Belfast, Northern Ireland, is quickly becoming one of Europe’s hottest tourist destinations. Once the epicenter of the Troubles, a series of violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants, this capital city is enjoying a renaissance. Tourists flock here for the stunning architecture, incredible coastal views, cultural offerings, and friendly pub culture.
Belfast is an easy trip from Dublin -- either by public transport or car -- and is the perfect place to spend a weekend when you’re visiting Ireland. Here are a few things you should consider doing when visiting this fantastic spot.
Experience The Titanic Museum
Situated at the mouth of the River Lagan and close to the Irish Sea, Belfast made its fortune in shipping and maritime commerce. Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard is where the ill-fated cruise liner Titanic was built, along with her sister ships, the Britannic and Olympic. The Titanic, of course, collided with an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage in 1912. More than 1,500 people were killed.
To learn what it took to construct the massive ship, what the cruise experience was like for those onboard, and more on the devastating aftermath of the ship’s sinking, head to the Titanic Belfast. You’ll marvel at the museum’s massive metal facade, crafted to resemble a ship’s masts. Inside, nine interactive exhibits tell the story of the doomed luxury liner in vivid detail, as well as how its wreckage was finally discovered more than 70 year later.
The museum is open year-round except on Christmas. Adult admission costs £19.
Ponder The Troubles Murals
It’s been more than 20 years since the Troubles came to an end in Belfast. While the violence that claimed thousands of lives is often blamed on the differences between Catholics and Protestants, it was also politically charged: Loyalists wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, while republicans wanted it to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
To get a glimpse of how the conflict shaped the region, take the time to examine the Troubles murals you’ll see around the city. These colorful artistic renderings are painted directly on the walls that were erected to keep the sides apart during the height of the violence. The most famous of them is the Falls Road International Peace Wall, which illustrates not just the Troubles, but other global conflicts as well.
To learn more about the conflict, think about booking a driving tour of these sites. Black Taxi Tours runs some of the most popular in the city.
Stroll The Grounds Of Belfast Castle
For some incredible views in a gorgeous Victorian setting, head to Belfast Castle, nestled in the hills above the city. The original castle was built on this site in the late 12th century; it was destroyed by a fire in the early 1700s. The grand home here today was finished in 1870 and later donated to the city. The gardens are beautiful and perfect for strolling if you need a break from the bustle of Belfast.
The castle is popular as a wedding venue, and it also offers fine dining on-site at its Cellar Restaurant, plus cocktails, tea, and small plates at the Castle Tavern.
Travel Back In Time At The Ulster Museum
If you’re a history buff, the Ulster Museum should be on your must-see list. This gem, situated in the city’s equally impressive Botanic Gardens, features permanent collections that highlight natural wonders, fine art, and archeological artifacts, all telling the story of Northern Ireland’s past and present. You’ll see jewelry and shields used by the Celts, a terrific treasure trove of textiles, and the museum’s mummy, who has an intriguing story of her own.
The museum is free to the public and open Tuesday through Sunday, except for bank holidays and Christmas.
Marvel At The City Hall
The Belfast City Hall is a stunning reflection of the city’s Victorian heyday. The administrative center, located in Donegall Square and built in 1906, is constructed of local stone and features gorgeous stained glass, gleaming woodwork, and high-end finishes that might just remind you of the interior of -- you guessed it -- the Titanic. That’s because Belfast’s mayor was almost managing director at Harland and Wolff, and he hired many of the shipyard’s craftsmen to work on the City Hall’s interior. Keep in mind that at the time the building was constructed, Belfast was quite prosperous as a global maritime center. The Belfast City Hall was designed to show off that wealth, and it still shines.
Free tours of the space are offered three times per day on a first-come, first-served basis.
Appreciate Art At The MAC
Belfast’s robust commitment to culture and the arts is on full display at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC). Located in Cathedral Square, this is the spot to get a funky, forward-thinking art fix. The MAC, which opened in 2012, has just one permanent work of art; you’ll see The Permanent Present, a colorful wire sculpture, inside the MAC’s foyer. All other exhibitions are temporary, which means things change around here -- a lot. The MAC also offers a dizzying array of special events, live performances, and programs.
The MAC is open every day and is free to the public.
Eating And Drinking In Belfast
While Belfast is famous for its pub culture, the food offerings here range from tasty grub to high-end haute cuisine. From the famous Ulster fry (a gut-busting breakfast featuring eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, and potato, plus soda bread) to fresh seafood caught off the coast and elegantly prepared, there is something for every palate here.
For starters, you can’t go wrong strolling through Belfast’s Cathedral Square. This area, centered on Saint Anne’s Cathedral, is an entertainment hot spot with terrific pubs and places to eat. Made In Belfast, a kitschy cafe with a location in the square, serves up traditional Northern Irish fare in a lively setting. Hadskis, tucked into an 18th-century building near the square, specializes in Northern Irish meat dishes like steak and lamb, seafood dishes, and traditional puddings and chips. It’s open for lunch, happy hour, and dinner Monday through Friday, and it serves up a terrific brunch on the weekends.
For a decadent tasting experience, head to OX. The carefully crafted, seasonal dishes feature Irish cuisine imbued with a continental approach and creativity. You’ll drop some money here, but you’ll spend several hours enjoying the experience and presentation.
For the perfect grab-and-go option that will satisfy any foodie, get to Sawers. This famous Belfast deli has been around for more than 120 years, and it’s a great place to pick up a hamper -- or picnic basket -- packed with delicious nibbles like cheese, charcuterie, and locally smoked fish.
Of course, no trip to Belfast would be complete without a pub stop -- or pub crawl if you’re feeling adventurous. The Crown Liquor Saloon and Duke of York are worth visiting for their Victorian decor and rich histories. But you really can’t go wrong stopping into less-touristy spots and enjoying a pint of fresh Guinness or a Bushmills whiskey (the Bushmills distillery is right down the road from Belfast!).
Shopping In Belfast
There are plenty of interesting stores in Belfast, but the best place to shop is definitely Saint George’s Market. This traditional Victorian covered market is open Friday through Sunday and offers fresh produce and locally made handicrafts, including pottery, glass, and metalwork. You can sample tea, coffee, and local snacks to your heart’s content, plus buy plenty to stash away for your travels home. Look for traditional Irish linen, as well as jewelry festooned with ancient Celtic symbols.
Where To Stay In Belfast
There are some truly incredible historic accommodations in Belfast.
If a visit to the Titanic Belfast wasn’t enough for you, consider checking in to the Titanic Hotel. This posh spot was once the site of Harland and Wolff’s headquarters, and it’s a great centrally located option for your Belfast holiday. The rooms are well appointed, with nods to the famous shipbuilding company subtly incorporated.
The Fitzwilliam Hotel is located in the heart of Belfast just steps away from the Grand Opera House. The rooms are luxe, the afternoon tea is a delight, and the on-site restaurant offers sumptuous pre- and post-theater dinners.
The Merchant Hotel, situated in a former bank building in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, boasts a jazz bar, full-service spa, and a rooftop gym with sweeping city views.
Pro Tip: Belfast is a small, walkable city, and strolling is truly the best way to take in the big sights. Make sure you pack a good pair of supportive, comfortable shoes. You’ll get in plenty of steps!