When people talk about Belfast, it’s not often as a travel destination. It’s as a city caught in the crossfire of a civil war. The site of The Troubles. A city plagued by ongoing social and political disputes. And yet, while its tumultuous past is hard to ignore, it’s safe to say that times have changed.
I’ve visited Belfast a lot over the years; many of my closest friends are from Northern Ireland and I’ve had plenty of blinding weekends visiting the city…some that I can remember better than others… It’s got an edge to it and an indisputable grittiness, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a wee place with a lot of heart and a colourful gait. If recent statistics are anything to go by, that charm is beginning to prove pretty infectious. Tourism growth is at an all time high, with many travelers choosing to add the city to their itinerary when flocking to the nearby Giant’s Causeway or heading up on a day trip from Dublin. Northern Ireland has also proved popular with hit TV show Game of Thrones fans, as many of the series’ iconic scenes were filmed in and around the Belfast area. Such is the increasing popularity amongst travellers that Visit Belfast pledged last year to support the tourism boom with an investment of 122 million pounds. A kickstarter like this is sure to see Belfast skyrocket to being one of the most popular cities to visit in Europe.
This is an exciting dawn for Belfast, and the perfect time to visit if you’re looking for a buzzing new destination to add to your European ticklist. Here’s five reasons why the city might just win you over:
Colourful though it may be, Belfast has a fascinating history. Did you know that it’s been occupied since the Bronze Age? You can still visit The Giant’s Ring, a 5000 year old structure, just outside the city centre. During the 1800s, Belfast was one of Europe’s largest ports, and during the Industrial Revolution became the biggest linen producer in the world. Today, it is still an active harbour, and home to ship building yard, Harland and Wolff (better known, perhaps, for building The Titanic). Towards the later part for the 20th Century, the city earned a darker reputation for its part in The Troubles – a 30 year conflict where many acts of violence were carried between opposing Republican and Unionist paramilitary groups. Though there has been sporadic attacks, the city has been considered safe since the late nineties, and there is a very clear and focused effort on peace throughout Belfast’s residents. Today, the city is awash with historical sites, museums and landmarks, all worth delving into.
The Ulster Museum is a great place to start. The museum tells the story of the people of Northern Ireland, from earliest times to the present day. It’s packed with impressive galleries and interactive discovery zones, and also linked to the fab Ulster Folk & Transport Museum . Better still, they’re both free!
Another must-see museum is the Titanic Belfast. From the iconic yellow H & W cranes which greet you upon arrival to the strikingly modern building which dominates Titanic Quarter, it’s hard to imagine visiting Belfast without acknowledging its connection to one of the world’s worst maritime disasters. The Titanic Belfast is a visitor centre and museum which tells the story of the ill-fated RMS Titanic, which sank during her maiden voyage to America in 1912. Through interactive exhibition rooms and activities, the museum runs you through the history of the ship, from its construction and departure to the journey itself, its sinking and the aftermath. It’s a sobering experience but jam-packed with information, and the recreations will have (almost) wishing you’d been born a century earlier to see the real thing in the flesh!
Fancy delving into Belfast’s political past? One of the best ways to get an insight into the city’s conflict is to visit the murals scattered across its buildings and pathways. Over the years, these murals have become symbols of times of division, but also attempts to restore peace and order to the local community. Many stand in memory of people killed during the Troubles; others a warning to future governments and ideologies. You won’t have to wander far into the heart of the city to see the murals for yourself, but if you fancy having a little local insight to keep you right, you might want to consider taking a taxi tour with Belfast Mural Tours. Their informative 1.5 hour tours will take you past some of the best known examples of street art in the city, as well as past the famous Peace Wall, and the guides will share the stories behind the artwork. For information and booking, visit their website here.
You can also delve further into Belfast’s troubled years by visiting the Crumlin Road Gaol. Known locally as “The Crum”, this Victorian-era working prison was operational for 150 years before finally closing doors in 1996. During operation, it housed 25,000 of the city’s most dangerous criminals and political troublemakers. It was also the site of 17 executions. Today, it is open to the public and offers daily and evening tours, as well as some rather eerie ghost tours that’ll be sure to send a shiver or two up your spine. You can find out more about the history of the jail and the tours on offer here.
Northern Ireland is blessed with a beautiful landscape, from rugged coastlines to rolling stretches of forest and tumbling hills. As a ‘wee’ country, Belfast is an excellent place to base yourself if you’re looking for a gateway to the great outdoors as you’ll never be too far away from areas of stunning natural beauty.
Many people visiting Belfast will be aware that it’s only a short drive (1 hr and 20 minutes to be exact!) to the Giant’s Causeway. This amazing collection of interlocking basalt columns is a beautiful sight to behold and shrouded in mystery. Geologists will tell you that the baffling landscape is the result of a volcanic eruption; locals will argue that it was the pathway carved by giant Finn McCool on his way to tackle a Scottish nemesis. Either way, it’s pretty spectacular, and well worth a day trip from the city.
You can read about my trip to the Giant’s Causeway here.
Equally close are the gorgeous Mourne Mountains, which make up the highest mountain range in Northern Ireland. Start from the lovely seaside town of Newcastle and make your way up “The Brandy Pad”, a route once travelled by smugglers heaving prohibited booze into their base in the hills. Take in the views from the top. They speak for themselves.
Never one to be outdone, Belfast is quite happy to take on the challenge of tackling southern cousin Dublin’s reputation as the place to head if you’re looking for some craic. Having had several nights out there myself, I can safely say that when it comes to great bars, the city does not disappoint. Whether you’re looking for swanky cocktails or traditional boozers, the city has a real buzz to it at night, particularly if you happen to be a fan of live (and often impromptu) folk music.
Here’s a selection of some of my faves:
The Perch Rooftop Bar, Franklin Street
With its 1920s vibes, jazz sessions and zingy cocktails, there’s a lot to love about The Perch. It’s slightly mad, with its Alice in Wonderland-esque style, but the rooftop bar is absolutely the place to be when the sun is shining or if you’re looking to take in the view beneath the twinkling fairy lights.
The John Hewitt Bar, Donegal Street
This quaint wee boozer has been going since the nineties and has a real emphasis on promoting local music, with regular gig nights and a weekly talent show. There’s a literary vibe to the place (if the name didn’t give it away), and an immediate likability to the fact that there’s not a telly to site, and that all beers behind the bar come straight from Northern Ireland.
Cuckoo, Lisburn Road
A hipster’s dream, serving the obligatory jam jar cocktails amidst colourful booths, ping pong tables and oversized plants.
The Dirty Onion, Hill Street
Housed in one of Belfast’s oldest buildings, The Dirty Onion is a characterful pub with regular live music, a cracking beer garden and a rotisserie chicken restaurant upstairs.
The Merchant Hotel, Skipper Street
If you’re looking for five star opulance, it doesn’t come much better than The Merchant Hotel. The bar ain’t exactly cheap, but it’s the place to go if you’re looking for luxury cocktails, whiskies or ales. Treats don’t come much better.
With markets, glitzy malls and independent boutiques popping up left, right and centre, Belfast is worth visiting for the shopping opportunities alone.
With its gorgeous glass dome, The Victoria Square Centre is home to big name high street and designer stores, and could quite easily take you a whole day to get around if you’re needing to get your clothes fix, while Castle Court offers an excellent range of stores too.
Meanwhile St George’s Market has been on the go since the 1600s, supplying Belfasters with locally made food and drink every Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
There’s also a thriving network of thrift stores if you tend to veer more towards vintage fare. Yellow Submarine, Viva Retro and Fresh Garbage are all great places to top up on togs, while Young Savage has a decent collection of vinyls to browse.
As if that wasn’t enough, every December the city plays host to some of Europe’s finest Christmas markets. With the gorgeous City Hall as a backdrop, it’s hard to imagine a nicer setting for a wee winter weekend break.
The Film & TV Connections
With low location costs, stunning natural scenery and towns which have changed little over the years, Northern Ireland has proved pretty popular as a film location over recent years. From Holywood Rom-Coms like P.S. I Love You and Leap Year to political dramas like Bloody Sunday and musical masterpiece, The Commitments, Belfast has made its mark as a stomping ground for film and TV types.
Perhaps best known, however, is Northern Ireland’s connection to HBO crowd-pleaser Game of Thrones. Over the last ten years, the show has filmed over multiple Irish locations, many of which are within easy reaching distance of Belfast city centre. Fancy delving into the land of Westeros? Check out Game of Thrones Tours, who offer various trips around some of the series’ better known film locations, including Winterfell, the Iron Islands and the Tollymore forest. Just remember to watch out for those pesky Whitewalkers…