Any comprehensive Belfast City travel guide has to account for the rich and unique history of this fascinating place, which I consider myself lucky to call home.
While it’s true that after years on the road the concept of ‘home’ begins to become a little blurred, there’s still that old familiar feeling that we can only ever have in the place we grew up, and for me, Belfast is it.
Things have changed a lot since the days I lived there, but a trip home this summer prompted me to re-evaluate the place and I was able to see it through a whole new set of eyes.
Long gone are the days of tanks in the street and plumes of smoke rising from rubble as republican bombs reduced buildings to ash. The Belfast which has emerged since the signing of the Good Friday agreement which brought peace to this troubled country is modern, vibrant, multicultural and steeped in history and tradition.
The world is just discovering Belfast, and I thought I’d help it along by providing an insider’s view of the place.
So what does Belfast have to offer the nomad or visitor? Let’s explore.
Belfast at a Glance
Belfast is the de facto capital city of Northern Ireland. While technically part of the UK, which makes London the capital, those who live there consider Belfast to be the ‘big smoke’ and it’s the centre of trade, commerce, politics, art and just about everything else that’s happening in Northern Ireland.
Belfast is also a deeply historic city. Around every corner is a monument, building or place of note. Victorian architecture lies alongside glitzy night clubs and welcoming pubs, while end terraces sport murals dedicated to the fallen on each side of the bloody civil war which engulfed this country for decades.
Belfast has an excellent nightlife scene. For those looking to party, this city is the perfect spot. There are endless bars, clubs and watering holes, including one which is considered a designated site of national beauty (we’ll get to that later).
However, the unpredictable and generally dark and depressing weather in Belfast make outdoors life all but impossible except in the summer months. If you plan to visit, the weather will play a major role in what sort of experience you have. Work things out accordingly.
5 Things You Must Do in Belfast
1. Take the Open Top Bus Tour
There’s no better way to get to know a city than by letting the experts fill you in. Belfast has an extremely professional and interesting open top bus tour. You’ll visit all the hot spots in the conflict and have expert historians explain their significance, and you’ll see all the other historical places of note including the docks where the Titanic was built, the studio where Game of Thrones was/is filmed, and the most bombed hotel in Europe – the Europa.
You can hop on from anywhere in the city centre and hop off at locations all over the city. It’s well worth it, and even as a local I enjoyed the tour and learned lots about my home city.
2. Visit the City Hall
The city hall has to be Belfast’s crowning glory as far as architecture is concerned. This beautiful building is surrounded by an entire square of old-school, Victorian architecture and is home to two large grass lawns which on a (rare) sunny day you can stretch out and enjoy with a coffee.
Inside the city hall is just as stunning, with huge domed ceilings, marble pillars, and stained glass windows. It’s worth a stop and entry is free, which makes it even more appealing.
3. Have a Pint at the Crown Bar
This is the protected National Trust site I spoke of earlier. The Crown is a beautiful, traditional Irish pub with a unique exterior. You can have a cold pint of fresh Guinness and a bowl of Irish stew while enjoying conversation with locals and fellow travelers. This is one of the best ways to get to hear stories about the city and what used to go on here. It’s also a stone’s throw away from the Europa hotel and the Grand Opera house, both worth seeing.
4. Visit the Titanic Centre
Tens of millions have been poured into redeveloping the docks in Belfast, turning old-school shipyards into a modern, fashionable area of the city.
Those who have an interest in the Titanic will especially enjoy this as you can see both where she was built, and visit a museum entirely dedicated to her. From seeing some of the tools actually used in her construction to learning more about the people involved and the unholy fate she suffered in the Atlantic, the Titanic centre is not to be missed.
This is also right beside the Game of Thrones main studios and the famous ‘Samson and Goliath’ yellow cranes which dominate Belfast’s skylines.
5. Take a Mural Tour
Belfast’s conflict is over, but it has not been and will not be forgotten anytime soon. Murals dedicated to the fallen on both sides, and glorifying the paramilitary organizations on both sides, can be found dotted all over the city.
Some of the artwork on display is phenomenal and having an expert guide explain the significance of each one can’t be replaced. The mural tours are possibly the highlight of a trip to Belfast, especially for anyone who is visiting to learn more about the history of this gorgeous city.
If you have an extra day in Belfast or are willing to take one just to do this, you won’t be disappointed. The murals are something truly unique and just can’t be found anywhere else in the world. That’s reason enough to see them!
Belfast City Summary
Belfast is an intoxicating mixture of the old and the new, as the wounds begin to heal and the new emerges from the ashes. That said, while fancy malls and glitzy clubs continue to sprout up all over the place, the stories and the traditions will not be forgotten within this generation.
Belfast is a city on the rise, one which I am extremely proud to call HOME.
For someone who has lived the nomadic life for close to a decade now, I look forward to every time I get to visit Belfast.
You’ll never regret a trip to it, and as far as cities in the UK go, you’d be hard pushed to find a better one than this!