I love seeking out European cities that are not overrun with tourists. A visit to one of these gems offers a chance to easily mingle with locals with more opportunities to experience the local culture. Belfast is one of those cities. Sure, this city is a little rough around the edges and has a bit of a bad reputation thanks to the violent conflict that lasted close to four decades. However, the time known as The Troubles has passed thanks to the peace treaty of 1998, and it is clear that the city and tourists alike have embraced Belfast’s new status as a peaceful, bustling European capital.
Belfast is now becoming well known for more positive things like its filming locations for the Game of Thrones and being the birthplace of the Titanic. It’s also the starting point for adventures north to see the stunning coastline and quaint towns of Northern Ireland including the Giant’s Causeway.
A visit to Belfast is best done over a few days so you can incorporate some side trips for a Game of Thrones location tour and to see scenic Northern Ireland. I’ve created an itinerary for visiting Belfast and Northern Ireland, here, which would require about 3 to 4 days.
However, if you are short on time and just interested in a quick day trip from Dublin, it’s very easy to do on your own. You have two options to get to Belfast from Dublin, the train or the bus, and the mode you choose will depend on schedule, price, and departure location. I tried both methods on my recent trip from Dublin, taking the bus to Belfast, and returning by train. Both were comfortable, convenient, and easy to figure out. For more information on these transportation options, visit my “Getting There” guide for the Dublin-Belfast route.
A Belfast Breakfast
When in Northern Ireland, the big Irish breakfast is known as the Ulster Fry. An Ulster Fry can be found at any restaurant or greasy spoon across Belfast. It’s a hearty breakfast that includes two fried eggs, lightly browned potatoes, pork sausage, bacon, black and white pudding, tomato, and soda bread.
The key to a delicious Ulster Fry is to cook everything in one pan to combine and seal in all the delicious flavors of the various foods. There’s no doubt, this breakfast is a great start to a long day of sightseeing. You can find an award winning Ulster Fry at a local’s favorite, Bright’s Restaurant, which is conveniently located on High Street in the shopping district of the city center.
If you aren’t up for a big breakfast, stop in at any coffee shop or bakery for another classic Northern Ireland breakfast, albeit on the lighter and much sweeter side, consisting of a wee cuppa tea, jammie dodgers and other biscuits, and a tray bake. Tray bakes are super popular in Belfast. These simple cakes (most often flat and condensed) are made in a square or rectangular container and cut into individual pieces.
The most popular tray bake is the classic Fifteen (15 marshmallows, 15 digestive biscuits, 15 glace cherries – chopped and crushed, bound together with condensed milk, refrigerated, rolled into a sausage and then cut into fifteen pieces…no baking required). You may get lucky and find some other flavors worth trying like Snowballs (my personal favorite), Caramel Squares or Chocolate Raspberry Ruffle. For a list of popular spots in Belfast for tray bakes, check out this post from Belfast Vibe.
The Titanic Experience
Everyone’s heard of the Titanic, but did you know that this grand passenger liner was built in Belfast? A museum dedicated to this famous ship now stands at the head of the historic slipways where the Titanic was built and from where it was first launched into the water.
Titanic Belfast is a large museum built with a lot of attention to detail, not only on the inside, but on the outside, too. The inside of the museum consists of 9 interactive galleries (self-guided), a café, and gift shop selling all things Titanic. The outside of the museum consists of a plaza, the slipways, the shipyards, and the Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices where Titanic was designed.
You can book a one-hour guided walking tour, The Discovery Tour, to explore the outside areas. It’s a great compliment to the museum and is for any diehard Titanic fans. However, if you are short on time, skip the walking tour and read up on the plaza and slipway here before you visit so you can get a better idea of the interesting things you can find outside. (For example, the benches on the plaza were designed and arranged to resemble the morse code distress call put out by the Titanic when it hit the iceberg).
Getting There: The museum is located in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast. It’s an easy 15 to 20 minute walk from the city center along the water. It’s a nice walk, and a great way to start working off that Ulster Fry you had for breakfast. However, if you want to save time, you might consider taking a taxi to and from the museum.
Important note: If you are visiting Belfast in the winter months (October to March), the Titanic Belfast doesn’t open until 10AM, so you’ll have to adjust your schedule a little bit!
Fish ‘n Chips Lunch
When in Northern Ireland, be sure to try the classic fish ‘n chips lunch. Grab a quick bite at the popular Simply Fish and Chips chippie restaurant (Unit 1 Oxford Street). It’s conveniently located on Oxford Street in the city center close to the shopping district. Here, they keep the fish simple, but the chips are amped up with a variety of options including gravy, curry, pepper, cheese, garlic, and chili. I like both my fish ‘n chips simple and order the cod fish with plain chips drenched in malt vinegar…yum!
Belfast has a bustling city center that is truly a shopper’s paradise. You’ll find everything from local shops selling crafts made in Northern Ireland to popular chain stores along High and Royal Streets and Donegall Place. Two large shopping centers, Victoria Square Shopping Centre (50 shops) and Castle Court (80) shops, are also in the city center just steps away from each other.
On weekends, (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), you can also hit up the St. George’s Market, which specializes in local foods and crafts with a number of food stalls selling some great Ulster snacks. There’s been a weekend market on this site since the early 1600s, with the current building housing the market since 1890. (The Market is about an 8 -10 minute walk from the main shopping district).
With so many shopping options, you could easily spend your entire day in the stores. However, on a tight schedule, you’ll have to make a decision on how you’ll want to spend this time carved out for shopping. I recommend hitting up at least two stores to pick up a few souvenirs and unique gifts: The Wicker Man on High Street and Doris & Jeannie on Ann Street.
The Wicker Man is the place to go for all your quality Irish souvenirs. They sell everything from Irish chocolates from County Kerry to wool blankets from County Mayo. Best of all, the store marks the items with tags identifying the city and/or county where the items are made.
Doris & Jeannie is an adorable, quirky store with a nice offering of things for the home. It’s a great place to pick up a unique and very cute gift. They have two locations in Belfast, but the city center location on Ann Street is very close to Victoria Square making it convenient for tourists on foot.
Traditional Afternoon Tea
Spend an indulgent afternoon at Belfast’s most famous hotel, the Europa Hotel, to enjoy a totally British and Northern Irish tradition, afternoon tea. The Hotel Europa is one of the world’s most famous hotels thanks not only to the high profile guests that have graced its corridors when visiting Belfast, and but also due to the bombing attacks on the hotel during The Troubles. It was often targeted because it was a hotel frequented by journalists in town to cover the conflict. It has become known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.
The Europa Hotel claims to have perfected the art of Afternoon Tea. You’ll enjoy delicate pastries and scones, dainty sandwiches, and blended teas in the luxurious surroundings of the Piano Lounge. It’s offered daily from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM starting at £25 per person. To make a reservation, call +44 028 9027 1066.
Black Cab Tour
No visit to Belfast is complete without learning about its turbulent past during The Troubles and witnessing this history with your own eyes. The infamous Black Cab tours take you around the areas of North and West Belfast that were synonymous with the years of conflict. You’ll visit both the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods where painted murals adorn the buildings depicting local heroes and past events.
The tour also takes you to the Cupar Way Peace Wall, a border barrier that separates the Loyalist Shankill (Protestant) and Republican Falls (Catholic) neighborhoods. The Peace Wall is just one of dozens that divide the city. It’s been in place for 45 years, which is 17 years longer than that of the Berlin Wall. Although the city had plans to tear the peace walls down, it decided not to do so because of a 2012 poll that revealed 69% of residents in Belfast felt the walls were still necessary to curb potential violence. Tourists are encouraged to write messages of peace, love and hope on the wall when they visit.
For a guaranteed great experience, consider Billy Scott, a Blue Badge Guide (the highest standard of achievement for tour guides). Billy, Belfast born, raised, and battered (as he puts it), is not only professional and charming, he holds a wealth of information in that handsome head of his.
With Billy, you’ll get an insider’s perspective of the 40 year conflict in Belfast as you are whisked around the neighborhoods in his black cab. But feel free to ask this super-friendly gent about anything related to Belfast; he has some fascinating tales as well as great tips about the city.
Typically, for a 90 minute tour, the price will start at £35 with Billy Scott. Contact Billy directly for a quote based on the number in your party.
Happy Hour at The Crown Liquor Saloon
Belfast has some great historical pubs, but one of the best well known sits on Great Victoria Street across from the Europa Hotel. The Crown Liquor Saloon was established in 1885 as a Victorian gin palace. It’s now one of Belfast’s most beautiful pubs with its restored elaborate tiling on the outdoor façade, and its colorful stained glass windows, carved ceilings, and fine woodwork on the inside.
This gas lit, baroque styled pub is very intimate with its mood lighting and booth (snug) seating. If you get lucky enough to snag a snug, check out its original gun metal plates (for striking matches) and antique bells (for alerting staff). Of course, if you prefer to be a bit more social, simply belly up to the red granite bar with its heated footrests, and you’ll be chatting with new friends in no time.
Most guests at this popular and friendly watering hole were out-of-towners during my visit. I had a lovely chat with a couple from County Donegal, a brief interaction with a braggy American, and an impromptu whiskey tasting with a new friend from Scotland. It’s a great pub to stop in for a beer or two for Happy Hour giving you a chance to see a beautifully restored historic pub and to make new friends from all over the world.
Mourne’s Mussel Pot Dinner
When in Belfast, be sure to seek out some local fresh seafood. No better place to find this than at the Mourne Seafood Bar. All fish is purchased directly from the local ports of Annalong and Kilkeel, while their mussels, oysters and cockles are sourced directly from their own shellfish beds at Ballyedmond in Carlingford Lough. You can have an informal meal on the main floor (definitely try a Mourne mussel pot), or if you are in the mood for a more formal atmosphere for dinner, reserve a table at their upstairs restaurant.
Maud’s for Dessert
A solid favorite of both locals and tourists, Maud’s Ice Cream is a must when visiting Belfast. Although you can stumble upon Maud’s in towns across the Emerald Isle, Belfast was the location of one of their first ice cream shops. Established in 1982, Maud’s makes creamy flavorful ice cream from scratch every week.
Some of the unique flavors to try at Maud’s include the Irish Atlantic Sea Salted Caramel (won Gold in the 2015 Blás na hÉireann food awards), Jammie Maudger (a flavor inspired by Belfast’s favorite biscuit, the Jammie Dodger), and the Poor Bear’s Delight (their most popular flavor).
Maud’s Ice Cream Café is sadly not located in the center city, and it’ll require a taxi ride to their 555 Lisburn Road location to indulge in this cool treat. But trust me, it’s worth the short trip! (Open til 10PM).
A great way to wrap up a day of sightseeing around Belfast is to have a few cocktails at the Duke of York pub in the Cathedral Quarter. It’s located on a quaint cobblestone side street (7-11 Commercial Court) and provides the great atmosphere you’d expect of a traditional Northern Ireland pub with a décor that reflects old Belfast. Be sure to check out the murals gallery on the outside of the pub!
Where I stayed
I stayed at the Park Inn Radisson, which offers reasonably priced rooms (£79.00) in the city center. The hotel is modern, with clean, comfortable rooms. There’s a large restaurant and bar onsite, too. It’s perfectly located just 4 blocks from the bus station, and just 2 blocks from the Europa Hotel and the Crown Saloon. You can walk to all the sights and the shopping district in the city center from this hotel in no time thanks to its central location.
I’d like to extend a thank you to Visit Belfast and its affiliates for hosting me during my visit. As always, opinions and recommendations are 100% my own.
Have you been to Belfast? What were some of your favorite experiences? Share in the comments below.