Whatever it is you’re looking for, Belfast has something to offer. And once you’ve discovered this jewel of Northern Ireland, you’ll always want to come back.
Museums, Historic Sites, and Tours
The last surviving Victorian market in Belfast, the St. George's Market is ideal for your summer Irish shopping (Flickr)
You can hardly visit Belfast without also visiting the Titanic Belfast Museum. Arguably the most famous thing to come out of Belfast, the Titanic looms large in local history. Built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, the Titanic is now one of the most famous shipwrecks in history.
Today, the museum overlooks the Titanic Quarter, a large urban waterfront regeneration project just a short walk from the city center. The star of the museum is the “Titanic Experience,” a self-guided tour with nine interactive galleries drawing together special effects, dark rides, full-size reconstructions and other interactive features, you are able to explore the entire Titanic experience from shipyard to ocean floor. The “Discovery Tour” is an additional walking tour that explores the history of Harland & Wolff’s Drawing Offices and historic shipyard.
Crumlin Road Gaol
Crumlin Road Gaol opened in 1846, and operated as a fully functioning prison for about 150 years, finally closing its doors to inmates in 1996. Today, you can follow in the footsteps of over 25,000 prisoners and tour the place where murderers, suffragettes, loyalist and republican prisoners once walked.
Several different types of tours are available to suit your interests. Daily guided tours are available between 10am and 4:30pm, and cover all aspects of the Gaol, from the tunnel linking the goal to the courthouse, holding cells, Center Circle, C-Wing, and Graveyard. If you’re looking for the spooky side of Belfast, paranormal and ghost walk tours are available at specific times throughout the year (you may want to call ahead to see the time of the next available tour). Paranormal tours will take you to the various hot spots around the goal and grounds where eerie ghostly activity has been reported, and professional guides share the stories associated with these special areas.
Belfast Castle and Cave Hill
Sitting in a prominent position in Cave Hill Country Park, Belfast Castle is one of Northern Ireland’s most famous landmarks. Built by the Normans in the late 12th century, the castle has a long and storied history including a fire and many changes in ownership regarding both castle and estate. The castle itself was finally presented to the City of Belfast in 1934 by the Shaftesbury family. After a £ 2 million refurbishment program, the castle reopened to the public in 1988 and is now a popular venue for weddings, business meetings, and other events.
If you’re interested in outdoor activities, the surrounding Cave Hill Country Park is a popular walking and cycling spot, and they also offer orienteering courses that you can follow at your own pace. The Cave Hill Adventurous Playground also gives a great play experience for children between the ages of three and 14, featuring cradle swings, slides, spring rockers, space net and aerial runway.
Stormont Parliament Buildings
The Parliament buildings are home to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and open to the public between 9am and 4pm. Tours of the building are free, with the added bonus of the surrounding Stormont Estate. The distinctive architecture of the building is striking, with deep symbolism in every detail, such as the building being 365 feet wide—one foot for every day of the year, and having six floor and six pillars at the entrance—one for each county in Northern Ireland.
If you’re interested in watching Parliament debates, you can see the Assembly members debate issues in the Assembly Chamber on Monday from 12 noon and on Tuesday from 10:30am. Committee meetings take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
St. George’s Market
St. George’s Market is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions, and one of the best markets in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The St. George’s site has had a market every Friday since 1604, and the current market was built between 1890 and 1896. The Victorian building has seen refurbishment as recently as 1997. It was named the UK’s Best Large Indoor Market 2019 by the NABMA Great British Market Awards, and it was also voted the nation’s favorite Heritage project in the 2014 National Lottery Awards.
On Friday, you can visit the Variety Market, which features 300 market stalls selling a variety of products—everything from fruits and vegetables to antiques, books, clothes, and fish. The fish section alone has a shining reputation for being the leading fish retail market in Ireland.
On Saturday, you have the City Food and Craft Market, which features a range of local, continental, and specialty foods, including meat, fish, cheese, and coffee. The Saturday market also has a range of handmade crafts, flowers, plants, local photography, pottery, glass, and metal work.
Sunday Market is a blend of the Friday and Saturday markets, with a special emphasis on local arts and crafts, and live music from local bands.
Walking and Bus Tours
(Albert Bridge / CC BY-SA 2.0 / via Geograph)
Of course, walking tours are a great way to see a city and explore the parts of town that you might miss if you’re zipping around in a taxi or a bus. There are many walking tours available in Belfast, and many available tours focus on certain areas or topics related to the city. You can find tours that focus on highlights, the Titanic Quarter, Belfast architecture, the Troubles, notable points related to whiskey, and many other topics.
If the mere thought of a walking tour makes your feet hurt, you can also find sightseeing bus tours, as well. Many of these tours will take you around town and stop at several different places of interest--you may be able to cover more ground on the bus tours than you could on the walking tour.
Belfast Black Cab Tours
Belfast also has the Black Cab Tours, which is a popular way to see the city and cover a wide area of the city with a smaller group than you might get on the bus tours. The Black Cab Tours themselves come out of the Troubles, when the iconic black taxi cabs were a popular mode of transportation (and considered safer than city buses). After the Good Friday agreement in 1998, public transit became safer and more available, so the taxis lost some of their popularity as public transportation. They live on, however, in giving visitors tours of the city. The Belfast Black Cabs offer tours that focus on political history, the Troubles, and political murals, although you can also book tours that focus on general history and culture. (They even offer Game of Thrones tours!) If you’re interested in the political turmoil in Belfast during the Troubles, a Black Cab Tour may be right up your alley.
Outdoors and Sports
Divis and Black Mountain Walk
If you’re interested in the outdoors, you can take a lovely walk through the surrounding countryside. The Divis Mountain Summit and Black Mountain Ridge Trails provide stunning views of the Belfast Hills and let you see both the countryside and breathtaking views of the city below. If you’re a birdwatcher, you can find red grouse, skylarks and peregrine falcons as you hike along the trails, and on clear days you can see the Scottish, Cumbrian, and Welsh uplands on the horizon from the summit of Divis Mountain.
Ulster Rugby at Kingspan Stadium
For the ultimate Ulster experience, you can immerse yourself in the local sporting scene. The Ulster Rugby Visitor Experience provides a unique opportunity for a fully guided, all-access tour of Kingspan Stadium, the home of Ulster Rugby. See the gym, the team changing rooms, and test your rugby skills in interactive challenges.
Then, if the team is in town, cap off your visit with a game—see Ulster Rugby at their hometown stadium.
Food And Drink
(William Murphy / CC BY-SA 2.0 / via Flickr)
Built in 1720, Kelly’s Cellars is one of Belfast’s oldest traditional Irish pubs. Very little has changed in almost 300 years, and the pub still has many of its original fixtures. If you’re looking for a pint of Guinness with homemade Irish beef stew and traditional music, then Kelly’s Cellars is a must-stop spot for a bite and a drink.
Newton Cafe Brunch Bar
If you’re really hungry after a night out, of course, you can always try one of the biggest breakfasts in Ireland. The Newton Café Brunch Bar offers the biggest fry-up breakfast in all of Northern Ireland—the “Goliath XXL.” The meal includes soda bread, potato bread, four pancakes, sausages, bacon, three eggs, two pieces of toast, hash browns, two black puddings, fried tomatoes, beans, mushrooms, and chips—and includes tea or coffee. Only about 52 people have ever attempted the breakfast, and only one person has managed to finish it—if you’re hungry, you could be the next.
Of course, you don’t have to try the Goliath. Newton Café is a great place even for a regular-sized breakfast or brunch. You’ll want to make sure you get there early, as the spot is only open from 9am to 1:30pm, and if you’re brave enough to try the Goliath, you need to get your order in before noon.
Holohans Irish Pantry
While it doesn’t have the long history of Kelly’s Cellars, Holohans Irish Pantry is an excellent restaurant located close to Queen’s University in a two-story Victorian era house, adapted for something a little cozier and comforting. The menu focuses on seasonal, ethically sourced ingredients and the meeting of modern flavors with classic Ireland. Boxty, a traditional Irish potato pancake dish, is a staple on the menu, along with other seasonal items. The Holohans crew strive to showcase the diversity and creativity of Irish food, without leaving it clunky or stodgy. This is Irish cuisine on a whole new level.
Crown Liquor Saloon
Built in 1826, the Crown Liquor Saloon is one of the most distinctive pubs you will ever see. It is the last Victorian gin palace, decorated in a lavish style recalling baroque architecture—brocade, feathered motifs, stained-glass snugs, molded ceilings, fleur-de-lys and deep rich colors. It is an absolute jewel of Victorian heritage, now owned by the National Trust and carefully restored over several years. The most recent restoration work is actually the subject of a BBC Northern Ireland documentary, The Crown Jewel, released in 2008.
It’s not just the cozy and elaborately carved wooden snugs or antique bell system that draw people to the Crown. The menu sports a fair variety of everything you’d expect to see in a pub, from Irish stew and fish and chips to burgers and sandwiches. Their real specialty, though, is sausages and chops with all the trimmings. True to form, if you’re looking for a special drink, you can find it here. The Crown offers a brilliant selection of gins and whiskeys as well as craft beers and ciders to pair with your meal.
If you’re looking for a hearty meal in a stunningly unique pub, the Crown is the place for you.
72 HOURS IN BELFAST
If you’re short on time during your Belfast sojourn, there is still plenty to do, and your days can be jam-packed. Depending on the time of year and days of the week you’re visiting, you can fit in plenty of fun activities and soak up as much of the city’s atmosphere as you desire. For example, if you had three days to spend in town, you might try to arrange your schedule like this:
Stormont Parliament houses and/or Titanic Belfast Museum
Walking or Bus Tour, depending on your preference
Dinner at Holohans Irish Pantry
Hiking at Black Mountain (pack a picnic lunch or plan for lunch back in town)
Belfast Black Cab Tour
Crumlin Road Gaol paranormal tour
St. George’s Market (Sunday Market)
Belfast Castle and Cave Hill Country Park
Traditional Irish music at Kelly’s Cellars
You can easily fit these activities into a three days period, but if you’re really in a time crunch, you’ll want to make time for Titanic Belfast and Belfast Castle. Of course, these are only suggestions, and depend on the time of year and amount of time you have available for exploring. You can choose your own adventure, and there’s only one rule—have fun!