Last Updated on August 17, 2023
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 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 when visiting Belfast that it is a fascinating city overflowing with charm and beauty. It also possesses vitality and spirit and is infused with more than just a wee bit of Irish charm.
In fact, I discovered 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 visiting Belfast, it’s well worth visiting. And Belfast is a great and easy day trip from Dublin by train.
Looking for Things to Do While Visiting Belfast
I had been driving for over a week when I arrived in Belfast. So on Wednesday morning, the day after my arrival, I took a break with a short morning walk.
My research has shown there are many things to do when visiting 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 quickly peeked inside but kept moving, heading for the Titanic.
A Top Thing to Do While Visiting Belfast – See the Titanic Museum
The Titanic Museum, the top sight to see when visiting Belfast, was 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 to the anchor chains that line the entranceway and guide you inside. Even in its lobby, the rough-sawn pier planking made the ticket windows resemble large portholes.
The museum was mesmerizing, unlike any 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 an excellent historical and cultural overview of the city and its 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 Thing to Do – Take a Black Taxi Tour
After leaving Titanic, I felt 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 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 the town when visiting 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 world’s five continents.
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 constructed adjacent to an area built above the river.
We soon stopped at Belfast Cathedral. It’s a beautiful church with a 130-foot stainless steel spire protruding through a glass platform above the altar. Incongruous as it may seem, it’s really a fantastic sight inside a beautiful church. Across the street, Ken then showed me Writer’s Square, where quotations from 27 deceased Northern Ireland authors were inscribed in stone at various points, a poignant and perfect way to pay tribute to Belfast’s literary past.
The Dark Horse…
After Ken found a place to park his taxi, we continued on foot back across Talbot Street. He had two unique places to show me. On the way, just a minute up the street, we passed the Northern Ireland War Memorial, 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 relatively basic, the little display is still interesting.
We continued and turned onto Hill Street, where Ken took me to the Dark Horse. It’s a sandwich and coffee house that appears unassuming from the outside, but the 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 with murals on the walls about present-day life in the city. All over the city, one sees many such murals when visiting Belfast.
…and Duke of York Tavern
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 and 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 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.”
When Visiting Belfast See the Catholic and Protestant Neighborhoods
We returned to his taxi and continued to the old Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods where political murals still covered many walls. We stopped along the wall 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.
When visiting Belfast, you’ll see murals in different city areas. Several tour companies and just about any cab driver can give you a tour of them.
We then headed 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. Amid 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 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 owner’s wife chose the name, but her husband, not enthralled with British royalty, had the crown put in the tile at the doorway so people would scuff their feet on it when they entered.
When visiting Belfast, you’ll find the entire area around the Saloon quite alive and filled with both Belfastians and tourists. There are plenty of restaurants in the area and live Irish music at some pubs 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. He said it was bombed 33 times during “the troubles,” 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 later, we stopped at the luxury Merchant Hotel since Ken wanted to show me the Great Room Restaurant. The hotel was the former headquarters of Ulster Bank, and the restaurant was located in the central banking hall of the building. A blend of Victorian and Art Deco, the room is spectacular. And, likely, so is the food. 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 distant mountains. 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 the 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 at 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