Crash courses in Ireland

Usually when people decide to visit Ireland they plan for a week, maybe two, and try to limit their trip to a small portion of the island. Ireland, despite what maps display, is actually a fairly extensive place, and though it doesn't take long to travel to many of the different attractions it has to offer, it's definitely a place you need to allot at least a couple of weeks to see it all. From the rolling countryside to the castle ruins littering the entire country, Ireland has something for everyone despite what you're travel preferences may be.

I arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland (designated as just Ireland from now on as most Irish do NOT make the distinction...more on that to come), and headed to the hostel I was to be staying at for at least a couple of nights. Arriving in Ireland I really, once again, had no plans of what my next destination was. I'd booked a flight from Dublin to Birmingham, England six days after my arrival, but my plans for how to get to Dublin were unclear. 

I quickly found that Belfast is a very fun, young, and cultural city with a lot to offer. Going into it I had low expectations, but those were quickly shattered within the first few hours once I met loads of new friends at the hostel I had booked. Not only were these people friendly and welcoming, but they quickly became travel companions that I could see myself spending weeks around without ever getting bored. The entire hostel, really, provided a terrific atmosphere for meeting other likeminded travelers, and was quite possibly one of the best hostel experiences I've had to date.

The first night in Belfast after I enjoyed an English breakfast style dinner (see picture) a large group of other travelers at the hostel headed out to a local pub for some drinks. Being in Ireland, it's mandatory that the first drink you try be a Guinness, handcrafted and brewed in Dublin just two hours south of Belfast. There are few breweries that have become as successful as the Guinness brewery, having stretched to every corner of the world and providing the iconic creamy stout that so many love, so I had to be sure that I tried one out here as soon as possible. I can happily verify that Guinness does taste better in Ireland. A lot better.

While out at the bar, I met another traveler from my hostel that actually had a car rental (similar to Iceland) already booked and was looking for company to drive to the Giant's Causeway, a geologic formation north of Belfast. I quickly jumped on board as tickets to go on a tour bus were in the neighborhood of "too expensive for me." 

The next morning myself and three others from our hostel also tagged along and spent a nice day driving through the Irish countryside seeing the Causeway, castles, and other ruins of building along the way. The Causeway itself was an absurdly unique site to see, caused by volcanic processes millions of years ago, leaving thousands of hexagonal-shaped pillars exposed from the ocean. A really neat place to visit and definitely something to add to your list of Irish destinations. 

After leaving the Causeway, we began making our way back to Belfast, taking the scenic route along the coast home. We came across castles and small villages along the way, all giving us a sense of what Ireland is really about. 

Dunluce Castle, a Filming site For Game of Thrones in the early seasons

The following days in Belfast were spent exploring the city and enjoying the nightlife around the area. Belfast is a city rich in history, having been a hotspot for many of the riots and attacks between the Nationalists and Loyalists of Ireland back in the 70s-90s. For those who are unaware, the island of Ireland is actually split into two country, Northern Ireland (park of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland. To most (not all), the distinction is irrelevant as many of the northerners hate the English more than the Scottish do and associate themselves more with the Republic of Ireland than the do with the British monarchy. There is bloody and violent history between the two sides, and it is one in which I don't wish to raise more issues about. Needless to say, there is still conflict between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and England, and it's unlikely that it'll be resolved anytime soon. 

Within Belfast, there are several churches, museums, and sites to see, including City Hall and the shipyard where the Titanic was built. Belfast prides itself on their ship-making history, and have an entire museum devoted to the Titanic, the birthplace of one of the most famous cruise liners in history. Yes, that's right. The ship was not actually built in Southampton, though it did set sail from there on it's maiden voyage. Belfast loves to talk about being the makers of the Titanic (which I found odd because it sank...but, I digress), so if you plan to visit in the future, be prepared for that.

City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland

City Hall, also a very old building within the city, offers free tours (which I obviously took advantage of) of the building every hour of the afternoon so I tagged along with some friends from the hostel and enjoyed learning a bit of history about Belfast. The building itself was beautiful, full of ornate light fixtures and gold-plated everything. What I didn't realize, though, until after the tour is that almost every major city in Europe revolves the city center around their city hall building. I've noticed this in the past in other cities, but never really put much thought into it. It makes sense, though, as when European cities (obviously much, much, much older than any U.S. city), first began, the city center tended to be the focus of everything and it included the city hall, church, political buildings, and a market. If you look closely next time your around a city center square, you'll surely be able to find this detail. 

After my time concluded in Belfast I headed to Dublin, a short two hour bus ride south into the heart of Ireland. Dublin is a city famous for many things, mainly it's creation of one of the world's greatest stouts, Guinness. It's no secret that I am a beer lover, and so I obviously had to include the Guinness tour on my itinerary for the city during my short two-day visit. 

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland

Upon arrival, I met up with friends from Belfast who had also traveled down to Dublin. We went out in the main area, Temple Bar, which is the main tourist and bar district in the city (not just the individual bar of the same name, Temple Bar, with overpriced drinks and too many tourists). It was nice to have a night out on the town and enjoy the local culture. Ireland prides itself on its' drinking abilities as much as Belfast prides itself on being the birthplace of the Titanic, and it is not a wise move to try and challenge an Irish(wo)man to any sort of drinking game or contest as they will surely win. The Irish, internationally, are known for their drinking abilities, and having seen it first hand now I can testify to that reputation. 

With only two days in Dublin (already booked a flight to England prior to getting here) I needed to get in as much sight-seeing as possible before leaving for England and mainland Europe. Dublin is full of history, so trying to fit everything there is to do here into two days is tough. Thankfully, Dublin is a pretty tightly packed city, with all of the major attractions within a pretty small area, namely the Temple Bar district, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Guinness Brewery and Jameson Distillery, and a few other historic churches scattered throughout. Since I'm not one for museums all day long, it helped me eliminate a few spots on the "recommended list". 

I started the day at Trinity College Dublin, one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1592 by Elizabeth I. One of the first universities in Ireland, it is withstood the test of time and continues to function today. We saw the university, and the grounds that it sits on right in the heart of Dublin are absolutely beautiful. Certainly not anything to compare to Northwestern, my alma mater, but definitely a stunning campus to see.

Following Trinity College, I spent the next several hours just roaming the city, stopping into cafes along the way, peeking into churches, lounging in the park outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and eating at one of Dublin's most famous restaurants, Leo Burdock's Fish and Chips (definitely a recommendation on my list). We finished the night by completing a Literary Bar Crawl through the city, a guided tour through some of Dublin's most historic pubs where literary icons of Ireland spent some of the time. I'm not a literary fanatic, but I definitely learned a lot and enjoyed the bar crawl and entertainment that accompanied it. 

My final day in the city before heading off to England was spent doing much of the same, walking the city, stopping in a few churches, eating some good Irish food, and a visit to the Guinness brewery, quite possibly one of the most successful breweries in the world. Seeing the brewery itself was a really neat experience, getting a chance to see the behind-the-scenes process to creating the famous stout. I hadn't realized how much of their success revolved around their innovative and progressive advertising techniques. They single-handedly revolutionized the campaigns for beer and have continued their creative approach for decades. 

As I left Dublin I certainly wished I had allotted for a bit more time to spend in the city and its surrounding areas. Many of the people I met were planning trips to the southern part of the island where even more scenic spots rest. Ireland is definitely going to be a destination on my list of places to come back to when I'm older to really see it properly. From what I've seen of it, though, I definitely can see why there is such a thing as "the luck of the Irish" as the people who live here are lucky to be a part of Ireland.