident’ written high up on the wall.

28 Wondrous walls

As we heard previously Belfast’s linen trade means Donegall Square is lined with grand historic buildings. The Scottish Provident Building is one of the most impressive. Opened in 1902 it was designed in a Greek style for the Scottish Providence Life Assurance company. Today it is home to shops and offices.

The building is made from sandstone, which is quite soft and easy to cut. Sandstone became a popular building material from the Victorian era as it was possible to create elaborate carvings. We can see some very good examples around this building’s doorways and windows. Many are symbols of Belfast’s wealth and industrial prestige.

To begin, look above the first row of windows for a series of stylised heads. They represent countries from the British colonies - including India, Canada and Sudan.

Now look up at the top of the building and find the words ‘Scottish Provident Institution’. They are below a large coat of arms near the roof and feature various animals from around the world. Either side of the company name are a pair of copper sphinxes. Below them are four copper dolphins and further down the walls are some sixteen lion heads.

At the bottom of the building’s columns are four panels that depict cherubs working in Belfast industries. Look for rope making, ship building, printing and linen spinning. These panels are a proud reminder of Belfast’s heritage. When the building opened they would also have been symbols of the city’s status.


Asia head, Scottish Provident Building
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Take your time to look at the wealth of detail on the Scottish Provident Building. Feel free to cross over the road for a closer look. When you are ready enter the grounds of Belfast City Hall. Stop when you have a good view of the front of the building.

29 Civic pride

This impressive building is literally a symbol of the city - Belfast City Hall was built to commemorate Belfast being awarded city status in 1888. Belfast was awarded city status in recognition of its thriving industries.

As industries boomed, labour was required on a massive scale. When the Hall was completed in 1906 Belfast briefly overtook Dublin as the most populous city in the whole of Ireland.

The Hall was designed in a style called Baroque Revival. This term describes buildings that imitate the Baroque style of the seveneenth century. Baroque developed in Rome from around 1600 and spread across Europe. It became especially popular in Germany, Austria and Hungary.

Typical baroque features include domed roofs, lines of columns and combinations of light and dark colours. Belfast City Hall has many of these features, for example the large domes on the tops of the towers. Like the sphinxes on the Scottish Provident Building they have turned green as the copper has aged.

In front of the doorway is a porch-like canopy called a porte-cochère. This French term means ‘coach gate’. It allowed visitors to enter the building directly from a horse-drawn coach and remain sheltered from bad weather. 

As well as a symbol of Belfast, the City Hall proved an inspiration to other public buildings. The Port of Liverpool Building has a similar layout while in South Africa, Durban City Hall is an almost exact copy. It was built in 1910 after its architect Stanley G. Hudson was inspired by Belfast City Hall's design.



Belfast City Hall
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Stay at the front of the City Hall grounds. Stop by the statue of Queen Victoria.

30 From a queen to a President

As we can see the grounds of the City Hall contain quite a few statues and memorials. Many tell interesting stories about Belfast’s status. They are symbols of civic pride and show how Belfast’s residents have shaped the world. 

They include a statue of Frederick Temple, the 1st Marquess of Dufferin. He was an important diplomat who worked in Syria, Canada, Russia, Turkey and India. James Magennis, meanwhile, was awarded the Victoria Cross medal during an attack on a Japanese cruiser in Singapore.

The Imjin River Memorial commemorates Irish troops lost during the Korean War while the Titanic Memorial records those lost on the famous ship that sank off Canada.

We are going to concentrate though on two memorials on the front lawn. The statue of Queen Victoria symbolises her role in Belfast’s history. It was Queen Victoria who awarded Belfast city status in 1888. The statue shows Belfast’s industrial wealth and prestige.

Beside Queen Victoria is a stone column with an eagle on the side. It records the American Expeditionary Force. Soldiers from this army unit were based in Belfast prior to the D-Day landings on Normandy beach in 1944. Look for the plaque beside it with a re-dedication by President Clinton. Though many of the memorials in Belfast record conflict and loss, this one also records peace and gain.

These two memorials are a fitting place to end our walk. They show Belfast’s status and bookend the city’s development. Queen Victoria’s statue records how Belfast became a city through people and trades that spanned the world. The President Clinton plaque shows how Belfast is a modern international city rejuvenated after the Troubles.

During this walk we have seen how Belfast grew through shipbuilding, rope making and linen production. We saw how the city developed because of these trades and also the effects of their decline. We have also seen how the city has reinvented itself through the arts and leisure industries. Despite an illustrious yet turbulent history Belfast remains a city looking to the future. We hope that you enjoyed the walk. 


Queen Victoria statue, Belfast
Rory Walsh © RGS-IBG Discovering Britain


Feel free to explore the grounds of City Hall or head into Belfast city centre. To return to Belfast Central station go behind the City Hall and turn left onto May Street. When you reach St George’s Market turn right to access East Bridge Street. Turn left onto East Bridge Street and the station is a short distance on the left hand side.

Artistry from industry

Big Fish © Rory Walsh RGS-IBG Discovering Britain

Belfast walk

A walk exploring trade and art in Belfast

In the 1900s Belfast was home to both the world’s largest linen industry and largest shipyard. The city was the birthplace of the Titanic and known as ‘Linenopolis’,

For many years, Belfast was riven by political conflict and violence. But since the end of the Troubles, a process of regeneration and renewal has seen Belfast evolve from a city of industry to a centre of culture. 

This city centre walk explores the international stories in Belfast’s evolution. At almost every spot industry and the arts sit side by side - including at a 300-year old pub, a clock built on water and a fish on dry land.

Follow the walk by clicking on the map pins
or downloading the guides below

Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Start point: Spirit of Belfast sculpture, Arthur Square, BT1 2LB
Finish point: Belfast City Hall, BT1 5GS

Belfast walk credits

Thanks to - 

Nick Stanworth for creating the walk and taking photos 

Rory Walsh editing the script and taking photos

Jenny Lunn and Caroline Millar for editing the walk materials 

William Dyson for further assistance 

Albert Bridge, Alden Jewel and Man Vyi for photos reproduced under Creative Commons Licences

Every landscape has a story to tell