Last Updated on September 23, 2022 by Jim Ferri
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
Updated for 2022
By Jim Ferri
My Black Taxi tour of Belfast began with one of the most unusual introductions I’d ever had to a European city.
“It’s the most bombed hotel in all of Europe, Jim” my black-taxi driver Ken, told me, pointing to Belfast’s Europa Hotel.
“It was bombed 33 times during ‘the troubles,” he said, using the British euphemism for the civil war that plagued Northern Ireland for so many years.
In fact, more than 3,500 people lost their lives here from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Things are calm now in the capital of Northern Ireland, and as I was whisked around Belfast on my Black Taxi tour, Ken continued chitchatting about numerous sights we passed.
As all Black Taxi drivers in Belfast are apt to do, he infused his commentary with heavy doses of local lore, gossip and, humor.
Black Taxi tours show more than “the troubles” and politics, however. They can take you all over the city and even beyond. The standard tour lasts about 90 minutes, and driver-guides will pick you up and drop you off anywhere in the city.
Tours will also take you to see the Titanic shipyard and a day-long tour to see the Northern Ireland locations where Game of Thrones was filmed. It’s one of many such tours that have sprung up over the years.
A Fascinating City
With Ken’s help, and later on my own for an additional day, I found Belfast to be an unexpectedly fascinating city. It’s a capital that’s full of charm and beauty, vitality, and spirit. For those who want a taste of it (highly recommended), Belfast is also an easy day trip from Dublin by train.
Before I had hopped into the back of Ken’s Black Taxi, I had wandered about the city a bit on my own. From my hotel I first set off to St. George’s Market, the city’s historic food market where I was disappointed to find it was open only on Saturdays.
I continued walking to Victoria Square, a upscale shopping mall flush with American and European brand names. One can’t help but admire how well all its soaring glass and steel melds so wonderfully with the old neighborhood into which it had been slipped.
After a quick look, I headed off to the much-heralded Titanic Museum, a massive monument of soaring steel and glass that dominates the neighborhood.
Everything about it had a nautical theme, from the quartet of ship bows on the exterior, down to the anchor chains that line the entrance way and guide you into the lobby. Even the ticket windows are large portholes in rough-sawn pier planking.
The museum itself was mesmerizing, unlike any other non-art museum I’d visited. There’s also an introductory section discussing Belfast at the time the ill-fated liner was built, which is a great historic and cultural overview of the city and people.
Rescued By Ken for His Black Taxi Tour of Belfast
It was after I left the Titanic Museum, when I became a bit lost and overwhelmed by the city, that I met Ken.
I had a contact at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and she got us together for a Black Taxi tour. Since the tours are internationally famous, I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it myself. It turned out to be the best way not only to become acquainted with the city, but the best thing to do in Belfast.
Ken collected me at my hotel, the somewhat funky Malmaison, and since I enjoy minutia, he quickly caught my attention when he told me that the building was originally a seed warehouse. It dated to 1867, he noted, and the five heads on the facade represented the five continents of the world.
We taxied up Victoria Street past the landmark Albert Memorial Clock (“built in 1869, Jim, in memory of Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who died of typhoid fever”). He also shared that it was slowly sinking into the ground since it was built on land reclaimed from the river. Presently, it’s off center about four feet (1.25 m).
Off To the Cathedral and Writer’s Square
We were soon off to Belfast Cathedral, aka St. Anne’s Cathedral, a beautiful church that has a 130-foot stainless steel spire protruding through a glass platform above the altar. Incongruous as it may seem, it’s an amazing sight inside a beautiful church.
Ken then walked me across the street to Writer’s Square. There, inscribed in stone at various points, are quotations from 27 deceased Northern Ireland authors. It’s a poignant and perfect way to pay tribute to the city’s literary past. Being a writer myself, my Black Taxi tour was getting increasingly more fascinating.
After Ken had found a place to park his Black Taxi, we continued on foot back across to Talbot Street, where Ken had two special places to show me.
On the way, just a minute or so up the street adjacent to the Cathedral, we passed the Northern Ireland War Memorial. It’s actually a little privately funded storefront museum, dedicated to the home front during World War II.
Although It was rather basic and very small, it was still interesting, with most of it dedicated to Americans who served in Belfast during the war.
The Dark Horse and Duke of York
We continued and turned onto Hill Street where Ken took me into the Dark Horse. It is a sandwich and coffee house that appears unassuming from the outside, but inside it is like no other.
Just about everything in it was an antique…the tables, the decorations, the bar, even the loo, although the plumbing was modern. It was a living antique shop, a great place for a sandwich and coffee.
Once outside again, he brought me into the alleyway next door that had murals on the walls depicting day life in the city. As we traveled about Belfast on my Black Taxi Tour, we saw many such murals.
But what Ken wanted to show me, was the Duke of York Tavern around the corner.
The Duke of York is the sister establishment of the Dark Horse. It was destroyed in the early 1970s when the IRA planted a car bomb outside it.
It was rebuilt (a marvelous job) and today it’s once again a popular and comfortable pub. Behind the bar are over 100 varieties of different whiskeys, as well as plenty of wine and beer.
Ken had taken me to the Duke of York since I had told him I was interested in seeing and learning more about “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. He continued my education as we drove west toward the famous neighborhoods.
“From 1969 to 1994, about 15,500 bombs were set off by the IRA in Northern Ireland,” he told me. “And as the capital, Belfast got its fair share. It was the luck of the draw who lived and who died since bombs were placed indiscriminately.”
The Most Popular Stop on the Black Taxi Tours
After a short ride we arrived in the old Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods where political murals still cover many walls.
We stopped along the wall that was built by British soldiers to separate the Irish and the British factions. Union Jacks and Irish flags were still flying at opposite ends of the street.
You don’t find murals only in the Catholic and Protestant Neighborhoods, however. You come across them in different areas all over the city.
I realized I wouldn’t have seen any of them, as well as the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, if I hadn’t taken a Black Taxi tour of Belfast.
They’re all located right next to one another on University and Stranmills Roads. All along the way were plenty of little restaurants and coffeehouses.
In the midst of it all, was Friars Bush Graveyard, a burial ground possibly dating back to pre-Christian times. It appeared to be a beautiful place to take a walk. Unfortunately, it’s only open by appointment and for scheduled tours.
The Crown Liquor Saloon
Heading back down to Great Victoria Street, we pulled over at the corner of Amelia Street.
I had asked Ken to stop since I wanted to see the renowned Crown Liquor Saloon, built in 1840. It also had a good afternoon crowd and inside I found one of the more ornate pubs in Belfast.
All about was Italian tile, fine glass engraving, opulent marble, and an embossed ceiling. Cozy booths are snuggled up along the side. I later learned the panels in its restaurant were originally designed for the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic.
I was soon receiving more Black-Taxi insider info from Ken. It was the wife of the owner, not her husband, Ken told me, who chose the name “Crown.” But her husband, not enthralled with British royalty, had a crown embedded in the tile at the doorway. His reason was that he wanted people to scuff their feet on it when they entered.
The area of Belfast about the Saloon is quite alive and filled with both Belfastians as well as tourists. There are plenty of restaurants in the area and live Irish music at some of the pubs in the evenings. Robinson’s Bar, right next to the Crown Liquor Saloon, offers live music every night of the week.
Another Stop on Our Taxi Tour: The Great Room Restaurant
Five minutes later we stopped at the Merchant Hotel since Ken wanted to show me the hotel’s Great Room Restaurant. The hotel was the former headquarters of Ulster Bank, and the restaurant is in the main banking hall of the building. The room, a blend of Victorian and Art Deco, is spectacular.
When we returned to the Malmaison at the end of our Black Taxi tour of Belfast, Ken had me look down Victoria Street towards the mountains in the distance.
I didn’t see it right away, but not until he mentioned Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Then I immediately saw the silhouette of the sleeping Gulliver lying down with his face looking up towards the sky.
Although Swift was a Dubliner, Ken told me, he was a Church of Ireland minister, and his church was on the other side of that mountain. According to local legend, Swift had been visiting in Belfast when he looked up at the rock formation. The formation is called Napoleon’s nose locally, since it looks like a silhouette of the French emperor. And looking at Napoleon’s nose is where Swift got the inspiration for his novel.
When I returned home, I researched the legend and found the place in Belfast where Swift is said to have been standing at the time of his inspiration. It was, quite appropriately, on Lilliput Street.
Choosing a Black Taxi Tour of Belfast
Belfast’s Black Taxi tours are one of the best things to do in Belfast and are exceptionally popular with visitors. Interestingly, when we all began traveling again after the pandemic, it was Belfastians who began taking Black Taxi Tours. Now thousands of international travelers are joining them. They come by car, plane, train, and cruise ships.
There are just a few companies offering Black Taxi tours. While they may visit most of the same places, you need to read the fine print on each of their sites. For example, some will provide a free pick-up throughout the central part of the city. Others require you to come to a pickup point or there will be an extra charge. There are differences in pricing, as well.
The following are the best-known companies, listed in random order. Note that all prices are in British pounds since Northern Ireland is part of the British Empire, and not part of Ireland, which uses the Euro. Also note that many of the company names and web addresses are very similar, so be cautious when reviewing them.
Taxi Tours Belfast
Tours / Costs: Belfast Political & Mural Tour (£55 – 1-2 pax / £205 8 pax) / 3 Hour Ultimate Political Tour. (£200 – 1 pax) / 3 Hour Ultimate Belfast Experience (£200 – 1-2 pax / £700 10-14 pax) / Luxury Giants Causeway & Antrim Coast Tour (£550 1-2 pax / £900 8 pax)
Note: Taxi Tours Belfast claims to be the original Black Taxi Tours in the city. Interestingly, in the FAQ section of their website they pose the question “Can I request a catholic or protestant driver?” The answer: “We prefer not to allocate drivers bases(sic) on religion, our drivers come from both sides of the community and your driver may or may not wish to reveal his religion to you during the tour, we think its best to not know though.”
NI Black Taxi Tours
Tours / Costs: Belfast tours: Mural Tours, Belfast Political Tours, and Titanic Shipyard Belfast Taxi Tour. 1½ hour-city tours are £40 for two people with each additional passenger £15
Northern Ireland Black Taxi Tours also include the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills Distillery, Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle and more / the NI tour is from £300 up to four people.
Note: free pick up from anywhere in Belfast
Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours
Tours / Costs: Greater Belfast’s Historical Sites (murals, City Hall, Titanic, etc.) / cost is dependent upon the number of people in the tour. For example, 1-2 people costs £35.00 for the tour (lasting approximately 1 hour 30 minutes). A group of 3,4,5,6,7 or 8 people will be charged an additional £15.00 per person / Beyond Belfast Tours: Game of Thrones Tours and Golf Experience (provides information and contacts to some of the most prestigious courses in the country); contact the company for a quote.
Note: for Belfast tours Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours utilizes 6- and 7-seater London-styled black taxis / the company has a free pick up/drop off policy in the city center. Outside the city center a small taxi fare charge is added / for its Beyond Belfast Tours the company is currently recommending that you have no more than 4 people in your cab, particularly for those coming off the cruise ships, since the trip can be 180 miles. If you like, you can put up to 7 people in its largest cab.
Cab Tours Belfast
Tours / Costs: Belfast Mural Tours (from £45 for 1-2 people) / Belfast Mural and Crumlin Road Gaol Combo Tour (from £55) / Giants Causeway Tour (includes Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge, Ballintoy Harbour, Dunluce Castle, Bushmills Distillery, and the Dark Hedges of the Game of Thrones (from £400)
Note: wheelchair friendly cabs are available from Cab Tours Belfast / the price of the Giant’s Causeway Tour does not include any entrance fees to the places visited / free pick-up locations are only at the Jury’s Inn Hotel and 3 Donegal Square East. For all other locations there are additional charges.
Black Taxi Tours
Tours: Belfast Political Mural Tour and Historical Buildings & Landmarks Tour: 1:45 hours; costs £60 1-2 people (minimum) to £180 for 6 people. Children under the age of 10 are free but need to be accompanied by 2 adults; children 10 aged 14 £10 each; teenagers 15-16 £30 each / Giants Causeway, Belfast and Game of Thrones Tour: from £390 / Game of Thrones Tour: from £390 / Cruise Ship Excursions: from £390 / several other tours are also available. See the company’s website.
Note: Black Taxi Tours provides free pick up only within 1 km of Belfast City Hall. All other pick-up locations will have an extra surcharge. Ask before booking.
Black Taxi Tour Belfast
Tours: 75-90 minutes / from £30 per person with a minimum of 2 adults.
Note: Black Taxi Tour Belfast is primarily a tour bus company, which runs the Belfast Hop On Hop Off Tour about Belfast. While it has taxis, several of its tours are on buses. To view all of its tours see the company’s website.
If you go:
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
59 North Street
Belfast BT1 1NB
Tel: +44 (0) 28 9023 1221
34-38 Victoria Street
Belfast BT1 3GH
Tel: +44 28 9022 0200
30 Hill Street
Belfast BT1 2LB
Tel: +44 28 9023 7807
Duke of York Tavern
7-11 Commercial Court
Belfast, BT1 2NB
Tel: +44 28 9024 1062
Crown Liquor Saloon
46 Great Victoria Street
Belfast BT2 7BA
Tel: +44 28 9024 318