Welcome to Belfast, or Fáilte go Béal Feirste! Located in the county of Ulster, this is the largest city in the country of Northern Ireland, one of the four parts which make up the United Kingdom. Serving as a port during the 19th century, the city is steeped in history, at one point hosting the largest shipyard in the world that was responsible for building the RMS Titanic! It also has a vibrant culture that has persisted throughout the years, like Led Zeppelin famously debuting Stairway to Heaven at the Ulster Hall in March 1971.
One piece of advice that I will tell you if you aren’t familiar with Ireland is that you should keep in mind how the island is split up. Most of Ireland is the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent state that is part of the EU, while Northern Ireland - and by extension, Belfast - to the northwest is a part of the UK. This is important because there are centuries of political and religious history that have defined this difference with the most recent chapter being The Troubles. If you want to learn more about this period, you can book yourself a private black cab tour. Unlike other neighbouring states though, like Canada and the USA, there aren’t any physical borders between NI and ROI at the time of writing this, so you can easily travel between the two! But before you do that, enjoy your time in this wonderful city.
Know Before You Go
There are two major airports in Belfast. The first and most likely one you’ll use to get there is the Belfast International Airport. This is on the outskirts of the city, is the main airport for Belfast, and is served by budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair. The second airport is Belfast City Airport, which is the hub for the Irish airline Aer Lingus, and though it also has international flights, it mainly handles domestic flights from the rest of the UK and Ireland. There are also two main ferry routes to Belfast, one from Liverpool, England, and the other from Cairnryan, just outside of Stranraer, Scotland.
Belfast is a very walkable city. However, there is also a reliable bus network covering most of the city and beyond, though this is better used for travelling outside the city. Most of the buses only accept cash. If you want to venture outside the city, Dublin in the Republic of Ireland is only 2 hours away. Belfast also has a bike-share scheme, which allows you to rent bikes throughout the city, which can find out more here.
As previously mentioned, you don’t necessarily need a car for Belfast itself. However, there are some attractions outside of the city which are best reached by car, as well as some stunning road trips across Northern Ireland, which you can check out on our blog here, as well as others in the UK. To rent a car in Northern Ireland, you must be at least 21 years old and held your license for 2 years, you drive on the left-hand side and you always want to turn left when entering a roundabout.
The warmest time to visit Belfast is between May and early September, with July being the hottest point of the year. The coldest is between December and February, and though you should expect rain all throughout the year, the wettest time to visit is in October.
The currency of Northern Ireland is the pound sterling since they are a part of the UK. You’ll be able to get away with using your card for transactions, but carry some cash just in case of emergencies and for travelling on buses.
Day 1: Belfast City Centre
The best place to start when touring any new city is its heart, and you’ll be especially lucky if you’re arriving from Belfast City Airport as you’re only a short stop away from Belfast City Centre. One advantage of this city is that, even though it is split up into different quarters, most of them are within walking distance of the city centre, so unlike other tourist destinations which have distinct neighbourhoods outside of the main city, you don’t need to go far to appreciate everything Belfast has to offer.
The one thing I will say though is that if you’re the kind of traveller who likes to get up early to avoid the tourists, you might be a bit out of luck with Belfast as most of the attractions open up at 10am, but there are also plenty of free attractions that you can visit while going through the city - or you can enjoy a nice lie in, breakfast, or absorb the atmosphere of the city before going on to enjoy the rest of the locations, like visiting The Big Fish, a ten-foot sculpture in the Titanic Quarter dedicated to the revitalisation of the River Lagan, or enjoy a pleasant stroll up the Maritime Mile, which leads to the Titanic Quarter.
Where to eat
If you’re wanting a decent bite to eat with views of Belfast, check out the Tetto Restaurant. Located at the Bullitt Hotel, this restaurant is on the edge of Victoria Square and the river Lagan, serving fresh local seafood.
Remember how I said that most of Belfast’s attractions didn’t open until 10 am? Well, let’s start off with something you can enjoy for free! Dotted throughout the city are the Belfast Murals, massive artistic depictions which represent significant chapters in Northern Irish history, ranging from the recent Troubles to the Great Irish Famine. Some of these also have some political significance behind them, like murals of William of Orange to reinforce the Orange identity held by Ulster loyalists who live here. Some of them are more mundane, depicting animals and the like.
While these are a gorgeous part of Belfast and in some cases among the most famous of political murals in the world, it will take you a long time to see all of them - The Belfast Mural Guide recorded in 2014 that there were at least 300 murals on display, while 2000 have been recorded since the 1970s! It’ll take more than a couple of days to see them all, and while there are tours which can take you to them, there is also a virtual map which can help you in this regard as well.
Belfast Peace Walls
If you want a good place to start looking for murals as well as a significant piece of Northern Irish history, visit the Belfast peace walls. These giant structures are a painful reminder of the Troubles, constructed to separate the Irish Republican neighbourhoods from the predominantly Unionist and Loyalist ones. Though the Troubles eventually quelled after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the wall is just one of the scars of this violent historical event.
There are plans to remove these walls, but as of this moment in time, there are many portions of the walls still standing. Some of these sections, which once were a symbol of division between communities in Northern Ireland, have become displays for artwork and messages. There are a number of tours you can join in on, from walking groups to the previously mentioned black cab tours, or you can go yourself. This map is a good aid for following the longest section of the peace wall.
Crumlin Road Gaol
Just as sections of the peace walls have seen an interesting transformation, so too has the Crumlin Road Gaol. Built in 1846, this massive institution served as a prison for 150 years, and though it closed its doors in 1996, it still has a gruesome legacy. Known colloquially by the locals as The Crum, it is the only Victorian-era prison still standing in Northern Ireland, and all manner of prisoners were held and executed here, with the last execution occurring in 1961.
Though it remained empty and decaying for years after its closure, it underwent a restoration project and reopened as a tourist attraction in 2012. It’s also a venue for exhibitions and conferences - notably, it was the host venue for the UK’s Strongest Man in 2020. You can take a self-guided tour of the prison yourself, or go on to their website and take a guided tour, though these are limited.
Irish Republican History Museum
Though The Troubles are a bloody piece of Northern Irish history, it is one that is still worth reflecting on from both sides. That is probably what was going through the mind of Eileen Hickey, a former Officer overlooking the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, prisoners in Armagh Women's Prison. During her lifetime, she preserved items of significance from this period, most of which are now on display at the Irish Republican History Museum.
In addition to Hickey’s collection, this museum is made up of donated artefacts relating to the Republican faction, like items they handmade in prison, weapons they used and other memorabilia from The Troubles. Some of them come from Belfast, while others were donated from as far as the USA. Hickey wouldn’t live to see it though. The museum first opened in 2007, on the first anniversary of her death. Entry is free, and though it takes the view of one side of the conflict, this establishment seeks to educate through its exhibitions, and there’s even a small library here if you want to take a break.
If you fancy taking a breather from the city and enjoying some nature, go take a walk in Ormeau Park. This park is the oldest municipal park in Belfast, first opened to the public in 1871. About a half hour’s walk away from the city centre, Ormeau is one of the largest and busiest parks in Belfast.
There’s something for everyone to enjoy at this park. It is frequented by walkers and joggers, but it also is a popular place for sports, with bowling greens and football pitches, as well as playing host to events throughout the year, including concerts and band performances.
Another spot worth checking out is Belfast’s botanic gardens. This is not too far from Queen’s University, which is worth looking at in its own right for its gorgeous architecture. Spread out over 28 acres, these gardens were established in 1828 by the Belfast Botanic and Horticultural Society, in relation to public interest in the field at the time. It was reopened in 1895 as a public park, and features unique plant life.
Within the botanic gardens, there are two notable sections - The Tropical Ravine, an 1887 building housing some of the oldest seed plants in the world, and the palm house, which was designed by the same architect who designed Queen’s University, Sir Charles Lanyon. The botanic gardens also play host to events throughout the year, such as the music festival Live at Botanic Gardens.
Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum
Every country in the world has in some way felt the effects of the Second World War, and both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were no different. While the former was technically a neutral state during the conflict, their citizens could still sign up to be part of the British armed services, and 70,000 of them did, along with 50,000 from Northern Ireland. In 1943, there was a huge outcry for a war memorial to remember these souls. That came in the form of the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum.
Found in the cathedral quarter, this museum documents all aspects of Northern Ireland’s contribution and participation in the Second World War, ranging from the Belfast Blitz to the American presence in the country. Though it has exhibitions aimed towards the Second World War, there are also memorials to those who died in WWI. Additionally, it provides a location for ex-service charities to operate from. There is free entry, and it is well worth visiting this amazing museum.
Within the Titanic Quarter is the interactive science centre, W5. With over 250 exhibits spread over four areas seek to educate on matters within the field of science, covering everything from climate change, film and TV production, optical illusions, built engineering, medical science and much, much more.
This science centre is open up to all ages, though no children under 12 will be admitted to W5 unless accompanied by an adult (16 or over). There is a soft play area and much more that will make this a perfect excursion for the whole family.
Located off of the edge of Belfast’s botanic gardens is the largest museum in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum. Just one of four different museums owned by the National Museums Northern Ireland network, the Ulster Museum has a wealth of items to explore, from prehistoric fossils to art exhibitions spread across four floors with collections that are both local and international in origin.
Admission to the museum is free, and while it also seeks to shine more of a light on historical events such as The Troubles, it also dives deeper into the ancient history of Ireland. There are also interactive discovery centres, so if you bring your children with you, you can learn and play alongside them.
Belfast has a rich history behind it, and sadly it played a part in another tragic event from the 20th century - The RMS Titanic was built here before her fateful voyage (the acronym RMS, or Royal Mail Ship, refers to a privately owned ship that also had a contract to carry the Royal Mail, while HMS, or His/Her Majesty’s Ship, is a ship specifically commissioned by the Royal Navy). Titanic was the largest ship when she was built, but her run-in with an iceberg resulted in over 1,500 people losing their lives, making it the deadliest ship sinking at the time. It still remains the deadliest peacetime sinking of an ocean liner or cruise ship (for those curious, the deadliest ship sinking in the world was MV Wilhelm Gustloff, where 9,000 souls were lost during the Second World War).
Though the Titanic has been immortalised in media through countless depictions such as James Cameron’s hit movie of the same name, there is a memorial museum in the Titanic Quarter, the Titanic Belfast. In visiting this museum, there are many exhibitions dedicated to the history and memory of the ship and her disastrous journey, ranging from the SS (steamship) Nomadic, the last remaining ship of the defunct White Star Line, as well as documenting her construction. There are other memorials dedicated to this tragedy throughout Belfast, like the Titanic Memorial garden in front of Belfast City Hall.
C.S. Lewis Square
There are many notable figures to come out of the city of Belfast, one of them being the fantasy author C.S. Lewis. Known for his Chronicles of Narnia novel series as well as his friendship with fellow novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis has sold millions of books across the globe with his works being translated into over 30 different languages. C.S. Lewis Square is a public square dedicated to the memory of this author.
Throughout the square, there are many different dedications to him, such as the bronze statues of the characters from his books, and the JACK Coffee Bar dedicated to him (Lewis was known as Jack to his friends and family, a nickname he picked up at four years old when his dog Jacksie was killed by a car, and the name stuck, just in case you haven’t had your heart broken today).
Museum of Orange Heritage
The Orange Order is a British Unionist and Ulster Loyalist group throughout the United Kingdom, and even as far out as America, but is based in Northern Ireland. The name of the order is a dedication to Protestant king William of Orange who defeated Catholic king James II during the Williamite War in Ireland at the end of the 17th century. The Museum of Orange Heritage seeks to educate the public about the history of the order.
Located near the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland's Headquarters of Schomberg House in East Belfast, this museum opened in 2015 and is a deposit for artefacts related to the Orange Order, as well as a learning establishment that illustrates the history of the Order from its founding in 1795 all the way to its role in contemporary society. Admittedly, this museum is not for everyone but is worth visiting if you want to learn more about one of the UK’s unique orders.
Belfast has plenty of culture abound, and if you want to scratch that art itch, go visit the MAC, or the Metropolitan Arts Centre. Based in the Cathedral Quarter, this centre is home to all kinds of exhibitions. There is only one permanent piece of artwork on display in the building’s foyer, the Permanent Present by Mark Garry, while other exhibitions are regularly swapped out. The MAC offers something for all ages and interests, are jam-packed with diverse and extraordinary items to see and things to do.
Open throughout most of the year, the MAC has something on offer for everyone. As a cultural hub, there are art galleries and two different theatres as well as a restaurant and bar, free family room and free exhibitions for everyone to enjoy. The perfect place to check out if you’re travelling as a family group.
Located within the Titanic Quarter is another remarkable piece of maritime history. The HMS Caroline is a ship from the First World War which has been renovated into a museum ship. She was the fastest warship of this time and one of the longest-serving warships in the navy, though she served a more administrative and training role during WWII.
Though she no longer serves, she is still connected to the Royal Navy via their National Museum network. Here, you can learn a bit of what it’s like being in the Royal Navy as well as the battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle ever recorded in history. Advertisements of this ship describe her as “1 ship, 100 years, 1,000 stories,” and is well worth a visit for any fans of history.
Where to stay
Budget - ETAP Belfast
Located just a five-minute walk from the Europa Bus Centre, this hotel is the perfect mix of cheap and convenient, being well within the budget range and right in the middle of the city centre.
Mid range - Bank Square Town House
Near the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast, this accommodation provides comfortable units in an amazing location.
Luxury - Bullitt Hotel
We’ve mentioned the Bullitt as a good place to eat at, but it’s also a fantastic location to stay at, with the Titanic quarter a short walk away and many different comforts available.
Day 2: Outside Belfast
While Belfast is a lovely tourist destination in and of itself, there are many more different spots outside of the city, some of which are iconic to the region. Northern Ireland stretches 85 miles from north and south, and roughly 110 miles to east and west, and in between there are many towns that present something new for people travelling in the country.
We’ve previously touched upon places you can travel within Northern Ireland on our UK Roadtrip blog, such as the Coastal Causeway Route, and on our Game of Thrones Filming Locations in the UK, since Northern Ireland was one of the key locations used in the production of the hit series. There are endless opportunities for adventure, and here are just some of the top hits of what the countryside surrounding Belfast has to offer.
Where to eat
Though I’d recommend taking a packed lunch for today, if you want to go to a restaurant, you’ll more than likely be passing through the town of Bushmills on your adventure. If so, then visit the Tartine at the Distillers Arms for your dinner.
The Giant's Causeway
Let’s start with one of the most iconic attractions of northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway is a fascinating geographical feature made of thousands of hexagonal columns climbing out of the ocean. A UNESCO World Heritage site, local folklore says that this was originally a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland built by giants, while science says that these columns were created by lava cooling almost 60 million years ago. Pick whichever explanation you prefer.
There are different tours which can take you up there for maximum convenience. This one, for example, takes you to the Causeway and locations used in Game of Thrones. But if you want to use public transport, take the train up to the town of Coleraine, then the 402 bus towards Ballycastle. If you ask the drivers for the Giant’s Causeway stop, they’ll know what you mean. From then, it’s a little walk to the stones that make up the Giant’s Causeway. It does get very busy though, so if you want a good photo, get up nice and early to avoid the crowds, and may catch the sunrise from this remarkable place!
Game of Thrones Studio
There were many different locations used throughout the filming of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, but a decent amount of the scenes were shot at the Linen Mills Studio in Banbridge. Also simply known as the Game of Thrones Studio, this has now turned into a tourist attraction where fans of the show can see how the cast and crew breathed life into George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books.
There is so much here for fans to enjoy. While many of the exhibitions have been moved around for the sake of the tour, the Hall of Winterfell set you visit is the exact same one used in the show. Though this is technically a self-guided tour, there are members of staff dotted throughout the studio, some of which were extras used during the filming of the series, so maybe think of some questions you have before you go! You can purchase tickets here, some of which have the option for a shuttle service to transport you directly from Belfast.
If you’re taking the bus from Coleraine to the Giant’s Causeway, you might want to make a quick stop along the route as you’ll find an interesting set of ruins. Once the seat of clan MacDonell, the Dunluce Castle certainly isn’t fit to function as a home anymore, but is still rather picturesque, overlooking sharp cliffs by the sea.
Located within a country well-known for its use in filming the series, you may be asking yourself - were these ruins used in Game of Thrones as well? Why, yes, they were! Though they were superimposed over with CGI, this was another location used, particularly to depict the great castle of Pyke, the home of the Greyjoy family. Even if you aren’t a fan of the show, there is still historical information about these ruins which you can learn about by visiting.
The Dark Hedges
Speaking of Game of Thrones locations, if you want to go for a walk down the Kingsroad, then visit the Dark Hedges. These are a collection of beech trees planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century on an avenue in Stranocum County. Originally designed as a feature to impress guests arriving at their mansion at Gracehilll House, these trees still continue to impress centuries later.
Another interesting piece of Game of Thrones tourism connected to this area is the Game of Thrones doors. These are doors located in various pubs throughout Northern Ireland, made by trees from the Dark Hedges which were damaged during a storm in 2016. Together, HBO and the Northern Irish Tourism Board worked together to create 10 separate doors celebrating the series. You can see where they are, and even take a memento home by stamping your Journey of the Doors passport, which you can download here.
Old Bushmills Distillery
Though the Scottish across the sea may be more well known for their whiskey trade, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own respective brands in the industry. On your way to the Giant’s Causeway, you’ll be passing through the town of Bushmills, and if you have time, you might want to visit the Old Bushmills Distillery.
Established at the start of the 17th century, this whiskey distillery is still going strong, with its produce being considered some of the best-tasting whiskey in the world. As their master distiller Colum Egan says, “We're not good because we're old, we’re old because we’re good.” You can have a look at the tours they offer here.
Belfast Castle Estate
You don’t have to go too far outside of Belfast to visit the final attraction on this itinerary. Located on the Cave Hill area on the northeast edge of the city, the Belfast Castle Estate is another one of Northern Ireland’s castles, and possibly one of Belfast’s most famous landmarks. Built in the 1860s, the castle is a wealth of historical knowledge, featuring landscaped gardens and vantage points overlooking the city.
It isn’t just the castle itself which is worth seeing here. The Cave Hill area that the castle sits on gets its name from the nearby caves, and is made up of cliffs like 'Napoleon's Nose', a tall cliff which is supposed to resemble the profile of the former French emperor. There are several archaeological sites that you can also visit in the area.
Where to stay
Budget - The Narrows, Portaferry
Located where the Strangford Lough meets the Irish Sea, this accommodation has cheap rooms available within a postcard-worthy area of NI.
Mid Range - Station 36, Portstewart
Just a short drive away from the Causeway, this property in the idyllic town of Portstewart is ideal if you are travelling as a couple.
Luxury - Causeway Hotel, Bushmills
Fancy having the Giant’s Causeway literally at your doorstep? The Causeway Hotel offers all of the comforts expected of a luxury hotel, and the convenience of being on the Causeway Coastal Route.