The vibrant and beautiful six counties of Ireland still under British rule are all the more fascinating for their troubled history. At their epicenter is Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland—a curious combination of faded grandeur and forward-looking optimism. Belfast boomed in the 19th century as prosperity flowed from its vast textile and shipbuilding industries. The 20th century was not so kind to the city, which spent decades in decline, riven with political divisions and terrorism. But an entire generation has grown up since those troubled years ended in the 1990s, and with them, Belfast has forged a new identity, complete with an artsy, edgy underground.
The old Belfast is still there—both in the form of its grand old Victorian buildings in the center, and some old school, never-the-twain-shall-meet Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in the suburbs. But new developments signal change and renewal, such as the Titanic Quarter, with its sleek new museums and modern visitor attractions. This is a lively, funky, youthful, and complicated city. Come and let it surprise you.
Visiting Northern Ireland: FAQ
What is Northern Ireland? It’s still part of Ireland, right?
Yes—and no. It’s a part of the island of Ireland, but not the Republic of Ireland.
I’m confused. Is it a different country or not?
Bear with us—this is complicated. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It has been a separate entity from the rest of Ireland since 1921. If “entity” sounds a little vague, that’s because—get this—there isn’t even an official term to describe what Northern Ireland is. (Trust us, we checked.) It is referred to, variously, as a country, a nation, a region, and a province. Note, however, that your mobile phone company will treat Northern Ireland as the U.K., so inform them in advance if you plan to cross the border, to avoid international roaming charges. Also, check that your travel insurance and any car-rental agreements are equally valid in Northern Ireland.
Will I need to show my passport at the border crossing?
No, because there really isn’t a border crossing. In fact, it can be hard to tell when you’ve entered Northern Ireland—except that the road signs change from miles to kilometers. Signs around the border usually show both.
What are those letters and numbers at the end of Northern Irish addresses?
They’re British-style postal codes. Postcodes are still in the process of being introduced to the Republic, but almost every address in Northern Ireland has one. This is actually a big advantage if you’re driving, as it makes GPS navigation much easier.
Does Northern Ireland use the euro?
No. The currency in Northern Ireland is the British pound (sterling). In practice, euros are accepted in some border areas, at tourist attractions and hotels; however, you may be given change in pounds. (And just try using those pounds in the rest of Ireland!) And if you’re travelling onward to Britain, be aware that Northern Irish pounds look completely different from standard ones, and many businesses won’t accept them. (They’re legally obliged to, but…well, you try arguing.)
What about the Brexit vote? Has that changed anything?
The whole thing is a hot mess. In fact, we literally don’t know what to tell you. At this writing, less than a year until the supposed date of Britain’s exit from the European Union in March 2019, nobody has any clue how the border will look afterwards. The sad fact is that the British government’s handling of the situation has been inept and shockingly irresponsible. The Good Friday Agreement, which bought peace and stability to Northern Ireland in 1998, may collapse; or the U.K. could hold a new referendum and decide to stay in the E.U., in which case nothing will happen. It’s generally believed that a return to violence in the region is unlikely, but the possibility of a hard border, with customs checks and a military presence, must be taken seriously. Any predictions made now could be completely out of date in a month, though, so our only advice is this: Keep up with the latest developments.