Who would have thought that Belfast would one day make it as one of the upcoming destinations for a UK city break? Back in the 80’s the city centre was a no-go zone where shops had security of which many modern airports would still be envious nowadays. Civil unrest, bomb scares or worse were the order of the day. ( check out my article about the Troubles if you don’t know what I’m talking about)
But all that is finished now, as Belfast looks towards a brighter future. Cheaper than Dublin, but with just as much “craic”, read on to discover the must see’s and do’s for a weekend in Belfast.
The perfect weekend in Belfast
The weekend is when Belfast is at its most vibrant so what better way to start your visit than by mingling with the locals over a few drinks? I personally love to start off quietly at “Chez Mal”, the bar of the Malmaison hotel. On Fridays from 5pm-8pm they have their “Thank Mal it’s Friday” event which means cocktails for £6 and free nibbles. Yes, you read that right, FREE NIBBLES!
Don’t overindulge though, dinner is up next! For your first meal in the city, head to “Made in Belfast”. The restaurant has 2 different locations that offer the same menu and a slightly different quirky interior. Go for the City Hall one, which in my opinion has the “nicest” interior. They describe it themselves as a mixture between a second-hand shop and Ikea. It’s all pretty chaotic, but very beguiling! Plus your walk will take you passed the beautifully lit-up City Hall!
The food at “Made in Belfast” shows influences from various part of the world and is what food should be like: delicious, decent portions and average prices!
Time for another drink, me thinks! A 5-minute walk will bring you to The Crown Liquor Saloon, THE pub in Belfast that every first-time visitor wants to see. And rightly so! The Crown Liquor Saloon is known for its stunning Victorian interior and its “snugs”, private booths that still feature the original gun metal plates for striking matches and an antique bell system for alerting the staff.
Even though it’s popular with visitors, it is still a local jaunt as well, a perfect place to get a first taste of the strong Belfast accent!
Hopefully you haven’t overdone it yesterday evening, but if you have there’s no doubt that the traditional Northern-Irish breakfast will get you back on your feet in no time. Bacon, eggs, sausages, baked beans, fried tomatoes, mushrooms and, most importantly, both potato bread and soda bread; no wonder the “Ulster Fry” is nicknamed “a heart attack on a plate”!
You can get an Ulster Fry in most cafés around Belfast, but since it’s Saturday, I’d suggest you head for the St Georges Market, Belfast’s weekend market. Nearly 100 stalls ranging from food to local arts & crafts are gathered inside a beautiful Victorian market hall. It was named the UK’s Best Large Indoor Market 2019 so you really can’t afford to miss it! It is one of my favourite go-to’s during the weekend.
Now that your stomach is full it’s time to start some proper sight-seeing! Head to Belfast’s stunning City Hall in the heart of the city centre. Dating back to 1906, the inside of the City Hall boasts different types of marble. It’s home to dozens of paintings, busts, statues and stained-glass windows to commemorate important aspects of Northern Ireland’s history. There is a free exhibition on Belfast and free guided tours of the building several times a day. Tours are free and are on a first- come- first -served basis so it’s best to turn up 20 minutes before the tour to register.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of Northern Ireland, including the recent history of the Troubles, make your way to the Ulster Museum, a 20 minute walk south from the City Hall. It’s massive and you can easily spend a few hours here, browsing through the country’s history, science and a selection of British & Irish art. The best thing about it? It’s free! Did you know by the way, that a weekend in Belfast doesn’t need to cost a lot of money, there are plenty of free things to do in the capital of Northern Ireland!
When you’ve had enough, take a walk in the Botanic Gardens surrounding the Ulster Museum. There’s a very relaxed atmosphere and if you’re here on a sunny day (yes, that does happen occasionally!) it’s full of people having lunch on the big lawn.
Right next to the Botanic Gardens is Queen’s University, one of the leading universities in the UK and Ireland. The centrepiece is called the Lanyon building, named after Belfast’s famous local architect. The design has plenty of Gothic and Tudor character and reminds you of some of the great medieval universities like the Magdalen College in Oxford.
If you start feeling a bit peckish after all that (which is very doubtful if you’ve had an Ulster Fry earlier on) head towards one of my favourite cafés in Belfast: “The Pocket”. Situated right in front of the Lanyon Building, this little café offers great brunch or lunch options!
Now that you’ve seen what the southern part of the city has to offer, head back to the city centre towards Victoria Square. It is Belfast’s biggest shopping centre. It’s not only for fashionistas though, Victoria Square is crowned with a glass dome that gives you a panoramic 360 degree view over the rooftops of the city! Well worth having a peek. Time to head for the Cathedral Quarter. Have a look inside the MAC, Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre. It’s a rather small venue, but there is always an interesting temporary exhibition on in one of the 3 galleries. The MAC is one of the venues that is open later too. Most attractions close around 5pm in Belfast, but the MAC stays open till 7pm! As well as the exhibition space, the venue hosts numerous events, art shows and performances.
By now, it must be near dinner time! St Anne’s Square offers a variety of options from Italian cicchetti to Asian fusion and is a great place to start your Saturday evening.
Just around the corner is the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast’s nightlife hotspot. There are lots of different bars to choose from. Have a proper Belfast pub crawl and go from the more traditional pubs to the more sophisticated cocktail bars!
My favourite one? “The Spaniard”: they do a mean “Dark ‘n Stormy” and the interior on the first floor is …well… you have to see it for yourself!
Belfast takes it very easy on a Sunday morning and shops don’t open till 1pm. Lucky for you, the main tourist attractions are.
But first: breakfast!
Depending on where you’re staying (you can find several options further down in the article), I’d opt for “Established Coffee” with its industrial, hipster vibe or “Harlem” that boasts a very eclectic and antique décor and great vegetarian options!
Sunday morning is the perfect time to explore the Titanic Experience. The ill-fated White Star liner was built in Belfast so it only seems logic to have one of the biggest Titanic Museums in the city where it was born! The Titanic Experience takes you back to the time of the construction and explains you what Belfast was like back in the early 20th century. You get to know the story of the ship workers (and even get to go on a short but cool shipyard ride!) all the way to its final destiny.. Allow yourself at least two hours and in summer I would strongly advise you to buy your tickets in advance, unless you’re a big fan of queueing!
Your ticket into the Titanic Experience is also valid for the SS Nomadic,the original tender ship to the Titanic.
From the Titanic Quarter, take a bus or taxi to West Belfast to learn more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and visit the famous “Peace Wall”. I can recommend you various Troubles tours of Belfast that will give you an insight in the its recent past and will show you how much the city has moved on in the last 20 years!
After this pretty heavy and rather depressing subject, you might want to shower your head and head for the hills! Cave Hill is a 20 minute bus ride away and a 45 minute climb offers you far-stretching views over Belfast Lough and Northern Ireland’s coast line. Have a peek into Belfast Castle while you’re there and see if you can spot the 9 sculptured cats in the beautifully laid out castle gardens.
Leave Belfast with those gorgeous views in mind. Hopefully you have the chance to explore other attractions in Northern Ireland or drive along the stunning Causeway Coastal Route.
If not, when are you coming back?
How to get to Belfast
Belfast has been blessed with 2 airports, which is pretty remarkable seen its modest size. George Best Belfast City Airport is just 3km/2 miles from the city centre, so this is the handiest airport to fly into to spend a weekend in Belfast. The Airport Express 600 takes you to the city centre (Europa Bus Centre) in about 15 minutes. Tickets cost £2.60/£4.20 single/return and buses run every half hour.
Belfast International Airport is 30km/18 miles from the city centre. The Airport Express 300 runs every 20 minutes during peak times and takes 40 minutes to the city centre. (Europa Bus Centre) Tickets cost £8/£11.50 single/return and buses run every half hour.
By bus or train
If you’re coming from Dublin, I would advise you to take the bus, which is cheaper. The trip takes roughly 2 hours. Book in advance online for the cheapest tickets.
You have a choice of 3 companies:
Dublin Coach goes directly from Dublin City Centre to Belfast. (Europa Bus Centre)
Aircoach and Goldline go from both Dublin Airport and Dublin City Centre.
When is the best time to visit Belfast?
Have you noticed how green everything is? There’s a reason for it, it’s called rain! Rain is a possibility all throughout the year, but the best chance of decent weather is between May and September. This is also the time when the days are longer, so more time for sight-seeing!
However if you can, I’d advise against visiting Belfast the first half of July. The 12th of July is known as “Orangefest”. It’s the day when loyalist bands march throughout the city centre to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne from 1690, in which the Protestant King William III proclaimed victory over the Catholic King James II.
If you know anything about Northern Ireland’s history and the Troubles, you will realize that this is a fortnight of tension between both communities that is occasionally accompanied by unrest and rioting.
Is Belfast safe?
Yes, it is! The Troubles are long gone and apart from occasionally in the beginning of July (see above), civil unrest and rioting is very rare and limited to certain areas. These are areas in which you would not venture as a tourist anyway!
Belfast is as safe, or unsafe, as any other western city and normal precautions apply.
How to get around in Belfast
Walking is the best option! The city centre is rather compact and from the City Hall almost everything is walkable within 30 minutes.
If you prefer, you can take public transport to get to Titanic or Cave Hill. The cheapest option is a day ticket, it costs £4.20 and can be used on any city bus throughout the entire day. You can buy it from the driver or at one of the many ticket machines at the bus stop.
If you prefer being driven around the city and hop on/hop off at various attractions, then City Sightseeing is the best option. You can buy your ticket from Visit Belfast. Ignore the annoying touts standing outside the visitor centre and buy it from the official desk inside!
Where to stay in Belfast
Belfast is booming so there is no shortage of accommodation, from hostels to luxury hotels. These are the ones I would recommend:
Vagabonds hostel: designed by two experienced travellers, this hostel provides a relaxed, clean and affordable place to spend a few nights. At equal distance from the city centre and the Queen’s University, this is the ideal hostel for budget-minded backpackers and offers dorms as well as private rooms.
Easy Hotel: one of the cheapest options bang in the middle of the city centre, this no-frills place is ideal if you’re just looking for a comfy and clean bed to rest your wary head. Rooms are compact, but at that price and in that location, this is the perfect option for budget-minded travellers.
Jury’s Inn: Clean and comfortable rooms close to the main bus and train station and a 5 minute walk from the City Hall, Jury’s Inn is perfect if you are looking for the ideal mix between budget and comfort. Rooms are spacious and the hotel offers a very tasty breakfast!
Bullitt Hotel: a lovely urban boutique hotel close to the Cathedral Quarter that offers stylish, comfy rooms; fresh, local food; delicious drinks and an eclectic events calendar. Ideal for a 25-40-year old crowd. They have two bars, one in the courtyard and one on the roof top terrace. If you’re looking for something different, the opposite to the big-chain hotels, then Bullitt’s your place!
Titanic Hotel: Opposite the Titanic Experience, this is a hotel full of history and character! It used to be the drawing offices for the ill-fated ship and many of the original features have been kept. The comfortable and modern art-deco rooms ensure a perfect night’s sleep for all discerning travellers. Lovely breakfast too!
Malmaison: a beautifully Victorian warehouse has been converted into a stylish and luxurious 4-star hotel, mixing period features with modern boutique style. The rooms are well-appointed, comfortable and ideal to relax. Ideally situated near the Cathedral Quarter.
The Merchant: The Merchant is inside a Grade I Listed building dating back to 1860 in the middle of the Cathedral Quarter. It is one of Belfast’s most luxurious options and offers air-conditioned rooms, free Wi-Fi, a spa, a rooftop gymnasium and a hot tub. The spa has 5 treatment rooms and a hydrotherapy area. There is also a sauna and a steam room located on the rooftop. If you want to treat yourself, whilst staying in a very central area of the city, look no further!
Didn’t find anything that suits you? There are plenty of other hotels, guesthouses and hostels to choose from!