It’s still hard to talk about visiting Belfast and not mention ‘the Troubles’, the decades-long conflict over whether Northern Ireland should be a part of the UK or not.
The topic keeps coming up, even 25 years after the peace agreement, because it’s still a critical part of the city’s story. With thousands of people killed and neighbourhoods literally fenced off from each other, the conflict changed the face of Belfast and influenced much of what you’ll see today.
During that period, from the late 1960s until 1998 (and for a while afterwards, to be honest), Northern Ireland was hardly a tourist destination, with its reputation as a pseudo-war zone keeping people away for years. And while other parts of the UK invested in the visitor economy, very little was spent on attractions in Belfast.
These days, some of the best things to see in Belfast are still related to the Troubles, and learning about those times is one of the reasons people come here. But, although the issues behind the conflict haven’t completely gone away, there is much more to do than just dwell on the past.
Belfast has emerged as a very different city since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. You can see it in a very simple way with case of the Hotel Europa – once famous for being the most bombed hotel in Europe, it was chosen to host much of the Games of Thrones cast when they filmed here. (And hasn’t that TV show helped put Belfast on the map!)
Some of the changes in Belfast have been part of a concerted effort by authorities to make it a more attractive place to visit – the redeveloped Cathedral Quarter, for instance, or the spectacular modern museum dedicated to the Titanic, which is a highlight of a visit here.
But then there’s also the organic evolution in the city. As things became more stable, the food scene started to improve, live music became less about politics, and neighbourhoods blossomed. Belfast has a new layer of cool, looking beyond its past to the future.
Now, when you’re looking at what to do in Belfast, there are just as many modern attractions as there are activities related to the political conflict in the city. And, with clearer eyes, there’s also more attention on the broader heritage of Belfast and the other elements that have influenced its development.
That’s not to say everything is perfect here now. Compared to Dublin or other cities in the UK, Belfast can still feel quite gritty in parts, especially in the northern suburbs, and there are areas best avoided at night. (I was a bit surprised to see the riot squad in one of the neighbourhoods on my way into town from the airport, for example).
But that’s part of the authenticity of the city. Many times I complain that places are ‘too touristy’. Well, that’s not the problem here and when it comes to visiting Belfast, you have to accept that it still has some troubles, even if THE Troubles are officially over.
That being said, it’s generally a fun and rejuvenated city you’ll find today and there are so many things to see in Belfast. It’s one of the most interesting cities to visit in the UK right now and, to help with your planning, these are my suggestions for what to do in Belfast.
With so many things to do in Belfast, I thought it would be useful to start with some of the highlights – to give you an idea of what you should try not to miss. These are the main Belfast attractions that I think are worth seeing.
When the Titanic sank in 1912, it hit hard in Belfast. This was where the famous ocean liner had been built and it was more than just a ship – its construction had employed a huge amount of local residents and become woven into the city’s identity.
To commemorate the centenary of the sinking, Titanic Belfast was opened in 2012. This enormous modern museum tells the story of the ship from the start of its construction and the associated impact on Belfast’s economy, through to its first (and last) voyage, and to modern efforts to view and protect the wreckage.
There’s lots to see when you visit Titanic Belfast and it’s presented in an engaging way with multimedia presentations and interactive exhibitions. I would recommend buying your ticket in advance here.
A ticket to the museum also includes entry to SS Nomadic, a tender ship to the ocean liner and the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world! It’s right out front, so don’t miss it.
I’ve already talk about the Troubles and how much they define what you see today in Belfast. I really think that you can’t visit Belfast and not take some time to learn about this period (and how the tensions still remain).
One of the most tangible legacies of this time are the Peace Walls, the imposing barriers up to eight metres high that were constructed between warring communities to keep them apart. After the first one was put up in 1969, more came, and there are now almost 30 kilometres of them!
What’s particularly interesting about these barriers are the murals that have been painted onto many of them and seeing the Peace Wall murals is a fascinating part of their story, because they still depict so much of the feelings on both sides.
To understand what you’re seeing, you need to have a local who lived through the Troubles show you around. Thankfully there are some fantastic tours that do that, and it’s one of the most compelling things to do in Belfast.
I would recommend this famous black cab tour, that will take you to all the important locations. Or there are some other great options here:
Crumlin Road Gaol
There’s something a bit creepy about an old gaol, especially one that was the site of many executions, but Crumlin Road Gaol has leant into that idea and offers an unvarnished look at this historic site.
The prison opened in 1845 and was operational until it closed in 1996. More than 25,000 prisoners came through the cells within the five wings that fan out from the central common area known as The Circle. As well as being a general gaol, it also played a role during the Troubles, and had political segregation of republican and loyalist prisoners
You can visit Crumlin Road Gaol by yourself, and I would suggest booking a ticket in advance here. There are also guided tours that will give you more stories about the prisoners and take you to some areas that can’t otherwise be accessed.
St George’s Market
For something a bit cheerier than a gaol, there’s St George’s Market, one of the oldest sights in Belfast. There’s been a Friday market in this spot since 1604 and the current building went up at the end of the 1800s. It’s not the last surviving Victorian market in Belfast.
For a tourist, popping into St George’s Market is a chance to have a look at this little slice of heritage – but, of course, there are also more than 300 stalls here, selling food, crafts, clothing, and much more.
The market is open Friday-Sunday, with different vendors there each day. There are great places to get something to eat (breakfast is very popular), plus you’ll find musical performances and other entertainment.
Belfast was officially established as a town in 1613, but it was the industrial boom in the 19th century that saw it grow quite dramatically. The different backgrounds of the city’s residents – which would ultimately cause many of the issues here – also saw a variety of important institutions formed.
The heritage buildings of Belfast are some of the most important sights in the city, and it’s worth visiting a few of them when you’re here.
The Belfast Castle you see today was built in the late 1860s on the same site as several earlier castles dating back to the 12th century. A magnificent sandstone building with distinctive turrets, it’s one of the city’s most iconic buildings.
Belfast Castle is perched above the city on Cave Hill (more on that soon) with sweeping view across the city and out to the water. Impressive from the outside, there’s a visitor centre in the basement with an exhibition about the castle’s history.
Officially known as St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast Cathedral dominates the northern part of the city centre and is the most important Anglican church here.
Built from 1899, its Romanesque design has expanded over the years and the building is a marvel of art and architecture. Within Belfast Cathedral, you’ll find intricate mosaics, carved stonework, stunning stained glass windows, and other important artefacts.
Belfast City Hall
Right in the centre of town, it’s impossible to miss Belfast City Hall, an ornate Baroque Revival-style building from 1906 that houses the city council. It replaced an old town hall that leaders thought wasn’t imposing enough when Queen Victoria declared Belfast to officially be a city.
You can visit Belfast City Hall, which is open during the day and usually offers guided tours. In the ground floor’s east wing there is a permanent exhibition that traces the narrative of Belfast from its foundation through to modern times.
Linen Hall Library
Just across the road from City Hall is the Linen Hall Library, the oldest library in Belfast and one of the city’s most important cultural institutions. It takes its name from the building its housed in, which is part of the Linen Quarter, which was once filled with warehouses.
The library was founded in 1788 with the aim of collecting and preserving knowledge, particularly about Ireland. It’s free to enter and have a look around, but there are also regular tours that will give you a better understanding of the library’s principles.
One of the architectural gems of Belfast is Queen’s University, founded more than 160 years ago and now taking up much of the area known as the Queen’s Quarter. Its main attraction is the main building, designed by the famous English architect Charles Lanyon.
Although Queen’s University is obviously in use by students and researchers, you can walk around the campus to see the heritage buildings here. There are tours, but they’re usually aimed at prospective students. However, the Queens Welcome Centre has exhibitions and other information that might be of interest.
Grand Opera House
Right in the heart of the city, the Grand Opera House may not look like much from the front, but it opens up to one of the city’s most decadent buildings. Opened in 1895, the auditorium is magnificent and is considered one of the best examples of the ‘oriental style’ that was used for theatre architecture during that period.
The interior was restored in 2020 and a heritage exhibition was opened on the site in 2020, with a visual timeline and interactive touchscreens in the Gods Foyer. Of course, you could also get a ticket to see something at the Grand Opera House – and there are lots of shows every year.
And about six kilometres out from the city centre is Stormont Estate, a vast landscaped area that is home to the Northern Ireland Parliament Buildings, where the country’s assembly sits.
The parklands of Stormont Estate are worth visiting in themselves, with beautiful gardens, a variety of walks, and adventure trails. But you can also visit the Parliament Buildings, designed in the Greek Classical style and opened in 1932, and there are a couple of guided tours each day.
Speaking of nature, Stormont Estate isn’t the only place you’re able to find some greenery around the city. In fact, some of these natural sights are among the best things to do in Belfast.
The Botanic Gardens in Belfast are more than just a pocket of nature in the city (although it does offer a refreshing bit of tranquility, with grassy areas and slices of woodlands). The site is also an important scientific institution, founded in 1828.
One of the most notable features of the Botanic Gardens is the Palm House conservatory, a cast iron glasshouse that is older than the famous ones at Kew Gardens, with a large collection of exotic plants. There’s also another glasshouse with a sunken ravine, a rose garden, and space for concerts.
I’ve already mentioned Cave Hill Country Park because this is where you’ll find Belfast Castle, perched above the city, but there’s much more to see here than just that.
Apart from the panoramic view of Belfast, there are also archaeological sites, gardens, walking trails, and even a visitor centre with lots of information about the site. Cave Hill got its name from the five caves that are located on the side of the cliffs, which have been used by humans for millennia.
Divis and Black Mountain
These two mountains are usually talked about together because they are next to each other and accessed the same way, although Divis Mountain is the higher one, at 478 metres, compared to Black Mountain at 389 metres. But both offer incredible views of the city and a walk here is a wonderful way to get some bracing fresh air.
There are two main walks here – the Summit Trail and the Ridge Trail. The Summit Trail is about 4.8 kilometres long and is a bit more difficult because there are steeper sections. To avoid as much incline, the Ridge Trail gives you a gentler path with plenty of views, but is about 6.7 kilometres long.
There is no shortage of museums in Belfast, covering the fascinating (albeit turbulent) history of the city through the rise of the industrial era and the political conflict of the 20th century.
While some of Belfast’s museums cover a wide range of topics, some are focused on quite niche interests. I thought I would quickly mention some of the most interesting options.
- Ulster Museum: The largest museum in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum has exhibitions about a wide range of topics. There are sections about the history of the north of Ireland from prehistoric days to now, but then also has an impressive art collection, natural science items, and even some ancient Egyptian artefacts.
- Museum of Orange Heritage: The Orange Order was established in 1795 as a group of Protestants loyal to the British Crown. Although there is a social aspect to the fraternity, it’s also a very political organisation that plays a large role in Northern Irish society. The Museum of Orange Heritage looks at the history and culture of the order.
- Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum: On the other side of the political divide, the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum is a collection of items telling the story of the republican movement and the Troubles from that perspective. Named for the woman who campaigned to open the museum, it has artefacts like weapons, posters, clothes, and even a prison cell.
- Museum at the Mill: Set within the historic Mossley Mill, the Museum at the Mill takes you through the history of the site and those who worked there from the 1800s to its closure in 1996. It’s not just about the mill itself, but also offers an insight into life in Belfast during that period.
- Irish Linen Centre: One of the most important industries in Belfast was the manufacture of linen, with a whole neighbourhood dedicated to warehouses. The story of the industry is told through the museum at the Irish Linen Centre, with heritage looms, recreations of weavers’ cottages, and lots of examples of finished products.
- The Belfast Barge: This enormous barge from 1960, which was once a part of the huge shipbuilding industry in Belfast, is now moored at the Waterfront and is used as an arts centre. At the core of the Belfast Barge is a permanent museum with an exhibition about the maritime industry, including artefacts from the Harland & Wolfe company.
- Ulster Folk Museum: Away from the city, Northern Ireland has a long agrarian history, and that’s one of the things covered at the Ulster Folk Museum. Authentic period buildings give a sene of countryside life, with demonstrations of traditional craft like basket weaving and printing.
- Ulster Transport Museum: On the same site as the folk museum, the Ulster Transport Museum has a fantastic collection of vehicles from early history to the modern era, with a particular focus on trains (with Ireland’s largest railway collection, including steam locomotives and goods wagons). There’s also an exhibition about the Titanic, although it obviously doesn’t compare to Titanic Belfast.
In some ways, Belfast is a city to hear about, rather than see, and if you don’t get to speak to some of the locals, you may not really get a full sense of the place.
Some of the best things to do in Belfast are with guides, so these are my tips for some Belfast tours that’ll give you the insight you’re looking for.
Belfast is a terrific city to walk around, with most of the main sights quite close to each other, and the streets between them full of wonderful facades, brimming with local culture.
I would suggest that a walking tour is a nice way to start your visit to Belfast, to get the lay of the land and gain some insight into both the history and local life.
This is a really fun walking tour that looks at the modern side of Belfast, as much as the heritage. And there are a few others here you might like to consider:
There’s certainly no shortage of history in Belfast and, let’s be honest, it can get a bit confusing sometimes. That’s why a tour of Belfast that focuses on its past is an excellent way to get your head around the significance of what you’re seeing.
I’ve already talked about the Peace Walls and this black cab tour is one of the best ways to learn about that from someone who lived through the Troubles.
There’s also this walking tour that talks about the political conflict but through the sites that you’ll find in the city centre, rather than the suburbs.
Or, if you don’t want to focus on the political side of things, there’s a tour aptly called ‘More than the troubles‘ that covers the other parts of the city’s history.
Speaking of looking at things beyond the troubles, let’s not forget that Belfast is a fun city, full of life, with heaps of modern culture and entertainment.
To get amongst it all, you can take a tour to discover the best street art, the most lively pubs, and all the other characters of the city.
There are a few cool experiences here to choose from:
It’s not all about the city, because there are also some fantastic things to do around Belfast. The green countryside of Northern Ireland is beautiful, the coastline is stunning, and there’s a World Heritage in easy reach (one of only three on the island of Ireland).
Assuming you’re here for longer than just a couple of days, I would certainly recommend you take one of these day trips – or combine a couple of them for a big day out.
I think the best day trip from Belfast that you can take is to the Giant’s Causeway, the incredible landscape of tens of thousands of hexagonal basalt columns the dive from the cliffs down into the rough waters of the sea. The rock formations are a terrific World Heritage Site and I would highly recommend visiting the Giant’s Causeway.
The unusual natural attraction was formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, although there are plenty of other legends about what it could mean. After walking down to the water’s edge, you can climb out across them for a surreal experience.
There are lots of tours that head out there from Belfast. I think this guided tour is one of the best, but here are some other possibilities:
Causeway Coastal Route
One of the most striking elements of the scenery around Belfast is the coastline, with huge cliffs and caves, dramatic rocky outcrops, small fishing settlements, and much more.
There is an official route along the water called the Causeway Coastal Route, which runs for 190 kilometres from Belfast to Derry (with nine additional routes that loop off the main one). It’s short enough to do it all in a day, or you can just choose a stretch to focus on.
If you have a car, have a look at where you’re interested in visiting and head off for a relaxed drive for the day. Or you can arrange a private tour to show you the highlights.
Game of Thrones tour
If there’s one thing that’s really put Belfast on the map in the past decade, it’s Game of Thrones. The television show had its main studio in Belfast and used plenty of location around the city for filming, particularly in the early seasons.
A whole industry popped up of locals taking visitors around to see these locations and now it’s a really fun way to see the filming sites for yourself. If you’ve got a car, you may be able to do your own tour of the Games of Thrones locations.
It does help to have a guide, though, and there is this very popular tour that combines some Game of Thrones locations with a visit to the Giant’s Causeway. Or there are these trips that really focus on the television show:
There’s also the fantastic new experience at the main Games of Thrones studio, which is the ultimate experience for fans! You can book your ticket here.
At the very northern tip of Northern Ireland is Rathlin Island, an adorable little outpost with a community of about 150 people. Far away from the bustle of the city, this is one of the most beautiful spots in the country to visit, with hillsides full of colourful wildflowers and rocky landscapes near the shore.
The ferry from the mainland takes only 20 minutes, but you feel like you’ve arrived in another country, with the small village where there are plenty of locals happy for a chat. It’s certainly off the tourist path – and that’s its charm.
I’ve got more information about visiting Rathlin Island that’ll help you plan a day trip. It’s particularly popular with birdwatchers, with lots of important species and even some puffins!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BELFAST
As Belfast has embraced tourism in the past few years, there have been a lot of cool new accommodation options pop up in the city.
If you’re looking for a budget option, I think the best option in Belfast is Vagabonds.
Unfortunately there aren’t many cheap hotels in Belfast but you can often get good deals at ETAP Hotels.
For a cool boutique hotel, The Bullitt is my favourite choice.
And for luxury in a beautiful heritage building, you can’t go past The Merchant Hotel.