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Belfast

Superficially, Belfast is a big, rather ugly industrial city dating in the main from only last century. But, of course, Belfast is not just any city - politics, history and religion are inescapable parts of its fabric. For visitors it is compact, with relatively light traffic and conveniently located points of interest. The major central landmark is Donegall Square, surrounded by imposing remnants of the Victorian era. It is in the west of the city that the poverty shows and that (Protestant) Shankill Rd and (Catholic) Falls Rd run - Six O'Clock News names if ever there were. Separate taxi services run tourists around the two mural-lined precincts for around £10.Donegall Square is dominated by the City Hall, a true example of muck-and-brass architecture. Also on the square is the Linen Hall Library, which houses a major Irish literary collection. The area north of High St is the oldest part of Belfast, and is known as the Entries. It was badly damaged by bombing during WWII, and today only a handful of pubs are left to reflect the character of the past. The River Lagan runs through Belfast, and the cranes of its shipyards still dominate the western skyline. Queen's Bridge, a lovely bridge with ornate lamps, is just one of those spanning the Lagan. The Crown Liquor Saloon displays Victorian architectural flamboyance at its most extravagant. As much a museum as hostelry, the Crown's exterior is covered in a million different tiles, while the interior is a mass of stained and cut glass, mosaics and mahogany furniture. It's impossible to get a seat, and even standing room is rare, but the Crown is well worth putting on your itinerary.The Grand Opera House across the road is another of Belfast's great landmarks. It's been bombed several times, and at the moment has been restored in an abundance of purple satin. History and culture are on show at the Ulster Museum near the university; the collection includes items from the wrecked Spanish Armada of 1588. On the outskirts of Belfast are its splendidly located and well laid-out zoo; the Cave Hill Country Park; Belfast Castle, which dates in theory from the 12th century, but the existing structure was built in 1870; and Stormont, the former home of the Northern Ireland parliament, and now home to the Northern Ireland Secretary.The bulk of Belfast's restaurants and accommodation cluster south of Donegall Square and along the inner-urban stretch known as the Golden Mile.

 
Cork

The Irish Republic's second largest city is a surprisingly appealing place - you'll find time passes effortlessly during the day, and by night the pub scene is lively. The town centre is uniquely situated on an island between two channels of the Lee River. North of the river, in the Shandon area, is an interesting historic part of the city, if a bit run down today. Sights to the south include Protestant St Finbarr's Cathedral, the Cork Museum (largely given over to the nationalist struggle in which Cork played an important role), the 19th century Cork Jail, the City Hall and numerous churches, breweries and chapels.Cork prides itself on its cultural pursuits, and apart from a heap of cosy pubs, the Cork Opera House, Crawford Art Gallery and Firkin Crane Centre offer both traditional and mainstream fare. A popular day trip from Cork is to Blarney Castle, where even the most untouristy visitor may feel compelled to kiss the Blarney Stone. Cork is around five hours to the south of Dublin by bus.

 
Derry

The River Foyle curves picturesquely around the old walled town of Derry, creating a cosy setting which jars horribly with the reality of this city's recent troubled history. The old centre of Derry is the small walled city on the west bank of the river, with the square called the Diamond at its heart. Barbed-wire barriers detract from the magnificence of the city walls, though also giving resonance to their history. From the top there are good views of the Bogside and its defiant murals - 'No Surrender!' - and the Free Derry monument. Inside the walls, the Tower Museum tells the story of Derry from the days of St Columcille to the present. St Columb's Cathedral stands within the walls of the old city and dates from 1628; it's usually surrounded by barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Last century, Derry was one of the main ports from which the Irish emigrated to the USA. The Harbour Museum has a small collection of maritime memorabilia on display. Derry is only just over one and a half hours from Belfast by bus.

 
Dublin

The Republic's capital, and its largest and most cosmopolitan city, Dublin makes a fine introduction to the country. It's a curious and colourful city of fine Georgian buildings, tangible literary history and extremely welcoming pubs, all on a scale that's very human. The city is bisected by the River Liffey, and is bounded to the north and south by hills. Most of the sights of interest are located south of the Liffey, which unlike most city rivers is a rural-looking stream with real fish living in it. The area to the north of the Liffey may be more run down than the south, but, according to Roddy Doyle, it's got more soul.While heading south over the Liffey, you can't help but notice the huge white expanse of the 1780s Custom House on the northern bank, just one of Dublin's many fine Georgian buildings. Also on the north of the Liffey, the Four Courts were built by the same architect, James Gandon; their shelling in 1922 sparked off the Civil War. There are fine views of the city from the upper rotunda of the central building.Trinity College is uppermost in the list of attractions south of the river. Founded by Elizabeth I in 1592, the university complex boasts a campanile and many glorious old buildings. Its major attraction, however, is the Book of Kells - an illuminated manuscript dating from around 800 AD, making it one of the oldest books in the world. The masterpiece is housed in the Library Colonnades. Other magnificent buildings include the imposing Bank of Ireland, originally built to house the Irish Parliament; Christ Church Cathedral, parts of which date back to the original wooden Danish church of the 11th century; and St Patrick's Cathedral, said to have been built on the site where St Patrick baptised his converts, and dating from 1190 or 1225 (opinions differ).Another of Dublin's more obvious landmarks is its castle. More a palace than a fort, it was originally built on the orders of King John in 1204, although only the Record Tower survives from this original construction. One of the oldest areas of Dublin is the maze of streets around Temple Bar, now home to numerous restaurants, pubs and trendy shops. Dublin's fine museums include the National Museum, with an enviable collection of treasures dating from the Bronze Age onwards; the National Gallery, with particularly fine collections of Italian art; the Heraldic Museum, for those interested in tracing their Irish roots; and the Dublin Civic Museum. Dublin's fine Georgian buildings can be see to their best advantage from St Stephen's Green - a nine-hectare expanse of greenery right in the city centre. Other notable vantage points for spotting Georgian architecture include Merrion Square, Ely Place and Fitzwilliam Square.Dublin has a wide range of accommodation possibilities, though it's wise to book ahead in summer. There's a congregation of hostels around O'Connell St, north of the Liffey, while the south side is given over to neater, cleaner (and more expensive) places. The area just north of the river is packed with restaurants of all types. The old, interesting and rapidly revitalising Temple Bar area, south of the Liffey, is Dublin's most concentrated restaurant area.

 
Galway

With its narrow streets, old stone shopfronts and bustling pubs, Galway is a delight. It's the west coast's liveliest and most populous settlement, and the administrative capital of County Galway. Its university attracts a notable bohemian crowd, and its boisterous nightlife keeps them there. Galway's tightly packed town centre lies on both sides of the River Corrib; most of the main shopping areas are east of the river. The Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra, with its curious pyramidal spire, dates from 1320 and is Ireland's biggest medieval parish church. Its tombs are particularly noteworthy. Among the many interesting stone buildings are Lynch's Castle, a townhouse which dates in part back to the 14th century, and the Spanish Arch, which is about all that remains of the city's old walls. Galway's many fine cultural festivals include the February Jazz Festival, the Easter Festival of Literature and the Galway Arts Festival in July.

 
Waterford

Waterford has a decidedly medieval feel, with city walls, narrow alleyways and a Norman tower - Reginald's Tower. Georgian times also left a legacy of fine buildings, in particular those on the Mall, a spacious 18th-century street. Important buildings include the 1788 City Hall (including a remarkable Waterford-glass chandelier) and the Bishop's Palace. The city's many churches are also noteworthy, in particular the sumptuous interior of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Waterford is first and foremost a busy commercial port city, situated on the River Suir whose estuary is deep enough to allow large ships to berth at the city's quays. The famous Waterford crystal is created 2km (1.2mi) out of town at the firm's factory. Waterford is in the south-east corner of Ireland; it is well serviced by both buses and trains.


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