A Troubled History, A Bright Future
15 or even 10 years ago, Belfast would have been a relatively unlikely choice for a weekend break, its turbulent past still fresh in many people’s minds. Today however, it’s a vibrant, buzzing city that celebrates its history through colourful murals, a lively music scene, great museums and the stunning landscapes that surround it.
It’s one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever visited, and the locals will happily chat to you in a bar, giving tips on where to eat and reminding you how wonderful their city is. To make the most of it, allow three days – two to explore the city and one to see the beautiful Northern Irish coast and countryside.
Start the trip with a black taxi tour. These are popular in Belfast, and there are plenty of drivers offering to show you the city. The centre of Belfast is split into quarters (Cathedral, Titanic, Queens and Gaeltacht). The taxi tour will take in all of these, plus Stormont (the government estate).
The Gaeltacht Quarter and further west are the locations of Belfast’s most famous murals. This area is separated by the Peace Wall, which splits the Republican and Loyalist communities. The wall is covered in art and graffiti, and visitors are encouraged to add their signatures and comments to the wall (famous signatures include President Clinton and the Dalai Lama).
On the Republican side of the wall is The Falls Road and the main site of the Nationalist murals. These political images depict the 1981 hunger strikers, the Easter Rising and the Ballymurphy massacre, among others.
On the Loyalist side, the murals are predominantly lined along Shankill Road, which was centre of many of the troubles in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were numerous bombings along this road.
Stormont – the attractive government estate – is completely different. There are tours around the main parliament building, which is an impressive white structure, with beautiful views overlooking the city. You can also catch a glimpse of Stormont Castle, which sadly is not open to the public.
The taxi tours are a really good way to get your bearings and make note of which areas you want to head back to and explore. The cabbies are also incredibly knowledgeable about their city, and will give you loads of information on Belfast’s history. Taxi Tours cost around £30 for up to 3 people, depending on the operator and Discover NI and Visit Belfast offer a recommended list of drivers.
After the tour, ask your driver to drop you off at St George’s Market. Built in the 1800s, this striking building is home to a variety of stalls selling local produce, (including excellent Irish Stew and Boxty – an Irish pancake), as well as antiques and crafts. It’s a good spot to grab some lunch (and great value!).
Spend the afternoon wandering the city centre. Belfast has some excellent free attractions, including tours of the beautiful Belfast City Hall. Even if you don’t go inside, this building is the central point of the city in Donegall Square, and you’re bound to stumble upon it at some point on your trip.
In the evening, visit the Cathedral Quarter. Here you’ll find loads of great bars and restaurants, as well as some excellent local musicians. It’s also worth checking out what bands or comedians are playing at the Black Box venue. I loved this part of the city, with its narrow alleyways and quirky buildings. You will also find lots of murals here, but these are less political, and instead celebrate Northern Ireland’s successes and celebrities.
The Cathedral Quarter is also a great base for a weekend break in Belfast. If you fancy something upmarket, then stay at the grand Merchant Hotel. (Even if you don’t stay there, it’s worth going to the bar for their impressive cocktail selection.) Or there’s the more budget friendly Ramada Encore in the centre of the Quarter. If you want to stay more centrally, then check into the Europa Hotel – famous for being the most bombed hotel in Europe! But don’t let that put you off. This hotel has been beautifully restored and is surprisingly well-priced.
On day two, explore the Antrim coast. Either hire a car, or join one of the organised tours. If you’re into Game of Thrones, you can take a filming locations tour, which takes you to both the filming sites and the coast’s stunning landmarks. These tours cost around £35 per person for the day.
A few must-sees are the Giant’s Causeway (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the Carrick–a-Rede Rope Bridge and the eerie Dark Hedges. The scenery really is beautiful and it’s surprisingly compact, so you can see a lot in a day. If you’re going in winter (as I did), make sure you wrap up warm, as it can be very cold and windy!
When you return to the city, head to White’s Tavern, the oldest pub in Belfast, and Kelly Cellars, a traditional Irish pub, where locals bring their own instruments for an impromptu jam.
On day three, visit Titanic Belfast in the Titanic Quarter. The famous ship was built here, before being moved to Southampton for its grand departure. Despite its tragic end, Belfast residents are incredibly proud of their association with Titanic and this attraction was completed in 2012 to mark the centenary.
As well as the story of the Titanic, it also gives you an overview of Belfast and its history as an industrial city and producer of linen and tobacco. There is even a ride that takes you on a journey of the ship’s production.
Next to Titanic Belfast is the SS Nomadic, a tender ship to Titanic and the last remaining White Star Lines ship. You can go aboard and explore the ship’s history, as well as its relationship with the Titanic. Tickets to the Titanic Belfast cost £17 per person and include access to SS Nomadic.
If you’re after more history, then go to the Crumlin Road Gaol. This prison was closed in 1996, after 150 years of service, and has housed a variety of prisoners including politicians, suffragettes, loyalists and republicans. It now offers tours (both during daytime and at night), telling the gaol’s many stories, including executions and hunger strikes.
Otherwise, make your way back to the Cathedral Quarter for an afternoon in the Duke of York, one of the city’s excellent traditional pubs; the perfect end to a weekend in Belfast!
Belfast really is an amazing city with a lot to offer - and it’s still relatively young to tourism, so head there now before the word gets out!