Belfast is highly underrated as a city-break destination. It’s not surprising considering the history of trouble that took place over a 30-year period which meant that tourism was previously non-existent. But things have changed, Belfast is on the up and tourism is booming, especially in the summer months. Here are 5 reasons why you must visit Belfast.
1. Rich history
The period known as the troubles took place between 1968 to 1998. It was a horrible time in Northern Irish history and the wounds are very recent. To put it into perspective, the conflict is so young that I was 15 when things ended under the Good Friday Agreement, making it even more relatable. If you want to truly understand an unbiased perspective take a Belfast Black Cab Tour, run by taxi drivers who were considered a neutral source at the time so could to take journalists across the borders freely.
During our 1.5-hour tour, we visited the gates at the peace line which separated the Nationalists and Loyalists – these are still only open from 7 am to 7 pm to keep the peace and are heavily monitored by CCTV. We stopped along the political murals where we had an opportunity to write an inspiring message on the wall and visited remembrance memorials on both sides where we learned in great detail about the horrors that took place. Witnessing fresh flowers at these sites and barbed wire still up around the homes close to the wall made the recency all too real.
Our guide Jake was really knowledgeable and gave a balanced perspective from both sides. He is passionate about moving forward as he lived through the atrocities and his kids even attended a mixed school – something only available apparently for about 1% of the population. According to him, there are still walls in people’s minds and it’s going to take at least one more generation until there will truly be peace. “Fear is a powerful weapon” and “we, unfortunately, live with Brexit every day,” said Jake.
The ‘unsinkable’ was the pride of Belfast. She was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard where she resided before her maiden voyage in 1912. The two massive yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath of Harland and Wolff shipyard are an iconic part of Belfast’s skyline.
Titanic Belfast museum houses an educational and interactive journey through Belfast’s history, the building of the world’s most iconic ship and exploration into its discovery at the depths of the Atlantic.
- Great outdoors
Heading up to the natural phenomenon of Giant’s causeway is a must-do whilst in Northern Ireland. Only approx. over an hour’s direct-drive from Belfast, you can make a day out of it with the many coach tours that take you up north or hire a car. For those Game of Throne fans, there are even tours dedicated to the filming locations. I was slightly disappointed in my research, however, that all tours were large and on buses as I much prefer a small personalized tour but hey, when in Belfast…
We selected Irish Tour Tickets because the entrance fee to Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge were included, which isn’t always the case for other companies so check ahead. We got picked up from our hotel (Ramada by Wyndham Belfast City – great location in the Cathedral Quarter) at 8:15 am only to sit in front of the tour office until the tour officially left at 9:15 am. With a head of full of Guinness from the night before, we definitely would recommend making your own way to the tour office if you prefer a lie-in.
Our guide Gavin and driver Davy, the ultimate duo, made up for it however as two local Belfast lads they provided great commentary throughout the long day. Davy even sang the traditional Irish song The Green Glens of Antrim, local to County Antrim, whilst driving to wish a passenger a happy birthday.
The drive up the Antrim Coast was beautiful, rugged coastline on one side and a blanket of green on the other – it definitely ticks the quintessential Irish scenery box. You could even see Scotland in the distance!
Giant’s Causeway too was mesmerizing – not only for the phenomena of the causeway itself but also for the natural landscape around. Irish folklore has it that the causeway was created by an Irish Giant, who threw chunks of the Antrim Coast into the sea when threatened by a large giant in Scotland. Scientists, however, will argue it was formed from lava. Who would you believe?
There are two trails to get to the causeway, I recommend to start on the red trail which provides a view from up above whilst the blue trail is at sea-level. For those who aren’t up for the walk, there is also a shuttle bus for £1. If you’re hungry you can grab a snack in the café in the Visitor’s Centre, or settle in at the cosy pub, The Nook, on-site for a pint of Guinness and some Irish stew as we did.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, an old salmon fishing rope bridge, which is now owned by the National Trust is one of the most popular sites in the area. Tourists line up to cross the bridge, only to wait again on the other side to cross back. It makes for an excellent photo opportunity, just don’t look down to the sharp rocks and thunderous ocean below. When walking back to the car park there’s a great view looking back over the bridge connecting the small island of Carrickarede to the mainland. I’ll admit, I was scared and it didn’t help when young boys behind me decided to jump to shake the bridge (which is against the rules!) but I’m still proud of the accomplishment.
Our last stop was as Bushmills claimed as the world’s oldest whiskey distillery dating back to 1608. We did not get a tour but I was still happy to pay £10 for 3 drams – Black Bush blend, and 10 & 12-year single malts. The 10 was my favourite.
Whilst the tour was grand and the highlight, of course, was Giant’s Causeway and getting to walk in the great outdoors, you’re much better off renting a car and getting it done without requiring a full day of stops, some of which aren’t necessary.
- Food, pubs and live music
Belfast’s social scene is thriving – even more, their food is significantly underrated. There are a few core popular areas for tourists in the small city, the city centre, the student area around Queen’s Quarter, the family-friendly Titanic Quarter and the buzzing Cathedral Quarter. We based ourselves around the Cathedral Quarter which was very central to both the centre of the city as well as popular nightlife spots.
Fave brunch spot:
Established Coffee, located in the Cathedral Quarter, it is hands down pure awesome. On our first afternoon we stopped in for ‘the best toastie I’ve ever had’ according to Hannah and I do concur, only to go for brunch again on Sunday. The quality of the coffee is a given, and I also highly recommend the hash. Be prepared to wait for a spot to open up but well worth it.
Made in Belfast
This funky local chain was absolutely stand out – from service to its seasonal farm-to-table sustainable, ethically sourced menu. I was over the moon with my rump steak while Hannah found love with the lamb.
Top pubs in Cathedral Quarter
Dating back to the 1880s, this pub is an institution of Belfast and has been one of the “mightiest Victorian gin palaces of the city”. Here’s where we had our first Guinness (and Hannah’s first-ever, whhaaat?!) before starting a mini pub crawl of Belfast’s best pubs. Being right in the city centre, expect it to be busy with both locals and tourists with Guinness in hand, but make yourself at home in one of the cosy snugs and admire the elegantly detailed woodwork and stained glass which lends itself to being a Grade A listed building owned by the National Trust.
200 years old, Kelly’s is one of Belfast’s oldest traditional Irish pubs and is another iconic Belfast boozer. With cute bric-a-brac, from pots to fiddles hanging from the ceiling, it’s an excellent place to hunker down for a Guinness and some traditional Irish stew whilst listening to traditional Irish music.
It doesn’t come any more of a quintessential local, with a live Irish band in the corner, money hanging from the ceiling and good honest chats with locals. Hannah was keen for a wine, but I encouraged her this was a place for Guinness.
On Commercial Court, an Intsta worthy cobblestone street in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter you’ll find the Duke of York. Full of old lamps, clocks and advertising signs from every generation there’s live music both downstairs and upstairs. It feels like a small-town crowd in the heart of the city.
The Harp Bar, just across from the Duke of York is another lively bar with live music.
Claimed as the oldest pub in Belfast, Whites is very cosy with exposed oak beams and a burning fire so it’s a great environment to stay warm from Belfast’s unpredictable weather. Set in a 17th-century building, saddle up at the bar for a Guinness or pop upstairs to the Oyster Rooms for some traditional grub.
At the National, we witnessed an awesome band, Belfast Busking Band, a local group putting a twist on old school beats, trumpet and all, in this chilled out beer garden. Things started to pick up later in the evening with a younger crowd.
You can’t go wrong with the Irish. They’re friendly, love to have a drink and some craic (good fun). Everywhere we went we found them delightful, welcoming and generally happy to chat about everything – from what life was like at that time to how things are moving forward and the tourism that the city is embracing.
Compared to the prices of Dublin, Belfast was very affordable. Not to mention, being on the £ makes it easy for those coming from mainland UK and it’s such a short flight – less than an hour.
Therefore, you now have 5 strong reasons to hop on over to the amazing city that is Belfast.