Last Updated on March 27, 2022 by Jim Ferri
Visit Belfast and you’ll enjoy much more than the famous Titanic Museum
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Driving about the island of Ireland for a few weeks, visiting both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, I decided to visit Belfast. My primary reason for visiting Northern Ireland’s capital was to see the much-heralded Titanic Belfast Museum.
It was well worth the drive, since I discovered the Titanic Belfast was one of the most fascinating museums I’ve visited anywhere in the world. Yes, it’s just that good.
But there’s another side to this story, as well.
In addition to a great museum I also discovered that Belfast is a fascinating city overflowing with charm and beauty. It also posses a vitality and spirit, and infused with more than just a wee bit of Irish charm.
In fact, I discovered that there are so many things to do in Belfast, it’s almost overwhelming if you only have a few days in the city. But even if you have only one day to spend in Belfast, it’s well worth visiting. And Belfast is a great and easy day trip from Dublin by train.
Looking for Things to Do in Belfast
I had been driving for more than a week when I arrived in Belfast. On Wednesday morning, the day after my arrival, I decided to take a break with a short morning walk.
I had read that there are many things to do in Belfast. However, based on the recommendation of a friend, I especially wanted to see St. George’s Market, the city’s historic food market. But after being disappointed to find it was open only on Fridays, I headed straight off to the Titanic Museum.
Along the way I passed Victoria Square, a shopping mall flush with American and European brand names. I couldn’t help but admire how well all its soaring glass and steel melded so wonderfully with the old neighborhood into which it had been slipped. I took a quick peek inside but kept on the move, heading for the Titanic.
One of the Top Things to Do in Belfast – Visit the Titanic Museum
The Titanic Museum, the top sight to see in Belfast, also turned out to be all soaring steel and glass. But instead of melding with its surroundings, Titanic dominated it like a massive ship’s prow sailing through the neighborhood.
Everything about the building 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 inside. Even in its lobby, the rough-sawn pier planking made the ticket windows resemble large portholes.
The museum itself was mesmerizing, unlike any other non-art museum I’ve ever visited. There’s an introductory section discussing Belfast at the time of the building of the ill-fated liner. It is a great historic and cultural overview of the city and people.
You can read more about my experience in the museum at The Titanic, Belfast’s World-Class Museum. It also includes a short video of the ship’s launch.
Another Best Thing to Do in Belfast – Take a Black Taxi Tour
After leaving Titanic, I found myself a bit lost and overwhelmed by the city since I knew nothing of it. I had a contact at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and emailed her asking for suggestions.
Thankfully, she quickly arranged for me to later meet with a local cab driver, Ken, who would give me a three-hour tour of the city. It was the best thing I could have done and I should have thought of it myself. The city’s Black Taxi tours are a great way to get an insider’s look at Belfast.
Ken collected me at my hotel, the somewhat funky Malmaison. Since I enjoy minutia Ken quickly caught my attention when he told me 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 set off up Victoria Street in his taxi, past the landmark Albert Memorial Clock (“built in 1869, Jim, in memory of Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who died of typhoid fever”). Ken then told me it was slowly sinking into the ground. That seemed quite logical to me when he added it was built adjacent to an area built above the river.
After a short drive we made a stop at Belfast 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 really an amazing sight inside a beautiful church. Across the street Ken then showed me Writer’s Square, where inscribed in stone at various points were quotations from 27 deceased Northern Ireland authors, a poignant and perfect way to pay tribute to Belfast’s literary past.
The Dark Horse and Duke of York Tavern
After Ken found a place to park his taxi, we continued on foot, back across to Talbot Street. He had two special places to show me and on the way, just a minute up the street, we passed the Northern Ireland War Memorial, actually a little storefront museum dedicated to the home-front exhibition during World War II. A good part of it is dedicated to Americans serving in Belfast during the war, and although rather basic, the little display is still interesting.
We continued on and turned onto Hill Street where Ken took me the Dark Horse. It’s a sandwich and coffee house that appears unassuming from the outside but inside 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)… almost like a living antique shop.
Once outside again, he brought me into the alleyway next door that had murals on the walls pertaining to present-day life in the city. All over the city one sees many such murals as you move about Belfast.
Ken also wanted to show me the Duke of York Tavern around the corner, 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 pub filled with over 100 varieties of different whiskeys as well as plenty of wine and beer. It’s worth a visit just to see the inside.
He had taken me to the Duke of York since I had told him that I was interested in seeing and learning more about the period of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1994 when about 15,500 bombs were set off by the IRA. Ken told me that as the capital, Belfast got its fair share and “it was the luck of the draw who lived and who died since the bombs were placed indiscriminately.”
Catholic and Protestant Neighborhoods
We went back to his taxi and continued on to 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, with Union Jacks and Irish flags still flying at opposite ends of the street.
Murals are in different areas about the city and several tour companies, as well as just about any cab driver, can give you a tour of them.
We then headed off to the Queen’s Quarter of the city to see stately Queen’s University, the Botanical Gardens and the Ulster Museum, located right next to one another on University and Stranmills Roads. All along the way were plenty of little restaurants and coffeehouses, and in the midst of it all was Friars Bush Graveyard, a burial ground possibly dating back to pre-Christian times, a beautiful place to take a walk, although it’s only open by appointment and for scheduled tours.
Good Things to See in Belfast: the Crown Liquor Saloon and Merchant Hotel
Heading back down to Great Victoria Street, at the corner of Amelia Street, I asked Ken to stop since I wanted to see the renowned Crown Liquor Saloon. Inside I found one of the more ornate pubs in Belfast with a centuries-old interior and a good afternoon crowd. According to Ken, the wife of the owner chose the name, but her husband, not enthralled with British royalty, had the crown embedded in the tile at the doorway so people would scuff their feet on it when they entered.
The whole area 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 pubs here in the evenings. Robinsons Bar, right next to the Crown Liquor Saloon and dating back to 1895, offers live music every night of the week.
Further along Victoria we passed the Europa Hotel, “the most bombed hotel in all of Europe, Jim” said Ken. It was bombed 33 times during “the troubles,” he said, with probably 1,000 other incidents and hoaxes, although both “Bill Clinton and George Mitchell stayed there on the various times they visited.”
About five minutes further we stopped at the luxury 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 was located in the main banking hall of the building. A blend of Victorian and Art Deco, the room is spectacular. And, likely, so is the food. Just a few years Ago Northern Ireland was named the “world’s best food destination.”
When we returned to the Malmaison Ken had me look down Victoria Street towards the mountains in the distance. I didn’t see it right away but when he mentioned Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels I immediately saw the mountainous shape of the sleeping Gulliver lying down with his face looking up towards sky.
Although a Dubliner, said Ken, “Swift 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 to the rock formation – locally called Napoleon’s nose since it looks like a silhouette of the French emperor – and got the inspiration for his novel.
When I returned home I researched the legend and found the place in Belfast Swift is said to have been standing at the time of his inspiration.
Befittingly, it was Lilliput Street.
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
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 3187