As our trip has progressed further and further, we have found ourselves planning less and attempting to take more opportunities as they come. This is precisely how we found ourselves arriving at Belfast International Airport on a windy and rainy Tuesday night. The surly customs officer eyed us with suspicion, wondering why on Earth anyone would visit Belfast in the winter. After showing him proof of onwards travel, and Travis assuring him it was “way colder back in Canada”, we were allowed to enter.
Our trip to Belfast had been spur-of-the-moment. From Malta we had limited options as to where we could fly for a non-budget-busting price – the UK was pretty much our only choice. To be honest, we had not really planned on visiting Ireland or the UK on this trip, but when a 20 Euro flight to Belfast popped up we booked it immediately.
Belfast is not a city that regularly features on bucket lists – a phenomenon mainly due to lingering images from times past rather than current conditions. To most, the city’s name conjures up images of carbombs, shootings, and other fleeting images of overtly sectarian and political violence. Even a decade or two ago, these occurrences were commonplace, creating a literal warzone, and making Belfast a no-go for tourism.
Thankfully, this has all changed in recent years. Belfast is a now a thriving and bustling city committed to shattering these preconceived notions and embracing what makes the city unique – its history. From the Troubles to the Titanic, this is a city long plagued by tragedy. But it is this precise aspect that has laid the fabric for what the city is today, a city where you’re greeted with a smile and a joke every place you go.
Wonderful architecture, a vibrant city center, top-class shopping and dining experiences, and a revitalized waterfront are all contributing to make the city a rising star. As of now, Belfast still feels like a hidden gem and is nicely positioned off the well-worn tourist trail that cross-crosses much of Europe and the British Isles. But with rapid regeneration projects, easy access to the stunning North Atlantic Coast (including the world famous Giant’s Causeway), and easy access via budget airline carriers, Belfast likely won’t stay secret for long.
With a clear void of information regarding Belfast in the travel blogging community, we have decided to provide an outline on how best to spend your time in the city, what aspects we enjoyed, and some must see sites.
Black Cab Tour
For a memorable introduction the history of The Troubles of Belfast and Northern Ireland a Black Cab Tour is a must. Not only will the tour allow you to see parts of Belfast you’ll never find on your own, but each private tour is led by a guide who experienced The Troubles firsthand. Tours take place in real black cabs, a form of transportation which arose out of necessity during the periods of conflict and played an integral role in transporting residents during these turbulent years. We had an immensely rewarding experience on our tour – so much so that we are going to write about it separately.
Numerous Black Cab Tours are available in Belfast, and they all tend to cost around 30 pounds for up to five people. They last approximately 2 hours and each driver tailors their own route and stops – however they are always more than happy to alter the route if there is something specific you want to see.
The City Centre
Belfast’s city centre is absolutely teeming with life – a far cry from times past. Beginning with the spectacular City Hall, you can easily spend hours simply wandering the lively streets that radiate out from Donegall Square to the Cathedral Quarter or the River Lagan. Some fantastic examples of Edwardian and High Victorian Architecture can be found in this part of the city. For a city of it’s size, Belfast has some truly stunning buildings and the architecture here is extremely different from anywhere else in the region.
If you’re in Belfast on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday and looking for something different, you can head down to St. George’s Market. Built in the late 19th century, the market was recently voted the best in the UK and is one of the finest architectural jewels in the city.
Belfast City Hall is free to enter, and they even offer guided tours. This is also where you can find the main bus/train station, tourist office, shared taxi ranks, and many local buses.
Victoria Square Shopping Centre
As you explore the main downtown arteries, keep an eye out for Victoria Square, a sparkling new shopping complex right in the heart of the city centre. While the shopping here appears to be quite good, the real reason for visiting this modern complex is the stunning views from the glass domed roof on top of the building. Closely resembling the glass dome at the Reichstag in Berlin, on a clear day it’s possible to see the Albert Memorial Clock, City Hall, the Courts of Justice, numerous church spires, and even across to the Titanic Quarter.
Victoria Square is open every day and has nearly every shop you can imagine. There are also tons of food options and a cinema. Access to the viewing dome is FREE, and there also appears to be an attendant that can help answer questions, point out specific landmarks, or snap a photo of you – they even offer guided tours!
After you’ve got your fill of sight-seeing and shopping, the best place to get some good food and drink (or “good craic” as the locals would put it) is the Cathedral Quarter. The neighbourhood, which radiates out from St. Anne’s Cathedral, has been revitalized over recent years and now reigns as the cultural and gastronomical heart of the city. Almost all of the best pubs and restaurants in the city can be found here – many offering live music and good value meals.
Meals at a reasonably priced restaurant in Belfast will normally set you back a good 10-15 pounds or more at dinnertime. The secret to eating out in Belfast is to take advantage of the amazing lunch Specials that can be found in nearly every restaurant – many of which offer BYOB to keep costs down ever more. We usually ate at a restaurant for lunch and then had a takeaway (4-8 pounds) for dinner.
One of the most interesting ways to spend part of a day in Belfast is to explore the Titanic Quarter. “She was alright when she left here” reads the sign that greets you as you make your way into the very place where the RMS Titanic and her sister ships were built and launched. The River Lagan separates the rest of the city centre from this district, which was once occupied by the Harland and Wolff Shipyard. Nowadays, the Titanic Quarter is one of the biggest regions of redevelopment in all of Europe – the brand new Titanic Exhibit sparkles in the sunlight, the SS Nomadic and HMS Caroline sit in dry dock, the monstrous yellow gantry cranes Samson and Goliath tower above, and modern new condos and shops give the district a vibrant feel.
The real star of the show in the Titanic Quarter is undoubtedly the brand new Titanic Belfast museum. This futuristic building, built to the same height as the Titanic and (supposedly) in the shape of an iceberg, houses exhibits chronicling the construction and fate of the most famous ship in the world. Even if you don’t want to pay the enter the exhibit (which is pretty pricey in our opinion at 14.75 pounds), you can still admire the building both inside and outside or take a peek at the gift shop.
The easiest way to get to the Titanic Quarter is over the pedestrian bridge that crosses the River Lagan. More info on Titanic Belfast and the other things to do in the area can be found on their website.
A City Break
For those with an extra day in Belfast, you will definitely want to take a daytrip to the Giant’s Causeway – Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whether done by car or by tour, the drive along the North Atlantic Coast is one of the most breathtaking we’ve ever seen and is definitely a must see! We will be writing a post about our trip here so stay tuned.
A couple tour companies offer tours to the Giant’s Causeway (plus a number of other interesting stops along the way). They are priced around 20 pounds and take a full day. They include entry to the site at the Causeway and are pretty good value.
We thoroughly and unexpectedly enjoyed our time in Belfast. In many ways the city reminded us of our time in Sarajevo – another city ripped apart by politics and religion. In similar fashion, the incredibly resilient people that call this city home seem to be healing the wounds that were torn open so recently, and attempting to move forward. Currently 48 walls separating Protestant and Catholic communities still exist and many roads connecting these communities are still gated at night, but it felt to us like the “real walls” are starting to come down. Hopefully forever.
Logistics: The entire city centre can be explored very easily on foot. If it’s raining, you don’t feel like walking, or you are staying outside the centre, Belfast had a very efficient bus system (just tell the driver where you’re going and he’ll tell you how much the fare is). Alternatively, many shared taxis (black cabs) drive the main routes and will stop if you flag them down. Just knock on the glass when you need to get out and then pay (1.30 when we were there) through the passenger side window. This service helped people get around during the troubles (when buses were to dangerous to use) and continue to operate to this day – definitely a unique Belfast experience! If you need to store luggage, the Belfast Welcome Centre can do this for you for 4 pounds. It’s also a great place to get maps, info on tours, souvenirs, etc.