Top Things to Do and See in Belfast
This vibrant city has not only charming Edwardian and Victorian architecture, noisy pubs and welcoming locals. Belfast has a number of sites that will make you scratch your head over the controversial history of this place. With quite a compact city centre you can get everywhere quickly. And I think you would be surprised by know that Belfast has a lot to offer.
Top Things to Do and See in Belfast
Belfast is the capital and largest city of the province of Northern Ireland, which is one of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Unlike England, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland is separated from the British mainland by the Irish Sea. It is comprised of the northeastern section of the island of Ireland, sharing a land border with the Republic of Ireland to the south.
In the relatively recent past, Belfast was synonymous with ‘The Troubles’ which plagued the city for nearly two decades. The reasons for these are too complicated to mention them here, but in a nutshell, the population is split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Many of the former, the slight majority, want to stay within the UK. Many of the latter would prefer a United Ireland. In the seventies and eighties, passions were high, and atrocities committed by a small minority of hard-liners on both sides. Since the “Good Friday Agreement” of 1998, however, sense has, at last, come to the province. The vast majority of the population have put the issues behind them and can live in peace with their neighbours, whatever their religion or political persuasion.
Is It Safe to Travel to Belfast Right Now
Twenty-five or thirty years ago, there were parts of Belfast, which were very run down and unsafe for visitors. I have visited the city on many occasions since then and it is wonderful to see how Belfast has recovered and been rejuvenated. Investment in its infrastructure and development have resulted in what is now a major international financial, business and cultural centre. Belfast is also regaining its status as a popular tourist destination with plenty of things to do and see.
How to Reach Belfast
Belfast is picturesquely located at the entrance of Belfast Lough with the ‘Black Mountain’ behind. There are direct and efficient transit network and passenger ferries to and from England, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The city has two International Airports – Belfast International (21km north of the city near Antrim), and George Best Belfast City Airport which is very close to the city centre. The latter was named for the outstanding local footballer who played for Manchester United in the sixties. There are an extensive rail and bus networks throughout the whole of Ireland, with Belfast and Dublin as their nuclei.
Getting Around Belfast
Ulsterbus runs a province-wide network and their buses are comfortable and reliable. There is also the Metro bus which is a hop on and off service around the City Centre. NI Railways serve the commuter suburbs of the city. Hiring a car is a realistic option and I have found Belfast drivers to be generally courteous. Like the rest of the British Isles, the driving is on the left side of the road. Licensed Belfast metered taxis are efficient and reliable but long journeys will be expensive.
Lovely and busy city by day, Belfast at the same time has almost no traffic congestion and very few crowds. The city empties at night. Since many people only visit Belfast to work, the countryside is more about cottage villages and low-rise towns, such as Antrim. People go to Belfast in the morning to leave it when the work is over.
It is easy getting around Belfast with buses and taxis. City buses don’t run regularly so it might be a great idea to rent a bike or get a taxi if you’re in a hurry.
Language and Currency
Of course, Belfast folk speak English but do not be surprised if you sometimes find some of the dialogue hard to follow. The Belfast accent can be very strong with its own colorful jargon and slang. Belfast people are friendly and will always help if you need directions.
The pound sterling is the currency of the UK but many Belfast shops will also take Euros which is the currency of the Republic of Ireland. At the time of writing, one British pound was equivalent of US $1.36.
Weather in Belfast. What to Expect
Belfast’s weather is not its biggest asset and summer temperatures average only about 16 degrees Celsius. The warmest month is July, The winters are mild by Northern European standards, January at 4 degrees being the coolest. It rarely snows but it does get more than its fair share of rain. Like the rest of the UK, the climate can be changeable and erratic.
The Belfast Murals
No trip to Belfast would be complete without seeing its murals. As a historian, I could not have missed seeing at least some of them. Most of the Belfast murals depict the Troubles in Northern Ireland. With two sides of the conflict, there are murals that illustrate the history from both Republican and Loyalist sides.
After visiting the Titanic Quarter and the exhibition centre, I decided it would be a great idea to check the nearby location, which was the district along Newtownard Road. While mostly the entire neighborhood is home to some great Loyalist murals (as well as Sandy Row), I also wanted to see murals of the other camp as well. To spot Nationalist murals you should cross the city to reach Falls Road and Whiterock Road. These two locations boast many colorful green murals, but it is quite easy to miss them in case you don’t know where to look for.
To simplify things and to see all the murals in one day you can take an advertised mural tour with black cab companies. They are plentiful in the city. I had almost a week for sightseeing in Belfast so I took an advantage of my hiking skills to explore them on foot. While doing this I found that not all of them of political and religious origin. Some of them depict famous people, the Titanic, and footballers.
Top Places to Visit and Things to See in Belfast
Belfast was famous for its shipbuilding and the ill-fated Titanic was built in the city. Coinciding with the centenary of the sinking of the ship in 1912, the ‘Titanic Experience’ was opened on the site of one of the former shipyards. This tourist attraction has won numerous awards for its portrayal, not only of artifacts and documents relating to the massive ship but also to the history of shipbuilding and seafaring in the Belfast area. It has several modern and interactive galleries and ‘The Titanic Quarter’ is also the site of concerts and music events.
It is not easy to cover all the attractions in Belfast without a bike or a car, however. You can join Belfast city sightseeing tour that will get you through all main sites but requires an equivalent of 11.50 GBP. Alternatively, you can do what I did during my stay in Belfast. Belfast free guided tours not only allow you to understand better the recent quite complicated history but also get some insight tips on where to go and eat from the locals. I really enjoyed the tour!
The iconic focal point of the City is the magnificent City Hall that was built in 1906. Thus, many tours begin from there. On the walk, you are likely to visit the Cathedral, the market area, the shipyards, the Peace Wall, the Opera House and the Botanic Gardens. Across the main road from City Hall is a Tourist Information office, where you can get a free map if you wish to wander at your leisure.
Belfast has a wealth of other attractions including Belfast Castle and the very extensive Belfast Zoological Gardens, which I found to have an excellent attitude to animal care and preservation with – an emphasis on education.
You can visit the Titanic museum and the beer museum within the city borders. However, the true reason why visit Belfast is its impressive natural attractions.
After dedicating the first two days to exploring the streets of Belfast, I decided to visit Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the Giant’s Causeway on my third day in Northern Ireland. Since the ticket price was around 20 GBP, I didn’t hesitate to buy a tour.
If you go with a tour, there are three stops: Carrickfergus Castle, Rope Bridge, and Giant’s Causeway. I think I just wasn’t lucky enough to go with a driver who sticks to calm driving. The road went through a mountainous area with several 180-degree turns and the simultaneous ascent of 30-45 degrees. In spite of this, the driver was recklessly driving us around the bends without reducing speed. At the same time, he acted as our guide, endlessly narrating stories. He obviously was an experienced driver as we reached our destination safely. However, there were moments I wanted to leave the bus.
After exploring the area near Carrickfergus Castle we set off along the coast to reach the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Since I visited the site off-season, the visibility was poor due to the dense fog. As I was crossing the bridge, I thought that low railings and slippery stair rungs weren’t reliable enough to keep me from falling from a height of 98 feet. Thus, I walked neatly keeping myself as far from the edge as possible.
The Giant’s Causeway was a highlight of my trip. It was our main stop and it took the longest time to explore. The majestic lava columns scattered over the enormous territory caused a feeling of admiration and reverence.
My fears about the driver’s recklessness were confirmed when he didn’t set the parking brake properly during the bus boarding. As a result, the bus rolled downhill while the driver was somewhere behind it. He did not immediately notice that the bus had rolled and barely managed to reach the head of the bus to press the brake. A few seconds more and the bus would have flipped off the road.
If you visit Belfast off-season, as I did, expect some attractions to be closed and weather leaves much to be desired. However, I managed to visit Cave Hill. A popular site with several hiking trails is worth visiting if you are a fan of Game of Thrones. Because of high humidity levels grass forms a solid green carpet. The downside of it is the grass can get very slippery. Be careful if you go out for a hike. The Cave Hill is overlooking Belfast, so if you want to experience a bird’s eye view of the city there is no other place like this one.
I was amazed at this magnificent place that somehow reminds of sports stadium created by nature. With so many trails, slopes, and cliffs near Cave Hill, you can spend endless hours strolling and admiring the natural attractions, climbing steep slopes or improving your mountain biking skills.
Shopping in Belfast
Donegall Place, which runs at right angles from the City Hall, is the central shopping street and contains branches of many of the main High Street UK outlets. There are extensive shopping malls at Castle Court and Victoria Square nearby – both containing food floors. Several shops specialize in Irish souvenirs.
Food in Belfast
Belfast people eat heartily and in the city, you will find restaurants of many cuisines and of high standards. For local food, I suggest you try an “Ulster Fry” for breakfast one day. Not necessarily the healthiest of food, but very filling and you won’t need much lunch! Irish Stew is a simple and cheap lunch and is often eaten with nourishing locally baked wheaten bread. Many locally made bread, cakes, and pastries are as good as you will get anywhere.
Belfast has numerous old and more modern pubs, where you will be made welcome. Some offer the additional attraction of live Traditional Irish Music. In the pub, you must, of course, try a pint of cold Irish Guinness. Most of the pubs have their own breweries as well. For quite a reasonable price they offer a wide range of Irish beers.
In my opinion, Belfast is very much worth a visit. It has a fascinating history, friendly locals and lots of attractions for the curious visitor – but do take an umbrella!