Belfast is a beautiful capital with a troubled past. It’s a big city with the charisma and charm of a small town. It offers the perfect balance of history and modernity, blending together industrial heritage with affable locale in a buzzing social scene. I knew little of Belfast’s political history before I arrived, apart from knowing that it had one, so I wasn’t sure what I would find. But this city far exceeded my expectations – with as little as a day to explore, I felt fully immersed in Belfast’s rich culture, complex history, and vibrant atmosphere.
Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, was shaken by the Troubles. This was a political and religious conflict that began in the late 1960s and ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It was an era of Belfast’s history marred by violence t between Nationalists and Unionists, or rather Catholics and Protestants. But beyond the Troubles, Belfast has a rich history – from the industrial boom that saw the construction of the Titanic to the cinematic stronghold it has become today. Come to revel with locals over a pint in a snug at the Crown Liquor Saloon. To witness the pain painted on the walls that divide the city in half. To marvel in the magnificence of the greatest ocean liner in the world, or visit Europe’s most bombed hotel.
Belfast is an easy trip from Dublin – the journey via bus or train takes only two hours. I left early on a Saturday morning and was in the city by 9 AM, leaving me with a full day left to explore the sights. There is plenty to see and do in Belfast. Fortunately it’s an easy to city to get around on foot, so pack as much into a day as you can!
|| TITANIC BELFAST
While the ill-fated vessel may have set sail from Southampton, it was first constructed and launched from the docklands of Belfast in 1912. The museum opened in 2012 to commemorate the boat’s centennial anniversary. Titanic Belfast was recently named one of the world’s leading tourist attractions, a well earned title. This museum is not one to miss.
The design of the building is itself symbolic, mimicking the shape of a ship’s bow. The building stands at the same height as the Titanic (126 feet or 38 m). Outside on a concrete dock there is an outline of the ship marking where it first set sail. The building has also been nicknamed ‘The Iceberg’ as its aluminum exterior resembles the very thing that sunk the mighty ship. The massive Harland and Wolff yellow cranes that helped build the Titanic (named Samson and Goliath) tower over the shipyards.
Within the silver walls of the museum, nine intricate galleries lead visitors through the conceptualization of Titanic to its sinking. The tour begins by exploring the boom of industrialization that Belfast experienced in the early twentieth century, continuing on to illustrate the actual construction of the Titanic itself by Harland and Wolff (there’s even a ride that brings you through the shipyard). After touring replicas of cabins, the museum ends with the harrowing last messages sent via morse code, and video footage of the wreckage discovered years later.
An adult ticket to the museum costs £18 and includes entrance to the SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Lines ship. Visitors can even attend afternoon tea on Sundays by a replica of the ship’s grand staircase.
|| CATHEDRAL QUARTER
Sitting just to the northside of the city center, the Cathedral Quarter quickly became my favorite area to explore. It’s full of winding streets full of charismatic pubs and vibrant murals. This historic area was once the city’s commercial center, and it manages to keep an air of nostalgic charm. On Commercial Court’s cobblestone way you’ll find the colorful Duke of York pub. This area makes a great spot for a night out on the town – stop by to enjoy a pint in one of the many beer gardens.
|| STREET ART AND MURALS
From the peacelines to the heart of the city center, the remnants of the political turbulence of the Troubles can be found in the art that decorates Belfast’s walls. Sectarian murals depict both Catholic and Protestant martyrs, painting two sides to the story that defines one city. Graffiti calling for peace mark the walls along the lines that divide the city, and edgier murals create social commentary on Belfast’s history through the Cathedral Quarter. Belfast’s street art is one of the city’s main attractions, and these murals offer a glimpse into a city in both times of war and times of healing.
Be sure to visit the infamous alley off Commercial Court for a full display of murals. Pass through a tunnel covered in yellow umbrellas and into a courtyard where the detail in the art is almost overwhelming. From murals of those who were martyred in the Troubles to social commentary on everything from drugs to Game of Thrones, this is one of the best displays of modern street art in the city center.
|| LUNCH AT ST. GEORGE’S MARKET
St. George’s Market dates back to the 1890s and is the oldest surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast. It’s a great spot to grab lunch while still soaking in the city’s buzzing atmosphere. Within the hall you’ll find stalls selling everything from fresh produce to handcrafted goods. You’ll also find a wide variety of food carts, from Greek food to the best cheese toasties. Enjoy some live music or browse the selection of goods for sale while you eat!
|| BELFAST CITY HALL
This iconic civic building sits at the heart of Belfast city. The building was designed in the Baroque Revival style after Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status in 1888, and it opened its doors in 1906. Industrialization was at a height, and so was wealth for the city. It was, after all, around this time that Belfast was building some of the greatest ships in the world. City Hall offers daily free guided tours. Be sure to visit this landmark at night to see it illuminated – a beacon of pride for Belfast.
|| ULSTER MUSEUM
The Ulster Museum is home to extensive collections that range from natural science to the history of Belfast. Stroll through four floors full of exhibits depicting the history of Belfast’s Troubles or displaying exotic zoological and botanical specimens. You can even get up close and personal with a mummy. It’s a very family-friendly museum and a great attraction for kids. Of course, there’s something for the adults too – the Ulster Museum’s new main attraction is the Game of Thrones tapestry. This tapestry is a (currently) 77 m long hand embroidered linen that depicts every episode of the show. It is continuously updated as new seasons air, so if Game of Thrones brings you to Northern Ireland this isn’t something to miss! Best of all? Admission to the museum is completely free.
|| BOTANIC GARDENS
Belfast’s stunning Botanic Gardens (est. 1828) are located just next to Queen’s University and the Ulster Museum and cover 28 acres of land. The Palm House was completed in 1839 and is one of the earliest examples of a glasshouse made from curved iron and glass. It contains a variety of tropical plants and seasonal displays. The gardens are also home to the Tropical Ravine, built in 1889. Visitors can also stroll through the rose gardens and surrounding wooded parklands.
|| QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY BELFAST
Queen’s University, founded in 1845, is the ninth oldest university in the United Kingdom. Its campus is located in the heart of South Belfast, a welcoming college neighbourhood filled with many hidden gems. Even if you’re just passing through, be sure to check out the historic Lanyon Building. This was the University’s main building upon opening, and is one of the most beautiful collegiate buildings in the UK.
|| TAKE A BLACK CAB TOUR
I was not able to take a black taxi tour on my first trip to Belfast unfortunately, but I’m including it here because so many people have recommended the experience to me. I look forward to making time for it on my next visit. Belfast is famous for these tours, where knowledgeable locals drive you around the city and give an overview of the sights and history. Get a look into the Troubles and the aftermath from someone who experienced it first-hand. You’ll get a look at the political murals that still decorate Belfast. You’ll see the Peace Wall that was built to minimize violence between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. See the sights of the city while gaining a local’s perspective. This is important to gain when visiting any new city, but especially when visiting one ravaged by violence and political turbulence. I recommend starting your day with this experience!
|| HAVE A PINT AT THE CROWN BAR
The Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street is one of the most beautiful pubs I’ve ever been in. Stained glass windows. Tiled floors. Immaculately carved mahogany snugs. The ambiance captures a nostalgia for the pubs days as one of Belfast’s best Victorian gin palaces.
|| ADDITIONAL OPTIONS
- Belfast Castle – Belfast Castle was originally constructed by the Normans in the late 12th century. It burned down in 1708 but was rebuilt on Cavehill in the19th century. The castle estate was presented to the City of Belfast in 1934 and was opened to the public in 1988. Visitors today can explore the estate’s grounds, restaurant, and more.
- Crumlin Road Gaol – HM Prison Belfast, better known as Crumlin Road Gaol, is the only Victorian prison remaining in Northern Ireland. From the Irish Revolution to the Belfast Troubles, these cells have held many iconic Irish figures.
What are some of your favorite things not to miss in Belfast?