BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Belfast may seem an unlikely destination for tourists, associated as it is with the Troubles. But the city has been transformed in recent years and is now a cosmopolitan place with plenty to see and do, much of it free.
CHURCHES AND STREET ART
Visit Catholic and Protestant churches on Sunday. It's a free, safe, educational and potentially entertaining experience. You might even be invited for a tour or lunch back at someone's home. Ian Paisley's Martyrs Memorial, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, is used to getting visitors for the 11 a.m. Sunday service and greets strangers with great hospitality. In Catholic west Belfast, the twin-spired St. Peter's Cathedral offers a half-dozen weekend Masses, including evenings. (Note: Catholic services in Ireland tend to be informal, but visitors to Protestant services should dress nicely.)
As you visit various neighborhoods, you may see street murals with very different themes, ranging from Irish cultural and Catholic references, to depictions of Picasso's "Guernica" and expressions of solidarity with Palestinians and Cuban political prisoners. Murals in the Protestant loyalist heartland, called the Shankill, memorialize the community's commitment to Northern Ireland's union with Britain and the residents' Ulster-Scots culture. Graffiti and scribbles on a peace wall on Cupar Way include messages from tourists offering good wishes to the city.
Belfast has reconnected with the story of its most famous creation, the Titanic. The area surrounding the defunct shipyard where the ocean liner was built is now called Titanic Quarter. Various Titanic-themed attractions charge admission, but it costs nothing to marvel at the huge exterior of the Titanic Experience, which mimics the hulls of ocean liners. You can also walk on the huge slipways where the Titanic was built and launched in 1911. In what was once the docks area, you'll find memorial sculptures and two gigantic yellow cranes known locally as Samson and Goliath, surviving relics of the shipyards that built the ill-fated liner.
ST. GEORGE'S MARKET
Every Friday and weekend this Victorian market offers a showcase for local crafters and food stalls. A long-derelict landmark, St. George's Market was given a new lease of life with a multi-million redevelopment in 1997. It will cost you to buy souvenirs or indulge in an Ulster fry (a big breakfast heavy on meat and bread), but there are free samples along with free music and it's an ideal place to learn about local food and to have fun taking pictures.
Many pubs offer free traditional Irish music (though of course it'll cost you to have a pint). Venues include Kelly's Cellars, tucked away in an alley in the city center and with a history going back centuries (a group called the United Irishmen met here in 1798 to plot a failed rebellion against the English). For a list of other places to enjoy the Irish tradition of craic agus ceol — good conversation and music — visit http://goireland.about.com/od/belfastcity/qt/sessionBelfast.htm .
The University Quarter remained a lively evening destination even in the darkest days of the Troubles. Next door to the majestic red brick Queen's University, founded by Queen Victoria, are the Botanic Gardens, with a glass house, a hot house, rose gardens and places where students can sunbathe between lectures. It's free, as is the Ulster Museum, which houses an ancient fish, the coelacanth, and the city's resident Egyptian mummy, Takabuti, among other treasures telling Ireland's story from pre-history to the present day.
Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.