If you're anything like me - which I can safely assume an embarrassing number of Americans are - you probably struggle with the difference between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. When someone says "Ireland," you just picture the place with the sheep, grass, and leprechauns. And then if you look into you realize there's a border running through the island. And different currency. And different religions. And some vague remembrance from a long-ago history class starts floating around in your head. And then you're just darn confused.
In summation, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland geographically share the same island with the Republic of Ireland; politically, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom while the Republic of Ireland is a sovereign state.
A quick breakdown, so we can stop embarrassing ourselves and pissing off the Europeans:
Republic of Ireland
Usually shortened to "Ireland"
Capital is Dublin
Strong history and influence of Catholicism, with 78% of population identifying as Catholic
Currency is euros
Notable tourist sites include the Guinness Storehouse, Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Stone, Trinity College Library
Sorry, no catchy way to shorten the name
Capital is Belfast
Appx. 41% Protestant (primarily Church of Ireland & Presbyterian) and 40% Catholic.
Currency is British pounds
Notable tourist sites include the Giant's Causeway, the Dark Hedges, and the political murals of Belfast
Ireland tends to steal a lot of the spotlight when it comes to tourism; however, Northern Ireland is an exquisitely fascinating travel destination of its own right. Don't let confusion or intimidation keep you from considering it - there are so many reasons you need to #DiscoverNI (shamelessly borrowing the NI tourism board hashtag because it's spot-on).
Belfast is Delightful
Honestly, nobody advised me to visit Belfast. Our AirBnB host in Dublin, upon asking our plans, said, "Well, Belfast is like Dublin...except smaller. And boring." Even the guidebooks mostly talked about political unrest, violence, poverty...even the (literally) shiniest attraction highlighted was the Titanic Belfast Museum, a fascinating historical event that nonetheless is about the death of 1,500 people.. cheerfest, right?
So I rolled into Belfast basically expecting a tidal wave of historical trauma and intergenerational depression to immediately wash over me. I'm not saying the remnants of past (and current) difficulties aren't still evident in the city, or that these topics aren't utterly interesting and important to learn about. What I'm saying is - I wasn't expecting Belfast to be so darn delightful.
I mean, there's a giant mosaic fish sculpture. Nearby are cast-iron seals playfully popping out of the concrete, heralding the entrance to brand-new construction along the waterfront. The streets are crooked and windy and street art pops out round each bend, bright colors playing off the overcast and perpetually just-a-bit-damp city. Between curious painted alleyways, historic churches, and restaurants advertising mouth-watering happy hours, it was challenging to walk the streets at all. And by challenging I mean - awesome.
But about that boat...
Interested in the Titanic, but don't want to shell out the 18 pounds and recommended 2 hours to take it all in at the Titanic Belfast Museum? Grab a morning coffee and spend some time in the Titanic Memorial Garden. Located outside City Hall, the statue and accompanying plaque painstakingly lists the names of all victims of the wreck and makes for a quiet, contemplative history lesson.
You'll Want to Eat Everything
Belfast may be small, but it is jam-packed with a mix of cosmopolitan, traditional, and funky eats. Across the rest of Northern Ireland, the cuisine is, in my mind, the perfect mix of comfort food - more traditionally "Irish" dishes blended with a distinct "British" influence.
Sticking to Belfast, where I admittedly ate the most (i.e. A LOT), the Cathedral Quarter is great both for eating and bar-hopping. I had the best pasta I've ever had outside of Italy at Hadskis. Muriel's Cafe is a fan favorite, while the slightly-sticky yet charming Dirty Onion and Yardbird offers incongruous rotisserie chicken and right-at-home tavern-biergarten hybrid.
If you'd rather drink than eat (I mean, maybe at least start with some chips?), the Cathedral Quarter also makes for perfect, population dense barhopping. Start at The Duke of York and you may not have to leave - the same alley boasts The Duke of York Bar, the Harp Bar, The Dark Horse, and whiskey shop Friend at Hand. Nearby 21 Social offers a typical dance party scene, while Bert's Jazz is modeled after a 1930's Harlem Renaissance scene (but, you know, British-ly).
The Natural Beauty is Overwhelming
From the famously breath-taking Giant's Causeway to the quiet, rolling beauty of County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland's outdoors game is killing it. For trekkers, hiking the Wild Atlantic Way is mouthwateringly tempting. Picture being worth a thousand words and what not, I think I'll just let some photos finish the talking here.
The History is Fascinating
I know I started off this blog post dragging on those who only consider Northern Ireland's tumultuous history when thinking about visiting. Northern Ireland has plenty going on in the here and now, but history is inextricable from the country's landscape, whether it be rural or urban. It's important, and it's friggin' interesting.
A visit to the Ulster Museum is a must (not in the least because admission, unlike many European museums, is FREE) (oh and they currently have a couple dragons too, see below) as it offers an overview of the country's history from centuries back to present. Black Cab tours of the political murals around Belfast are popular and no doubt chock-full of history, but if that doesn't fit into your budget or schedule much can be gained from a mindful walk through the city observing some of the artwork on your own.
In Omagh, the Ulster American Folk Park offers a truly unique change to experience a full-scale, interactive emigration from the old country to the United States. For war buffs, the Northern Ireland War Memorial and Museum educates visitors on an aspect of World War II we frankly don't learn much about state-side.
Game of Thrones is Everywhere
Ok, I realize this one might not be as much of an appeal for everyone; however, I discovered Game of Thrones several years later than the rest of civilization and thus was deep in a GOT addiction when I visited Northern Ireland. Even if your understanding of the show is restricted to something about dragons and maybe a zombie or two and lots of boobs (I mean, accurate), you may find it quite charming how the country has so fully and playfully and interwoven a complicated medieval-inspired science fiction epic into its own cultural narrative. Don't bother wasting money on a fancy Game of Thrones-themed tour - do your research beforehand and travel at your own leisure, as the majority of the most recognizable scenes in the series are National Trust sites or public land.
Visiting in the near future? The Ulster Museum in Belfast will be displaying the Game of Thrones tapestry through August 2018 (it's also viewable online!). The hand-embroidered tapestry is modeled the Bayeux Tapestry, that thing you learned about way back in middle school history class - though this version notably contains a fair amount more nudity.