City breaks

10 of the best things to do in Belfast

19 May 20218 min read

View of the Belfast City Hall in summer under sunny blue sky

Packed with rich history, bags of character and a nightlife that rivals any city in Europe, Belfast has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last 20 years.

Of course, Belfast’s troubled recent history is well documented. Signs of which you’ll see all over the city, from its poignant political murals to the storied Europa Hotel. The city doesn’t shy away from these issues, but Belfast is much more than its past: it’s a modern, artistic city waiting to be discovered and understood.

Today, the city stands as Northern Ireland’s premier cultural hub for heritage, art, food, drink and shopping. In the Titanic Quarter, the jewel in Belfast’s crown, the city has one of Britain’s most popular attractions. Down in the Cathedral Quarter, punters hop from pub to pub while live bands jam out into the night. Throw in a handful of brilliant museums, the iconic Botanic Gardens, and one of the best markets in Britain, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a brilliant weekend city break.

To help you plan your visit, we’ve rounded up the best things to do on a Belfast city break.

1. Visit Titanic Belfast

The Titanic’s influence on Belfast remains strong to this day, more than a hundred years after it sank. You can learn all about its significance at the Titanic Belfast centre.

Although you might think you know the Titanic’s tragic story, the museum brings the tale to life like never before, with a fantastic series of interactive displays and exhibitions. Discover the inside story (the film isn’t even the half of it!) of its history-making construction and ill-fated maiden voyage, right through to the discovery of the wreck.

Besides the ship, the museum offers a historical snapshot of Belfast during the early 1900s. Even the museum’s spectacular design – an artistic impression of two ships being built in a dockyard – is worthy of a visit.

It’s a romantic, intriguing and gripping exhibition, well worth the admission fee. Allow at least half a day to explore.

2. Explore the Titanic Quarter

Still not had your fill? After the museum, keep the ‘Titanic show’ going with a stroll around Titanic Quarter – the area just beyond the Titanic Belfast.

Here, you can visit the dock where the ship was built alongside its sister liner the ‘Olympic’. When construction took place, the dry dock was the largest in the world, and its epic scale is still impressive today. Book a guided tour and you’ll be able to descend 44ft into the cavernous dock, as well as explore the old Pump-House.

The dock is the last remaining way to appreciate the sheer scale of the Titanic. But, for the next best thing, you can check out the SS Nomadic, a smaller ship built to transfer passengers to and from the Titanic. Entry to the ship is included within the ticket for Titanic Belfast.

3. Stroll around Belfast City Hall

One of Belfast’s most beautiful buildings, Belfast City Hall is a remarkable example of Edwardian architecture and a proud symbol of the Northern Irish capital.

The hall has been in operation for well over a century and remains the city’s civic building to this day. To fully appreciate the building’s rich history, take a public tour around the city hall. Highlights include its grand reception hall, ornate central staircase, and the chance to see the building’s iconic dome from within.

In addition to the city hall’s splendid interior and art works, tours also include a visit to the Titanic memorial garden. Tours are free, but be sure to book online well in advance. When you’re ready for a cuppa, there’s even a café, the Bobbin Coffee Shop.

4. Marvel at the Parliament Buildings

Set amid a vast, green park, backed by towering trees, Stormont feels more like a country estate than a city government building. In fact, Belfast’s parliament is just 15-minutes away from the city centre.

The building is occasionally open to tours, where you can see the two chambers, as well as offices of the First Minister and other important dignitaries.

If you are lucky enough to see inside, be sure to ask your guide about the spectacular painting hanging in the Senate Chamber. "The House will divide" by Noel Murphy reveals much about the machinations of politics in Belfast and beyond.

Even if your Belfast city break doesn’t coincide with a tour, the outside is still worthy of a visit. The views out across Belfast, the Black Mountain and Belfast Hills are worth the journey alone.

5. Shop like a local at St George’s Market

Credit: Dylan Viljoen

St George’s claims to be one of the best markets in the UK – and after a few minutes here, you’ll probably agree. At weekends it is thronged with locals and tourists alike, exploring the many food and craft stalls, seeking out great-quality produce and interesting gifts and artefacts. The market is open Friday to Sunday, with different stalls for each day.

The Friday Variety Market, as the name suggests, offers a bit of everything, with fresh veg, fish, books, antiques and clothes on sale. Foodies head down on Saturday for the Food and Craft Market, when the hall becomes a market-cum-international food festival.

The itself building dates back to 1896 and is a fun place to hang out and enjoy a snack or coffee in between shopping.

6. Hunt through history at the Ulster Museum

A visit to Belfast isn’t complete without a trip to Ulster Museum and the Botanic Gardens. Although only small, the museum is crammed full of eclectic exhibits and galleries, many of which you can interact with.

As well as a decent collection of Irish art, you’ll come across dinosaurs, treasures recovered from ancient Spanish galleons, giant moths and other creepy crawlies, black and white photography of old Belfast, and much more.

After a tour around the museum, be sure to look around the Botanic Gardens and the striking Palm House Conservatory and the Tropical Ravine house.

7. Learn about Belfast’s troubled past with a mural tour

There’s no escaping the fact that Belfast remains a divided city. Peace walls and security gates separate staunch Catholic and Protestant areas, while vivid political murals cover the walls the most loyally defended parts of the city.

It’s something completely unique to Belfast; understanding why these things exist is a must for anyone visiting the city. There are a number of walking tours you can take, which explain the artworks, alongside Belfast’s complicated recent history and the period known as “the Troubles”.

DC Tours and Belfast Mural Tours, both locally run, well-reviewed and highly respected, offer a range of guided trips in the city, including the famous murals, the Falls Road, Shankill Road and the Europa Hotel – once known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.

8. Do time at Crumlin Road Gaol

The former prison, which was taken out of service in 1996, is now a museum and conference centre close to the city centre. Tours of the gaol are led by charismatic and enthusiastic guides who bring the prison’s history to life with tremendous passion. You’ll pass through prison wings, execution cells, tunnels to the courthouse, and learn of the prison’s gruesome past as you go.

If you want a bit of light relief after your tour, there’s a little café, while the prison also hosts events, such as concerts, weddings, conferences and ghost tours.

9. Hike up to Belfast Castle

Set on Cave Hill high above the city, Belfast Castle offers remarkable views over the city centre and out to sea.

The castle dates back to 1870 when it was built by the third Marquis of Donegall as a private retreat on his deer park. In truth, it’s not really a castle in the true sense of the word – more of a rich man’s fantasy home – but it does have a wonderful restaurant, known for its varied menu and local produce.

If you don’t fancy the prices at the restaurant, the surrounding parkland is the ideal spot for a picnic. It’s well worth a stroll up, and, on a sunny day you’ll see plenty of Belfast residents doing the same.

10. Hop around Belfast’s brilliant pubs

Belfast is a city that knows how to have a good time. Come the weekend, the pubs are packed with folk out to enjoy the ‘craic’.

Visit the historic Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street for an ale amid spectacular period settings. Expect exquisite old tiling, private wooden drinking booths and gas lamps. They also have dining rooms with authentic Irish fayre such as champ, coddle, stews and colcannon.

Get your next pint of Guinness down in the Duke of York, which has its history in the newspaper trade; then try The John Hewitt in the Cathedral Quarter, or pop into Kelly’s Cellars, which dates back to the 16th century and claims to be the city’s oldest traditional bar.

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