Huddled up in the far north of United Kingdom, is the beautiful and quaint capital city of Northern Ireland, Belfast. Yes people do call it the underdog of Ireland, maybe because of its size or being the second fiddle to Dublin; whatsoever, the importance of this City cannot be undermined on the European political map.
Belfast dates back to early 17th century and grew up after 1609 AD. The success of what was a small town first, was built on cotton and linen industries. In 18th century it emerged as a major commercial shipbuilding nation. The iconic Titanic was built right here.
Under British rule, it flourished in the 1900s. However there was a continuous internal Civil turmoil between the Unionists and Nationalists. In 1970s began what is popularly called ‘The Troubles’ which was dominated by hunger strikes, fight for rights by the members of IRA, the dominance of the British Army following finally the Peace Process in 1994.
As a traveller to Belfast there is so much to learn and explore. The city has a very strong character of war and peace both at the same time. The walls of the city express the sentiments of the past and present with its paintings and murals. It has iconic historic building like City Hall and also museums like Titanic Belfast. Step out of Belfast and the Irish coastline will awe you with its unspoilt beauty and charm.
Seeped in history, the city of Belfast has a lot to offer to everyone. We have listed the Top 10 things you can see at Belfast, most of which you can cover just on a walking tour in a day. So here we go.
Belfast City Hall
Located in the heart of Belfast city, is the majestic historic building of the City Hall. One of the most beautiful City Halls, I have seen in United Kingdom, this one is over a century old. Opened to public in 1906, the grand building was designed by Architect Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas in Portland stone in Baroque Revival style.
Today the City Hall houses the Belfast City Council offices. What interests the tourists here is the strong connection of the City Hall with the iconic ship Titanic. There is a Titanic Memorial Garden on the east side of the City Hall. It houses the Titanic Memorial which inscribes the names of the lost souls from Belfast on RMS Titanic which met its untimely deadly fate on 15th April 1912 on its maiden voyage.
There are free public tours of the grounds and gardens of the City Hall on each day at a particular timing. If you are in Belfast you cannot miss sighting the grand building and a short visit inside is highly recommended.
Opening Hours : Mon – Thurs: 8.30am – 5pm. Fri: 8.30am – 4.30pm. Sat & Sun: closed. Public and bank holidays: Closed.
How to get there : The City Hall is in the center of the Belfast City. It is surrounded by shops, eateries and the Belfast Visitor Center is directly opposite to it. A walking tour of the city will take you there. I would say all roads in Belfast lead to the City Hall, so you will keep hitting on it wherever you go in Belfast.
Official Website : http://www.belfastcity.public-i.tv/core/portal/home
Insider Tips : The City Hall is illuminated at night with various colored lights bringing out the best of the architecture marvels of this historic building. Recommend to have a look at it and get some photos during a night stroll.
Belfast is a city of Churches with every street winding up with quite a mammoth pristine structure. However the most notable one to stop by is the St Annes Cathedral also known as Belfast Cathedral.
Built in Romanesque style, the first foundation was laid in 1899. The new Cathedral that we see today was built in 1904. The inside of the Cathedral is adorned with large beautiful stained glass windows, mosaics of Italian glass, handcrafted tapestry, large decorated pillars, Baptistery and various exhibits dedicated to the Army and struggles of the nation.
There are two most interesting rather intriguing features of the Cathedral; One is Ireland’s largest celtic Cross on the exterior of the Cathedral. Second would be the a stainless steel ‘Spire of Hope about 40 m from the ground, ’which was added to the roof of the structure in 2007, a shining landmark dominating the Belfast skyline.
Opening Hours : Mon-Sat : 8:00AM to 6:00 PM. Sun : 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. For visitors Mon-Sat : 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Sun : 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM. There is an entry charge of 5£ per person. Photography is permitted.
Official Website : http://www.belfastcathedral.org
How to get there : Donegall Street is in the heart of Belfast and a walk through the city will take you there. Follow sign boards for St Anne’s Cathedral and its easy to reach by a walk.
Insider Tips : If you have time at hand, attend any concert in the evening probably an Opera or a normal service. The Cathedral lights up beautifully and creates a great atmosphere for some peaceful moments.
Beacon of Hope
In a city which has a deep seethed war history, a statue defining peace and thanksgiving is truly a meaningful icon. Located in the ‘Thanksgiving Square’ overlooking the beautiful River Lagan is this 19.5 metres tall metal sculpture.
Built of stainless steel and cast bronze, this is the master creation of Andy Scott. It took six painstaking years of design and execution to erect this statue in 2007. It spirals upwards to hold the ring of Thanksgiving. The globe at its base is symbolic of peace, harmony and thanksgiving. It has a map of the cities and towns where the people migrated and trade was carried out in Belfast.
The lady has some cute affectionate names like ‘Nuala with Hula’ and ‘Doll on the Ball’. In the backdrop of setting sun and colourful skies, this steely structure glistens and looks psychedelic.
Opening Hours : Always
How to get There : Best would be to take a walk around the city. Alongside the Lagan River and Waterfront, you cannot miss this statue.
Insider Tips : Visit once in the daylight and at dusk. The structure shines differently in afternoon sun and in the setting sun.
Any European city will be incomplete without a Castle replete with History. The 19th century Belfast castle is perched at an envious position at the lower slopes of Cave Hill Country Park in North Belfast. The original Castle was built in the Belfast city by the Normans which was burned down in 1708 AD. The new castle which we see today was built at this new site at Cave Hill. The castle is built in Scottish Baronial style by the Chichesters.
The castle looks straight out of a fairytale book and reminded me of the German Schloss. The two storeyed stone structure has a beautiful sweeping stone staircase overlooking the gardens. A quick peek inside the castle which is now used only for weddings, social events and gatherings, has lovely rooms with elegant décor with large windows. There is a park surrounding the Castle which has exotic flowers, fountains and lush green grass beds. The park has a ‘Cat’ theme. There are floor mosaics depicting a Cat design, bushes cut out in Cat silhouettes and quaint Cat statues around.
There are exquisite views of the Belfast City from the Castle park. If you are game for some adventure, there is the Cave Hill trek path just next to the Castle.
How to get There : A taxi ride from City Center is just 10-15 minutes from the Castle. You can also take a Metro Bus Number 1 which stops at the Castle Bus Stop. From here you have to walk for 10-15 minutes upto the Castle.
Insider Tips : Entry to the Castle is free. You may want to combine your trip with a trek to Cave Hill as well. Wear good walking shoes
The Albert Memorial Clock tower in Queens Square, Belfast stands as a pillar of history of Northern Ireland. The sandstone tower is estimated to be 113 feet tall, though there is a disagreement among historians on this number. Built in 1865, in a Gothic style architecture, in memory of Price Albert, consort of Queen Victoria who is carved majestically on the Tower pillar.
The memorial tower was built in a marshy land on wooden piles, resulting which, it got the infamous lean. Could have been, the English counterpart of the Italian Leaning Tower of Pisa, until as late as 2002 a multi-million restoration project was started to prevent further leaning and restore the Tower.
As on date the Tower stands tall and straight as a landmark and a tourist attraction.
Opening Hours: Always
How to get there: A walk around the city will take you to the Tower. Cannot be missed as can be spotted from almost any street of the City Centre.
Insider Tips: You may want to stand for a while and gaze at the Tower to realise that it tilts. To me it looked pretty straight. Note to photographers will be to click in the daylight to capture the fine sculptures and a click at dusk for the glowing clock.
She was born and brought up here, was dolled as a bride on her maiden voyage, and finally she rests somewhere down in the seabed, RMS Titanic still lives in our memory. A visit to Belfast will be incomplete to re-live its lifetime journey. Built under the supervision of Naval Architect Thomas Andrews in Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast in 1909, The Titanic is today an icon of history of Belfast.
Titanic Belfast, located in Titanic Quarter is world’s largest Titanic visitor experience spanned across a state of the art 6 floor building built beside the site of the ship’s construction yard. Live thru the experience with interactive galleries. There are various tours you can choose from. There are impressive restaurants and cafes where you could dine or stopover for an Irish tea experience.
At the Titanic Quarter, you can take up Boat Tours, walking tours or Sea Safari. I wouldn’t recommend leaving Belfast without taking up this historic experience of the tragic journey of Titanic.
Opening Hours : Time varies according to the months, check the website for updated information
Official Website : http://www.titanicbelfast.com/
How to reach there : By walk Titanic Belfast would be around 20-25 minutes from the Town Center. Recommend to take a taxi which may take around 10 min from the City Center.
Insider Tips: Titanic Belfast is likely to get quite an influx of tourists especially during the Bank holidays and weekends. Recommend to buy tickets in advance online to get discounts and skip the queues.
Murals of Belfast
A visit to Belfast will be incomplete without visiting some of its world famous Murals. A mirror of the political dynamics in Northern Ireland over last many decades, these murals tell a thousand stories of turmoil and mutiny.
There are many areas where one can see the Murals, the North, West and East Belfast. The area of Unionist, Shankhill and the area of Nationalist. Falls, is divided by Peace Wall in West Belfast and is most visited by tourists.
The famous murals to look out for are that of Bobby Sands on Falls Road, a member of IRA who died while on the hunger strike of 1981 while in prison; another one is at Shankills Road, popularly known as the Belfast Mona Lisa, is that of a gunman who appears to be aiming at you, no matter where you stand. I tried changing many positions, but yes its true that he is always targeting you; The Belfast Peace Wall displaying the history of Ireland during The Troubles.
Opening Hours : Always
How to get There : There are Hop on Hop Off Buses which will take you around the main roads with Murals. However to get a detailed view and many more Mural Streets take one of the famous Black Taxi Tours. They normally charge 10£ per person for 3 person or more. For two they will charge 30£. You can choose any operator, they will take you around almost the same routes.
Insider Tips : Be careful while you are clicking photos in deserted streets and look around well. While I didn’t experience anything untoward, my Cab Driver did site many recent incidents of tourists being hit by stones or soccer balls by the street vandals.
Commercial Court Street, Belfast
While Belfast is replete with traditional Irish pubs, scattered across the city, this cobbled tiny alley is so enigmatic, that you will fall in love with it. In my 5 days trip to Belfast, there was no single day that I didn’t walk thru this street either in the day or at night.
This quaint street is huddled up near the Belfast Cathedral, not many travel sites write about it, hence for me too it was a discovery. As the name suggests it was once believed to be the commercial heart of the city. Believed to have been a regular jaunt for potters, judges, politicians, whiskey merchants and traders, several bronze panels on this street are a testimony for the same.
At nightfall, this street comes alive, glittering with soft lights and buzzing with people who come to one of the traditional pubs in this street. Most notable among them is ‘The Duke of York’ which is believed to house more than 150 different tipples for you to experiment. Try other places around like The Bushmills , The Hadskis known for its European Wine and pots and pans, Le Coup serving some of the best grilled chicken, The Dirty Onion Yardbird again known for its superbly marinated chicken grills.
Opening Hours : Always
How to get There : Walk around the Cathedral Quarter. This is a very narrow street and can look quite unassuming during the day and you are likely to miss it. However with the buzz around it at night, you cannot miss it at all.
Insider Tips : Must visit at night and highly recommend to savour some fresh Irish brews in one of its traditional pubs
Cave Hill County Park
Cave Hill Country Park in Belfast Hills has so much to offer, from wildlife to archaeological sites to a lot of challenge to your limbs. A challenging circular route from the foothills at Belfast Castle up the hill to McArt Fort to a height of almost 360m above sea level.
The trek paths are clearly way marked and its not much of a hassle to trek up. The way to the summit takes you through caves, moorland, rivulets, heath, meadows and if its spring you can spot yellows, blues and pinks all around. The climb is truly rewarding when you see breath-taking panoramic views of Belfast and on a clear day, the Isle of Man and Scotland too.
McFort Art is a ring fort on Cave Hill. It is believed that United Irsihmen stood on this hill overlooking Belfast and pledged rebellion in 1795. Legend also has it that the Cave Hill’s resemblance to a giant inspired Jonathan Swift to pen down Gulliver’s Travels.
Opening Hours : While the park is open all year, the trek up the hill can be closed sometimes. Check the website as it changes according with season
How to Get There : If traveling by public transport take the Metro Bus 1 and alight at the stop for Belfast Castle and walk following the sign posts. If driving, take the Antrim Road north west from Belfast City Center following the sign posts.
Insider Tips : In rainy weather, the trek path can be muddy and slippery, be very careful. Wear hiking shoes and preferably carry walking sticks. Try to cover the whole climb up and down in daylight.
The name Belfast has apparently originated from ‘Beal Feirste’ or the mouth of ‘Farset’ which was the River on which this city was built. This River flows into River Lagan.
River Lagan hence is the mainstream river beautifully meandering across Belfast. A walk across Belfast will lead you to Waterfront, a large complex. While I didn’t find anything exciting about visiting it, a small walk around it, lead to the bridge from where you can have scenic views of the River Lagan and the towering buildings and riverside houses around it.
Those who are keen for some walking trips alongside the River, The Lagan Towpath is a riverside walk path across the beautiful Lagan Valley from Belfast to Lisburn. The walk is alongside the River home to varied wildlife, flora and fauna and is a pleasant day trip.
Opening Hours : Always
How to Get There : From Belfast the towpath can be accessed from Lockview Road, Stranmillis. Download the map of Lagan Towpath before you commence your walk.
Insider Tips : Check the weather before making a walking trip. During rains the path can become slushy and muddy.