I've traveled to Ireland many times in the last 20 years, but up until 2022, my experience with the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast was just a few fleeting visits on my way to other spots like Giant's Causeway.
I decided to remedy that and finally plan some dedicated time in Belfast city during a Northern Ireland road trip with my husband Elliot.
Most people outside of the UK don't usually know much about Belfast, unless it's connected to “The Troubles” that took place there from the 1960s through the 1990s. (And even within the UK, I get the sense that that's still mostly what Belfast is “known” for.)
But Belfast is much more than The Troubles, and today is actually one of the safer large cities in the UK!
A few things to know about Belfast
Before you go, here are a few things to know about Belfast:
- Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland shares an island with the Republic of Ireland, though Northern Ireland is still a part of the United Kingdom. (The question of whether to join with Ireland or remain part of the UK is largely what has driven conflict here since the partition of Ireland in 1921.)
- The modern city of Belfast was founded around 1611, and emerged in the 1700s as an important center for the Ulster linen industry. The city also became a very notable one for shipbuilding beginning in the late 1700s (a little ship called Titanic was built here… maybe you've heard of it).
- Belfast was severely damaged by air raids during World War II, and experienced a decline in economy and population after the war as it struggled with demand for its main industries (linen manufacturing and shipbuilding), followed by decades of political unrest.
- The population of Belfast city is currently around 350,000 people.
- Author CS Lewis was born and raised in Belfast, and it's likely that The Chronicles of Narnia were inspired by the nearby landscapes and castles. (Other famous people born in Belfast include: Van Morrison, George Best, Rory McIllroy, and Carl Frampton.)
When to visit Belfast
Like most of the rest of the UK and Ireland, the summer months are usually regarded as the “best” time to visit Belfast. From May-September, your chances of hitting more sunny days than rainy ones are much higher – though you'll still definitely want to pack a rain coat, just in case!
I've visited Belfast several times, all in the summer or early fall, and I would agree that May-September is the best time to visit Belfast.
The best things to do in Belfast
Belfast is a capital city that at times really does feel more like a small town. There aren't a TON of things to see/do, meaning you can have a really relaxed visit and still see all the highlights in about 2 days.
Based on my own trips to Belfast, here are the things I think you should do there when you visit.
The must-do things in Belfast
First, let's talk about the absolute must-do things in Belfast; the top things to do that you probably shouldn't miss.
1. Visit Belfast City Hall
Start in the heart of Belfast at Belfast City Hall. Sitting in Donegall Square, the iconic green-domed building is one of the most iconic buildings in Belfast. It dates back to 1906, and is the city's main civic building.
Visitors can take free guided tours inside City Hall (you need to register at the visitor exhibition/guided tours reception), or you can explore the monuments, memorials, and gardens outside, including the Titanic Memorial Garden.
2. Take a Black Taxi tour
Chances are if you know anything about Belfast, you know (or at least have heard) about The Troubles, a period of violent clashes and terrorist-style bombings that plagued cities across Northern Ireland for roughly 30 years. But if you're like me, you probably know very little about what the reality of life in Belfast was like during that time – or what marks those years have left on the city.
To get a better understanding of The Troubles, I highly recommend going on a historic Black Taxi tour of Belfast. These tours are offered by licensed taxi drivers in Belfast who have personal ties to the events that took place in the city from 1968-1998 – most of them grew up or worked in divided parts of the city.
On a tour like this, you'll learn about the various things that lead to the conflict (a complicated mixture of politics and religion played a role), and hear stories of religious discrimination, paramilitary groups, hunger strikes, and much more. Each tour is slightly different based on your guide and what their experience was like in Belfast during those years.
You might be surprised to learn that parts of Belfast are still divided by walls and fences and gates. You'll drive past or through some of the gates, and visit the largest wall that still serves as a border between a Catholic and Protestant neighborhood.
I honestly don't think you can fully understand Belfast without going on a tour like this. Learn more about what a Black Taxi tour in Belfast is like.
(Don't let the description turn you off; these tours are very safe. While you might not want to go wandering on Falls Road or Shankhill Road on your own as a tourist, it's safe to go on a tour like this!)
There are a LOT of Black Taxi companies offering tours around Belfast. They all are very similar, and they all utilize drivers who lived (and sometimes worked) through The Troubles. The tours offer informative, fairly balanced tours of both “sides” of Belfast.
Some Black Taxi tour options to check out include:
And here are some other historical Belfast tours that cover the same material:
3. Titanic Belfast
The most popular attraction in Belfast might actually be this one, a museum and visitor attraction dedicated to the Titanic and Belfast's shipbuilding history.
Titanic Belfast opened in 2012, and is located in the city's “Titanic Quarter,” a mere 100 meters from where Titanic's hull was constructed and launched. The museum covers nearly 120,000 square feet and includes interactive exhibits, recreations of the ship’s cabins, and an entire gondola-style ride indoors.
The museum walks you through the whole story of the Titanic, but also touches on Belfast's history as an important linen manufacturing city before it emerged as a ship building powerhouse. I learned a lot about Belfast here!
Also included with your Titanic Belfast ticket is a chance to go aboard the SS Nomadic. Moored at Hamilton Dock across the street from Titanic Belfast, the SS Nomadic served as tender boat to RMS Titanic, and is the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world! The vessel has been restored to look how she did when she ferried passengers to the Titanic.
A note on visiting Titanic Belfast: The museum can get very busy, so be prepared for crowds! Visit on a weekday if you can, and definitely book your (timed) ticket in advance.
4. Explore the city center
Belfast's city center isn't huge, but is worth a wander. The area north of City Hall is filled with shops and restaurants, and the Cathedral Quarter is a buzzy, creative area with some of Belfast's best bars and pubs. If you want to have a night out in Belfast, the Cathedral Quarter is where you want to go.
5. St. George's Market
Lastly, make your way to the Victorian-era St. George's Market if you can. This historic covered market is a weekend staple in Belfast, and you can shop for everything from food to antiques. It only runs Friday-Sunday, though, so keep that in mind.
Other things to do in Belfast
And here are a few other things I'd also recommend in Belfast if you have the time/interest for them:
1. Explore the Botanic Garden
Located near Queen's University, Belfast's Botanic Garden is a great green space to visit in the city. The garden dates back to 1828, and has a gorgeous glass house, a palm house filled with tropical plants, a rose garden, and lots of walking trails. The garden opens every day at 7:30 a.m., and is free to visit!
2. Visit the Ulster Museum
If you're going to the Botanic Garden, you may also want to visit the Ulster Museum, which is located within the garden grounds. The museum has a range of exhibits covering art, history, and the natural sciences. And the Ulster Museum is also free to visit!
3. Tour Crumlin Road Gaol
Related to the Black Taxi tour, you may also want to visit the Crumlin Road Gaol if you're interested in Belfast's more recent history. This high security prison (gaol means “jail”) dates back to 1846, but became most famous for imprisoning both Republicans and Loyalists during The Troubles.
“The Crum,” as it's known colloquially, hasn't served as a prison since 1996. Today, the site offers guided historical tours, and is also (a bit weirdly) an entertainment and event venue. (You can buy a ticket in advance here.)
4. Have drinks at The Observatory Bar
The Grand Central Hotel is one of the most famous hotels in Belfast, and its indoor rooftop bar, The Observatory Bar, is one you won't want to miss. With lots of cozy seating areas and the very best views of Belfast, this is the perfect place to grab a cocktail.
The Observatory Bar offers afternoon tea seatings during the day, too!
2 days in Belfast itinerary
You can easily see all the highlights of Belfast in 2 days. If that's what you've got, here's how I recommend setting up your Belfast itinerary:
Day 1 in Belfast
- Black Taxi Tour
- Crumlin Road Gaol
- St George's Market (if it's a weekend)
- Belfast City Hall
- City center/Cathedral Quarter
Day 2 in Belfast
- Titanic Belfast (remember to book ahead, and go early to avoid the worst crowds)
- Afternoon tea (some cool spots you can book include at Titanic Belfast itself, Europa Hotel, Café Parisien, or the Merchant Hotel)
- Botanic Gardens/Ulster Museum
- Drinks at The Observatory
Where to stay in Belfast
Belfast has lots of great hotel options – and many are fairly affordable! Here are my top picks:
- The Fitzwilliam Hotel – Located near City Hall in Belfast, the Fitzwilliam is an excellent luxury option in Belfast. (This is where Elliot and I stayed!) Book a room here.
- Tara Lodge – The top-rated hotel in Belfast on TripAdvisor is a small boutique hotel in the Queens Quarter near Queens University and the Botanic Garden.
- Premier Inn Belfast City Cathedral Quarter – A good budget-friendly option in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.
Find other Belfast hotel options here.
Have more time in Belfast?
If you're spending more time in Belfast, here are a couple other things you might want to do:
1. Take a trip to Giant's Causeway
The most famous destination in Northern Ireland, Giant's Causeway is a natural site is known for is step-like rock formations on the northern coast. You can take a day trip from Belfast if you don't want to drive yourself.
- Tour option: From Belfast: Giant's Causeway Fully Guided Day Trip
2. Visit Game of Thrones sites
Northern Ireland was a major filming location for HBO's Game of Thrones series. There are several tours from Belfast that will take you to filming locations like the Cushendun Caves, Ballintoy Harbour, the Dark Hedges, and more.
- Tour option: Game of Thrones Locations Tour w/ Giant's Causeway
You can also take a tour of the studio where they filmed a lot of Game of Thrones, with optional transfers from Belfast.
3. Causeway Coast drive
If you're visiting Belfast as part of a larger Northern Ireland road trip (or even Ireland road trip), then you definitely need to put the Causeway Coastal route on your list. This incredible driving route features castles, beaches, ancient history, and epic coastal views.
Have more questions about visiting Belfast? Maybe you'll find the answers here.
You technically could see/do the highlights of Belfast (the Titanic museum, a Black Taxi tour, seeing City Hall) with one day in Belfast – though it would be a very full day! But I recommend at least 2 days in Belfast to fully see it all.
If you don't have multiple days to spend in Belfast, yes, you can totally take a Belfast day trip from another city like Dublin.
You can fly into Belfast via its international airport. Or you could fly into Dublin (a much larger airport) and either take a train or drive the 2 hours to Belfast.
The stereotypes of Belfast being an unsafe city filled with car bombs and the IRA are just that – stereotypes. Present-day Belfast is actually one of the safest cities in the United Kingdom, and tourists don't generally need to worry about anything beyond the usual threat of petty theft that comes with visiting any city.
Yes, Belfast is worth visiting! The city has an interesting history if you're willing to learn about it, along with a couple worthwhile attractions like Titanic Belfast.
Who's ready to plan a visit to Belfast now?