Big City Tales

Behold the Best of the British Isles | March 27, 2018

Anyone who has studied European history knows that the countries that occupy the territory known as the British Isles have not always been on friendly terms. Scotland invaded Ireland in 1315; bad blood spewed between England, Scotland and Ireland during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 1600s; and Northern Ireland waged guerrilla warfare with British security forces from the 1960s to the 1990s. Despite past conflicts, however, the countries and their respective major municipalities have managed to maintain an aura of neighbourly civility and hold fast to their distinctive identities. In this blog, the best of the British Isles explores the cities of Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow that are sometimes over-shadowed by jolly ol’ Londontown but are equally deserving of being in the spotlight.

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Belfast

As the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast has had its fair share of economic and political ups and downs.

In the 19th century, the city was at the centre of the Industrial Revolution owing to its linen, tobacco, rope-making and shipbuilding production efforts. Belfast’s economy continued to grow into the early 20th century and the city gained renown as the location where the RMS Titanic was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the world’s largest and most productive of its kind.

Following World War II, industrial activity waned for many decades and in the late 1960s the city descended into a prolonged period of political strife known as The Troubles, or Northern Ireland Conflict.

The Troubles pitted Irish nationalists desiring an independent Northern Ireland against Union loyalists who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom in a sometimes violent battle over the country’s constitutional status. Riots and bombings made for a state of general unrest and the city suffered the consequences, especially in the 1970s and 1980s when Belfast was deemed to be one of the world’s most violent cities. In the 1990s, hostilities subsided and, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the city has since enjoyed a peaceful rebirth.

Today, Belfast is booming again and terrorism has made way for tourism. Popular attractions such as the Titanic Belfast, St. George’s Market, Botanic Gardens and Cave Hill Country Park show off the city’s finest aspects and are doing a good job drawing people in. So good, in fact, that in 2016 the Titanic Belfast earned the coveted distinction of World’s Leading Tourist Attraction according to the World Travel Awards. Here’s hoping that Belfast’s “heart will go on and on” for centuries to come.

Dublin

Fans of the rock band U2 will certainly know that beloved lead singer, Bono, hails from Dublin, Ireland, as does drummer,  Larry Mullen Jr. These good ol’ Dubliner boys definitely helped to put the city on the map in recent history but, long before they took the music world by storm, Dublin rocked out on its own in other significant ways.

The Norman Invasion and Dublin Castle

While the Norman Invasions marked the beginning of a very long period of English/British presence in Ireland, one of the positive outcomes was the creation of Dublin Castle. Initially a defensive fortress with tall, thick walls and surrounding deep ditches, the castle was also eventually used as a residence for the Lord of Ireland assigned by the English monarchy, as well as a meeting place for parliament and the courts. It even served for a time as a military post. Following the end of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the castle was handed over to Michael Collins, the famed revolutionary who was head of the new provisional government. Going forward, the castle would no longer be used as a seat for the English; rather it became the site for presidential inaugurations and other official state ceremonies. More recently, the castle has been renovated to serve as a conference centre and host of an annual Irish music festival.

The River Liffey and Ha’Penny Bridge

Flowing through the centre of Dublin, the River Liffey divides the city along north-south lines and, in addition to being a major water source, also provides a venue for numerous recreational opportunities. Along with an annual canoeing and swimming event, the river is used by rowing clubs and for fishing and rafting purposes. Waterfront activities include admiring the many bridges that span the River Liffey (over 20 within the Greater Dublin Area alone). One of the most unique is the Liffey Bridge, commonly referred to as the Ha’Penny Bridge, which is a cast iron, arch pedestrian bridge. The name Ha’Penny refers to the toll that was initially charged to bridge users and remained in place up until 1919.  The Ha’Penny is a city icon and is one of the most photographed landmarks in Dublin.

The Temple Bar Pub Scene and Guinness Beer

Known as Dublin’s cultural centre, the Temple Bar area is located on the south side of the River Liffey.  In addition to a lively pub scene, the region includes institutions such as the Irish Photography Centre, the Irish Film Institute and the Irish Stock Exchange that are frequented during the day. Once nighttime falls and work is done for the day, it goes without saying that the pubs fill up, beer starts flowing and Guinness is most assuredly on tap. The much consumed and much loved Irish dry stout has been wetting the lips of Dubliners since 1759 when it was first made at St. James’ Gate Brewery. The Guinness Storehouse located at the historic site of the brewery is a must-see spot for all ale aficionados. A self-guided tour is offered that includes an overview of ingredients and brewing techniques, and sampling a pint in the traditional tall Guinness glass complete with sinking bubbles when the spout is poured. Cheers to you, Dublin!

Edinburgh

Whether you’re a high brow or low brow enthusiast, Edinburgh is sure to provide opportunities to challenge your intellect and delight your senses in equal measure.

An ‘Enlightened’ City

The capital city of Scotland earned one of its nicknames, ‘Athens of the North’ during the 18th century when great Scottish thinkers such as Robert Burns, David Hume, Adam Smith, James Hutton and Joseph Black became well known for their contributions to the Scottish Enlightenment period. Art, literature, philosophy and the sciences were at the forefront of intellectual pursuits and the myriad accomplishments of Edinburgh residents at this time resulted in the city being held in high esteem. The tradition of high brow culture continues to this day with some of the world’s best festivals held annually in Edinburgh to celebrate theatre, music and literature. Among the most popular are the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

An ‘Unrefined’ City

Along with being an impressive think-tank, Edinburgh also has a reputation for some of its citizens cutting lose and enjoying the less-than-lofty pursuits of an all-night pub crawl or dancing by bonfires in the street in homage to ancient pagan rituals. This seedier side of Edinburgh is known as Auld Reekie, a basic, down-to-earth, unpretentious approach to life that favours good beer over good books, and offers up plenty of uncensored fun.

A ‘Beautiful’ City 

Edinburgh’s city centre is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason. Be it the medieval spires of St. Giles’ Cathedral and the steep, narrow streets of the “Royal Mile” in Old Town; or the neo-Classical and Georgian inspired architecture along Princes Street in New Town, the city’s core is a bevy of beautiful buildings and picturesque parks such as Princes Street Gardens. Head to the top of Calton Hill for an incredible view of both Old Town and New Town, and take time to admire the many memorials located there such as the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, and the Robert Burns Monument. Also, don’t miss a visit to Edinburgh Castle that sits high on Castle Rock and is considered to be one of the city’s most important historical structures.

Glasgow

Aye, ’tis true, lads and lassies, Glasgow is touted as the “world’s friendliest city” and it’s not just the local Glaswegians (or Weegies) who sing its praises. From the New York  Times to Conde Naste Traveller’s guides, the city is landing on “must-see” and top cuisine lists owing to the wide range of world-class attractions and gastronomical options it offers. The city has also been lauded for its diverse architectural styles ranging from Neo-Gothic to Victorian to Art Nouveau buildings that are best viewed on a leisurely walk.  For those taking a tour, be forewarned that the local dialect known as Glasgow patter and its euphemisms may be difficult to understand but, rest assured, the guide is sure to be warm, welcoming and full of a wealth of information.

“Must See” Sights

City Centre Mural Trail – Quirky street art is all the rage in Glasgow’s City Centre region and it’s not hard to spot the huge and colorful works of art that comprise the City Centre Mural Trail. From the famous floating taxi and Spaceman to Glasgow’s Panda and Hip Hop Marionettes, the murals cover an array of subject matter and are a true showcase of local artistic talent.

Clyde Arc – Also known as Squinty Bridge, the Clyde Arc spans the River Clyde and is famous for its curved design and how it crosses the river on an angle. The bridge provides direct access to the Pacific Quay district and various waterfront amenities such as the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, Glasgow Science Centre and Clyde Auditorium (known as the SEC Armadillo).

George Square – Located in the city centre, George Square is named after King George III and was first laid out by city planners in 1781. The square is the home of Glasgow City Chambers and contains a number of historical monuments honouring famous Scots such as Robert Burns, James Watt, Sir Robert Peel and Sir Walter Scott.

Glasgow Cathedral – Considered to be one of the finest examples of Scottish Gothic architecture, the Glasgow Cathedral was built in the 12th century and is purported to be situated on the site where the patron saint of Glasgow, Saint Mungo, built his church. The cathedral was also the first location of classes offered by the University of Glasgow.

Glasgow Science Centre – Consisting of three buildings (Science Mall, Glasgow Tower and IMAX Cinema), the Glasgow Science Centre is a top-rated visitor attraction. The centre was built as part of the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration urban renewal project and is located on the south side of the River Clyde.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – With its state-of-the-art galleries and 8,000 artifacts, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is one of Glasgow’s most popular attractions. Bonus: Admission is free! Offering a mix of civic art, animal displays and Ancient Egyptian exhibits, there is also a special area dedicated to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh was a local architect and designer known for being a founder of the Glasgow School movement that fused elements of Celtic Revival, Arts and Craft Movement and Japonisme that came to be associated with the definition of the emerging Art Nouveau style.

SEC Armadillo – Originally named the Clyde Auditorium, the SEC Armadillo owes its nickname to the armour-like shell appearance of its exterior. The complex is part of the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), which also includes the SEC Centre and SSE Hydro indoor arena. The SEC Armadillo is notable for being the location where singer Susan Boyle was discovered during auditions for Britain’s Got Talent.

 

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