“A wise traveller never despises his own country”
My Granda Joe, (a Scotsman) always said, ‘I don’t know why you feel the need to travel abroad, there’s so much culture and beauty in Ireland and Scotland.’
As travellers we tend to take our own country for granted. You may find that tourists have seen more of your city/country than you have.
Belfast city became a fascinating destination for tourists after ‘the troubles’, but there is far more to Belfast than its troubled past. To quote a Northern Irish band, Snow Patrol ‘take back the city’, and that’s what we’ve done. We’re spending less time fighting each other and investing more time and energy into improving Belfast, and it shows. In the last 5 years or so, Belfast (Béal Feirste) has improved tenfold.
We have gone from terrorism to tourism!
I have made a conscious effort to explore Belfast and Northern Ireland like a tourist. I have enjoyed taking my boyfriend (a Dubliner), to see all our best bits. It’s really fun looking at your city/country with a visitor’s eye.
I love reading travel blogs written by a local. I think they have the best insight into their own homeland.
I don’t like making itinerates for others and I don’t want to tell you how to spend your time here. I also don’t like reading blogs that give you ‘snippets’ of information. So hopefully this blog will provide you with an all-encompassing list. (I do love a good list). So whether you have two days or two weeks, you can decide what is priority for you.
I have learnt a lot from writing this blog. I hope locals and tourists will enjoy this list of things to do in ‘our wee city’.
- experience the buzz in the Cathedral Quarter
- delve into history in the Titanic Quarter
- shop in Victoria Square
- venture out into the rural countryside
- visit a world UNESCO site, Giant’s causeway
- find out what life was like during ‘the troubles’
- visit Westeros, (Game of Thrones filming locations)
Make this your first stop for planning your time in Belfast and collecting souvenirs.
My favourite thing about the City Hall is seeing it lit up in different colours for different occasions.
The Belfast Christmas markets are located on the grounds of the City Hall and start in November.
Free public tours are available at the following times:
Monday – Friday: 11am, 2pm & 3pm
Saturday & Sunday: 12noon, 2pm & 3pm
Robinson & Cleaver is an old department store converted into a restaurant with balconies facing the City Hall. Enjoy a nice meal or a few casual drinks while you ‘people watch’ from above.
Go to the top of the dome for views of Belfast city, or just enjoy some shopping, dinner and a movie.
Other good shopping areas; Lisburn Road, Castlecourt, and Donegall Place.
Built in 1874. It is located at the waterfront entrance to Victoria Square.
St. George’s Market
This market has been running since 1604. The market hall building was completed in 1896. Great for fresh produce, crafts and lunch. I love the atmosphere and the live music.
- Friday 6am – 2pm
- Saturday 9am -3pm
- Sunday 10am – 4pm
This four star hotel is known as the ‘most bombed hotel’ in Europe, (bombed a total of 28 times during ‘the troubles’). It held the ‘most bombed hotel’ in the world up until two years ago.
You can abseil down this world famous hotel that hosts presidents, prime ministers and celebrities.
Grand Opera House
Opened in 1895. The interior is quite beautiful.
You can also enjoy shows in the Waterfront Hall, and the Ulster hall.
This 142 year old bar, (facing the Europa Hotel) is an old Victorian gin palace, formally known as the ‘Liquor Saloon’. Step in, and step back in time.
Linen Hall Library
Founded in 1788, it is Belfast’s oldest library. You’ll find it beside the VisitBelfast shop, facing the City Hall. The entrance is around the corner.
Belfast’s new Metropolitan Art Centre. Check out events/galleries showing at the time of your arrival. I love the building itself and the rainbow that spans across the ceiling.
Open 7 days a week 10am-7pm.
The Merchant Hotel
This hotel was originally a bank. If you’re budget doesn’t stretch to eat or a drink in here, I would still walk in and take a look at ‘The Great Room’. It’s quite spectacular.
This hotel also comprises of;
- Ollie’s nightclub
- ‘The Cloth Ear’ pub (more reasonably priced food).
- Bert’s jazz bar
- Jacuzzis on the balconies of the hotel rooms.
- A ‘Narnia roof garden’ (at Christmas time)
St. Anne’s Cathedral
This is the cathedral of the Cathedral Quarter.
The Big Fish
The ‘big fish’ is a 10m salmon sculpture at the River Lagan lookout (near Custom House Square and the Albert Clock). Each scale is a tile that depicts the stories of Belfast.
There is a new bridge from ‘the big fish’, across the Lagan, to the Titanic Quarter.
Beacon of Hope
15m high sculpture over the Queen’s Bridge, waterfront area.
Albert Memorial Clock
Completed 1869, this clock was Belfast’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It has recently had work done to correct the tilt, created by the clay consisteny of Belfast soil. This is also why high rise buildings are rare in Belfast.
Student quarter/South Belfast
This student area is also known as ‘Botanic’. The student houses in this area are known as ‘The Holy Lands’
They have kept the theme of murals here, but instead of scary looking men carrying guns and wearing balaclavas, they have painted our Rory McIlroy. A much better idea for Belfast murals if you ask me.
Botanic gardens, Palm house and Tropical Ravine
Opened in 1828, you can walk around the exotic plants (for free). It’s a nice place on a cold day, when you need warming up! The locals and students flock here when we see any hint of the sun.
I love museums, but I really love free museums. The best part is the Egyptian Mummy, Takabuti. They also have a exhibition on ‘The Troubles’. This museum is located in the Botanic gardens and next door to Queens University.
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm
Founded in 1845, making it the 9th oldest university in the UK. Queen’s is also in the top one per cent of global universities.
Queens’s film theatre shows new and classic films in cosy theatre auditoriums. I love it because you can enjoy a film that you can’t normally experience on the big screen. Grab some dinner in Botanic Avenue, grab a drink at the QFT bar and enjoy a different film experience.
If cult classic films are your thing, check out The Bigger boat Film Club at the Strand cinema in East Belfast. They play feature films on the last Thursday of every month.
This converted church, now hosts gigs, comedy clubs, blue clubs etc.
You can jump on the train to the Titanic Quarter or cross the River Lagan from the new bridge at ‘the Big Fish’. If you hear the term, ‘Do you think I came up the lagan in a bubble?’, you are being asked ‘Do you think I’m stupid?’. Well, this is the river they are referring to.
You may wonder why Belfast would celebrate a ship that sank, but you have to remember that it is the most famous ship in the world. The museum, located where the Titanic was built, was created to commemorate the lives that were lost and delve into Belfast’s industrial past.
We mustn’t forget that it was a proud moment for the Northern Irish when the largest and most luxurious ship (of that time), set sail.
‘We built it, the English sank it!’
Harland and Wolff Cranes
Samson and Goliath are icons of Belfast, famously known as the cranes that built the Titanic. It is still the world’s largest dry dock.
Cable wakeboard at the Titanic slipway in Belfast, or rent paddleboards and paddle down the coastline.
I tried the wakeboarding last year and I really enjoyed, even though I wasn’t very good at it! Only £20 for a single lesson.
- Concerts and shows
- W5 for kids
- Bowling, cinema, restaurants and bars
- Belfast giants
(not walking distance from city centre)
Stormont Parliament building
Last year they hosted Red Bull Crashed Ice event, where international ice skaters raced down the Stormont hill. They also hosted a slip n’ slide down the hill last summer.
The building is 365ft wide, which represents one foot for every day of the year. It also has six floors and six pillars at the entrance, one for each county in Northern Ireland.
Open Mon-Friday 9am – 4pm.
Free guided tours 11am-4pm (10am-3pm during the summer, Easter and Halloween holidays. Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm to view the Great Hall or visit the gift and coffee shop.
(Where actor Liam Neilson started off)
This £18m building has won a series of awards for its architecture over the years.
“Best British buildings built this century”, Ellis Woodman
Cave hill, Belfast castle, and Belfast zoo
All within a stone throw of each other. Spend your morning in the zoo, grab a bite to eat at Belfast castle, Cellar restaurant (11-5pm), followed by a walk up to the top of Cave Hill for a view of Belfast from above. You can see the gorillas below if you’re lucky.
Cave Hill has 3 large caves, and on a good day you can see Scotland and the Isle of Man from the top. Its most famous feature, known as Napoleon’s Nose, is believed to have inspired the Gulliver’s Travels novel.
The Cave Hill Visitor Centre is in the Belfast Castle basement.
Open Tues – Sat 9am – 10pm, and Sun – Mon 9am – 5.30pm (free).
Shankill road and falls road and peace wall
The peace wall was built during ‘The Troubles’ in 1969, as a temporary structure that still remains today. Over the years, the walls have increased in height and in number. They plan to remove them all by 2023.
You can guess which side of the wall you are on, depending on what flags are flying. Union Jack flags and Northern Ireland ‘Red Hand of Ulster’ flags on the Loyalist side and the Tricolour flags on the Nationalist side. You will also find kerbstones painted in either red, white and blue, or green, white and orange.
The story behind the Northern Ireland flag, (the Red Hand of Ulster), comes from the legend of two chieftains who were racing to reach the Province of Ulster. Whoever reached the land first could claim it. When one chieftain realised he was loosing the race, he cut of his hand and threw it ashore from his boat to claim Ulster.
Black cab tours will take you through both areas and fill you in with some of our history. You’ll hear stories of the Shankill butchers and the IRA attacks. Just bear in mind, the focus/history changes depending on who is driving your taxi. Take everything with a pinch of salt.
Crumlin Road Gaol
This old prison closed in 1996, but you can walk around the haunted corridors, and see the hangman’s noose dangle in the execution room.
If you want to be a leader of Northern Ireland, you would need to have spent some time in the Crumlin Road jail to qualify.
Ulster Rugby Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill
Windsor Park, Northern Ireland National Football Stadium
Belfast bus tour
Black cab tour
I can’t recommend this, as I have never done it, but my boyfriend (the Dubliner) did a black taxi tour in Belfast and enjoyed it.
Belfast is a walkable city, however, there are a few areas that will require a train, bus or taxi. I would suggest, (weather permitting, of course) that you see Belfast by bike.
Van Morrison tour
Go on a tour or do it yourself and head to Cyprus Avenue, where Van the Man got his inspiration for many of his songs. See where Van Morrison lived and grew up in East Belfast.
We watched him play live last summer on this very street. For any die hard Van fans, it is most definitely worth a visit. Walk Cyprus Avenue while listening to Cyprus Avenue!
You can go on a Belfast murals tour, or select the murals you would like to see, and do it yourself. Sometimes it’s fun to stumble across them, but maybe you would enjoy it better if you had a tour guide explaining the pictures painted on the gable walls of houses and shops.
‘The Troubles’ is a term you will hear often. It refers to the period of time were Northern Ireland was experiencing a civil war. To put it simply, the fight was between a group of people that want a united Ireland (the Nationalists/Catholics), and another group of people that want to remain part of the UK (the Loyalists/Protestants).
You will see murals on gable walls of houses which will clearly indicate what area of Belfast you are in and what the people of that area were fighting for.
Game of Thrones Tour
If you love Game of thrones … don’t miss this, but in all honesty, I would go on this tour even if you haven’t watched or read the Game of the thrones series. It will gave you taste of Northern Irelands rural countryside and hidden gems.
They also have Game of thrones tours that include the Giant’s Causeway and Carrack-a-Rede Rope Bridge. You will get to see all the best bits of Northern Ireland in one day on this tour. I went with my Mum and Aunty! It was a great day out! Bring a packed lunch if you’re travelling on a budget.
You will see …
- Castle Black and the wall
- Cushendun Caves (were Melisandre gave birth to the shadow)
- The Kingsroad/ Dark Hedges
- The Dothraki sea
- King Renly’s camp
- The Iron Islands/Ballintoy Harbour
Note: We didn’t get to stop in Ballintoy Harbour as they were filming there that day. we also had to slow the bus down to get a sneak peak at Castle Black, as they were filming that day too.
We went to Castle Ward to see where Winterfell was filmed. Like I’ve said before, even if you’re not into Game of Thrones it is most definitely worth a visit. If you are Game of Thrones mad, you can rent costumes, swords and bikes, and cycle around Winterfell, or try some archery.
Game of thrones fans …
Stalk the actors and crew at the Titanic Studios, followed by a bite to eat at Cast and Crew.
Keep an eye out for Khalisee, Jon Snow, and Tyrion during filming. Belfast isn’t a big place and you may be lucky.
A friend of a friend is part of the Game of Thrones filming team and she kindly gave a us a tour around the Titanic Studios. I got to stand on top of the wall and sit on the Iron Throne. If you love Game of Thrones, and you are lucky enough to know someone who works on the team, beg them for a tour!
You may come across pink ‘GOT’ signs throughout the city and Northern Ireland. These markers are used to point Game of Thrones teams in the right directions for filming.
Look out for Game of Thrones incidents across the city.
White walkers freezing Custom House Square.
Photo credit: Belfast telegraph
Just outside of Belfast but worth a visit
Cultra Ulster Folk and Transport museum
If you want to experience Northern Ireland 100 years ago, this is the only way. Explore old cottages, farm buildings, townhouses and shops that were collected from all over Northern Ireland and placed here for safe keeping.
This is one of the best museums I’ve ever experienced. You won’t be disappointed. Jump on the train to Cultra (Bangor line), or get a short taxi ride from Belfast city centre (10-15mins).
- Oct – Feb: Tues – Fri 10am-4pm, sat – sun 11am-4pm
- March – Sept: Tues – sun 10am- 5pm, and closed Mondays’ except bank holidays.
North of Belfast
One of two UNESCO World heritage sites in Northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway is the result of an ancient volcanic eruption.
The basalt columns are more famous for their myths and legends. Our local giant Finn McCool has left clues of his existence all over the causeway.
The new interactive visitor centre is another added bonus.
Ireland’s oldest working distillery, (1608). Open 7 days a week.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
20 metres long and 30 metres above the rocks. The first bridge was erected in 1755 by the salmon fishermen.
This medieval castle was abandoned in 1639 when the kitchen and kitchen staff fell into the sea. Dunluce Castle is also thought to have inspired ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’.
Open 10am – 4pm. Last admission is 15:30.
White Rocks Beach, Portrush
Award winning Blue Flag Beach.
This tunnel of trees planted in the 18th century is a favourite tourist spot. Especially now that it was featured in Game of Thrones as ‘The Kingsroad’.
Note: Giant’s Causeway, Bushmill’s, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Dunluce Castle, WhiteRocks Beach and the Dark Hedges are fairly close to each other. You could fill an entire days visiting all these places, and you won’t be disappointed.
This National Trust site at Castlerock boasts stunning views of Castlerock beach, cliffs, old railway tracks, a ruin manor house and Mussenden Temple. There was a wedding the day we visited so we couldn’t get inside the temple.
Gobbins cliff walk
Call to book in advance. The new development of Gobbin’s has increased local and tourist interest of this coastal experience originally opened in 1902.
If you can’t get booked onto the Gobbin’s tour but you want to experience the Northern Ireland coastline, I would suggest getting a train to Holywood, (famous for being Rory McIlroy’s hometown), and walk along the coast to Bangor (9miles). Then you can get the train home from Bangor to Belfast. I’m lucky enough to live 5 minutes from the coast, and it’s one of my favourite places to go.
One of the best preserved and largest medieval structures in Ireland. Over the course of 800 years it has been besieged by the Scottish, Irish, English and French. (£5 entry)
Glenariff Forest Park
A National Nature reserve at the Glens of Antrim. There are three beautiful waterfalls. A dream place for photographers. We used to come here as kids and go swimming in the rock pools under the waterfalls.
The second largest city in Northern Ireland and voted 4th in Lonely Planet’s ‘Best in Travel Guide 2013’. Visit the Peace Bridge, the Peace Monument, the Guild hall Plantation Exhibition, the new Siege Museum and walk the city walls. Derry is the only remaining walled city in Ireland.
Sky Dive, Coleraine
We a sky dive with Wild Geese, Coleraine for my 21st birthday and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had! I was on a high for a week! I can’t recommend this enough.
South of Belfast
The highest mountains in Northern Ireland are an hour south of Belfast city centre. Slieve Donard is the highest summit at 853m. The Mourne wall spans across the mountain range and was completed in 1922 and took 18 years to build.
If the weather is good make sure you visit the rock pools at the base of the mountains (near the bloody bridge). This is one of my favourite things to do in the summer.
Tollymore forest park
At the base of the Mourne mountains and part of the Winterfell, Game of thrones tour. It also has a great campsite.
The Ring of Gullion
An area of outstanding beauty. Slieve Gullion Forest Park now hosts ‘The Giant’s Lair’.
Ballynoe Stone Circle
50 stones placed in a circle that date back to the Stone Age 2000BC.
Saint Patrick’s Way – A Pilgrims Walk
Begin in Armagh and finish at Down Cathedral, Saint Patrick’s resting place.
You can get a train/bus to Dublin (2.5 hours).
I will be doing a Dublin blog soon! Watch this space.
West of Belfast
Marble Arch caves, Global GeoPark, Enniskillen
Recently granted UNESCO World heritage status.
Book in advance.
Award winning outdoor adventure centre. We went here for my birthday last year. We did the giant swing, the zip-lining and the off road driving, but there’s loads more to do here. They also have accommodation.
Outdoor adventure centre with accommodation facilities. We did the zorbing here for my 22nd birthday, and it was great craic!
Northern Ireland is world renowned for it’s golf courses. The Royal County Down Course has just recently been voted the world’s best gold course.
The Galgorm Resort and Spa would be my first stop for a spa weekend in Northern Ireland. The outdoor hot tubs look great.
The Cathedral Quarter hosts most of my favourite drinking holes. If you want to experience a pub crawl in Belfast, I would start here.
- The Duke of York
A pokey wee pub, with people drinking pints in the alley way. There is a Northern Irish mural gallery on the walls across the alley way and it is definitely worth a visit.
If you’re not thirsty, I would still recommend taking around here.
- The Dirty Onion
- The Harp Bar
- The National
- The Spaniard
- The Northern Wig
- John Hewitts
- Ether and Echo
… more drinking holes in Belfast
- Kelly’s Cellars (city centre)
- Vaudeville (city centre)
- The Crown bar (across from The Europa Hotel)
- Fibber Magee’s (behind the crown bar)
- Perch Rooftop bar (behind the crown bar, above Rita’s)
- Filthy McNastys (Shaftesbury square)
- Laverys (Shaftesbury square)
- Wood workers (Shaftesbury square)
- Hudson (city centre)
- Love and Death (city centre)
- Bittles bar (beside Victoria square, waterfront entrance)
- The sunflower pub (65 Union Street) is recognised by the security cage on its front door, originally used during the troubles.
My friend Mark told me that Belfast’s best pint of Guinness can be found in Katy Dalys.
I’m not a big ‘foodie’, so I won’t attempt to recommend good grub in Belfast. Here’s a list of where to eat in Belfast.
However, you MUST have an ‘Ulster fry’ before you leave. Everyone will argue that ‘their ma’ makes the best Ulster fry, but I’ve been told that Maggie May’s, (Stranmillis Road, Botanic) is the best in Belfast.
I have recently became vegetarian/vegan. I can recommnd a few good veggie spots.
- St.George’s Market (veggie/vegan stall)
- Sarah’s World Fare (Sarah has a stall and does vegan cooking demos)
- Greens Pizza, Lisburn Road (vegan options)
- Wagamama, Victoria Square (vegan options)
- Pizza Express (provide vegan based pizzas if you bring your own vegan cheese).
- Robinsons (vegan options)
- Laverys (great vegan options)
- Giro’s (vegan options)
- That Vegan Café (new)
- Zizzi (request vegan menu)
- The Honest Vegan
- The Established
- Coppi (vegan options)
(I’ll be posting a ‘vegan traveller’ and a ‘Dublin vegan’ blog soon…watch this space)
A night that runs into the weekend, in and around the Cathedral Quarter in September.
The 12th July, also known as ‘the twelfth’ or ‘Orangemen’s day’ is a Protestant/Loyalist holiday, which celebrates the Battle of the Boyne. Some areas in Northern Ireland will host additional flags and bunting. Band parades will take place throughout the day.
The 11th July, also known as bonfire night, where the different (Loyalist/Protestant) communities compete to build the biggest bonfires. I would suggest watching them from the top of Cave hill to enjoy the spectacle from above, and avoid the rowdy behaviour that goes along with the celebrations.
St. Patricks Day, 17th March
Paddy’s day, in my opinion, is better experienced in Dublin, but Belfast is slowly improving its celebrations. There is a parade through the city centre and a free concert in Custom House square.
Please note: Although most events surround the 11th-12th July and 17th March pass off peacefully, some continue to result in violence.
An outdoor music festival in Custom House Square, in August.
Annual music festival in August.
Belfast has two airports, George Best Belfast City Airport and Belfast International.
Belfast City Airport is closer to the city centre (5min drive). The International Airport is 30mins from Belfast city centre.
Northern Ireland (Norn Iron), has a language all to itself known as Ulster Scots. The best way to describe the Northern Irish slang, is a strange mix of Irish and Scottish slang.
You may need this …
You can discover Ulster-Scots at the new Discover Ulster-Scots centre in the Cathedral Quarter.
My best advice would be; carry sunglasses and an umbrella at all times. You can get up to four different seasons in the one day, (sometimes in the same hour). The sun can shine and the next minute, the heavens will open. You will see the locals sporting shorts and bare chests in temperatures as low as 17 degrees. We make the most of the little sun that we get! But in typical Irish fashion, we will complain when it’s too cold and also when it’s too hot.
Northern Ireland is part of the UK and uses the British Pound Sterling. You would be surprised how many people try to use Euro here. If you are crossing the border to Ireland you will use euros.
You will also notice, Belfast is much cheaper than it’s Capital brother Dublin.
Where to stay
I always recommend AIR BnB, but I haven’t stayed in any in Belfast to recommend. I had a quick look, and I spotted a penthouse apartment with an outdoor hot tub on the roof garden.
- Global Village (I stayed here once before).
- Belfast international youth hostel
- Lagan backpackers
- Arnie’s backpackers
- Paddy’s Palace
If hostels aren’t your thing, there is a fairly new budget IBIS hotel in Shaftesbury square. £45 a night. I’ve stayed here before, it’s dead on, and right beside Filthy McNasty’s bar.
A new hotel called ‘Bullitt’ has just opened! look like my kind of place!
There are tonnes of hotels, but these are the really special ones in my eyes.
- The Merchant Hotel, Belfast
- The Malmaison Hotel, Belfast
- Ten Square, Belfast
- The Galgorm Resort and Spa, Ballymena
- The Culloden, Cultra
- The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn
- The Slieve Donard, Newcastle (Mourne Mountains)
- The Bubble Domes, Fermanagh
UK sockets (same in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland).
Divorcing Jack, Colin Bateman
Watch this short video made by The New York Times, ‘36 hours in Northern Ireland’
Check out my Belfast Pinterest board;
I will keep updating this blog as I come across more hidden gems of Belfast and Northern Ireland. If I have left anything out, please comment below. I would also love to hear what you think about Belfast and Northern Ireland. All comments are welcome.
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Enjoy the adventure and return safely,
The wandering boomerang
My Favourite Pictures of Belfast and Northern Ireland