Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, and the second largest city in Ireland. People tend to either absolutely love the place or detest it, and most likely probably both. Voted the fourth best city in the UK for a city break in the Guardian/Observer travel awards, yet given a solid thrashing in a recent book of crap towns, a visit to Belfast will be rewarded by a glimpse of the most unique city in the UK or Ireland.
Belfast City Airport is around 3 miles from the city centre. It is served by an airport bus, but a taxi to Belfast is not very expensive. It is served by the regional airlines flybe, BA City Express and aer arann to many UK cities and Cork. Bmi also make several flights a day to London Heathrow.
Belfast is also served by public transport from Dublin Airport, 100 miles to the south. The Seacat sails from Belfast to Troon, beside GlasgowPrestwick Airport, and takes 2 1/2 hours. Tickets bought to Belfast from Asia, America or Australia will generally involve a change of plane in London Heathrow.
Northern Ireland Railways run a limited service from Belfast to Derry, Larne, Portrush, Bangor and Newry. The Enterprise, the fast train to Dublin, leaves from Belfast Central to Dublin Connolly. Travelling by train to anywhere else in Ireland requires a change in Dublin.
Ulsterbus operate the intercity bus network in Northern Ireland. Eurolines operate 2 daily services to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and 2 daily services to London via Manchester and Birmingham. All of these are via Stranraer.
You can also book day trips from Dublin to Belfast on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. This includes a bus trip to Belfast followed by a black taxi cab ride through the two neighbourhoods and a visit to the peace wall. The whole trip is very educational and fun. Book at the Dublin Information Centre. The whole trip costs around €30.
The centre of Belfast is small enough to be explored by foot. Translink operate the Belfast bus network, called Metro (previously Citybus). Buses run from around 6am until 11pm, as do suburban trains. A few night buses run later on Friday and Saturday night on select routes.
Also of interest are the shared taxis of North and West Belfast. These run along set routes and cost around £1, no matter how long the journey. There are fixed locations in the City Centre where these begin their routes, and will generally queue until filled with 4 or 5 people. These taxis are an unmissable Belfast attraction; just act as the locals do. Their are also Black Taxi tours of Belfast attractions, which are highly recommended, and can be arranged by many hostels and hotels.
However to confuse things, the black taxis which hang around the airports, train stations, bus stations and ports are not recommended, as they are often unmetered and can overcharge. Either ensure that you are getting a metered taxi, or ring one of the major local private hire taxi companies such as fonacab (90333333), Stranmillis Taxis (90200400) or City Cab (90242000). You are not allowed to hail a private hire taxi on the street - they must be pre-booked by telephone.
City Hall, Donegall Square, Tel: 9032 0202. Opened in 1906, City Hall is the grand centerpiece of the city. It houses Belfast's Council chambers and administrative offices. Guided tours are available free of charge, ring ahead for details of times. Also of note are the grounds, containing a memorial to victims of the Titanic and a statue of Queen Victoria. It is also where local youths gather to perform complex mating rituals.
Saint Anne's Cathedral, Donegall St, Tel: 9043 4006. The stunning cathedral building is situated at the opposite end of Royal Avenue, the main shopping street, from the City Hall. It is a fascinating building, and is at the center of the "Cathedral Quarter", which aims to become Belfast's cultural center. A lot of work remains to be done, however, but the area contains many fine cafés and bars and is well worth seeing.
Belfast Central Library, Royal Avenue, Tel: 9050 9150. Opposite the road from the Cathedral, the Victorian library building houses an excellent Irish section and a Newspaper library, containing archives of all Northern Irish newspapers.
Lagan Lookout Visitors Centre, 1 Donegal Quay, Tel: 9031 5444. On the river, beside the Big Fish, the Lagan Weir controls the flow of the River Lagan. It contains the Lagan Lookout, which has an exhibition on Belfast history and a model of the Titanic. The complex is attractively illuminated at night.
Belfast Big Fish, beside the Lagan Lookout
Titanic Boat Tour. Belfast is the home of the ill fated ocean liner the Titanic, and you can now take a boat tour around the area that the ship was built. These cost £5. Check sailing times on their website. http://www.laganboatcompany.com/tours.php
Odyssey Centre, 2 Queen's Quay, Tel: 9045 1055. Across the bridge from the Lagan Weir is the Odyssey centre. This complex contains an IMAX cinema, the Odyssey Arena (home of ice hockey team Belfast Giants), a bowling alley, W5 (an interactive science discovery centre) and a range of restaurants and bars.
Cornmarket is at the centre of Belfast's retail area. At the centre of it lies a bandstand, which occasionally features street performers.
Golden Mile is the name given to the mile between Belfast City Hall and Queen's University. It contains the lion's share of the City Centre's bars, including the famous Crown Liquor Saloon.
Crown Liquor Saloon, 46 Great Victoria St, Tel: 9027 9901, aka Crown Bar. Situated on the Golden Mile opposite the Europa Hotel, it is by some visitors rated to be the most beautiful pub existing. It is unchanged since Victorian times (thus still gas-lit) and definitely worth a visit even if you aren't drinking, for the ambience and atmosphere.
Queen's University, University Road, Tel: 9024 5133. At the southernmost end of the Golden Mile, the university is a fine Victorian building with extensive grounds. It contains a visitors' centre in the main central building. http://www.qub.ac.uk/vcentre
Botanical Gardens, beside the university, is very popular with locals and visitors alike. The Palm House contains local and interesting plants, such as carnivorous plants. Beside it is the Tropical Ravine, unique to the British Isles, where visitors walk around a raised balcony observing tropical flora and fauna. http://www.parks.belfastcity.gov.uk/
Ulster Museum, in the Botanic Gardens, Tel: 9038 3000. The museum has much to see, including a large section on the history of Irish conflict, Northern Ireland's marine life and a significant collection of art. Entry is free.
Belfast Zoo, Antrim Road, Tel: 9077 6277, open daily 10am-5:30pm, admission £6.70, take bus 9, 45 - 51 from the city center. A substantial modernisation programme has recently been finished, and the zoo has a very good variety of animals. The prairie dogs are of particular interest, as their tunnels extend throughout the park, rendering any open space looking like a giant game of 'whack-a-rat'. Much merriment was caused when the zoo was praised for letting the prairie dogs run wild and free, when the real reason for this was some bright spark forgot that prairie dogs can dig. http://www.belfastzoo.co.uk/
Belfast Castle, Antrim Rd, Tel: 9077 6925, daily 9am-6pm, admission free, take bus 45 - 51 from the city center. The castle dates from 1870 and was restored in 1988. It is situated on Cave Hill and has good views of the city and coast. Cave Hill park has marked walking routes and is an excellent way to get a view of Belfast.
Stormont Parliament Buildings, Tel: 9025 0000. The parliament buildings are the home of the currently suspended Northern Ireland Assembly. The buildings are massive and have marble interiors. The grounds are interesting in themselves, and a walk down the mile long road to the main parliament buildings is well recommended. Guided tours may be possible, telephone in advance.
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Tel: 9042 8428. This is approx 8 miles from Belfast City Centre and is accessible from Culta train station. Open daily 10am-6pm, admission £6. It is one of Ireland's premier tourist attractions. It has an absolutely vast collection, and you could spend days exploring all of it. Highlights include a recreation of an old Irish town, a DeLorean (great scott!, etc.) and a warehouse full of old steam locomotives. Also, on Saturdays, there is a miniature railway operating, which is great fun.
Black Taxi Tours provide a fascinating insight into west Belfast. These can be booked through all hostels and hotels and cost around £7.50.
Belfast has the full complement of high street chain stores that can be found in any other UK and Irish city. It does however have a variety of more interesting places to browse and shop, and a visit to Belfast would not be complete without a visit to them.
A trader at St. George's Market
St. George's Market, on May Street, is situated near Belfast Central Station. It is Northern Ireland's largest indoor market and one of Belfast's major attractions for visitors and locals alike. Farmers markets are held on Saturdays, and variety markets are held on Tuesdays Fridays. Opening hours are 6am-2pm. It sells a fascinating range of foods, clothing and crafts. You can pick up some real bargains here, and the market itself provides a fascinating glimpse into Belfast life both past and present.
Smithfield Market, on Winetavern Street, behind the Castle Court shopping centre, is a treasure trove of independent retail outlets, and provides a much more authentic experience than the aforementioned Castle Court centre.
You will also find a number of interesting shops on and around College Street, and on Dublin Road.
Crown Dining Rooms, 46 Great Victoria St, Tel: 9027 9901. Above the Crown Liquor Saloon, this is a great place to eat local food in cosy surroundings.
Moghul Restaurant, 62a, Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9032 6677. This fine Indian restaurant has good value lunch deals, and handy for local nightspots in the evenings.
Doorsteps Sandwiches, 455 Lisburn Rd, Tel: 9068 1645. A good place for sandwiches, which are large and exceptionally good value.
Maggie May's, 50 Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9032 2662. This is a Belfast themed restaurant, with local food and Belfast themed murals.
Ba Soba Noodle Bar, 38 Hill St, behind the Cathedral, Tel: 9058 6868. A quality Japanese restaurant in the Cathedral Quarter.
Mercury Bar & Grill, 451 Ormeau Rd, Tel:9064 9017.
Villa Italia, 37 University Rd, Tel: 9032 8356. Belfast's favourite Italian restaurant, and with good reason. The original and best.
Cayenne Restaurant, 7 Ascot House, Shaftsbury Square, Tel: 9033 1532. Famous chefs Paul & Jeanne Rankin's Cayenne is a well established place for quality and funky food. Pre theater menus cost £12.
Aldens Restaurant, 229 Upper Newtownards Rd, Tel: 9065 0079. This restaurant is further out of town but serves excellent food with great service.
Pubs and bars
Any of the pubs and clubs on the 'Golden Mile' between the University and the City Hall. The bars in the Odyssey are also popular. Alternatively, try the following;
The Menagerie Bar, 130 University St, Tel: 9023 5678. This hidden away place near the Holiday Inn Express is a fun, atmospheric place. Dilapidated, but nice.
Europa Piano Bar, Europa Hotel, Great Victoria Street, Tel: 9027 1066. For the more mature drinker, this place is relaxed and offers great views of the Golden Mile below.
Empire Bar, 40 Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9024 9276. This place, a former church, is a cosy bar downstairs, featuring traditional Irish music some nights. The upstairs section features live music and comedy.
Errigle Inn, 320 Ormeau Road, Tel: 9064 1410. Unchanged since the 1930's, this bar is a popular authentic Belfast boozer.
The Rotterdam Bar, 54 Pilot Street, Tel: 9074602. Features Irish traditional music on many nights.
Grand Opera House, Great Victoria Street, Booking Tel: 9024 1919. A fine Victorian building, which showcases large productions, both local and touring.
The Lyric Theatre, 55 Ridgeway St, Tel: 9038 108. This smaller theatre has excellent local plays.
Belfast International Youth Hostel, 22-32 Donegal Road, off Sandy Row, Tel: 9031 5435. A good HI hostel near Shaftesbury Square. Rates range from £9.50 - £14.
Arnies Backpackers, 63 Fitzwilliam Street, Tel: 9024 2867. A small independent hostel, with a good atmosphere and good location. Rates from £8.
The Ark Hostel, 18 University Street, Tel: 9032 9626. Another small independent hostel, south of the bus station and close in.
Europa Hotel, Europa Hotel, Great Victoria Street, Tel: 9027 1066. A Belfast landmark in itself, located beside Great Victoria Street bus and train station in the centre of town. Doubles from £103.
Belfast's reputation as a dangerous city is often exaggerated. However, as with any city, it pays to be careful. The area between the City Hall and the University is mostly safe, but be careful walking anywhere else in Belfast alone at night. Be careful, ask locals for advice and enjoy the hospitality of the vast majority of Belfast people. And don't make any overtly political statements about Northern Ireland unless you really know what you are talking about, and the people to whom you're making them!
For all Belfast's faults, it is still a great place to spend some time when you scratch the surface of tribal politics and lousy urban planning. It is a city seemingly always on the brink of something bad happening, and an air of danger and excitement is always present. More importantly, it is a place on the doorstep of the UK and Republic of Ireland, yet completely different to anywhere in these places. You will learn more about the British and Irish psyche than a trip to a cheesy Irish pub in Dublin or a trip to Buckingham Palace. It provides an example (whether good, bad, or otherwise) into how ethnic conflicts can be solved the world over. Most of all, it is interesting in a way that Cork, Leeds or Bristol just aren't.