Belfast Castle is one of the city's hidden gems. Situated off the Antrim Road, it may not be the most central of Belfast attractions, but it's well worth the visit.
Not only can you have a leisurely dander around the castle gardens, but there are plenty of walks in the nearby Cave Hill Country Park, including an adventure playground for the children.
The castle itself is an elegant sandstone construction, built in the Scottish Baronial style by the architects Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon - the principal work was done by the junior partner in that firm, John Lanyon (son of Charles Lanyon). The many turrets and the elaborate stone staircase at the rear of the building make it worth the visit.
The original Belfast Castle was located in the present day city centre, as far back as the 12th Century. The city gives clues as to the location in street names such as Castle Place and Castle Street. The Norman-era castle was superseded by a new stone and timber castle on the same spot in 1611.
However, this was burned down in 1708. The Chichesters became absentee landlords in England
but came to live at Ormeau at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After re-marrying in 1862, the 3rd Marquis of Donegall, decided to build a new residence within the deer park on the slopes of Cave Hill.
The current castle was eventually completed in 1870, going over budget and taking most of the Donegall/Chichester family fortune to complete. In order to finish the construction, the Marquis' son-in-law, Lord Ashley paid for the remainder of the works. Ashley and his wife eventually inherited the Shaftesbury title and Belfast Castle.
We attended a tour of the castle a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed a history of the castle and its relevance in Belfast society. The families who inhabited the castle, Chichester/Donegall and Shaftesbury have made their stamp all over Belfast - their names continuing on many of the major street names: Chichester Street, Donegall Place, Shaftesbury Square and many more.
In fact, take a tour of Belfast City Hall and see how many members of the same family served as Lord Mayor over the years. Their influence on Belfast has been profound.
The Shaftesbury family passed the castle and grounds to the City of Belfast in 1934 and it is now looked after by Belfast City Council. The castle is well known for catering to wedding receptions and for its restaurant. The beautiful surroundings and close by walks make it an ideal place to spend an afternoon exploring.