1. The History
Northern Ireland has such an interesting and emotional history, and it is all around you when you visit. As a student of Queen’s University, you will learn all about the conflicts in Northern Ireland, from the Easter Rising of 1916 to the Troubles, and beyond. So much of the history is upsetting, but it shows how far Northern Ireland has come since the Troubles ended in 1998. Tourists can feel completely safe visiting the region. Though incidents do occur, they are rare and tend to be confined to very specific areas.
Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city, is an incredible place to learn about the history—including the captivating murals and the construction of the Titanic—but I encourage anyone who visits to explore beyond Belfast, as well. Derry-Londonderry is an amazing place with so much to see, namely the murals and the Museum of Free Derry. Learn all about the Battle of the Bogside and Bloody Sunday from people who experienced the conflicts firsthand. It will be an emotional and invaluable experience.
2. The Natural Beauty
Northern Ireland has some of the most beautiful natural sights I have seen in my travels. For example, Giant’s Causeway—the remains of a causeway built by the giant Finn MacCool, according to legend—is a stunning coastal area made of interlocking basalt columns. It is unlike anything I have seen before. The Dark Hedges, seen in Game of Thrones as the King’s Road, are one of Northern Ireland’s most photographed natural phenomena, and for good reason. It is an avenue of eerie-looking beech trees, perfect for the Halloween enthusiasts like myself. Tollymore Forest Park (also seen in Game of Thrones) is a huge area full of nature—including rare red squirrels, waterfalls, and various trees (notably the tall spruce trees). I took advantage of my weekends here and traveled along the northern and southern coasts, and I saw the beautiful Glens of Antrim, countless sheep and cows, and lovely rocky beaches. The beauty here is immeasurable.
3. The Arts and Culture
There is so much to see and do in Belfast alone when it comes to the culture. The Ulster Museum features numerous exhibits from fine art to local history. Ulster Hall and the Grand Opera House are lovely places to hear some music or see a show. The Botanic Gardens, right next to Queen’s University, are a gorgeous display of flowers and plants of all kinds. It has an expansive Palm House and Tropical Ravine House, and a large rose garden. In addition to activities, the food options here are quite extensive and good. The “Ulster Fry” is a popular breakfast dish here, made of fried eggs, a lightly browned potato, soda bread, pork sausages, bacon, black and white pudding, and a red tomato. Potato dishes, pasties, and fish and chips are also extremely popular, and there are also many cuisine options from around the world. Pizza? Check. Thai? Check. Ethiopian? Check! Most options are conveniently walkable from campus as well.
4. The Film Industry (specifically Game of Thrones)
In recent years, Belfast has become a hub for large-scale films and television shows. Due to its beautiful and unique rural areas, it became the main location for the filming of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and other productions caught on quickly. As a student with AIFS, you will go on a Game of Thrones tour and visit many of the popular filming locations from the show. There are many other tours to choose from as well if you want to see even more. Not a Game of Thrones fan? I promise, you will still love the incredible sights. Though filming of the final season has commenced, some actors from the show either lived in Belfast previously or have since moved to Belfast, so you have a fair chance of running into Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth), Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), or Kristian Nairn (Hodor). On my first night in Belfast, I actually made eye contact with Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) at a restaurant! Some other highlights include meeting two actual direwolves from the show, Odin (Summer) and Thor (Greywind); holding Arya Stark’s real sword from the show, Needle; and putting myself in the locations of some of the most memorable scenes from the show. Game of Thrones is not all that is filmed here; other productions include The Fall, Line of Duty, and The Woman in White.
5. The Ease of Access to the South
The whole of Ireland, including both the north and south, is relatively small and very accessible. Traveling to Dublin from Belfast, for instance, is a mere two-hour trip by bus. As a student at Queen’s University, you will have free weekends, and many students choose to go south during this time. Though you do get a few days in Dublin through AIFS prior to the start of the program at Queen’s, there is so much to see beyond the city. I took a trip to the Cliffs of Moher and stopped to see a wonderful sheepdog demonstration along the way. You can also check out the Rock of Cashel, head down to Cork to kiss the Blarney Stone, or go to one of the many castles around the island.
6. The Courses
Whether you choose the Conflict Transformation and Social Justice Program or the Education for Social Transformation Program, you will learn a great deal about Northern Ireland’s history, and how that impacts the region today. As a student of the latter program, I visited primary and secondary schools, learned about the education system from those who have been a part of it for decades, and discovered how education compares and contrasts to what we are familiar with in the United States. I learned about diversity, segregated schools, research, and curricula in Northern Ireland schools.
My friends in the Conflict Transformation and Social Justice Program learned all about various aspects of the politics and history of Northern Ireland from many different perspectives. We all had the opportunity to visit the Parliament Buildings at Stormont as well, where we asked members of the Assembly various questions. One thing I found interesting is that we had different professors almost every day, providing various viewpoints and knowledge, which I felt was very useful.
7. The Affordability
It is often daunting to spend a great deal of money for travel, only to arrive and find that everything is far more expensive than what you’re used to. In Northern Ireland, I have discovered that it is much more affordable than the rest of the UK and much of Europe in general. Meals and activities are typically equivalent to the costs in the states. Additionally, one meal per day is provided at Queen’s, along with meals on excursions and occasional group dinners. Transportation costs will be limited, as most areas in and around the city center are walkable, but taxis and buses are reasonably priced as well.
8. The People
Locals here in Belfast are some of the kindest (and funniest) people I have met in my travels. Everyone loves to ask where you are from and inquire about life abroad, and they’re quick with a joke. People are friendly and helpful, and will help send you in the right direction if you are lost. Additionally, the locals are always quick with recommendations for the best restaurants and things to see and do around Belfast. One day, I was walking along the sidewalk and noticed a lone dog, clearly lost. I calmly called the dog over, and a woman driving in a nearby neighborhood stopped to help. She called the owner and we both waited until she arrived, and the owner was incredibly grateful. This showed me that there is truly a lot of good in people’s hearts here. It was refreshing.