Regular Belfast visitor Ed Leahy ventures east across the Lagan and is suitably impressed with the world's biggest Titanic exhibition.

The River Lagan runs right through the heart of Belfast, with the western side of the city home to the thriving commercial and cultural hub.

East of the river, the city's industrial past sprawls out along the north County Down coastline, revealing glimpses of Belfast's former glory in its industrial heyday.

On my many trips to Belfast, I've rarely had reason to venture east across the Lagan, apart from a painful wardrobe run to Ikea and an entertaining coach jaunt around Van Morrison's Cyprus Avenue as part of the Belfast Music Tour.

But the desolate docklands have undergone a major metamorphosis in recent years with the building of the Odyssey Arena and the ongoing regeneration project under the banner of the Titanic Quarter.

This Titanic Quarter has, up until now, been primarily promoted by a walking tour about the docklands, which takes you around the Harland & Wolff shipyard's slipways, Titanic Dock and Pump-House.

The tour is probably more suitable for 'Titanoraks' as it consists of a two-hour outdoor traipse along the exposed docklands. However, a quick ramble out to the impressive dry dock does offer a significant sense of the scale of the Titanic project.

Titanic Belfast has now added the wow factor to the Quarter Titanic Belfast has now added the wow factor to the Quarter and is primed to establish itself as one of the best tourist attractions, not only in Belfast, but on the island of Ireland. First and foremost, the construction itself is simply stunning; already drawing deserved comparisons to Bilbao's Guggenheim or Sydney's Opera House.

The recently opened attraction is an iconic, six-floor building featuring nine interpretive and interactive galleries that explore the sights, sounds, smells and stories of Titanic, as well as the city and people that made her. It is now the world's largest Titanic exhibition.

Titanic Belfast's magnificent exterior façade is clad in 3,000 individual shards of silver anodized aluminium Titanic Belfast's magnificent exterior façade is clad in 3,000 individual shards of silver anodized aluminium, two thirds of which are unique in design. The exterior is enhanced by reflective pools of water surrounding the base of the structure.

The concept that the building's designers have attempted to achieve is an architectural icon that captures the spirit of the shipyards, ships, water crystals and ice, and the White Star Line's logo.

And they have succeeded in their aim to create an architectural form that cuts a skyline silhouette, inspired by the very ships that were built in the Belfast docklands.

Now being one of the five remaining people on earth not to have seen the Hollywood blockbuster with Leo and Kate, I was not expecting too much ahead of my entrance into Titanic Belfast. I had seen computer-generated images of the construction and was intrigued to see what the finished article would look like in the 'flesh'.

It didn't disappoint. The building and design are remarkable and should look even better in years to come when the rest of the docklands regeneration catches up with the Titanic-specific attractions.

But the actual internal exhibitions? I assumed that they would struggle to hold my already short span of attention. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.

Once inside, you are transported to the turn of the 20th Century Once inside, you are transported to the turn of the 20th Century where the opening gallery, titled 'Boomtime Belfast', immediately gives you a great sense of history and of what life was like in the early 1900s.

Set pieces, artefacts, photographs, soundscapes, oral testimony, archive material and film offer an insight into the politics, wealth, confidence and industrial might of the city at that time.

The Shipyard gallery then takes you on a 60-foot elevator journey up a replica of the Arrol Gantry, the enormous steel structure built to facilitate the construction of Titanic. Photographs of the original, which was over 220 feet in height, show workers walking along the gantry, unsecured - similar to the shots of the fearless Empire State builders in New York.

The Harland & Wolff 'shipyard ride', a five-minute journey in a rotating roller-coaster-style car that moves up and down along a circuit accompanied by CGI, audio and special effects, gives a great insight into working life in the shipyard.

The next gallery demonstrates the sheer scale of the vessel as it offers a view down the slips where the momentous Titanic launch took place - an event that was witnessed by over 100,000 people.

The journey throughout is non-stop and will keep even the most reluctant child or temperamental teenager entertained The journey throughout is non-stop and will keep even the most reluctant child or temperamental teenager entertained, as the Ikea-style design ensures that you experience the journey as intended with no bail-out area until you have worked your way through all nine galleries.

Gallery Four tells of the skill and craftsmanship that went into Titanic and visitors will experience the reality of the ship's interiors thanks to a very impressive CGI '3D cave' that recreates the engine rooms, first class corridors and grand staircase, allowing visitors to 'walk' the ship's length.

There are also detailed, full-scale reconstructions of First, Second and Third Class cabins.

While the CGI displays are slick and snazzy - providing more of that wow factor - the photographic displays and personal stories that you encounter as you move through the galleries are equally effective.

The gallery also features the extraordinary photographs of Father Frank Browne, the young Irish Jesuit who was given a gift of a ticket to travel on Titanic from Southampton to Queenstown (Cobh).

As you move through the galleries, the journey out to sea commences and the Morse code messages communicated between Atlantic Ocean ships give a stark reminder of what was essentially a tale of tragedy and large-scale loss of human life.

The world's largest Titanic exhibitionThe narrative then follows the remarkable stories of survivors and victims and the worldwide press coverage of the tragedy, before moving on to Titanic's legacy, which inspired literature, poetry and film, including one bizarre Nazi propaganda movie that used the sinking to emphasise Britain's greed.

The tour finishes with an exploration voyage to the wreck of the Titanic on huge projection screens, where you move over the ship in a submersible to gain a bird's eye view of the Titanic in its final resting place on the Atlantic Ocean seabed.

Getting to Titanic Belfast
You can walk out to the Titanic Quarter from Belfast city centre in less than 20 minutes You can walk out to the Titanic Quarter from Belfast city centre in less than 20 minutes on a very enjoyable route that takes you across the River Lagan and around past the Odyssey Arena. Alternatively, several bus routes will take you there, leaving from outside Belfast City Hall.

Eating out in Belfast
The city's culinary reputation is continually evolving and an excellent meal was enjoyed at Coco restaurant on Linenhall Street. The curry-battered fish and chunky chips were followed by an alternative take on the classic crème brûlée. The restaurant is less than a five-minute walk from the city's finest bar, The Crown, which, despite being the new kid on the block, will always be my belle of Belfast City. www.cocobelfast.com and www.crownbar.com

Where to Stay
I stayed at one of Belfast's best-known landmarks, the Europa Hotel, located in the heart of the city and close to all the main tourist attractions, shopping streets and thriving nightlife spots. The hotel's Causerie restaurant serves excellent food, while the lively residents' bar is the perfect way to finish your night out in Belfast. www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast.html

For more information on Titanic Belfast, visit: www.titanicbelfast.com or www.discovernorthernireland.com.

Ed Leahy

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