I have lived in Northern Ireland for most of my life, yet I admit I have been pretty much clueless about Belfast until recently. As in the 80’s and 90’s, and even the early millennium, it really was a destination more to avoid. When tourism was focused on little more than alcoholics, terrorism, and a sinking ship. And to be honest, I never expected to ever see Belfast in a good light. Yet now I would say it is hands-down one of my favourite cities in Europe for a short weekend or break. Although I really only accepted this unlikely realization recently when bringing Fanfan, when we would take the train into Belfast every other week, to explore a little bit more each time. And I soon realised that it’s really not as shit as I remember. But when it comes to tourist attractions, and things to do in Belfast, there really are few, and the city can easily be covered on foot in a day. So a weekend in Belfast is more than enough for most, and given a few extra days check the bottom of this post for tourist attractions outside. Also apologies for the recurring Christmas theme, as we’re just always back to Northern Ireland over Christmas).
Belfast City Hall
There would be three main areas to base a stay in Belfast, two near the main transit stations at Belfast Central (Laganside) and Great Victoria Street (The Europa), or maybe the Cathedral Quarter. Although personally I would always bypass Belfast Central (which sits on the Laganside), and instead start out from the Europa which is found next to many of Belfast city’s best bars, restaurants and nightlife. In fact we normally begin and end our visits to Belfast here, as it is just a short walk past red brick and Victorian architecture, to find City Hall (Donegall Square) which for me marks the very centre. To tour the city hall itself there are public tours in the early afternoon (times shown here), although the surrounding gardens of City Hall tend to be the main draw to the area, with gatherings, and various events, like Belfast Christmas Market, throughout the year. Opposite is then the entrance to the main shopping streets.
Belfast Shopping Streets
Shopping really is not my personal interest, but the shopping streets are always quite interesting otherwise, with buskers, and odd sculptures, and just that quaint Belfast charm that the city is known for. The main shopping street here would be Donegal Place, directly opposite the City Hall, which then leads further to Royal Avenue and lots of other streets and alleys leading off. However the focus these days is more on Victoria Square, an open-air shopping complex with a dome-shaped viewing tower (free of charge) which shares 360-degree views of surrounding hills and landmarks, such as Harland and Wolff, Stormont (Parliament Buildings) and Belfast Castle.
Opposite Belfast Central Station, the Laganside for me symbolises the new and rejuvenated Belfast, of post-trouble times, and the iconic ‘Beacon of Hope’ is always a reminder on arrival as it welcomes visitors to the city on crossing the Lagan Bridge. Otherwise the Laganside area hosts a handful of other iconic attractions through the short stretch of river banks, including the Big Fish, and Fed & Watered is always worthwhile for a traditional Ulster Fry. I do suggest a walk along the riverside in the later evening hours, as Belfast really is a quiet city even at its busiest, so the walk is about as serene and romantic as Belfast will ever get, when lit up at night.
Belfast Cathedral Quarter
The Cathedral Quarter is found next to Saint Anne’s Cathedral, where the area has become well-known for bars and boozing, which is of course one of the most popular pastimes with everyone in Belfast. So they therefore do them well. So to share one of the more traditional Belfast bar experiences, it would have to be the Duke of York, which is found in the cobbled alleys and decorated streets of the Cathedral Quarter. Get in early and you might steal into a snug. Also, I really should mention the Crown Liquor Saloon, which is not actually in the Cathedral Quarter, but it is likely the best-preserved pub in Belfast found opposite the Great Victoria Station and Europa Hotel.
Botanic Gardens Belfast
The Botanic area is slightly outside of centre (Botanic Station) although it is still easy enough to reach from Great Victoria Street (Europa), being less than a mile away. As Belfast really is a small and easy to navigate city. Which again is why it is an ideal destination for a weekend visit or a short break. So the Botanic area shares some of the best things to do in Belfast, although it is best known for its gardens at the Palm House and the Tropical Ravine (info on openings here). And it’s just a really nice place to walk around. Although to make the journey worthwhile there is also the on-site Ulster Museum, as well Queen’s University directly next door, as well as a vibrant social student scene in the surrounding areas.
Tours in Northern Ireland
For tour itineraries outside of Belfast, the Donegal Square station is one of the main hubs for tour buses and travel to the further flung parts of Northern Ireland. This of course includes the usual Belfast City Tours, which take in the somewhat niche interests of local politics and the infamous troubles of Belfast’s past, which, unless you’re Irish American, it’s really just a bit of a weird one. Otherwise the Causeway Coast is a must see when visiting Northern Ireland and our Top 10 Causeway Coast Attractions are found here as well as other very much worthwhile itineraries throughout the country (our favourite Northern Ireland Attractions here). There is a hell of a lot to see in Northern Ireland and the great thing is just how near and close-knit everything is. A road trip’s always fun.