Belfast Travel Guide and Things to Do in Northern Ireland: Nine Highlights

THE SINGLE VIEW

With his ace Titanic and game of thrones attractions, foodie hotspots and revamped pubs, the tourist-friendly Belfast of today is a far cry from that portrayed in Kenneth Branagh’s new black-and-white film of the same name, which is in the running for seven Oscars and is reminiscent of his childhood here at the end of the conflict. -1960. Get your bearings in Belfast, with a cocktail or gin afternoon tea, at The Observatory, a stylish lounge bar on the 23rd floor of the Grand Central Hotel. Explore Belfast’s backdrop of blue seas and emerald-tinged mountains and landmarks like the green-domed City Hall and “Samson” and “Goliath” – the giant yellow cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built.

See grandcentralhotelbelfast.com/observatory

THE ONLY LUXURY HOTEL

The Merchant is a five-star hotel, spa and gourmet restaurant housed in a renovated 1860s bank. The breathtaking Great Room – with its magnificent glass dome, epic chandelier and seasonal menus – is among Belfast’s finest restaurants, while the 62 rooms and suites come in both elegant period styles Victorian and art deco decadence with furniture from legendary designers like Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier. Also home to Berts, Belfast’s only dedicated jazz bar, and a rooftop hot tub, The Merchant appears in The falla serial killer drama that starred Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, and helped fuel Northern Ireland’s burgeoning television and film industry.

See themerchanthotel.com

THE UNIQUE GALLERY

Belfast has fine contemporary galleries, but its liveliest art is outdoors. Witty murals and portraits of Northern Irish heroes and heroines brighten the city center’s Cathedral Quarter, where guided street art walks are offered. Alternatively, black cab tours focus on the human stories behind the graffiti-scribbled ‘peace walls’ and partisan murals of West Belfast. This neighborhood was particularly affected by “The Troubles”, and although this three-decade conflict ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it is still separated into predominantly Loyalist (mainly Protestant) and Republican (mainly Catholic).

See seedheadarts.com and touringaroundbelfast.com

THE ONLY SECRET GARDEN

Belfast, UK, April 25, 2019. Belfast Botanic Garden with Palm House, a popular attraction in Northern Ireland.  tra12oneonlybelfast Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Beautifully manicured lawns and Victorian-era glasshouses teeming with fuchsias, begonias, lush tropicals and flowering vines make Belfast Botanic Gardens a verdant delight. It’s tucked away in the Queen’s Quarter, a 20-minute walk (or quick bus ride) south of the city center, and is surrounded by handsome university buildings, hip boutique hotels (like The Harrison Chambers of Distinction), and the impressive free-entry Ulster Museum, which has five floors of art, natural history, history and pop culture from Northern Ireland and beyond.

See nmni.com and chambersofdistinction.com

THE SINGLE NEIGHBORHOOD

Worth a visit day or night, the Cathedral Quarter stretches from St. Anne’s Cathedral and its Bell Tower of Hope – a modern needle-like sculpture considered a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Flanking the cobbled streets of the district, post-industrial buildings are reborn as artists’ haunts, watering holes and gourmet addresses. Try The Muddlers Club, a Michelin-starred bistro with innovative (and surely delicious) tasting menus, and The Duke of York, with its wonderful whiskey selection and antique mirror advertisements. Occupying a former bonded spirits warehouse, The Dirty Onion and its adjoining Second Fiddle bar are springboards for tours of upbeat traditional Irish music.

See belfasttradtrail.com

THE SINGLE MARKET

Young woman offering salami tasting at Belfast City Hall Christmas Market in the city center of Northern Ireland's capital.  tra12oneonlybelfast Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Belfast’s Christmas markets generate a friendly, gluhwein-scented air around City Hall. But all year round, St George’s Market is the place to go, its revitalized 19th-century red-brick setting springing to life from Friday to Sunday. Soak up the banter between vendors and customers as you browse stalls filled with everything from handcrafted clothes, bric-a-brac and books about George Best (Belfast-born Manchester United footballer) to chocolates, coffee hand-roasted and locally-sourced products. Sample market food and drink on fun tasting tours around the city.

See tasteandtour.co.uk

THE UNIQUE MUSEUM

Don’t miss Titanic Belfast. Touted as “really quite phenomenal” by James Cameron, whose Titanic flick celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2022, this exhibit takes place in a dazzling aluminum-draped building an anchor’s throw from where the ship was designed, built and launched. Interactive galleries walk through the history and legacy of the Titanic and recall the times when Belfast was booming when shipbuilding, flax and rope making turned it into one of the wealthiest ports in the British Empire. Kids (and big kids) love the Shipyard Ride, a loud, carnival ride through a replica Titanic’s rudder.

See titanicbelfast.com

THE ONLY PUB

Belfast is full of lively but laid-back pubs where tourists and locals (from all walks of life) happily mingle. For the wow factor, it’s hard to beat the Crown Liquor Saloon, an ornate former Victorian gin palace restored by the National Trust. Behind its polychrome tiled exterior, you’ll find carved mahogany comforters, mosaic floors and gas lamps that create an atmospheric setting for a gin or pie and a pint of local beer.

See nationaltrust.org.uk/the-crown-bar

THE ONLY PLACE

Affectionately known as ‘The Great Lady’, Ulster Hall is one of the oldest purpose-built concert halls in the UK. Since 1862, it has staged everything from Charles Dickens readings and Barry McGuigan boxing matches to political rallies, stand-up comedy and concerts by local rockers Ash and Snow Patrol. Led Zeppelin played Stairway to Heaven for the very first time here, while Irish singer Delia Murphy has fallen into Belfast folklore for continuing to perform as Luftwaffe bombs hit the city in the 1941 Blitz. Check out the listings here and at its younger sibling, the Waterfront Hall.

See ulsterhall.co.uk

ONE MORE THING

Belfast is a magnet for game of thrones fans, with much of the HBO sensation touring in and around town. There are a host of themed tour options for ‘Thronies’, including a new immersive attraction with original sets, props and costumes at the show’s former filming studios half an hour south of Belfast.

See gameofthronesstudiotour.com

Steve McKenna was invited by Tourism Northern Ireland (discovernorthernireland.com) and Tourism Ireland (ireland.com)


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