Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland. The island of Ireland contains two countries – the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland in the north. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.
During the 20th century there was an ethno-nationalist conflict within Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles”, which began in the 1960s and ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The Troubles took thousands of lives and injured tens of thousands between the two parties, Unionists/Loyalists and the Nationalists/Republicans. The issue got so bad at one point that walls were built to divide the two neighbouring groups – but this only further inflamed tensions.
Today there is still an underlying tone of division, but the EU has been a stabilising force and it is now largely peaceful.. This is a part of Irish history, and I recommend reading up about it.
Now, with our brief history lesson over, for the fun part. Belfast is situated on the banks of the River Lagan, on Northern Ireland’s east coast. I personally love visiting Belfast; I have visited four times and will go back again as I have friends there and think it is an underrated gem.
As part of the United Kingdom, they use the pound (£) in Northern Ireland, and prices are cheap compared to other parts of the UK.
The city of Belfast has been around since the Bronze age, and there are relics from this time period located near the city. Getting to Belfast is quite easy and affordable, with two airports (Belfast International Airport and Belfast City Airport – right next to the city itself). You can also drive from the Republic of Ireland as it now has an open border with no check points. The train from Dublin takes roughly two hours, and a bus takes around two and a half hours. If you are feeling more adventurous, and coming from Liverpool in the UK, you could catch a ferry – but this does take 8 hours.
Being a relatively small city, I recommend walking between everything. If this isn’t for you, they do have buses throughout the city, or taxis if you are willing to splash your cash.
I suggest starting off in the centre of town at the Belfast City Hall. Built in 1906, this ornate piece of architecture is home to the Titanic Memorial Gardens (a big deal in Belfast as it was the birthplace of the Titanic). Throughout the year several festivals, markets and Christmas markets are held within the grounds of City Hall – so be on the lookout for those, as well as for walking tours that begin from here too. Just north of City Hall is the shopping district, if you want to browse.
Your next stop will be Saint Anne’s Cathedral, which was completed in 1904 and is one of the larger and more known cathedrals in Belfast. Heading out slightly west you’ll arrive at Albert Memorial Clock, which was built during the 1860s to remember Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria.
You’ll now be right by the river, where you’ll come across a large ceramic fish that has parts of Belfast’s history written all over it.
To cross the river you have two options. Lagan Weir is a pedestrian bridge right by the ceramic fish, or if you want to walk over something with more history, head to Queen’s bridge, which was built in 1849.
Past SSE Arena Belfast, where concerts and ice hockey matches are held, you’ll reach the docks where you’ll see……. The SS Nomadic (we aren’t at the main attraction just yet). This tender was used to carry first and second class passengers onto the Titanic. It is now a maritime museum and will cost you £7 to explore the decks.
It has some fun activities for kids (and big kids), whilst learning about the tender’s history.
After this you will reach an iconic spot in Belfast for tourists, the Titanic Museum. Some may wonder why this museum is here – the Titanic was built in these very shipyards by the company Harland and Wolff.
The Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic where built side by side by thousands of Irish men over a 26-month period.
A ticket into the museum is quite pricy at £19 (2019), however as a huge Titanic fan I was always going to pay it. If you are interested in learning more about the history of the great passenger liner that sank on her maiden voyage, and the passengers that sailed on it, it is great.
You’ll be given a passenger identity card in which you’ll follow their journey through the museum and find out if they survived at the end.
If you aren’t as interested in the Titanic, you can get a photo at the front of the uniquely designed building.
Back in the city centre, a not-so-obvious spot you may want to visit is the Grand Opera House. Opened in 1985, the design is said to be ‘oriental’ (not really a word I’d use as an official description).
St George’s Market is the last indoor market from the Victorian era in Belfast, was built in the late 1800s and is a great spot to roam and see locals doing their daily shop. This is also a great place to have a bite to eat.
To the south of the city you will find the Botanical gardens. They are similar to Botanical gardens across the globe, but if you are visiting in the spring or summer it can be a delightful walk.
Within the Botanical Gardens is the Ulster Museum. Open since 1929 with free admission, this museum contains items from archaeology, fine arts botany and local history.
I would also recommend walking through Queen’s University to enjoy its Tudor architecture. The campuses opened in 1849, it really does have some amazing buildings.
West of the city you will come across the Peace wall (also known as Peace lines). These are found throughout the city, dividing Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods to try to minimize conflict. These separation barriers were built in 1969 during “The Troubles”. Today many art works have been painted/sprayed onto the walls to signify peace and to remember those lost during “The Troubles”.
Throughout the city you will find several different monuments, statues and smaller museums that go into depth about “The Troubles” I think it is very important to take the time to see some of these throughout the city.
Another important stop within Belfast, found to the north of the city, is Crumlin Road Gaol. Also known as “The Crum”, I had read that it was known as the ‘Alcatraz of Europe’ (very interesting claim to make) this Victorian former prison opened in 1846, closed in 1996, and was home to a variety of notorious individuals. Hangings occurred here until 1961 and the tour through the buildings and grounds gives you a great background into specific high-profile inmates.
The tour takes just over an hour and will cost you £12 at the door and £9 online.
For the next stop you may need to catch public transport (you can catch the 1a, 1d, 1e, or 1f bus, which will cost you £2.10). Belfast Castle is found on the slopes of Cavehill Country Park and provides great views of Belfast.
It was built between 1811 and 1870. There is no actual tour within the castle, however you can eat within the restaurant or the tavern.
For any big outdoor fans, Cavehill Country Park gives you the opportunity to trek through a walking trail. Only 4.5 miles (7.2km) long, it is an easy trek that gives you some beautiful views. Be careful near the cliff edges and bring appropriate footwear as the trail can get muddy and uneven.
I managed to find a great spot to sit over the cliff edge and enjoy the views of Belfast.
Back in the city, there are many bars and restaurants where you can get good food for a reasonable price. Some must-have Northern Irish meals include an Ulster fry up, which is very similar to a Full English Breakfast but contains fried bread and potatoes. A Soda Farl is an essential part to an Ulster fry up. It is a soft, fluffy bread, and a reason why I love carbs so much!
Around Queen’s University in Belfast there are quite a few areas that have many bars, which also come with student prices. There are so many scattered across the city, and you’ll be amazed at how low the costs are compared to a night out in London.
Club-wise for you party animals, Limelight is one of Belfast’s most iconic clubs. For the LGBTQ+ community (and anyone else as well) the Kremlin (love this name for a club) is a great spot to hit up. It has drag performances and several rooms with different music playing – you’ll have an amazing night.
This next section will contain some of the places I’ve visited outside of Belfast, which are must-sees for any traveller visiting the city. As a quick note, there is so much more to see outside of Belfast, but I’ll just cover some essential stops and will do an overview of everything else in a future post.
One thing that has certainly put Northern Ireland on the map in recent years is the famous HBO TV series, Game of Thrones, as much of the filming took place here.
There are plenty of Game of Thrones tours offered to see all the key filming sites.
I did not go on any of these tours as I had friends take me around, but you won’t struggle to find them online.
My first stop was the Dark hedges. Located in Ballymoney, the Dark Hedges are also known as the Kings road.
When I was there, no one was around for most of the time, so it allowed me to get some great shots without a million tourists trying to do the same.
You won’t need to spend too long here, so whiskey lovers can make their way over to the Old Bushmills Distillery. This distillery was founded in 1608 and you can take a tour for £9. You’ll learn about the history of the distillery, the whiskey making process, and its development throughout time. There is also a tasting session at the end of the tour. 😀
One stop you cannot miss when you visit Northern Ireland is The Giants Causeway. Located on the far north coastline in Bushmills, the Giants Causeway is an area of around 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, created by ancient volcano fissure eruptions.
Being a National Trust site, it is protected and maintained to ensure erosion isn’t sped up by large volumes of tourists. It will cost you £12.50 (2019) (Visiting the stones is free if you do not want the tour) for a guided tour and you’ll get the opportunity to walk the cliff edges in the areas as well (Warning, it is very windy).
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, it is one of the greatest natural wonders in the United Kingdom.
These basalt columns and chimney stacks are everywhere you look and can be a great place to bring the camera and get some amazing shots.
Northern Ireland is an often misunderstood place within Europe, and really doesn’t get the recognition it deserves as a place to go and visit.
I do hope this has inspired you to head on over when you are in Ireland or the United Kingdom (there is affordable access from both), to get a better historical understanding of the city and enjoy everything it has to offer.
Credit to Gareth for supply of some photos. Instagram: @garethsummer