I initially heard comments, before leaving for two weeks in Ireland, and while there, about going to Belfast. As one tour guide in Belfast said, twenty years earlier they were one of the three B’s you didn’t visit: Baghdad, Beirut, and Belfast. I did not do much prep before going there.
Why I included Belfast in my trip to Ireland: Giants Causeway. That’s really it. As I did more research I found some other things to do, and it seemed silly to go all the way there and not include Northern Ireland. I booked a day trip that included a hike along the Causeway Coast ending at Giants Causeway. I planned for the Titanic Experience. And that’s sort of where my planning ended.
I planned for three nights, and 4 days in Belfast. It’s about half a day on the bus between Donegal and Belfast and Dublin and Belfast. The train between Dublin and Belfast is a little faster.
My first impressions as my bus rolled into Belfast was dirty, old, with not much in the way of a skyline. The waterfront seemed to be all shipyard. What was I going to do here for three days? I had to take a beat and check myself. The city was at the center of a civil war twenty years ago. Its history is also working class, and best known before and after the Troubles for its shipbuilding. Titanic was built here.
The city is mostly walkable, but you can easily get a cab to anywhere you need to go as well. I chose to mostly walk because that’s what I do at home, and you never know what you might happen across.
I got to town in time for a late lunch and had to get food first thing. Maggie May’s was my must stop at place. It was around the corner from my hostel. The menu is basically diner food and then some. If you can have dairy please get a shake there. They looked amazing!
After lunch, I decided to head straight for the Titanic Experience. It’s big and can take a couple of hours to get through. It turns out it is also a great way to get familiar with the city and its history.
There is so much information, and several interactive areas that it can be overwhelming, and I went at a quieter time of day – it was still packed. The museum walks you through from conception to launch, and all the way through the iceberg and the calls for help. There are also details from court cases and government investigations in the United Kingdom and the United States as to what happened and who, if anyone, was at fault.
The surprises were the virtual recreation of first-class dining rooms, the gondola ride through the partially build ship to experience what the builders experienced, to details and close up looks at the search for Titanic under water. After the fact my initial sticker shock at the price was waved – it is worth the £18.50.
A few days after I arrived in Ireland a fire broke out at the Primark store in central Belfast. A few blocks around it were still blocked off when I was in town. It was on my list of places to go because it was one of the older buildings in the city center and at the end of the main shopping strip.
What else is in the city center that you should check out?
Belfast City Hall: it is possibly one of the most beautiful city hall buildings I’ve ever seen, and its gardens are open to the public all day. People were enjoying them every time I walked past. There are also tours of the building daily. (This is part of the do as I say not as I do – I didn’t make it back around a tour time.)
This was my trip to Giant’s Causeway. I went with Away Wee Walk. If you’re doing research on a bus trip to Giant’s Causeway you will notice all the companies seem to have the same sign-up system. The system for getting everyone checked in and onto the right bus is remarkable – and it is all run out of one office.
Away Wee Walk has two options – walk along the Causeway Coast, or stick to the bus and hit a couple additional sights. Either way, you want they are the ones to go with: if you aren’t into the five-mile plus hike you’ll be the first tour bus of visitors to the Causeway that day. They go there first, while every other tour stops at castles along the way. If hike sounds amazing to you, it’s one of the only options, and the guides for both the hike and the bus portion are excellent and knowledgeable. (Spoiler: every single guide or anyone working in tourism in Belfast is going to blow you away with their knowledge, suggestions, history, and other random facts and insight.)
The hike is followed by a trip to Carrick – A- Rede Rope Bridge – which is another kind of hike. I, like Sam Seaborn, have a fear of bridges and tunnels. On behalf of everyone who may have a fear of bridges, heights, etc. please don’t be that person who asks someone to take a photo of them in the middle of the bridge. Wait until you’re on one side. Thank you!
This tour was the most expensive one listed and the most expensive thing I did during my entire trip, and it was absolutely worth the £67.
The tour is all day, and even the people at my hostel who did hike were exhausted at the end. (The people on the Game of Thrones tours may have had a battle or sword fight. They looked a little rough.)
Dinner was sushi take out from sushi from Sakura Japanese Restaurant. Again, right in the neighborhood by my hostel, as was Spar where I was able to grab a couple things for breakfast the next couple of days. And maybe some treats I carried home.
Here’s where I started to hit a problem. There was one more thing I wanted to do in Belfast, and I had a full day and a half left. And I didn’t have my black cab tour booked. Most places you stay can book this for you, and I’m sure they’re all excellent. My hostel had suggested pairing up with others who were interested in doing it or I’d have to pay the minimum for the tour – about £70.
I talked with one of the hostel employees about the tour during breakfast, and he insisted, either way, I had to do the tour – even if it meant paying full price. A woman eating with me said she and her friend were going on a tour that day, and I could go with them. It was one of those awesome moments when you travel alone and meet people along the way. Both of them were so nice, and fun to hang out with during the tour.
The Black Cab Tour: a history of Belfast and the Troubles, by someone who lived them, taking through the neighborhoods and passing on the lessons from nearly 4 decades of violence and war. If you are serious history nerd I suggest reading Understanding the Troubles.
As I’m now planning a trip to visit Austria – where they both live – I wish I’d thought to connect online with them. They were delightful tour companions, and interesting women, who refused to let me pay in the end.
With my last afternoon, I headed to Botanical Gardens and Ulster Museum. You might think after three tour guides you would know all of Northern Ireland history. Nope!
The Ulster Museum is a little everything. It is part history museum, part art museum, part natural history. And it is located right next to the Botanical Gardens and Queens University.
I mostly stuck to the history portion of the museum. I saw part of the art section, but exhibits were being changed so a lot of it wasn’t open. The history museum walks you quickly through early history and English rule and then takes you in greater detail through the Troubles. It was helpful for piecing together everything from the Black Cab Tour.
If the weather is nice…okay, even if it’s not, walk through the Botanical Gardens. The rose gardens are beautiful. The Palm House was like something out of my dreams full of succulents and green plants. The Tropical Ravine is beautiful, and a good escape if it’s a little chilly or rainy out.
I only had part of the day and decided to head to a few shops that looked interesting before grabbing lunch and heading to my bus. I found a coffee shop I couldn’t walk past without going into and returned to another coffee shop I’d been to with my new Austrian friends, for lunch before leaving. (If you’re into Hygge this is the place for you!)
Where I stayed:
Vagabonds Belfast Hostel, which is big, open, and has a variety of room types. While the rest of my trip I had my own room, and often my own bathroom, that wasn’t possible here. I was in a smaller dorm room though, with plenty of room to store my suitcase. The hostel was a little like a college dorm for grown-ups. There was a community meal my first night, people gathering to talk about their travels and watch movies. There are a couple common room areas so you can hang out and do whatever you want inside. The staff is helpful and knows a lot of about the city and can help you book tours, or offer suggestions of sights and how to get to them.
I honestly thought I would hate the shared dorm, but the rest of the hostel experience there was so good, I didn’t mind that part.
What else you should do there (there are many more places but these I wished I’d done more research or planned better for):
- City Hall Tour
- Belfast Castle
- St. George’s Market (only open weekends)
- St. Anne’s Cathedral
- Crumlin Road Goal
- City Walking Tour