The big trip

A weekend in Belfast

Everything you need to know for a city break in Northern Ireland’s vibrant capital

1

Why you should visit Belfast

Northern Ireland’s capital used to be “once synonymous with bomb explosions, gun battles and sectarian assassinations”, said The Guardian. But now, post-Troubles Belfast has “reinvented itself as one of the top-rated tourist destinations”.

In 2018, Lonely Planet named Belfast and the Causeway Coast as the No.1 region to visit in the world thanks to a “remarkable” transformation over the past two decades. The city is “full of hip neighbourhoods that burst with bars, restaurants and venues” while its old docklands are now the vibrant Titanic Quarter, “home to fancy apartments and a sensational museum”. Beyond the city, the “timeless beauty” of the Causeway Coast offers walking, golf, whiskey and some of the world’s most famous rocks.

Belfast “continues to thrive culturally” and a couple of days are “enough to get a feel for the city”, said Rough Guides. Its theatre and visual arts scene are “flourishing” and there are “plenty of places to catch the city’s booming traditional-music scene”. In November, Belfast was awarded the “City of Music” status by Unesco. 

Movie and television fans are also flocking to the city. Titanic Studios were used as a filming location for Game of Thrones, while Kenneth Branagh’s film Belfast was nominated for seven Oscars. Branagh’s “ode to his childhood” is “a beautiful story about a beautiful city”, the BBC said. 

2

Top attractions: things to see and do

Titanic Belfast

Belfast is the “home of the Titanic” and home to the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. Located beside the Titanic Slipways and the Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices – the very place where the ship was designed, built, and launched – Titanic Belfast relays the story of the doomed ocean liner and its subsequent place in history. Visitors can trace the ship’s journey through time and the role Belfast played in the wider shipbuilding industry.

The Troubles ‘tourism’

Troubles “tourism” is “booming” and the city’s “formerly most notorious areas” are becoming flooded with international visitors, said the Belfast Telegraph. The Crumlin Road Gaol, a 19th century Grade A listed jail, is open to the public for tours and is the No.1 attraction to visit in Belfast, according to Trip Advisor. It offers guided and self-guided experiences of the jail as well as “The Troubles Tour” via black taxi or on foot. 

Ulster Museum is one of Belfast’s must-see attractions, said PlanetWare.com. This impressive national museum “should be high on the list for any visitor for a number of reasons”, not least of all that it “doesn’t shy away from the city’s recent troubled past”.

Taking a tour of the Belfast Peace Walls is now a thing or a tourist attraction of sorts, said the Brit On The Move blog. The peace walls – or peace lines as they are sometimes known – are a series of barriers in Northern Ireland that separate republican and nationalist Catholic neighbourhoods from loyalist and unionist Protestant areas. “It’s a deeply moving tribute to both sides.”

The Belfast Experience also offers walking tours and taxi tours of Shankill Road, which gives visitors the chance to “integrate themselves into historical events with a hands-on and thought provoking approach”.  

Great outdoors: walking, golf and sailing 

Just north of the city, a ten-minute drive from Belfast Zoo and a 20-minute drive from Crumlin Road Gaol, you’ll find Cave Hill Country Park, which offers “hands down one of the best walks in Belfast”, said James March on The Irish Road Trip. Deemed as Belfast’s top park by Lonely Planet, the panoramic view from the summit of Cave Hill (368m) “takes in the whole sprawl of the city, the docks, Belfast Lough and the Mourne Mountains – on a clear day you can see Scotland”.

Northern Ireland is a golfer’s paradise and offers around 100 courses for players to enjoy. If you’re in Belfast, “and have your clubs handy”, then make sure you play the “immaculately conditioned” Malone Golf Club, said Top100GolfCourses.com. “You’ll be hard pressed to find a better parkland course.”

For sailing enthusiasts, the spectacular sea inlet of Belfast Lough offers thrilling water adventures. Following Seas has a one-day “Sailing in the Wake of Giants” tour costing from £125. 

CS Lewis Square

The Chronicles of Narnia author CS Lewis was born in Belfast and the square named after him is a public space featuring seven bronze sculptures from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It is a “stunning display of public art”, said VisitBelfast.com.

Game of Thrones

Northern Ireland’s “coastal roads, craggy castles and sprawling glens” were used as a backdrop for the Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones, said VisitBelfast.com. As well as film locations and driving routes, fans can also visit the official Game of Thrones studio tour at Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge, a 30-minute drive from the city down the M1 and A1. 

3

Hotels and accommodation: where to stay

The best three hotels in Belfast, according to expert ratings on The Telegraph, are The Merchant Hotel, Europa Hotel, and Ten Square Hotel. While Trip.com ranks the Maldron Hotel Belfast City, The Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast, and The 1852 as the top places to book. 

For somewhere on the outskirts of the city, the 19th-century Culloden Estate and Spa was “originally intended as an abode for the Bishops of Down”, said The Luxury Editor. “The historic grandeur of the building is contrasted with a modern extension, in the form of the ESPA spa with steam room and hammam.” 

4

St George’s Market in Belfast

St George’s Market in Belfast

Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Restaurants, pubs and markets: where to eat and drink 

Belfast has been experiencing a “real renaissance from a food perspective”, said The Foodellers blog. “What was previously considered a dull and uninviting city for those who love food, is now one of the most exciting destinations if you travel to discover the flavours of the places you visit.”

In the 2022 Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland it was announced that Belfast restaurants Eipic, OX, and The Muddlers Club had retained their Michelin one star for another year, RTÉ reported. Two other restaurants – Deanes at Queens and Home – were also awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin for “good quality, good value cooking”.

Aside from the restaurants, there are many “unmissable” pubs and bars in Belfast, said The Foodellers. “Highly recommended” places for a drink and a bite include the Duke of York, Kelly’s Cellars, and Crown Liquor Saloon. 

If you prefer food stalls to dining out, then St George’s Market is where to go to find the finest fresh local produce. One of Belfast’s oldest attractions, there has been a Friday market on the St George’s site since 1604. 

5

Transport: how to get there

Airports 

Belfast International and George Best Belfast City are the two airports serving the city. Belfast International is Northern Ireland’s main airport and located a 30-minute drive from the city centre. Visitors can travel between the airport and city on the Translink Airport Express 600 bus service. 

Located just three miles from the city centre, and named after the Northern Irish football legend who was born here, is the George Best Belfast City Airport. Visitors can travel between the airport and city on the Translink Airport Express 300 bus service.

Ferries and cruises 

As a port city, Belfast is an ideal destination for visitors travelling via the sea. There are ferry crossings to Belfast from Cairnryan in Scotland and from Liverpool in England, while cruise ships also dock in the city’s harbour. Cruise Belfast, the partnership between Belfast Harbour and Visit Belfast, announced that the city is expecting to welcome 130 cruise ships during the 2022 season, which runs to November. More than 50 different vessels from 33 cruise lines are due to dock with up to 340,000 visitors expected to come ashore.

6

What the locals say…

You may not go to Belfast for the weather, but there are “plenty of other reasons” to visit, said Northern Irish writer David McElhinney in Lonely Planet. A “thriving” performing arts scene and a nightlife culture “fuses haute cuisine with cozy pubs and Irish folk music”. And though locals “might bemoan the rising price of a pint”, Belfast “remains an affordable travel destination” for most budgets. “This small, idiosyncratic city has long punched above its diminutive weight in terms of cultural impact.”

When asked by Conde Nast Traveler why people should come to Belfast, singer and local Naomi Hamilton said: “I think it’s one of those charming, really friendly places that you can explore pretty quickly. It’s almost like a little pocket city – in 24 hours you could get a real sense of what it’s like, so it’s a great weekend city break.”

For the final word, who better to pick than Kenneth Branagh, who said that Belfast – “about a place and a people, I love” – was the most “personal film” he had ever made. Upon receiving his first Academy Award, for best original screenplay, he added: “It’s a great tribute to an amazing city and fantastic people.” 

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