Top 14 Things to Do in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast, or as it is known in the Irish language Béal Feirste, is the capital city of Northern Ireland. This beautiful city is steeped in history and is a must-visit for those heading to the emerald isle. In the 70’s and 80’s Belfast suffered greatly during The Troubles, and was deemed one of the most unsafe cities in Europe. Fast forward almost forty years and Belfast is a booming city full of art, culture, Game of Thrones film locations, and of course history. There are so many wonderful things to do in Belfast making it the perfect city break for a few days.
A Quick Overview of Belfast’s History
While the city has a rich history linked with the political unrest in the late 20th century, it has come a long way since then and now offers so much more. An incredible food scene, a bumping arts and music industry and the friendliest locals you could ever hope to find, all combine to make it a brilliant place to visit. But if you are interested to learn more about the history of Belfast and The Troubles, there is a walking tour with a political focus on this time. In case you are wondering where to find all the friendly locals, pop your head into one of the many pubs and you will find them enjoying some of the best whiskey and beer that Ireland has to offer.
One of the proudest achievements in this city’s history is that it was the building place of the Titanic. As a proud Northern Irishman, I have always been amused by the fact that we are so proud of a ship that sunk on its maiden voyage but I understand exactly why we are. It was a time when the city was a major industrial power in the world and an achievement that really helped put Belfast on the map. The story of the Titanic has now become one of the most popular reasons to visit the region.
Being from Northern Ireland, it is my pleasure to share all my local knowledge with you so read on to find out all the best things to do in Belfast city.
1. Titanic Belfast
Titanic Belfast is the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. Like I said we are very proud of it. Titanic Belfast offers visitors the chance to take the Titanic experience, which offers much more than just a museum. The experience is spread over 9 galleries and uses special effects, interactive exhibits, full-scale reconstructions and numerous artifacts from the ship itself to really help visitors explore the legend and history of the Titanic.
Titanic Belfast also enables users to walk the docks where the Titanic was built and board the SS Nomadic, the world’s last remaining White Star Vessel. The building itself is a tribute to the White Star Line shipping company as it is in the shape of a star when viewed from the air.
Titanic Belfast also lies in the shadow of two giant shipbuilding cranes located in the Harland and Wolff shipyard. They are known locally as Samson and Goliath and can be seen from miles around. These giant yellow cranes have become one of the defining features of the city skyline.
2. St George’s Market
This is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. Since 1604, there has been a Friday market on the St George’s site and the tradition continues with the market operating on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The market is well known locally as the best place to get fresh produce but has also become a place to buy unique gifts from Belfast’s artists.
The atmosphere here, especially on the weekends is amazing. The booming calls of the vendors as they sell their goods is often mixed in with the sound of live music. The market is usually very busy but this is what creates the buzzing atmosphere and makes it such a great place to visit.
3. Black Taxi Tour Belfast
The city of Belfast has a checkered past that will forever be ingrained in the city. While Belfast has moved past this troubled time it is still important to discover the true history of the city. A black taxi tour of the city’s murals is an excellent way to learn all about The Troubles. Murals have been painted on the sides of buildings to depict each side of the community’s war efforts.
The taxi drivers have lived through The Troubles and are able to give their own stories as to what it was really like. They will take you to both the Nationalist and Unionist areas so you can get both sides of the story. Although it may not have been a pretty history, it is certainly an interesting one.
4. Cave Hill
Cave Hill Country Park offers the chance to enjoy panoramic views across the city and beyond. The walking trails are suitable for casual walkers and also offer more demanding trails for outdoor enthusiasts. Regardless of which route you decide to take, the end result is still a stunning aerial view of Belfast and Belfast Lough. The park also includes Cave Hill Visitor Centre, an adventurous playground, gardens, orienteering routes, archaeological sights and the beautiful Belfast Castle.
5. Divis and The Black Mountain
Another great option for those that love to go hiking in Ireland is to climb Divis and the Black Mountain. These two trails offer similar spectacular views of the city and Belfast Lough but are a bit more rugged than Cave Hill. Keep an eye out for red grouse, skylarks and peregrine falcons as you make your way to the top. From the top of Divis Mountain you can see the Scottish, Cumbrian and Welsh Uplands on a clear day.
6. Belfast City Hall
Free public tours around Belfast City Hall are a great way to learn the history of the building while also seeing some of its best features. You can also visit the Titanic Memorial Garden and other monuments located inside the grounds. The City Hall is home to many great works of art from painters across Ireland and beyond, including my talented grandfather, Norman Shaw. Be sure to keep an eye out for his work when you visit. It is also worth passing by Belfast City Hall at night as it is illuminated by coloured spotlights accentuating its architectural features.
7. Grand Opera House
The Grand Opera House is the most iconic theatre in Northern Ireland and was actually the first listed building in the country. Its main Victoria Theatre is simply beautiful and is host to a wide variety of performances including plays, musicals, dance, opera, comedy and much more. Having visited here once every year while at school, I can tell you the best way to truly enjoy this place is to catch a show of some sort and immerse yourself in the local culture.
8. Crumlin Road Gaol
The Crumlin Road Gaol operated as a fully functioning prison for 150 years from the mid 1800s. In 1996 it shut its doors to prisoners for good but it has reopened as a tourist attraction. The prison was home to some of the worst criminals in the country, 17 men were hanged here and there were hunger strikes and riots throughout the years. It is quite an unusual tourist attraction but one that has become very popular in the years since it has opened.
9. Ulster Museum
The Ulster Museum tells the story of humankind in Ireland and also further afield. It is a wonderful collection of art, history, and science all under the one roof. They have dinosaur bones, an ancient Egyptian mummy and the body of a polar bear to name a few. It is an activity I would highly recommend on a rainy day, and in Northern Ireland your chances of a rainy day are pretty high. The Ulster Museum is located in the grounds of the botanical gardens so if you visit on a day with decent weather, you can enjoy a walk through this lovely green oasis in the city centre after your tour around the museum.
The Ulster Museum is open Tuesdays – Sundays from 10:00 – 17:00 and admission is completely free for all ages.
10. W5 Interactive Discovery Centre – Things to Do in Belfast with Kids
This is personally one of my favourite things to do in Belfast. I first went to the W5 science museum when I was 7 years old and I have been coming back ever since. The museum is designed for kids, so it is a great family outing, but I think it also appeals to the big kids as well. This museum is a fully interactive experience which is a grown-up way of saying you get to play with all the exhibits. W5 was built to try and make science fun and interesting and they have absolutely done that here. Regardless of your age or interest in science you are sure to have a great time here as you watch science come to life.
11. Watch a Belfast Giants Ice Hockey Game
I’m sure this is the last thing you may have expected to appear on a list of things to do in Belfast but there really is an ice hockey team here. They play in the SSE Arena on the outskirts of town. Having been to several Giants games in my life I must say it is a brilliant way to spend an evening. The atmosphere inside the stadium is always lively and the Irish people sure know how to make some noise when it comes to sport.
If you want to watch a sport that is more traditional in Northern Ireland, then you can head to an Ulster Rugby match instead. The Ulster team plays in Ravenhill, which is also located in Belfast. Attending an Ulster Rugby match will give you the chance to see some of the best rugby players in the world compete in one of the most physical games around.
12. Have a pint at the Duke of York
No trip to Northern Ireland is complete without spending a bit of time in the local pubs. The country is renowned for its lively bars, great beer, and traditional music. You will find all of these in abundance in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. The best bar here and probably in the whole city is the Duke of York. The rustic design, crowds of thirsty patrons and brilliant live music make this the best nights’ craic in Belfast.
The interior of the bar is covered in bits and pieces of pub memorabilia collected from across Northern Ireland by the owner Willie, while the outside has murals painted by local artists. The pub can be found on Commercial Court which is a beautiful cobbled street lined with red brick buildings.
I’d recommend trying a pint of Harp Lager, as well as the usual suggestion to have a Guinness. Harp is synonymous with the pub culture in Northern Ireland and second only in popularity to Guinness.
13. Stay in the Most Bombed Hotel in Europe
The Europa Hotel located right in the heart of Belfast is known as the most bombed hotel in Europe. During the Troubles it was bombed 36 times. Quite a title to hold. Nowadays it is a four-star hotel that offers guests a stunning view overlooking the city. If you are going to stay anywhere in Belfast, then why not stay in one with such a famous history.
But if you are looking for other options, take a look here on where to stay in Belfast.
14. Drive The Causeway Coastal Route
While not strictly a Belfast activity, I couldn’t leave this off the list. The North Coast of Northern Ireland is one of the most spectacular places in the world. The drive from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry takes you along rugged cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean and through the rolling green hills of the Northern Irish countryside. The main attractions along this route are The Giants Causeway, Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge and Mussenden Temple. If you have the time, make sure to explore all the amazing sights along the Causeway Coast.
If you are a Game of Thrones fan, then this trip is a must. Many of the locations in the hit HBO series were filmed along this stretch of coastline. Ballintoy Harbour was used as the Iron Islands and The Dark Hedges featured as The Kings Road just to name a few. You can follow the trail yourself or book a guided Game of Thrones tour from Belfast to see all the different filming locations.
Belfast is a place with a storied past but it has managed to develop into a vibrant city that welcomes millions of visitors every year. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland and it’s easy to see why. There are so many amazing things to do in Belfast that you may struggle to fit them all in on your trip. Belfast is full of beautiful architecture, museums and of course pubs. It is definitely a capital city worthy of it’s title. A trip here will only leave you eager for more.
About the Author:
Luke Storey is one of the two faces behind The Coastal Campaign, a couple of twenty-something adventure travellers from Northern Ireland and Vancouver Island. The Coastal Campaign is all about exploring off the beaten path destinations and once they get there, ripping round on scooters, cliff jumping, hiking, finding amazing beaches and other epic locations. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram!