The capital of Northern Ireland is a small city with a big reputation. Its famous shipyard is where the Titanic was launched. The city’s Peace Walls and the “Troubles” that defined the latter decades of the 20th century once made world headlines.
Belfast today is a thriving city with a rich cultural scene. Many of the historic buildings date back to a Victorian heyday, while its modern attractions include remarkable restaurants, lovely parks, and museums.
Here is a list of the 12 best things to do in Belfast.
Experience Titanic Belfast
One of the best museums in the world, Titanic Belfast tells the story of the famous White Star liner from its construction at Belfast’s Hadland & Wolff Shipyard to its tragic loss in 1912. It also tells the story of the city itself, from boom to bust, and rebirth.
This vast building looms overhead in a shape reminiscent of the Titanic and its sister ships in the shipyard. It stands very near where all three—Titanic, Olympic, and Britannic—were built.
One highlight of the visit to this cleverly designed, evocative exhibit is a projection of the Titanic’s launch day onto a screen that clears away to show the actual dock below. It finishes with an eerie, overhead view of the wreck as it is now, at the bottom of the Atlantic.
You are taken through the work of the shipyard, the ship’s launch, and life on board. There is a recreation of the famous stairs, different classes of cabins, and artifacts used onboard.
The tour finishes with details of the various public inquiries into the sinking. Their conclusions have helped make every ship safer today.
Find the Belfast Castle Cats
Belfast Castle is a grand house, built in Scottish baronial style in 1870. Once belonging to the Marquis of Donegall, this Irish castle was given to the city in 1934.
The coat-of-arms of the Donegall family can be seen over the castle’s front door. They also gave their name to Donegall Place, and other streets in Belfast itself.
Ireland is known for its castles, and the house and grounds of the Belfast Castle are particularly popular as a venue for wedding photographs. The spectacular view over Belfast on a fine day makes for a great backdrop, even if you’re not getting married.
Inside, you can tour the public rooms by yourself. Start at the visitor center in the cellars, and end with afternoon tea in the café.
Outside, there is a small adventure to be had looking for nine cats. These are hidden as various art forms, including stone, and mosaic.
Explore Cave Hill
Belfast Castle sits in Cave Hill Country Park, which covers a hill dominating the city. Cave Hill, named for five caves on its slopes, is 1,207 feet high and has walking routes for all abilities.
The distinctive “sleeping giant” profile of the hill is said to have inspired Jonathan Swift in writing Gulliver’s Travels. Born in Dublin, Swift served as a vicar near Belfast around 1695, and began writing his classic satire in 1720.
Cave Hill Country Park includes a number of ancient forts, two nature reserves, and Belfast Zoo. Marked walks vary in length from less than a mile to five miles or more.
You can, of course, just walk or bike around to take in the lovely views over the city, and Belfast Lough. For more of a challenge, pick up an orienteering map from Belfast Castle.
See the Titanic Memorial at Belfast City Hall
Any visitor to Northern Ireland should take in the Belfast City Hall’s exhibition on the city’s history. Spread across 16 rooms, and six themed zones, it’s both comprehensive and fascinating.
Of course, it has lots of material to work with. From Dunlop’s air-filled tires to Frank Pantridge’s portable defibrillator, Belfast has left its mark on our world.
Take one of the free daily tours to see inside the council chambers. The City Hall was built in 1906, and highlights include the Grand Staircase and a “whispering gallery” in the cupola.
On the grounds, you will find a poignant memorial garden to the RMS Titanic. While we all know the ship was built in Belfast, it is easy to forget how many local people lost their lives when it sank.
Stride the Giant’s Causeway
Just over an hour from Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway is a must-see for first-time visitors to Northern Ireland. If you make a day of it, you can also take in the beautiful Causeway Coast, one of the best hikes in the UK, and historic Bushmills Distillery.
The Causeway Coast runs around Ireland’s spectacular northeast coast, with beauty spots such as Ballintoy Harbour, Dunluce Castle, and the Dark Hedges.
Bushmills Distillery is the oldest in the world, established in 1608. A tour of the whiskey-making process ends with a very popular tasting session.
The Giant’s Causeway is even older, by some 50 million years. Ancient volcanic flow cooled and fractured to produce thousands of remarkable hexagonal rocks.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and sees a million visitors every year. Birdwatchers will enjoy the many seabirds, while naturalists will be fascinated by the localized flora.
Walk the Maritime Mile
Belfast became what it is because of its position at the head of Belfast Lough. This vast, almost tideless, natural harbor helped make the city a major port.
Belfast then grew to become the center of Ireland’s 19th-century Industrial Revolution. Linen, rope, whiskey, and tobacco products were exported all around the world.
At its height, the city’s Harland and Wolff shipyard was the world’s largest. Its most famous vessel, RMS Titanic, sailed along the lough in 1912 to start its maiden—and only—voyage.
The “Maritime Mile” is a signposted route that takes you along the River Lagan waterfront to discover all this, and more. You’ll see the giant cranes still standing from the shipyards, and sights such as Sinclair Seamen’s Church.
Of course, Titanic Belfast and the SS Nomadic are highlights. You’ll also see many interesting pieces of art, including the landmark “Salmon of Knowledge”.
The walk has many good viewpoints and several great places to eat in for a longer break. Walk, cycle or jog along it to get a real feel for what made Belfast what it is.
Join a City Tour
Belfast is a deceptively big city, so the easiest way to see its highlights is on an organized tour. This will take you to all the major sights, along with an experienced guide.
Belfast City Hall, the Grand Opera House, and the Albert Memorial Clock Tower are three central sights of interest. Further out, you will want to see the “Peace Walls”, and the famous Crumlin Road Gaol.
You may pass the historic Ulster Hall, where Led Zeppelin first played “Stairway To Heaven” in 1971. The Linen Hall Library, founded in 1788, holds the first printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence outside America.
Famous graduates from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) include poet Seamus Heaney, and actor Liam Neeson. Founded in 1845, its magnificent main building was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, who also designed Belfast Castle and Crumlin Road Gaol.
Explore Crumlin Road Gaol
It’s nice to have the option to visit a jail by choice. The forbidding walls of Crumlin Road Gaol welcome visitors now for everything from weddings to live music.
Most visitors, however, are drawn by its history as a prison during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”. That story is told in an exhibition that features vivid stories from both sides of the community, and the security services.
“The Crum” opened in 1845, holding roughly 550 prisoners, men, women and children, in isolated cells. Seventeen men were hanged in its execution chamber.
The self-guided tour is an excellent way to learn more. Topics include the Victorian attitudes underlying the prison’s design, and the several successful escapes.
Look at Peace Wall Belfast
The “Peace Line” is a series of walls separating the Loyalist (Protestant), and Nationalist (Catholic) communities in various parts of Belfast. Most visited is the longest wall dividing the Falls Road and Shankill Road in West Belfast.
Having now stood longer than the Berlin Wall, the walls have become a semi-permanent structure. Despite efforts to remove them, their significance as a visitor attraction may delay that ongoing process.
A major part of the appeal is the bright murals and graffiti that cover most sections. You’ll find murals on every subject from the Loyalist contribution to World War II, to street art calling attention to climate change.
Join an organized tour and you will have the benefit of having the history of “The Troubles” told by a local guide. They will also explain the differences between the murals belonging to each community.
Take to the Stage of the Grand Opera House
Opened in 1895, Belfast’s Grand Opera House is a splendid example of Victorian architecture. Its stage has hosted everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Luciano Pavarotti, and actor Liam Neeson on his stage debut.
Take a tour to find out more about what goes on behind the scenes. Visit a dressing room, where “May McFettridge”, an impersonator of Northern Ireland’s “Queen of Comedy”, will share a few acting tips, and plenty of showbiz gossip.
Then take to the stage to hear more about the other acts that have appeared here. You’ll find photos of many of them in the stalls foyer.
Architect Frank Matcham built many of Britain’s most famous theaters. This is perhaps his finest surviving example of one built in “Oriental” style.
The opera house was restored in 2021, at a cost of more than £12 million. Closed for many years in the 1970s, it now hosts musicals, drama, ballet, opera, and concerts.
Drink in a National Trust Pub
The National Trust is an organization responsible for conserving the heritage of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Normally, this consists of grand country manors, historic cathedrals or vast national parks.
In Belfast, however, it also looks after a remarkable pub. The Crown Liquor Saloon was built as a Victorian gin palace in 1826.
Lovingly restored to that original glory, the pub is now open daily—and still one of the best things to do in Belfast. You can take a drink in one of the ten cozy “snugs”, or stand at the granite-topped bar to admire the decor.
Details such as the ornate floor tiling, or gunmetal strikers for lighting matches will catch the eye. The bar’s gas lighting, stained-glass windows, and decorative ceiling are further delights.
Needless to say, the Crown Bar also serves one of the best pints of Guinness in Belfast. Almost next door is Robinson’s Saloon Bar, almost as colorful, and well worth visiting for its original Titanic memorabilia.
Relax in a Belfast Park
Belfast is a city of parks, and everyone has their favorite. Three of the most popular are Victoria Park, the Botanic Gardens, and Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park.
Victoria Park has a lovely lake, encircled by a walking track. That allows different views of the many birds, including swans, and herons, which are also attracted to the water.
Follow a poetry trail, laid out by local children, or admire the flower beds, and other displays. The park is near Titanic Belfast in the former dock area.
The Botanic Gardens are famous for the Victorian Palm House, and the deliciously warm Tropical Ravine. Between them, you’ll find unexpected species ranging from bananas and orchids to tree ferns, and birds of paradise plants.
Nearby is the Ulster Museum, which tells the history of Northern Ireland, from Bronze Age jewelry to treasures from a wreck of the Spanish Armada.
Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park in the south of the city is home to the International Rose Garden. Originally part of a family estate, the gardens cover more than 128 acres.
With rolling meadows and woodland, the gardens are as popular with wildlife as they are with people. There is also a Japanese-style garden, designed for quiet contemplation.
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