In the past Belfast has been more of a city to avoid, with the “troubles” and the conflict, and there are few cities that I would less rather explore. And as someone who was born and bred in Northern Ireland, I would honestly be completely lost for recommendations if asked what to do in Belfast? “No idea… Saint Anne’s?” At least this was back in the day. When tourism and interest in the city were always centred on little more than boozers (e.g. George Best), terrorism (‘the troubles’), and a big sinking ship (the Titanic).
But this was back in the ’80s, ’90s… and even the early millennium, before Belfast really reformed and progressed into a rather positive and exciting destination to explore. And these days Belfast is easily one of my favourite cities, and it is partly due to its obscurity, where it escapes the traditional mass tourist trails found elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, there is still plenty of things to do in Belfast city entre to keep you more than entertained for short breaks and longer.
The Millennium City of Belfast
It was only recently when I returned to Northern Ireland, having hopped around Asia since 2011, and I have kind of approached the country with fresh eyes, as a tourist, along with Fanfan who forced me reluctantly to see Belfast again. And, in parts, it is almost unrecognisable to me. Exciting and even surprisingly sophisticated than I could ever have imagined.
But this all happened relatively recently. For example, the Titanic Quarter was only really developed properly after 2010 with the Titanic Belfast ‘Museum’ (2012) the flagship building of its developed. And while Belfast has come on leaps and bounds through recent years, it no doubt holds that same old Belfast rapscallion charm that locals and tourists have always loved through the years before. Anyway, I would recommend checking ‘whats on Belfast’ to see events in Belfast during your stay (website here) and there are almost every attractions here are free things to do in Belfast.
Where to Stay in Belfast?
There would be various areas to base a stay in Belfast which I will split into the nearby train stations in Belfast City which are all found on the main tourist line between Belfast and Bangor (dubbed the Goldcoast Trainline). Anyway, these stations and area include:
- Great Victoria Street Station (Europa): For top hotels in Belfast City Centre.
- Botanic Station: For top hotels in Botanic’s Student area of Belfast.
- Lanyon Place Station (formerly Belfast Central: For hotels on Belfast Lagan Riverside.
- Belfast Titanic Quarter: For Hotels near the popular Titanic shipyard district.
Personally I would start out from Great Victoria Street (Europa) given it’s closest to most of the city’s best bars, restaurants and nightlife. At the same time, it is less than a mile (a kilometre and 6 bits) between either Great Victoria Street and Botanic or Great Victoria and Lanyon Place. As Belfast really is a city that can be easily covered on foot.
Check Our Full Guide to the Gold Coast Train Line Here.
Best Hotels in Belfast City Centre
There is generally a mixed bag of accommodation in Belfast city centre including hotels, guesthouses, hostels and short-stay apartments. And I will link to these throughout this article (using booking.com) to give a better idea of nearby Belfast tourist attractions and the various best places to stay in Belfast. But, for a quick list, I have linked to hotels in Belfast’s popular tourist areas below.
Great Victoria Street Station
Aka Belfast Europa Station (Glengall Street) where the main train and bus transit hubs connect conveniently in the middle of Great Victoria Street in an area dubbed as Belfast’s “Golden Mile”. And this would be the obvious area to stay, not only for onward travel in Northern Ireland, but also to access the main Belfast tourist attractions and best things to do in Belfast NI. As it is less than 400 meters by foot to arguably the most central point of Belfast at Belfast City Hall.
This is also where we would start when travelling in from outside of Belfast, as most tourists do, exiting onto the main Great Victoria Street Road at the Europa Hotel which is famed as being the world’s most bombed hotel.
The Crown Liquor Saloon: Belfast’s Best Bar?
I probably shouldn’t start straight off boozing in a bar, but The Crown Liquor Saloon is definitely a must-see in Belfast and it is found directly opposite the train and bus stations on Great Victoria Street. And, why not, as it is one of Northern Ireland’s most popular pastimes.
The Crown Liquor Saloon is just a rather impressive Victorian pub (restored and funded by the National Trust) and it just looks proper fancy decorated with intricate mosaics, tiles, carvings and stain glass. Then, at the bar, there is a load of locally crafted beers and ciders on tap, and I will forever recommend getting in early to steal one of the snugs which are like cosy partitioned room for more private boozing sessions. More here.
Donegall Square: The Tourist Centre
From Great Victoria Street, just past Belfast Grand Opera House (for shows in Belfast) take a right onto Wellington Park a short-ish walk past rather magnificent red brick Victorian architecture finds Donegall Square and Belfast City Hall. Which would be the centre point of Belfast City where the Belfast Tourist Office for tourist information (Discover Belfast) is found as well as a terminus for many of the big bus tours.
The Donegall Square area is kind of split into four areas North, South, East and West, and it divides the commercial (North) and business (South) areas of Belfast, but all are within a stone’s throw from one another on each side of the City Hall. And there really are some great views overlooking Belfast City Hall including the rather fancy Cafe Parisien (North) which is pretty much opposite the gates of the City Hall compound.
City Hall: Belfast’s Central Stomping Ground
Smack in the centre of Donegall Square is the Belfast City Hall, a big fancy baroque building and the central backdrop of Belfast City Centre, which is home to Belfast City Council. And there is a lot to the compound, and the grounds, and the memorials to explore, which I will eventually cover on its own.
Otherwise, Belfast City Hall is an easy meeting point in the centre of Belfast, formally a huge meeting point with loitering goths, but it is also central to gatherings and events such as Belfast Christmas Market (our christmas marker guide here) etc. There are also daily public Belfast City Hall tours for visitors in the early afternoons (times shown here). And Belfast City Hall also marks the start to the new tourist ” Glass of Thrones Trail” leading to the former Game of Thrones studio (listed below).
Donegall Place: Belfast’s Shopping Streets
Opposite the main entrance to Belfast City is the main shopping streets of Donegall Place and Royal Avenue, as well as a partially pedestrianised maze of shopping streets. And while shopping really is not my personal interest, the shopping streets are always quite interesting with buskers, sculptures, and just quaint Belfast charm.
There would then be two main shopping centres (malls) in Belfast with Castle Court, an indoor shopping centre located straight ahead on Royal Avenue. The 2nd, and by far the better, is the spanky open-air mall at Victoria Square (included in more detail below).
Victoria Square: A Spanky Open-Air Mall
Victoria Square felt somewhat out-of-place when it first arrived to Belfast (2009), given the rather bland and dated shopping landscape that surrounded it. But now it has become somewhat central to shopping in the city as a premium open-air shopping complex with a load of big-name high street brands (H&M, Mango…. etc.).
However, as someone who’d prefer a kick to the nads than a day of shopping, there is more interest in entertainment and eating. And there is a fair amount of decent chain food including big-ass burritos at Belfast’s own Boojum (here), there’s always a “Cheeky Nandos”, and it’s always fun to count beards in Five Guys. Also, there is Bittles Bar, one of Belfast’s oldest pubs, right out front next to the Jaffe Memorial fountain.
The Viewing Dome: Best Views of Belfast?
One of the most prominent features on Belfast’s skyline is the glass dome ceiling of Victoria Square. Although the views would be much better when looking out from the inside at the Victoria Square Observation Deck. Another free Belfast must-see attraction accessed easily by the main lifts/elevators of the Victoria Square Mall. An attraction known as ‘Experience the Dome‘.
The viewing dome more or less looks out with 360′ panoramic views of Belfast City Centre including nearby Belfast landmarks and further to the hills and what to see in Belfast. Some of the more significant sights include the old Harland and Wolff shipyard (Titanic Quarter), the Stormont Estate (Parliament Buildings) as well as Belfast Castle and Cave Hill.
Kelly’s Cellar: Ireland’s Oldest Pub
I’d never really heard of Kelly’s Cellars a viral video appeared on YouTube depicting a rather Northern Irish scene with an Ozzy Man commentating over it. Since then I had to go check it out. At the same time, I’m surprised that I’d never heard of it before given its central location just off Donegall Place.
Anyway, Kelly’s Cellars claims to be the oldest pub in Belfast and for me it’s a fair bit different to the other iconic bars in Belfast e.g The Crown or Duke of Yorkers. As it would be more rustic and folksy and less polished and Protestant looking. It’s probably the most Irish Irish Bar in Belfast. The beer garden out front would also be likely the biggest in central Belfast.
Saint Anne’s Cathedral: A Big Fancy Church
I admit to lazy research for Saint Anne’s Cathedral but when you’ve visited some of the most magnificent churches and basilicas around Europe, like Paris and Rome, all for free, I find it hard to fork over even £5 quid to tour an obscure church in Belfast (their website here). But it is one of those recommended things to see in Belfast so I did call around recently to at least see Saint Anne’s and did make it to the foyer and ticket office before turning out again.
On the plus side, the building itself is really quite awesome, and by sneaking past the barrier ropes at the windows out front, we did manage to snap a shot of the interiors. We also get to chat with a friendly minister in the foyer, which I guess is like our equivalent to a monk or an imam when it comes to Northern Irish Christian culture. So maybe the overall tourist interest is lost on me. Anyway, it is one of the more popular Belfast places to visit, and tours are found here.
The Cathedral Quarter: Traditional Belfast Bars
Next to and named after Saint Anne’s Cathedral, The Cathedral Quarter is an area of cobbled alleys and decorated streets which are best known for bars and nightlife in Belfast and are full of ‘craic’ during the weekend in Belfast. And it is probably the best area in Belfast for a pub crawl. There’s some decent graffiti in the area including an ode to “Northern Ireland’s Famous Faces”, opposite the Duke of York bar, which includes such personalities as George Best, some guy called Uncle Andy, and, yeah, they’re all pretty much lost on me as well.
Anyway, back to the bars and boozing, and to share Belfast’s most popular pastime. So The Duke of York would be the most famous bar in the area, a traditional pub with walls covered in boozing memorabilia and there’s a snug or two to sneak into if early. Nearby is then the Harp Bar, named free Northern Ireland’s favourite brew, Harp Lager. And the Cathedral Quarter is one of the better places for things to do in Belfast at night. I’ll share a full blog down the line and the Duke of York website here.
Glass of Thrones Trail: Game of Thrones…
This is a relatively new Belfast tourism initiative, and it kind of milks the whole Game of Thrones connection in Northern Ireland, because, why not. Tourists love that stuff. So the idea is to follow a trail of stained glass windows depicting various scenes from the Game of Thrones, which eventually leads to the Titanic Studios, one of Europe’s largest film studio, and home to many of the sets from the GoT franchise.
I actually first came across the first window outside Belfast City Hall during a day of cultural learning for Fanfan with Northern Ireland’s “Glorious Twelfth” celebrations in Belfast. I’m somewhat surprised it survived. So there are currently five different windows dotted between City Hall and the Titanic Quarter where it connects to another walking trail with the Maritime Mile (shared below).
Botanic Station is located on Botanic Avenue between Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square, which is like a really crap version of Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, and Belfast Botanic Gardens in which the station takes its name. A short 5-minute stroll each way. While the area itself would be a lively student hive with decent restaurants, bars and nightlife, most tourist attractions will be found in-and-around the Botanical Gardens themselves (Queen’s University, Ulster Museum, the Palm House and Tropical Ravine). And while the Botanic area is slightly out of the centre, it is still less than a kilometre away, past Shaftesbury Square to the Great Victoria Street Station. Belfast really is a small and easy city to navigate.
Botanic Gardens: A Walk in the Park
Most of the top things to do in Belfast Botanic are in-and-around the main Botanical Gardens, a 28-acre park, which is most notable for its Palm House conservatory found just after the entrance gates to the gardens. The Palm House is similar to the glasshouses of Kew Gardens and Irish National Botanic Gardens, but it actually predates them both. And it houses all sorts of weird and wonderful plants from around the world including a 400-year-old Xanthorrhoea…
Botanic Park is otherwise rather large, and it is often an event venue used to host things like concerts and music festivals e.g. the Tennents Vital Festival, with upwards of 40,000 peeps in the grounds. And it is often popular with drunken teens during the summer months. Otherwise there is not a whole lot of excitement around the park itself, although there’s a rose garden, trees, an old bandstand, and… yeah, really most tourist interest is found in the buildings on the perimeter of the park.
Queen’s University: Student Central
I never did study at Queen’s University (my life was instead wasted at the University of Ulster). But I still found myself in the university area on occasions which was mostly for nights out at the Student Union (Shine at the Mandela Hall). And the area will have all the usual studenty stuff such as cheap bars, happy hours, cafes and an Independent Cinema at the Queen’s Film Theatre.
The sandstone and soft red brick buildings of Queen’s University are otherwise an attraction in themselves, about as Hogwart-ish as you’ll find in Belfast and Northern Ireland, having been built back in the 1800s. The main building is known as the Lanyon Building, named after the architect and designer Sir Charles Lanyon, who influenced a fair few facades in central Belfast.
The Ulster Museum: Fascinating and Free
Just next to the Botanic Gardens entrance is the Ulster Museum, a free to visit Belfast tourist attraction, that is definitely worth seeing. I vaguely remember visiting the Ulster Museum for a school trip as a kid, and my main takeaway was the displays of dinosaur bones, and more so the Egyptian mummy (Takabuti). A literal real-life (dead) mummy, wrapped in creepy bandages, and lying all stiff and weird in an open sarcophagus.
But there is otherwise a silly amount of interesting stuff in the Ulster Museum (coming from someone who’s not really interested in stuff) from ancient Irish relics to Paraphernalia of the troubles. And the mummy is still there, and it’s still so creepy that Fanfan refused to even look at it. Their website here.
The Tropical Ravine: A Botanical Sauna
I’m including the Tropical Ravine House as a separate attraction, as I honestly never knew it existed despite it having been around since way back in 1889. I guess it just didn’t stand out as the Palm House did. But I ended up calling in recently with my nephew who refused to go into the Ulster Museum next door because his dork of a dad always spends hours looking at rocks/fossils. Instead he was forced to listen to me and Fanfan pointing out banana trees, and cinnamon trees, and all the exciting tropical stuff that we’re used to from our daily lives in Asia.
I have no idea what the Tropical Ravine looked like before now, but I’m fairly sure there were rather significant changes during its restoration between 2013 and 2018. And only recently was it reopened again to the public with some more innovative additions to the sunken ravine that runs the length of the building. With a balcony at each side for viewing, a fogging and misting system, as well as interactive and engaging information panels. And, like all these tourist attractions in Belfast Botanic area, it is free to see.
Lanyon Place Station
Lanyon Place has always known as Belfast Central Station until recently. And I am kind of glad they renamed it given that the station never really felt central to begin with. Meaning it was inevitably confusing for tourists and visitors to Belfast. At the same time, it is still less than a mile away from Great Victoria Street, where it is found on the Lagan riverside area next to Lanyon Place. But the station is otherwise handy for the Lagan Riverside tourist attractions of Belfast, although it is used more for the big events hall at the Waterfront Hall, and for convenient hotels in Belfast with parking including the highrise Hilton Belfast Hotel. Lanyon Place Station is also (a wee bit) nearer to the Victoria Square Mall than Great Victoria Square.
Belfast Lagan Riverside: …and Big Fish
The Laganside would be the main area of Belfast’s rejuvenation including various art sculptures including the “Big Fish” (1999), “Sheep on the Road” (1999) and the towering Beacon of Hope (2007) which is a near 20-metre tall sculpture welcoming visitors crossing over the Lagan Bridge to the renewed city of Belfast. And it’s one of the more serene places to visit in Belfast, especially at sunset and the twilight hours, and it’s about as romantic as Belfast will be when lit up on a Belfast night out. The bridges crossing the Lagan then lead to Belfast’s Docks and the old shipyards of the Titanic Quarter.
Directly opposite the Big Fish is another historic area including Custom House Square which is an open-air area hosting all sorts of events through mostly the summer months (check listings here). Also opposite, and hard to miss, is the slightly slanted Albert Memorial Clock, a famous landmark in Belfast and our equivalent to the leaning tower of Pisa. There is also a tradition which I am trying to revive where folk would throw (mostly empty) bottles of whisky at the clock on New Year’s Eve to start their booze-free life ahead in the New Year.
The Maritime Mile: A Walk to the Titanic
Aka Belfast Maritime Trail. As the route itself would be closer to 2 miles, at least when followed by foot, from the Waterfront area to the furthest points of the trail near the HMS Caroline. But I do suggest following this route for any visit to the Titanic Quarter, starting out at Lanyon Place (or even Belfast City Centre), before crossing the pedestrian footbridge next to the “Big Fish”. From there it’s just a short walk along the riverside, past the Odyssey (SSE) Arena, to find the main attractions of the Titanic Quarter.
This is again one of the newer Belfast tourism initiatives in Belfast, and it is continually developing, and Titanic Foundation has a decent enough website citing progress and new tourism in the area. And even skimming through the heritage trail myself, I can say I have never heard of most of it e.g. Belfast’s historic Sailortown, St Joseph’s Church, Clarendon buildings, the ‘Dividers’ sculpture, Sinclair Seaman’s Church…. and I’ll probably share a full post on this down the line.
Titanic Quarter Station
So Belfast’s Titanic Quarter is located on the far side of River Lagan which is simple enough to reach by train along the Belfast to Bangor line to the new Titanic Quarter Station (formerly Bridge End Station). Before crossing footbridges and motorways towards the towering yellow Harland and Wolff cranes of the old Belfast Shipyards (just follow the Titanic Quarter signs). But it is honestly not the most exciting of walks, and it is still a kilometre or so walking to reach the main attractions of Belfast Titanic Quarter. So the station is better used to explore Belfast’s new “Visit Eastside” attractions.
Otherwise the Titanic Quarter is easy to reach on foot from Belfast City Centre (as above following the Maritime Mile) where it is less than 2km from Belfast City Hall, it is 1.2km from Victoria Square, and, from the “Big Fish,” it is only around 900m. And the walk from the city centre, crossing the bridges of the Lagan, will forever be the more intriguing and scenic route to follow.
Check our Full Guide to Belfast Titanic Quarter Here.
Odyssey (SSE) Arena: A Big Event Place
The Odyssey (SSE Arena Belfast) would mak the beginning of the main stretch along Belfast Docks and the Titanic Quarter. And the building, which is really hard to miss, is a bit of a white elephant when it comes to visiting during slower hours. As it is really used more for big events and is the home stadium to the Belfast Giant’s Ice Hockey Team which may be worth seeing on a night out (what’s on here).
Otherwise there’s not a huge amount of interest for tourists, other than the usual stuff like cinemas, a bowling alley, a bunch of restaurants… The permanent W5 Science & Discovery Centre may be one of those things to do in Belfast with kids, but there are also “strictly adults-only” nights for big kids (W5 Late) which I guess is one of the more fun things to do in Belfast for adults with the usual exhibits only you can play with them when drunk.
Titanic Shipyard: Ye’ Old Titanic Stuff
There is a lot to the Titanic Shipyard but the most prominent attraction would be the literal flagship building with Titanic Belfast which houses interactive galleries and shares the “sights, sounds, smells and stories” surrounding the RMS Titanic. A museum of sorts. There is also the SS Nomadic museum, often known as “a Mini Titanic”, which was used to shuttle the doomed passengers to the Titanic before it set sail.
Then are many attractions free to explore including the Olympic Slipway which is where the Titanic was originally built and launched 100 plus years ago. Although the highlight for me was the rather impressive restoration of the old buildings of the Titanic Hotel, including the original drawing offices and a decent cafe, bar and restaurant at “Drawing Office Two”. Again it is all free to explore, through restored corridors and offices of the old Harland and Wolff headquarters, and just the entire Titanic Quarter is like a museum in itself. Again, our full guide here.
HMS Caroline: A Navy Ship Museum
Like the Titanic Belfast building and the SS Nomadic, HMS Caroline is a paid attraction, and I’ve honestly not been into all three of the above (I’m not overly fussed for museums). Unfortunately, the HMS Caroline is not included in The White Star Premium Pass, either as it’s not Titanic related and is instead run as a museum by the Royal Navy (NMRN). So again it’s another niche interest, with a load of naval history through World Wars, although it’s best known as the “lone survivor” of the Battle of Jutland (WW1). Their website here.
HMS Caroline would be the furthest main attraction in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter following a historical harbourside promenade walk to where it’s found berthed in Alexandra Dock. And even with no plans to visit the museum, I would recommend following along (it’s around half a mile from the Belfast Titanic Museum to HMS Caroline) past various maritime attractions, like the “Great Light” Lighthouse, and it’s just a nice area for a stroll.
CS Lewis Square: An Ode to Narnia
CS Lewis Square is part of a somewhat unlikely rejuvenation project in East Belfast (Visit Eastside) and is, as expected, popular with fans of CS Lewis Lewis and his Chronicles of Narni. As the famous Belfastian was born locally and was brought up in the surrounding streets of East Belfast. The area is also easy enough to reach from the Titanic Quarter Station with waymarked signs and it’s about a 1km (10-minute) walk following the main Newtownards Road or Island Street.
The original feature in the area was the lifesize statue of the author himself, opening his wardrobe (The Searcher Sculpture), before the area expanded into a rather big public square hosting 7 Narnia inspired sculptures. These include Mr Tumnus, the White Witch, and of course Aslan. Anyway, it’s not a huge tourist attraction in Belfast, as expected, so it may be worth pairing as visit with some proper good grub at adjoining Freight Restaurant and maybe checking out other local tourist interests at the EastSide Visitor Centre (the Visit Eastside website here).
Check Our Full Guide to CS Lewis Square Here.
Visit Eastside: Adventures in East Belfast
East Belfast has been somewhat of a neglected no-go area when it comes to places to go in Belfast, and it wasn’t an area I’d ever go near. But this has definitely changed in recent years, and this is highlighted by the Visit Eastside tourist initiative and is has progressive sincerely since with the start of peacetimes in Belfast and Northern Ireland. And while you do still find the ol’ Paramilitary murals and flags in East Belfast, they are more a show of local culture, than any threat to tourists or local tourism. If anything they add to tourist interest.
So CS Lewis Square was somewhat central to the revival in East Belfast, but interests travel quite far with mapped walks along the Connswater and Comber Greenways for more keep-fit activities in Belfast. And I did follow one of the trails on my last visit, starting from Victoria Park which I guess is an attraction in itself beneath the backdrop of the iconic Harland and Wolff Cranes of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. The trail then brought me past the back of the Oval (Glentoran’s Football Pitch), before crossing the James Ellis Bridge, and finally arriving at CS Lewis Square. And other obscure Belfast references
Belfast Sightseeing Tours?
I personally never travel out from Belfast, given I don’t live there and I have a car. So these tourist attractions in Belfast are all found outside of the city centre, and I am literally only researching them for the sake of this blog (you’re welcome). Although one of the easier ways to visit them is using the open-top hop-on hop-off bus tours of Belfast, something we did back in 2012, when Fanfan was just completely underwhelmed. They’re not for everyone. But there are definitely some stops worth jumping off at, which I share below. Along with public transport options including the routes of the new Belfast Glider Bus.
The Troubles Tour: Belfast’s Depressing History
The focus of many of these hop-on-hop-off tours is still on the rather depressing history of conflict, segregation, and violence in Belfast and Northern Ireland. A relatively niche interest still in the top 10 things to do in Belfast. But only really enjoyed for those that actually know or care about it. This is more with the Irish Americans who had watched the troubles from afar. As it is otherwise not the most exciting or enjoyable addition to a Belfast tour itinerary.
I will try to sum up some of the main stops along the way including the Belfast Peace Wall, visits to both the Falls Road and the Shankill Road, as well as the Crumlin Road Jail and Court House. So if these names mean nothing to you, then the political trouble tour may not be the tour for you. If interested, however, the tours are surprisingly popular, and there are a lot of specific and alternative tour options such as the famous Black Taxi Tours.
Stormont Estate: NI’s Parliament Buildings
Stormont would mostly be overlooked by tourists to Belfast, where it’s seen more as a quick photo-op for those on the open-top hop-on/hop-off bus tours. But I would forever recommend jumping off at this stop and making the most of the estate. As there’s really quite a lot to it. The grounds, for example, have walking trails, and various monuments etc. Then there are free daily tours of Parliament Buildings without any need for prior booking. Opening Hours: Monday – Friday 09.00 AM to 16.00 PM and Tour Times: 11:00 AM and 14:00 PM.
But, for me, the real gem at Stormont is the frugal fine dining in the Member’s Dining Room (Stormont Restaurant) which until recently was exclusive only to Northern Ireland Politicians and their guests’ (our restaurant review here). So it not only gives a glimpse into the daily goings-on in Northern Ireland Politics, but the food is proper value for money (normally £18.40 for 3 courses) given that it’ actually subsidized by the taxpayer’s wallet. So you’re pretty paying less than the cost of the dining experience to begin with. Note, advance bookings are advised (Reservations: 02890 521 041)
Check our Full Guide to the Stormont Estate Here.
Belfast Castle: A ‘Castle’ on Cave Hill
As with many castles in Northern Ireland, Belfast Castle is more of a big house than an actual castle. At least don’t expect the battlements, or the motte and bailey, or even any interesting stories to tell (for this stuff, you would be better off with Carrickfergus Castle below). So Belfast Castle was first completed in 1870 and the most interesting tidbit from its history is that it replaced the original Belfast Castle which burnt to a crisp in Belfast city centre where Castle Street/Castle Court Shopping Centre is now.
However, the area itself is always worth the visit, and anyone can just call in for a self-guided tour of the “Castle”, and then there are the Cellar Restaurant and Castle Tavern in the basement (menus here). Otherwise many people visit for its location in Cave Hill Country Park which overlooks Belfast Lough, and marks the beginning of forest walks including one to Cave Hill’s famous Napoleon’s Nose (inspiration of the giants in Gulliver’s Travels). Or a simpler stroll with the Castle’s “Cat Garden” where 9 cats are hidden in the form of sculptures, topiaries and mosaics surrounding the castle.
Check our Full Guide to the Belfast Castle Here.
The ‘Gold Coast’ Train Line
I’m prioritizing the Belfast to Bangor train line as there really are some tourist gems not far out from Belfast. Gems that are otherwise ignored by tour groups as they’re really just not profitable given that the coastline is a lot easier to reach independently by train. So this means they’re also a lot less touristy and they feel a lot more off-the-beaten-path.
At the same time, all these attractions are located on the same line as the above Belfast attractions and it is no more than 30 minutes down the line from the Titanic Quarter Station to reach the final stop at the seaside city of Bangor. Anyway, regular trains run daily between Belfast and Bangor, from early to late (around 06:00 to 22:30) along what is dubbed as the Gold Coast of Northern Ireland (train timetables here).
Check Our Full Guide to the Gold Coast Train Line Here.
Belfast City Airport (Sydenham Station)
There are two main airports in Belfast. These are; Belfast International Airport found way out in the sticks of Antrim (about 20 miles). And Belfast City Airport found just a short train ride out from the centre (about 4 miles). So Belfast City Airport is obviously the most convenient airport for travel to Belfast and it is easy enough to get to-and-from the city centre using Sydenham Train Station. It’s about a 0.5-mile to the doors of the terminal. And it is around 20-minutes from Sydenham Train Station Belfast (Great Victoria Street). It is also 25 minutes in the opposite to reach Bangor.
Check our Full Guide to Belfast City Airport Here.
The North Down Coastal Path
Aka the Bangor Coastal Path as many people start out from the seaside town of Bangor before following the North Down coastline back towards Belfast. But it is also possible to hop-on or hop-off at various stations along the Belfast to Bangor train line including Holywood and Marino (a simple map here) as well as Carnalea and Helen’s Bay which are in easier walking distance to reach Bangor. And, while the coastal path is found just a handful of train stops from Belfast City centre, the landscapes and scenery make it feel worlds apart.
The coastal walk is in no doubt an attraction in itself, past beaches, forest parks, and just the varying seascapes of these rather magnificent coastlines. But it also passes and connects many well-known attractions including the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (Cultra Station), as well as Helen’s Bay Beach and Grey’s Point Fort which are part of the extended Crawfordsburn Country Park (Helen’s Bay Station). And of course there are the seaside attractions of Bangor.
Check our Full Guide to the North Down Coastal Path Here.
Ulster Folk & Transport Museum (Cultra Station)
Unlike the busier museums and tourist attractions of Belfast, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is pretty much forgotten and empty, which always works to its advantage. And while I haven’t visited the Transport Museum for a while (although I remember seeing the ‘Back to the Future’ Delorean there. Famously built in Belfast), I did call in recently to the Folk Museum. And it’s a bit like a themed village modelling the old trades, traditions and lives of the people Ulster and Northern Ireland back in the early 20th-century. So you can just poke through the houses, or call in at the bank or church, or just explore the surrounding village homes and watermills etc.
So the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is located around 15-mins from Belfast at the Cultra station on the Belfast to Bangor line (their website here). From Cultra Station it is then around a 0.5-mile walk past the main Bangor Road (directions here) where it is found just minutes out from the prestigious Culloden Estate and Spa hotel. The Museum is split into two different sides on the Motorway with the Transport Museum on the nearside and the Folk Museum on the far.
Crawfordsburn Country Park (Helen’s Bay Station)
Crawfordsburn Country Park is found in the small village of Crawfordsburn which can be tricky to reach without using personal or public transport (our guide to Crawfordsburn here). And while there once was a train stop in the Country Park itself, this was closed and dismantled a long time ago. So these days the park is best accessed from Helen’s Bay train station where it is roughly a 20-minute walk along the coastline to reach the park at Crawfordsburn Beach. Which is likely the best sand beach along this coastline.
So Crawfordsburn Country Park is a relatively compact and well maintained with just enough to explore on a day-out. And while people are often drawn more to the beachfront of the park, I will always prefer the winding forest tracks and tiered climbs that follow the Crawfordsburn River to a cascading waterfall just beneath Crawfordsburn Village and Old Inn. There is also Crawfordsburn viaduct, which is an elevated train track that passes through the forest canopies of the park. There is also a small restaurant/cafe and visitor centre (the Woodland Cafe) near the beachfront of the park.
Check our full Guide to Crawfordsburn Country Park Here.
Bangor City: Belfast’s Seaside Alternative
Bangor is like a seaside alternative to staying in Belfast, and it is easy to reach from Belfast City Airport which marks like a mid-point between the two tourist destinations. Bangor being more for tourists seeking a bit of sea breeze and local coastal charm (where to stay in Bangor here). The town also marks the beginning of the North Down Coastal Path routes, is home to Northern Ireland’s largest marina, and then there are a bunch of other seafront attractions like the Eisenhow Pier, and Pickie Funpark…. and I share a wider list here.
But there is more to Bangor than its seafront tourist attractions, and directly opposite arrivals at Bangor Train Station is Castle Park, home to Bangor Castle and Bangor Museum, Bangor Abbey and Christian Heritage Trails, as well as a Victorian Walled Garden….. there’s really just too much to share in a quick blog here (check below). But the great thing with Bangor is, due to the resort town’s relative obscurity, is that all museums and attractions are free to explore. So a visit is only the cost of a train fare.
Check our Full Guide to the Seaside Town of Bangor Here.
Excursions and Tours
I am going to keep this bit as tight as possible, instead of just listing pretty much every tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. So I will only be including tourist Attractions in Belfast’s outskirts (within a 15-mile radius), and those which are commonly included in tours from Belfast City Centre. Although I do aim to cover a more comprehensive list of Northern Ireland Tourist Attractions soon enough. But I will always recommend a road trip in Northern Ireland as the country is silly small and regions and tourist attractions are just so close-knit and there’s so much to see. Otherwise taxis are never too expensive for nearer excursions.
Carrickfergus Castle: An Actual Castle
Like most local folk I don’t think I’ve ever toured Carrickfergus Castle, as we often fail to appreciate the rich heritage around us. But I’ve driven past it loads, and Carrickfergus Castle is at least looks like an actual castle. And it is, where it was built back in the mid-1170s when the Norman conquerors pwned the British Isles.
So Carrickfergus Castle stands eastward across the Belfast Lough, and it was originally surrounded by sea on three sides, only the surrounding sea-land has been reclaimed from the water these days. Anway, Carrickfergus Castle is included on some of the further-flung Belfast Tours, and it can also be reached by public buses travelling to the not-so-far town of Carrickfergus (around 11-miles) so it’s not so far out.
Hillsborough Castle: The Queen’s Digs
Again, not really a castle either, and more of a big fancy house. But it is at least home to Royalty this time, as Hillsborough Castle is literally the Queen’s home in Northern Ireland for when she chooses to come and visit. Which isn’t very often. But the stories of her visits, which are told during the regular daily house tours, are really quite dull and fascinating at the same time, as they show how surprisingly normal and somewhat frugal a lifestyle the Royal Family can live. At least they’re not decked out in jewels gold.
So Hillsborough Castle is found near neighbouring Lisburn In the cute village of Hillsborough which is a bit of an attraction in itself, and the entrance is located at the top of the Main Street. And it is an experience similar to that of the National Trust estates (on par with Mount Stewart) only it’s run by the Historic Royal Palaces (advance bookings here). To give the gist of it, you are free to explore 100 acres of historic gardens, and there’s also the optional ‘combined castle tour’ through the history of the home of the Royal Family. Best seen with the blooms of Spring and Summer in Northern Ireland.
Streamvale Farm: Sheeeps
I feel I must include Streamvale Farm simple because so few others do, and I like to recognise the underestimated tourist draw of local agriculture and Ireland’s iconic landscapes of sheep. Because, let’s face it, I would always rather hug some cute fluffy animals, than be force-fed some depressing political tour of troubles in Belfast. They don’t exactly sell stuffed toys of murals and RA men at the souvenir stalls and airports. So it is one of the more fun things to do in Belfast, however, it can be a bit tricky to reach, and the best I can offer is walking or taxiing from Stormont. It’s about 2.5 miles away (address here).
But there is a lot more to Streamvale Farm than just sheeeps, including and some of the more exciting activities include “Dog Agility and Sheep Race”, “Ice Cream Tasting”, “Watch the Cows Being Milked” and “Cuddle Chicks”, and there’s the opportunity to ruffle the fluff of all sorts of adorable farm animals. Like pigs and baby alpacas and there is a “Free Tractor Ride” to their “Red Deer Park”. Just “Don’t put your Fingers in Animal Mouths!” Activities do change year-round with breeding seasons and special events. And there are always more adventure and games including the “Air Cannon Arena”, “Go Carts” and “Free Barrel Rides” and it’s all below.
Check Our Full Guide to Streamvale Farm Here.
The Causeway Coast: Iconic UNESCO Coastline
Last, but obviously not least, is the 29km UNESCO World Heritage Site and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) along the coastline of Antrim’s Causeway Coast (although I do prefer the Mourne Mountains myself). And while it is a fair stretch from Belfast (around 50km) it’s also the most popular tour option in Northern Ireland with various itineraries covering the route. So it is expectedly busy, given tours travel in from Belfast and most major cities on both sides of the Irish border. But it is definitely worth ticking off the to-do list.
The Causeway Coast will always be most famous for the towering basalt columns (around 40,000 of them) along the Giant’s Causeway (our guide here). But there is a lot more to the region including, some of the more popular, with The Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle and these days the various filming locations from the Game of Thrones. As many of the scenes look like they are straight out of the film franchise. Although my favourite, which is not very often added to tour itineraries, is the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery.
Check our Full Guide to Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.
Belfast is an amazing and amusing city on the banks of river Lagan. It is the capital of Northern Ireland and the place where the iconic Titanic was built! It was one of the most influential of ports and industrial cities, and now after the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, the tourism to Belfast is soaring. The city is full of great pubs, the air is charged with energy and there is laughter in the vibe!
Where is Belfast?
It is the capital of Northern Ireland, on the eastern coast, on the banks of the Lagan river. It is flanked on the north and northwest by hills called the Divis mountain, Cavehill and Black mountain. It is 87 miles from Dublin and 111 miles from Glasgow.
Travel to Belfast?
Flights to Belfast
Getting to Belfast is easy as it is well connected by air, land and sea. It has 2 airports, George Best Belfast City Airport and Belfast International Airport. These airports are well connected with all major European cities.
Travel From Ireland:
It’s easy to reach Belfast from Dublin by Irish rail as well as by bus which takes 2 hours. By road, you can travel to Belfast using Dublin Airport following the main M1 Motorway.
Travel to Belfast by Sea
You can easily travel from Scotland, England and the Isle of Man by ferry crossing in as little as an hour. There are also easy connections between the main Stena Line Ports and Belfast City Centre. Example here.
Getting around in Belfast is easy thanks to the public transport system called the Translink and Metro bus service. Taxis and Uber plies between the spots in the city and your own car or hired car can do as well but parking can sometimes be a problem. Bikes are available on rent though there is nothing like walking around the place. Also, there is the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus running in Belfast.
A relatively new initiative with the glider bus which covers a number of these destinations which I will try to include as we go along. I generally avoid the bus where possible but I do see them floating about Belfast city a fair bit and they do look relatively simple to use.
For tour itineraries outside of Belfast, the Donegal Square station is one of the main hubs for tour buses and travel to the further-flung parts of Northern Ireland. This includes the usual Belfast City Tours, which take in the somewhat niche interests of local politics and the infamous troubles of Belfast’s past, which, unless you’re Irish American, it’s really just a bit of a weird one.
The warmest months are June until August, while April is a month with least rainfall. But the locals swear by May, June and September as the best months to get to Belfast – long days and fewer tourists and decent (10-20′) temperature in Belfast. Many events and concerts in Belfast happen around these dates of which can be found on their webpages online. One can plan their trip to Belfast accordingly. Belfast forecast here.
How many days in Belfast?
2 full days for Belfast breaks? I honestly think 2 days in Belfast is enough to tick off the popular things to do in Belfast for the general sightseer. And I’d maybe give it a 3-4 day weekend (factoring in hangovers) for nights out and social stuff added on to the usual tourist path. The range of time in the city can be as little as a day to as much as a week and there’d still be things remaining to do, that being said.
Discount Passes in Belfast
The Belfast Visitor Pass can really help you save money and is available for 1,2 or 3 days at the airports or any Translink station in Belfast or online. This pass can get you discount on public travel within Belfast and even on restaurants and pubs etc. it also covers nearly all tourist spots in the city.
Currency in Belfast?
Belfast and Northern Ireland are part of the UK (Belfast United Kingdom) although many people do this it is part of the Republic of Ireland (Belfast Ireland). So the default currency in Belfast is the Pound Sterling (GBP). This does complicate things slightly though when travelling to-or-from the south of Ireland (Republic of Ireland) where they use Euros in places like Dublin. However they are interchangeable at times and it is easy to exchange currencies all over Belfast, like at the local post offices. And in major destinations and travel hubs e.g. airports, they will often dispense both currencies. I would also suggest carrying a bit of both if planning to cross borders.
In case you are using wheelchair or mobility scooter, you can check the accessibility page on visit Belfast website which has information on how to go about the city with a special-needs person.
Belfast Tourist Information
Simply find the Official Belfast tourism website, Northern Ireland tourism website and official Ireland tourism website for more details. There are plenty of sample itineraries too online which can be seen.
1 thought on “The Best of Belfast and Beyond!”
Great post. I had heard so many good things about Belfast during he past few years, I really want to visit soon. Your post is very comprehensive and gives a good feel for what to expect from each location/sight/activity. I think besides the pubs, I’ll spend a lot of time close to the seaside and around the Botanical Gardens.