Belfast (Irish:Béal Feirste, meaning "the sandy ford at the river mouth") is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom, and the second largest city on the island of Ireland after Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Situated at the mouth of the River Lagan on Belfast Lough, Belfast is surrounded by low hills and has a population of 278,000 (2001). However the population of the Belfast Metropolitan Urban Area which incorporates the surrounding suburbs and towns is almost 700,000.
Although Belfast took the brunt of The Troubles (the popular name given to the bitter campaigns of violence between Irish Republicans who sought to end the union with Great Britain and achieve a united Ireland, and Loyalists who sought to remain part of the United Kingdom), since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 most of the politically motivated violence has evaporated. Belfast was recently awarded the accolade of safest city in the UK based on a comparison of nation-wide crime figures, and as part of its commitment to maintain peace, now seeks tourism from all around the world, especially from countries other than the Irish Republic and the rest of the UK.
Those who live in Belfast tend to either absolutely love the city or detest it, although the outsider's perspective tends to be more forgiving as Belfast was voted the fourth best city in the UK for a city break in the Guardian/Observer travel awards. Needless to say, a visit to Belfast will be rewarded by a glimpse of a unique city that has finally begun to celebrate, rather than fight over, its place as a cultural meeting-point of Britain and Ireland. Belfast is certainly exhibiting an air of determined optimism, with new hotels, bars, restaurants, clubs and shops opening at an incredible rate. It is a city that is proud of its Victorian and Edwardian heritage and efforts to restore historic buildings are proving successful. Tourism is on the increase in Northern Ireland, especially among those seeking a weekend away or short break in Ireland as Belfast can offer a significantly cheaper and more rewarding alternative to the busier, more expensive and more tourist-driven Dublin.
Belfast remains a great place to explore as it is still relatively undiscovered compared to our neighbors in Dublin and is ideal for the tourist that enjoys a city with character yet still has a raw, unspoilt energy. A visit to the capital of Northern Ireland will provide a more stimulating trip as, once you scratch the surface, it is easy to see beyond the ethno-political conflict of years gone by. It is a city which has changed dramatically in a decade due to this peace and prosperity and you will be greeted with warmth from locals who feel a new-found sense of pride in their city. Indeed, the old cliche that you will be welcomed like an old friend by the patrons of Belfast's many pubs and bars is actually true, as the locals love to find out what draws you to their little part of the world and of course they like the chance to share a little bit of their history with you! Ask any local and they will tell you that a trip to Belfast will mean that you learn far more about the British and Irish psyche than a trip to a cheesy Irish pub in Dublin or on a tourist-swindling tour in London.
Belfast has two airports:
George Best Belfast City Airport
George Best Belfast City Airport (airport code BHD) - is just 2 miles from Belfast city centre, with magnificient views of the city of Belfast or Belfast Lough offered to passengers on approach and departure. The airport principally serves routes to domestic UK and Ireland, however bmi has extensive worldwide connections the Star Alliance Network. Airlines using the airport include:
flybe to Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield, Edinburgh, Exeter, Galway, Glasgow, Guernsey, Inverness, Jersey, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool John Lennon, London Gatwick, Newcastle, Southampton Manchester and Rennes.
Ryanair to London (Stansted), Glasgow (Prestwick), East Midlands and Liverpool.
The terminal is served every twenty to thirty minutes from 06.00 - 22.00 by the 600 Airport bus  (£1.30 single, £2.20 return). Depending on traffic, the journey to Belfast's Laganside and Europa Buscentres should take no more than fifteen minutes. Ask at the airport information desk for a free shuttle ride to the near-by Sydenham railway station for trains towards Bangor, Belfast and Portadown. Considering the airport's proximity to the city, taxis cost less than £10 to most parts of the city and are an economical choice for small groups.
Belfast International Airport
Belfast International Airport (airport code BFS) is further away from Belfast than City Airport, but offers significantly more international destinations. Continental Airlines has connections available to destinations throughout the Americas and beyond.
Aer Lingus  to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Budapest, Geneva, Faro, London-Heathrow, Malaga, Nice, Rome Fiumincino. British Airways codeshare with Aer Lingus to London, and offer international connections from Heathrow.
Air Transat (seasonal) to Toronto
bmibaby  to Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Nottingham East Midlands
Easyjet  to Alicante, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin Schoenefeld, Bristol, Edinburgh, Faro, Gdansk, Geneva, Glasgow, Ibiza, Krakow, Liverpool John Lennon, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted, Malaga, Newcastle, Nice, Palma, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Prague, Rome Ciampino, Venice
Zoom  to Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax (from June 2007)
The terminal is served up to thirty minutes from 05.35 - 23.20 by the 300 Airport bus  (£6 single, £9 return). Depending on traffic, the journey to Belfast's Laganside and Europa Buscentres takes about forty-five minutes. Taxis should cost no more than £25-£30 to Belfast City Centre.
It is also possible to get to Belfast from Dublin Airport 100 miles to the south. Ryanair, Aer Arann and Aer Lingus (the national airline of the Republic of Ireland) serve many international destinations in Europe and North America (including Boston, Los Angeles and New York). Hourly buses  link Dublin Airport and the Belfast Europa Buscentre.
Despite decades of underinvestment and service cutbacks, Northern Ireland Railways (a division of Translink, Northern Ireland's public transport operator) manages to maintain a small but increasingly reliable passenger rail network around the province, with four 'domestic' lines radiating out from Belfast.Great Victoria Street Station is in the Centre of Belfast on
as the name suggests Great Victoria Street Just yards from the Grand Opera House and Beside the Europa Hotel the Great Victoria Station is part of a Combined Bus/rail Station the bus centre being called Europa Bus Centre look for the sign above the door to access the station from the Great Victoria street itself "great Northern mall" the so called "Central Station" is not very Central at all its about half a Mile from the city centre
Belfast - Bangor
Belfast - Portadown
Belfast - Larne
Belfast - Coleraine - Londonderry/Derry or Portrush
Service is most frequent and reliable on the Portadown - Belfast - Bangor corridor, on which new trains offer frequent and fast suburban service. The line to Londonderry/Derry is exceptionally beautiful as it passes along the north coast after Coleraine, however travellers should note that the railway line is slower (two hours or more) than the equivilent Ulsterbus Goldline express coach (one hour and forty minutes). Contact NIR for information on tourist passes for exploring Northern Ireland by bus and train: with integrated bus and train stations in most major towns, the province is easily explored without a car.
'International' service to Dublin (with connections to other destinations in the Republic of Ireland) is offered by the Enteprise, a modern, reasonably comfortable, but relatively slow train jointly operated by Northern Ireland Railways and Iarnrod Eireann (who operate trains in the Republic of Ireland). Journeys between Dublin and Belfast take over two hours, and there are up to eight trains a day, offering two classes of service. The train is frequently late and takes a less direct route than the road, but offers some superb views and is still generally quicker than equivalent busses.
Ulsterbus (a division of Translink, Northern Ireland's public transport operator) operate the intercity bus network in Northern Ireland. Bus Éireann jointly operate cross-border services with Ulsterbus and operate almost all intercity routes in the Republic of Ireland. The Belfast to Dublin Airport and Dublin route is becoming increasingly competitive, with independent operator Aircoach offering a regular service from Dublin and Dublin Airport to Belfast. Bus Éireann offer a €7 single fare from Dublin Busaras (bus station) and Dublin Airport to the Europa Buscentre in Belfast; Ulsterbus offers similar specials in the opposite direction. There is also a daily bus to Cork, via Athlone and one to Galway via Cavan.
Under the Eurolines banner, Ulsterbus offer 2 daily services to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and 2 daily services to London via Manchester and Birmingham. All of these are via the fast ferry Stranraer. Connections are available via National Express to virtually every destination in mainland Great Britain.
For less independent travellers, 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. See Paddywagon Tours for info.
Bus transport in Northern Ireland is incredibly expensive outside Belfast City Centre, which is bordering on the steep. Fortunately the City is small enough to walk anywhere comfortably. The possible exception to this rule is the 'Maiden City Flyer' Ulsterbus express service to Derry which is frequent, comfortable and reasonably priced.
Belfast is the focus of the road network in Northern Ireland, and as such is very well connected to the road network in Northern Ireland. While there are only three motorways in Northern Ireland (M1, M2 and M22), the rest of the country is very well provided for with high quality trunk roads.
Access to Belfast from the Republic of Ireland has never been better. Due to the great improvements the peace process in Northern Ireland has gained, crossing the border into Northern Ireland is now nothing more noticeable than a change in signposts and road markings. The M1 connects Dublin to Dundalk and almost to the border with Northern Ireland. The M1 is 83km long and has one toll over the bridge of peace in Drogheda (€1.70 for a car).
Belfast is not as well served by car rental companies as is Ireland in General. Some Irish car rental companies offer a drop off option in Belfast while others have locations in Belfast City. If you plan to rent a car in the Republic of Ireland and drive it into Northern Ireland be aware of the additional insurance cost. Dan Dooley are the only car rental company operating in Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland not to charge for additional cross border insurance.
Avis Rent a Car Ltd - 69-71 Great Victoria Street
Dan Dooley - Belfast International Airport. Offers meet and greet service at Belfast City Airport and in the Belfast Docks.
Frequent sailings across the Irish Sea connect Belfast to mainland Great Britain. All the operators listed below offer special promotions throughout the year, and some also offer through ticketing with rail and bus services at each end.
Stena Line offer two types of service from the Port of Belfast to Stranraer in Scotland, with up to six sailings a day. The HSS Stena Voyager is a high speed catamaran (the fastest ferry from Northern Ireland to mainland Great Britain) and the Stena Caledonia is a more traditional and slower ferry. Stena offer 'rail and sail' tickets with Scotrail train connections to destinations in Scotland from Stranraer: the railway station is directly adjacent to the ferry terminal in Stranraer.
Stena Line also offer up to three sailings a day from Larne (accessible from Belfast by train or bus) to Fleetwood, near Liverpool.
Norfolk Line offer daytime and nightime crossings to Birkenhead, near Liverpool. Cabins and meals are available.
Seat61.com offers informed and independent advice on how to book combined train and ferry tickets from any railway station in Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The centre of Belfast is small enough to be explored by foot. Translink operate Belfast's urban bus network, called Metro (previously Citybus). Buses run along colour coded high frequency routes that radiate from the city centre from around 6am until 11pm. All major bus routes start or pass through Donegall Square, and a Metro information kiosk is located on the north-western side of the square. Tourist passes are available from here, or for the more frequent traveller, you can purchase and pre-load a Smartlink card with credit for bus trips.
On Friday and Saturday night, Metro Night Link buses operate limited service from Donegall Square to Antrim, Ballygowan, Ballynahinch, Downpatrick, Bangor, Carrickfergus, Comber, Lisburn, Newtownabbey, and Newtownards. These pass through most suburban areas of Belfast, however the fixed fare system means that a taxi may be better value if you're only travelling within Belfast.
If your time is limited, the open-top 'Belfast Sightseeing' bus tours are recommended, costing about £10 per person for a 2 hour journey. You will be shown the sights in the city centre and suburbs including famous murals painted on the ends of terraced houses during 'The Troubles' in the Falls Road area, the Harland and Wolff shipyards where the Titanic was built and Queens University. The guides are friendly, well informed and interesting, although many locals still remark that is unusual to see bright red open top tour buses passing through once troubled neighbourhoods. You may prefer a less obvious exploration of the city.
Belfast is now famous for its Black Taxi tours of the city, which are highly recommended, and can be arranged by most hostels, hotels and at the tourist office (47 Donegall Place, above the Boots pharmacy, just north of the City Hall). These tours are given by regular taxi drivers who have worked through the troubled years, and have a wealth of knowledge and very personal experiences, which they are glad to share during a tour that can last up to two hours.
Also of interest are the shared taxi routes of North and West Belfast. These run along set routes and cost around £1, no matter how long the journey. Their origins date from the darkest days of the toubles, when city bus services were frequently disrupted by violence and attacks. There are fixed locations in the City Centre where these begin their routes, and will generally queue until filled with 4 or 5 people. Note that minicabs (regular saloon cars with taxi licence plates and illuminated roof signs) generally do not operate as black taxis.
To make the most of your time in the city your first point of contact should be the centrally located Belfast Welcome Centre (Tourist Office) at 47 Donegall Place, just north of City Hall. The first floor centre is accessible by elevator and escalator just to the left of the Boots Pharmacy. The staff can provide maps, book accommodation and tours, recommend itineraries and places of interest and sell you overpriced and tacky souvenirs. There is also a useful left luggage facility. See gotobelfast.com for more information.
Before you go, you should also check out www.inyourpocket.com then pick up a copy of Belfast In Your Pocket at Tourist Information Centres, hotels, arrival points, car hire desks and other visitor-friendly attractions.
Belfast city centre is focused on Donegall Square and Belfast City Hall in its centre. All major city bus routes converge here and, on sunny days, this is where shoppers and office workers can be found enjoying their breaks. The City Hall is the grand centerpiece of the city and the orientation point for your exploration of Belfast. Running north from the centre of Donegall Square is Donegall Place, a broad and bustling shopping street, which will lead you towards the Cathedral Quarter and the Arts School. The city centre is bordered to the east by the River Lagan, and to the south by the area around Donegall Pass. Where Belfast city centre meets the River Lagan, windswept pavements prove that meaningless sculptures and grandiose attempts at urban planning do not necessarily make for a popular urban space. The horrendous dual carraigeway known as the Westlink successfully separated the centre of Belfast from the western suburbs of the city in the nineteen-seventies; this borders the city centre to the west, on the plus side, the network of dual carriageways and motorways mean that one can get from the city centre to all the surrounding suburbs and satellite towns in less than fifteen minutes,even during the rush hour, something which is impossible in many other cities, for example Dublin.
In between these rough boundaries, you'll find Belfast's heart. Parts of it are blighted by deriliction, others are blighted by narrow minded money grabbing redevelopment. Note that while largely safe at all times, years of city centre curfews during the troubles means that the centre of Belfast can be startlingly empty of pedestrians after 8pm. City centre living has yet to become as popular here as in other parts of Britain and Ireland.
The *City Hall, Donegall Square, Tel: 9032 0202 - Opened in 1906, the City Hall will possibly seem familiar to South African visitors, who may notice more than a passing resemblence to the city hall in Durban. This is a fine example of turn of the century architecture from the heart of the British Empire's drafting office. The City Hall houses Belfast's Council chambers and administrative offices. Excellently presented free guided tours are available every day; 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. The spacious grassy square and broad pavements that surround the City Hall are also where local youths gather to perform complex mating rituals. The City Hall will temporarily close to the public from early November 2007 for essential renovation works. However, the grounds of the building will remain open and will continue to play host to popular events, such as the Continental Christmas Market. The building is scheduled to reopen in 2009 and, until then, most Council services, including the Registrar's office for births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships, will relocate to Adelaide Exchange in nearby Adelaide Street.
Place, 40 Fountain Street, Tel: 9023 2524. This diminutive shop space was recently taken over by the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA) as a small gallery space to promote the built environment in Northern Ireland. Regular exhibitions and workshops are held here.
Ormeau Baths Gallery, 18a Ormeau Avenue, Tel: 9032 1402, . Significantly lacking in credibility, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has now taken over the running of this once-lively and vibrant art gallery. This change of direction has left the OBG without a single artist involved in the running of the museum. A group of local artists has subsequently formed the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Exile, a mobile venue which hopes to 'return' to the OBG building in 2007.
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 centre of the "Cathedral Quarter", which is reluctantly being redesigned and cleaned up by various investment agencies to become Belfast's 'cultural' distract. Thankfully, a lot of work remains to be done, and the area contains many fine cafés, bars and interesting buildings that recall the city's commercial and industrial heritage. Rent prices have yet to jump significantly, so keep an eye out for the small galleries and studio workspaces that remain in this area.
Belfast Exposed, 23 Donegall Street, . Tue-Sa 11am to 5pm, Tel: 9023 0965. Belfast Exposed is Northern Ireland's only dedicated photography gallery, and as well as operating a fine exhibition space in a refurbished warehouse building, also provides local photographers with dark room and processing facilties and a well maintained library. Exhibitions are usually free and always worth seeing.
Belfast Print Workshop and Gallery, 30-42 Waring Street, Tel: 9023 1323, . This gallery is combined with an active workshop, where local artists are able to use the facilities to print their work. Usually a good selection of local work.
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.
Belfast Big Fish, beside the Lagan Lookout
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, which is fortunate since the Visitor Centre is scheduled to close for good at the end of August 2006.
Titanic Boat Tour, . Belfast takes a bizarre pride in that the ill-fated Titanic was built here (not caring to promote the many hundreds of other ships that were built here which did not sink) and you can now take a boat tour around the area that the ship was built. The former boat yards of Belfast are being amitiously redeveloped into a residential and commercial neighbourhood that will be called (you guessed it) the Titanic Quarter. Tours cost £5. Check sailing times on their website.
The Waterfront Hall, 2 Lanyon Place, Tel: 9033 4455, . Standing on the northern side of Donegall Square, Belfast's imposing concert and conference venue is visible to the east where Chichester Street meets the riverside. Built in 1997, it has been credited with generating £10 for the Belfast economy for every £1 spent on its construction . The main auditorium offers some of the best performance hall acoustics anywhere in Europe, and it is worth checking with the box office for upcoming shows.
The Bar Council & Bar Library of Northern Ireland, 414 Chichester Street, . Not open to the public, but notable for its striking architectural design. The northern half of the building is the opulent home of Belfast's (privately employed) barristers; meanwhile the southern end of the building (visible from May Street) is occupied by the more modest Royal Courts of Justice Stamp Office (a tax-payer-funded government agency). Presented with two clients with two wildly different budgets, local architects Robinson McIlwaine successfully designed one building which seamlessly merge a more modest design and cheaper materials for the southern half of the building and a more elaborate and expensive design at the northern end.
Cornmarket is at the centre of Belfast's retail area. Visitors from Britain and Ireland will feel immediately at home with the bland selection of high street chains.
Belfast's leafiest and most accessible suburbs are found south of the city centre along Botanic Avenue, and University Road around the Queen's University. Apart from the small loyalist community around Donegall Pass, the areas between University Road and Lisburn Road are mostly mixed, and there is a dense student population living in rented accommodation. It's a twenty-minute walk from Donegall Place to Botanic Avenue. The commercial core of Belfast is apparent on Bedford Street, and the lively bars, take-aways of Dublin Road are busy most nights of the week. Botanic Avenue is somewhat quieter with less traffic, and is lined with cafés, restaurants and small shops. Further south, beyond the University, is the Lisburn Road, recently christened "Belfast's Bond Street," with its eclectic mix of boutiques, chic bars and restaurants, and lively coffee shops. This part of town is the most affluent of the city, and is regularly referred to by its postcode - BT9.
Queen's University, University Road, Tel: 9024 5133, . Take any number 8 bus (8A - 8C) from the city center. 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.
Queens Film Theatre, 20 University Square, Tel: 9097 1097, . Belfast's art house and repertory cinema, and is the central location for the annual Belfast Film Festival.
Botanical Gardens, accessed from University Road beside the university and at the southern end of Botanic Avenue, . 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. With large lawns and well maintained planting, the park is a popular destination in the summer. Fans of the BBC TV hidden camera comedy show 'Just for Laughs' will recognise the park from many hidden stunts. During the summer months be on the lookout for cameras pointing at you from parked vans and badly disguised tents.
Ulster Museum, Tel: 9038 3000, . Accessed off Stranmillis Road in the Botanic Gardens, Tel: 9038 3000. This excellent 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. While many locals dislike the seventies extension, it is one of the finest examples of a Brutalist modern extension being added and successfully integrated to an older classically designed museum. Entry is free. The Museum is closed until Spring 2009 for major redevelopment.
Lyric Theatre, 55 Ridgeway Street, Tel: 9038 1081, . The diminuitive Lyric remains the only full-time producing theatre in the North of Ireland. A busy schedule of productions can be found online. A major redevelopment is planned to take place in the next few years.
Belfast Zoo, Antrim Road, Tel: 9077 6277, . Open daily 10am-5:30pm, admission £6.70, take any number 1 bus (1A - 1G) from the city centre. 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. The Zoo has recently welcomed Lily, the first Barbary lion cub to be born in Ireland.
Belfast Castle, Antrim Rd, Tel: 9077 6925, . Daily 9am-6pm, admission free, take take any number 1 bus (1A - 1G) from the city centre. The castle (more accurately a large stately home) 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 Country Park has marked walking routes and is an excellent viewpoint from which to get a view of Belfast.
East Belfast is the largest of the cities' 4 electoral wards and is serviced by a number of large arterial roads: the Cregagh Road, Castlereagh Road, Newtownards Road and Hollywood Roads which all start in or close to the city centre.
East Belfast is a mainly residential and largely protestant area encompassing a wide range of housing from the working class terraced streets along the Beersbridge road, to wide tree lined avenues of Belmont and all areas in between. Despite it's being largely protestant nature East Belfast is generally the area of the city where newcomers of all religious and political persuasions to Belfast from within Northern Ireland will look to purchase houses in when they arrive in the city. The rationale for this may be that although South Belfast is often thought of as a desirable locale it is in many cases prohibitively expensive. North and West Belfast are even cheaper than the East but whilst both contain many pleasant neighbourhoods they still have a lot of echoes from the troubles that can put newcomers off. North Belfast especially has a large number of "interface areas" (regions where working class loyalist and republican areas meet) that can occasionally flare up into trouble. East Belfast, possibly because it has only one interface area and is relatively homogeneously protestant was less on the "coalface" of the troubles than both the North and the West.
Stormont Parliament Buildings, Tel: 9025 0000. The parliament buildings are the home of the recently reinstated 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 approximately 8 miles north-east from Belfast City Centre and is most easily reached by train from Culta station. Open daily 10am-6pm, admission £6.50. 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 of the transport museum include a DeLorean (great scott!, etc.) and two train sheds full full of old steam locomotives and buses from Northern Ireland's past. The Folk Museum, on the other side of the railway line features a re-creation of an old Irish town. On Saturdays, there is a miniature railway operating, which is great fun. The folk museum is outdoors, so come prepared for the changeable Irish climate.
A Republican Mural
A Loyalist Mural
Belfast Mural Tour - The two political groupings in the Northern Ireland (Republican and Loyalist, the former predominantly being Catholic and the latter predominantly Protestant) have a strong tradition of large wall mural painting in their communities, particularly the poorer ones. If you head to The Falls Road or Shankill you will get a good look at what are some of the world's finest house sized political murals. They change frequently depending on the political climate but they are definitely something to see. The areas they are in (i.e. the poorer ghettos) are very safe by day (and by night for that matter due to the communities self 'policing') so long as you're not selling drugs or spouting political nonsense. Ask around and somebody will be able to point you to the murals.
Black Taxi Tours provide a fascinating insight into west Belfast. These can be booked through all hostels, hotels and the Belfast Welcome Centre, and cost around £7.50 - £10 per person.
The Golden Mile is the name given to the mile or so between Belfast City Hall and Queen's University. It sometimes disappoints tourists because it's less immediately evident and less densely packed together than the name suggests. It's also not the safest part of Belfast at night - local taxi trivers will tell you some horror stories about things they see on Friday and Saturday nights and a large police presence is usually in evidence. Be careful using cash machines, and if you're having trouble getting a taxi it's probably better to start walking than to stick around for too long on street corners. Exploring the area in the day time will help you if you come back later for a night out. You'll find the lion's share of the City Centre's best bars and some good places to eat here. The Golden Mile starts around the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street, takes a skip to the left to continue down Dublin Road, reaches a buzzing climax around Bradbury Place (just south of the big screen overlooking the junction) and graduates to student friendly but welcoming bars along Botanic Avenue and University Road. See the Drink section for specific recommendations.
Enjoy a long, slow afternoon with a pint or two of Guinness in one of the bars listed here.
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 in Northern Ireland today, and even if you don't drink, it's worth a visit. Apart from the stained glass windows (lovingly restored and replaced after several car bombs) it is largely unchanged since Victorian times, and the dark interior is still gas-lit. Inside, you'll find the famous booths which can seat about a dozen people, and be closed off from the bar with the attracted wood panneled doors. These are hot property after work on a Friday afternoon, so move quickly if you have the chance to occupy one. Note the button inside which was once used to summon a barman to take your order (sorry, these no longer work).
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.
Parks and open spaces Belfast is home to a wide range of parks and open spaces, making it one of the greenest cities in Ireland. The main parks include Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park, Ormeau Park and Botanic Gardens (located in the south of the city), Waterworks, Belfast Castle estate, Cave Hill Country Park and Alexandra Park (north Belfast), Dunville and Falls Park (west Belfast) and Orangefield and Victoria Park (in the east of the city). There are a host of walking routes through these parks and many include play facilities for children.
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 experiencing 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 and 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, Winetavern Street, behind the Castle Court shopping centre, . A treasure trove of independent retail outlets, and provides a much more authentic experience than the afore mentioned Castle Court centre in Royal Avenue.
No Alibis, 83 Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9020 1261, . One of the finest independent bookstores anywhere in Northern Ireland or the Republic, this is a must for fans of British, Irish and American crime fiction, with a wide selection of books imported from the USA. No Alibis reassures book-lovers that there is more to life than Borders or Waterstones.
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. Ticks all the boxes for a warming meal on a cold day, but can be a little crowded with tourists: don't be surprised if you hear more American accents than Irish.
Little Italy Pizza, 13, Amelia St Tel: 028 9031 4914. If you're out on the town, this is the perfect place for something to soak up the booze. Just around the corner from the Crown Bar, this place does the very best (and the cheapest) pizza in Belfast.
Archana, 53 Dublin Rd, Tel: 9032 3713. Just opposite Pizza Hut. A great Indian restaurant with even better deals at lunchtime.
Moghul Restaurant, 62a, Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9032 6677. This fine Indian restaurant has good value lunch deals, and is a handy starting point for a night out on the Golden Mile.
Doorsteps Sandwiches, 455 Lisburn Rd, Tel: 9068 1645. A good place for sandwiches, which are large enough to justify the name of the café, and which are exceptionally good value.
Maggie Mays, 50 Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9032 2662. Anyone who has had a hangover in Belfast has had Maggie Mays' Ulster fry. For just £3.95 you get a hefty traditional Ulster breakfast (bacon, sausage, egg, fried bread, soda bread etc). The cosy interior is decorated with paintings and street signs from around Belfast. Service can be patchy, but the main reason to come here is the food. Avoid more than weekly visits, your heart will thank you.
Common Grounds, 12 -24 University Ave, Tel: 9032 6589. Fresh soups, chunky sandwiches, divine cakes and frequent live music or poetry reading events. This bright yet cosy café (underneath a church hall, but don't let that put you off) has great food, tea and coffee, and a large room to the rear for events. A portion of each month's profits go to help a community project or charity in the third world.
Clements Coffee, 4 Donegall Square West, Castle St, 37-39 Rosemary St, 66 Botanic Avenue, 139 Stranmillis Rd, 342 Lisburn Rd. Another reason why Starbucks Coffee have yet to make much progress in Belfast, largely due to the popularity of this Belfast coffee chain, which only sells fairtrade coffee. Bagels, sandwiches, cakes, soups and snacks are all reasonably priced.
The John Hewitt, 51 Donegall St, 9023 3768. Decently priced meals are available during the day and until 9pm in this popular Cathedral Quarter pub. Big plates with well sourced local ingredients and traditional meals. One of the best pubs for lunch in the city.
Nex D'Or, 34 Castle St and 13 Rosemary St. Oh, Belfast, where did you go? Proof that some parts of this city are resisting the onslaught of urban renewal, café lattés and trendification. When you really need classless comfort food in a smokey low level diner, nowhere is better than the two branches of Nex D'Or. Don't expect the world's finest food, but do expect fond memories of what this town used to be like. Cheap as hell, and that's not just the menu.
Apartment, 2 Donegall Square West, Tel: 9050 9777. Belfast's most stylish venue with amazing views over City Hall. Raised above Belfast's bustling streets this cosmopolita
The Merchant Hotel - Belfast's most opulent hotel. A sumptuous, intimate and welcoming hotel in the heart of The Cathedral Quarter, in Belfast’s city centre. The Merchant Hotel offers unrivalled service in a luxurious, beautifully appointed and historically significant building. 
The King's Head, 829 Lisburn Road, Tel: 9050 9950. A recent, major refurbishment has seen The King's Head re-open and quickly become one of the Lisburn Road's finest venues, combining both fresh food and local character. A 120 seater restaurant, dedicated Live Lounge, Gastro Pub & beer garden allow you to have the complete entertainment experience under one roof. All the luxury touches with excellent customer service without the formailty.
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.
Restaurant Michael Deane, First Floor 36-40 Howard Street (Brasserie on ground floor), Tel: 028 9033 1134. Belfast's only Michelin Star restaurant, ideal for all the frills dining but despite the accolades it is not overly stuffy.
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
Like a lot of cities, Belfast's bars tend to attract different crowds.
Apartment, 2 Donegall Square West, Tel: 9050 9777. Belfast's most stylish venue with amazing views over City Hall. Raised above Belfast's bustling streets this cosmopolitan bar & restaurant has it all to offer - whether its coffee & croissants, lunch & cocktails or wine & dinner. At night Apartment transforms from a modern eatery to a busy lounge bar with cool urban beats from some of Belfast's top DJ's. Apartment's ever evolving Cocktail List is the most extensive in Belfast with some of the city's finest & most original blends. With the finest wine & champagne on offer, Apartment is really the place to be seen.
The Northern Whig, 2-10 Bridge Street, Tel: 9050 9880. The Northern Whig is Belfast's most unique bar oozing sultry European style!! What is most striking about The Northern Whig is the set of huge granite statues depicting Communist workers, which were acquired by the owners after the fall of Communism in Prague. Whether its brunch, lunch dinner or simply drinks The Northern Whig has it all. At night this smart & cosmopolitan venue comes to life with a varied mix of people & live music by some of Belfast's finest Dj's. The Northern Whig has an extensive choice of original & house cocktails which are a must to try!!
The Botanic Inn, 23-27 Malone Road, Tel: 9050 9740. Affectionately known as 'The Bot', and widely regarded as Belfast's favourite bar, this venue is populated equally by locals and visitors to Belfast. The offering of traditional, freshly prepared food at great value, as well as nightly entertainment ensures that 'The Bot' is not only the biggest bar in Northern Ireland, but also the busiest. A must is their 'Pinch of Snuff' night on a Wednesday, the craic & music is something to savour and enjoy!! The recently refurbished nightclub upstairs offers clubbers a unique experience with Northern Ireland's first video wall of its kind!!! So whether it's a night of traditional music you're after, a taxing table quiz or simply a relaxed atmosphere to watch live sport on all the big screens - 'The Bot' is the place to be!!!
The Fly, 5-6 Lower Cresent, Tel: 9050 9750. Centrally located just off Botanic Avenue The Fly is the No.1 party venue in Belfast. The Fly loves a party, infact, the staff are dedicated to it!! The bar/club stretches over three floors and has a great reputation as the place to dance the night away!! Open six nights a week The Fll caters for all tastes. Friday & Saturday nights speak for themselves with the place packed by 10pm so get there early to avoid disappointment!!!
The Globe, 36 University Road, Tel: 9050 9840. An exceptionally popular university area bar, the Globe is open 7 days a week, serving fantastic food at a reasonable price. With the city's best karaoke and Dj's on every night and more big screen sports than you can shake a stick at, the friendliest staff around will ensure that you wont be able to stop enjoying yourself!!!
Can I just say all 3 of these bars are run by the same people and this article has clearly been written by them, and none of these above bars are anywhere near the best 'party bars' in Belfast.
Traditional Food, Music & Craic...
The Kitchen Bar, 36-40 Victoria Square, Tel: 9032 4901. One of the most historic bars in Belfast, the original Kitchen Bar dates back to 1859 and was one of the favourite watering holes of the star performers of Belfast's famous Empire Music Hall. Relocated just round the corner from its original site to an old converted warehouse, it retains all the charm and charisma that visitors experienced at the original venue. Real Ale...Real Food...Real Craic...is the keywords for The Kitchen Bar and it certainly delivers on all three points, a must for any visitor to Belfast. Traditional fresh food is served daily including the renowned soda bread based 'Paddy Pizza'!!
McHugh's Bar & Restaurant, 29-31 Queens Square, Tel: 9050 9999. Situated in Belfast's oldest building, dating back to 1711. McHugh's boasts a 100 seater restaurant, a basement bar offering live entertainment and the main gallery, providing enough space and atmosphere for a great night out. The Basement & main bar hosts live traditional music sessions at various times of the week and weekend so make sure you go along and catch one of these free sessions! The restaurant provides impeccable service and great food with sacrificing value. With entertainment, art & culture, McHugh's is a traditional bar with a difference.
Madison's Hotel, 59-63 Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9050 9800. Set amidst the bustling Botanic Avenue this rather sexy boutique hotel is just a stones throw away from Belfast City Centre, Queens University & Botanic Gardens. The hotel boasts an excellent restaurant serving early morning breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. The main bar in Madison's is popular with locals & tourists alike with live music being played in the bar most nights. Offering all modern features a guest expects today, Madison's has an established reputation for great food, fine wines, amazing cocktails and fabulous entertainment all under the one roof.
Ryan's Bar & Restaurant, 116-118 Lisburn Road, Tel: 9050 9850. The emphasis in Ryan's is on providing good food, good value and great service. The ground floor provides an informal & comfortable venue for craic & conversation where you can partake of great all day bar food. One thing you have to be sure to try are Ryan's World Famous Chicken Wings - the recipe is a secret but it's no secret just how good they are!! Best washed down with a pint of the black stuff. Ryan's 75 seater restaurant offers a comfortable setting to enjoy traditional meals cooked to perfection. A rather intriguing & tasty choice are the 'Boxty' selections - a kind of irish potato pancake!!
The Parador, 116-118 Ormeau Road, Tel: 9050 9850. The Ormeau Road's Parador Hotel has been given a new lease of life with a complete facelift and a packed schedule of nightly entertainment. There is a mix of live traditional music on a Tuesday, Pub Quiz on a Wednesday and live Jazz every Thursday. The Jazz Session has been described as one of the best in the city which draws jazz lovers from far and wide. The Parador Hotel offers the best budget accommodation in the city starting at only £25 per night for a single room and £38 for a twin or double. There's no need to venture out looking for somewhere to eat either as the hotel provides a great selection of homemade food....
For a younger, alternative, indie crowd...
Auntie Annies Porterhouse, 44 Dublin Road - has a great disco upstairs and live music most nights downstairs.
The Rotterdam Bar, 52-54 Pilot Street, Tel: 9074 6021. One of Belfast's oldest bars, with great personality and character. Features music every night.
Pats Bar, 19-22 Princes Dock St, Tel: 9074 4524. Right next door to the Rotterdam, this bar has also great character. What a lot of people do is go between the two pubs.
The following four bars are all beside each other in the Cathedral quarter. These are the best bars in Belfast and get a friendly alternative crowd:
The Spaniard, 3 Skipper Street, Tel: 9023 2448. A fantastic small friendly bar.
The John Hewitt, 51 Donegall Street, Tel: 9023 3768. Located in the Cathedral Quarter, this small bar features live music on many nights, including jazz on Fridays. It is popular with professionals, journalists and tourists and is known for its art exhibitions, traditional music sessions and strong contribution to the local arts scene. All profits go the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, which is located next door.
Duke of York, 7-11 Commercial Court, Tel: 9024 1062. A very popular bar, check it out on thursday where they have traditional music.
Whites Tavern, 2-4 Wincellar Entry. Founded in 1630, one of the many bars to claim to be Belfasts oldest. Cosy downstairs bar, upstairs has a jumping alternative disco on Friday and Saturday nights that is usually crammed to do the roof.
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. Note: its popularity has declined a lot recently, not as funky as it used to be.
Cafe Vaudeville, 25-39 Arthur St. A huge over-the-top, 1920's Paris themed restaurant and bar. The upstairs section features Northern Ireland's first "Bollinger bar".
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. A great local bar, but a bit out of the way if you are only in Belfast for a short space of time.
Odyssey Complex, depending on your point of view its either a souless hole of a place populated with underage kiddies, or Belfast's entertainment mecca. It features about 3 bars, 6 restaurants, cinema, IMAX and a bowling alley. At weekends it gets a boozy slightly rough 'beautiful people' crowd. The best place to go to if you want girls in short skirts and guys who look like they're auditioning for a boy band.
The Cloth Ear and The Bar, 35-39 Waring St. Tel: 9023 4888. The Cloth Ear is The Merchant Hotel’s comfortable public bar. The warm and welcoming interior provides the ideal environment to relax and enjoy oneself in style. Combining both modern and traditional elements with a healthy dose of the eccentric. For example, the many unique items of vintage and antique clothing, the wooden moose and deer heads and the classic 1930’s – 1950’s sheet music that adorn the walls. Alternatively, go next door to the Merchant Hotel's own classic cocktail bar, simply named “The Bar”. The Victorian Grandeur of the building is abundantly evident, with its ornate ceilings, silk damask walls, antique Baccarat chandeliers and a cocktail list to which all the superlatives apply. Also home to possibly the world's most expensive coctail at £750 a go!
Robinsons Bar, Great Victoria Street, right next to the Crown Bar, and opposite the Europa Hotel. Has tradional music every day in the back bar (Fibber Magees).
Kellys Cellars, 30-32 Bank Street, just off castle street. Has traditional music at weekends. Another place with a claim to Belfasts oldest bar title.
Maddens Bar situated beside Castlecourt Shopping Centre in the Old Smithfield Square. Has traditional music at the weekends, gets an intellectual political crowd. Don't freak if you have to press the buzzer for entry, its a leftover from the troubles days, the place is quite safe.
Note:Maddens and Kellys can be tricky to find so don't be scared to ask for directions.
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.
Madison's Hotel, 59-63 Botanic Avenue, Tel: 9050 9800. Set amidst the bustling Botanic Avenue this rather sexy boutique hotel is just a stones throw away from Belfast City Centre, Queens University & Botanic Gardens. The hotel boasts an excellent restaurant serving early morning breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. The main bar in Madison's is popular with locals & tourists alike with live music being played in the bar most nights. Offering all modern features a guest expects today, Madison's has an established reputation for great food, fine wines, amazing cocktails and fabulous entertainment all under the one roof.
The Parador, 473 Ormeau Road, Belfast BT7 3GG. The Ormeau Road's Parador Hotel has been given a new lease of life with a complete facelift and a packed schedule of nightly entertainment. There is a mix of live traditional music on a Tuesday, Karaoke on a Wednesday and live Jazz every Thursday. The Jazz Session has been described as one of the best in the city which draws jazz lovers from far and wide.
The Parador Hotel offers the best budget accommodation in the city starting at only £30 per night for a single room and £40for a twin or double. There's no need to venture out looking for somewhere to eat either as the hotel provides a great selection of homemade food....
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. This hostel has internet access and a great breakfast restaurant with vast range of meals between 7 and 11am including an innovative school-kid type take away lunch pack for those who are on the road.
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, between University Road and Botanic Avenue. Rooms in near-by apartments also available to rent by the week and month.
Travelodge, 15 Brunswick St, Tel: 0870 1911687. Part of the national chain of high value low frills motel-cum-hotels. Unusually brilliant central location for a Travelodge, and a popular base for the Easyjet weekenders who want to fall off the Airport bus at Europa and make the most of their time in the city's bars. Book ahead and online for 'Saver' rooms from £26. Just behind the Crown Liquor Saloon, and less than five minutes walk from the Europa Buscentre and Great Victoria Street station.
Day's Hotel, 40 Hope St, Tel: 9024 2494. One advantage of staying in this place is that you don't have to look at it. The building seems to have taken the design of a suburban house and stretched it upwards by twelve storeys. However, there are usually great deals to be had online (rooms from £65) and the location is good: right next to the side entrance of Great Victoria Street Station and the Europa Buscentre, and just around the corner from the Europa. The colourful kerbstones of the loyalist Sandy Row are just a few feet away in the other direction, however tourists need not be intimidated. A good value hotel, one step up from a Travelodge.
Europa Hotel, Great Victoria Street, Tel: 9027 1066. A Belfast landmark in itself, the Europa is famous for having been bombed more times than any other hotel in any other city. Raucous events in the popular ballroom are more likely to disturb you than car bombs now, but it's comforting to know that the hotel (Northern Ireland's largest) has been built to withstand both. It's location could not be better: beside Great Victoria Street train station and the Europa Buscentre, across from the Crown Liquor Saloon and next door to the Belfast Grand Opera House. The rooms are comfortable, but increasingly outclassed by more modern arrivals in the city. Doubles from around £100, but why not treat yourself to one of the few Presidential Suites in Northern Ireland that can rightly claim the name: Bill Clinton has stayed in it twice. Popular with business folk, politicians and package tourists.
Radisson SAS Hotel, 3 Cromac Place (The Gasworks), off the Ormeau Road, Tel: 9043 4065. One of Belfast's most modern hotels, the Radisson doesn't quite feel comfortable in it's over landscaped and over designed site. Despite the rather non-commital exterior, the hotel is very plush and very modern inside, with a competent restaurant and attractive bar. Its location is very typical of Belfast: a ten minute walk from City Hall, but a ten minute walk through the windswept commercial streets that host Belfast's red light district. But if you're staying here, you're probably on business, so taking taxis won't be a big problem. Check online for the confusing types of rooms on offer; suite 7 is dubbed as the largest (60 square metres) anywhere in Belfast.
Malmaison Belfast, 34-38 Victoria St, Tel: 9022 0200. Condé Nast Traveller called it a 'Hot New Hotel' when it opened in 2005, and Belfast's upwardly mobile trend setters went crazy for the opulent bar and restaurant. Fashionably bold and different, and occupying a beautifully restored building that makes the Radisson look business-class dull and the Europa look like a monolith. No word on the rooms, but it's got a great location close to the increasingly popular night time hub of the Cathedral Quarter, and is a short walk from the Waterfront Hall. A serious contender for turning Belfast into a honeymoon location. Perfect for a romantic and/or dirty weekend away.
Merchant Hotel, 35-39 Waring St (Cathedral Quarter), Tel: 90234888. The Merchant is an intimate, sumptuous, five star standard hotel. It was opened in April 2006 following an extensive conversion of the old Ulster Bank Headquarters in Waring Street. The architectural grandeur of the exterior and the opulence of the interior with its custom made furniture and carefully chosen antiques, demand an excellence of service and warmth of welcome, that immediately sets guests at ease with an ambience that embodies luxury and comfort around the clock. Definitely worth the expense.
Translink operate all public transport (Northern Ireland has been spared the process of privitisation that has made Britain's public transport system so confusing to visitors). Most bus and train services operate out of Belfast, so the city is a perfect base to explore the province.
On Sundays, Northern Ireland Railways offer the Day Tracker, a £5 ticket (£12 for a family of two adults and two children) which offers unlimited travel all day across the NIR network.
The Giant's Causeway and the scenic north coast is easily accessible by public train and bus from Belfast. See Translink's website for fare and schedule information. If you have a car take the M2 to Newtownabbey, then the A8 to Larne. From Larne follow the astonishingly beautiful A2 road right along the coast. Leave yourself enough time for a day to meander up to the Giant's Causeway, stopping en route in Cushendall, Cushendun and Ballycastle. A speedier return to Belfast can be made inland from the coast along the A26.
For those who prefer the package option, Mini Coach run a Giant's Causeway day tour, departing from the Belfast International Youth Hostel (Tel: 028 9032 4733). The standard tour (£16) includes the Giant's Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and a very brief photo stop at Dunluce Castle. For an extra £3.50, a tour of Bushmills Distillery is included.
Bangor is an attractive seaside town with more than its fair share of good fish and chip shops, and makes for a good day out from the city on a sunny day. Trains from Belfast Great Victoria Street, Botanic and Belfast Central take about twenty minutes.
The picturesque village of Hillsborough in County Down is easily accessible by car or frequent Ulsterbus services from the Europa Buscentre.
Enterprise Rent-a-car, Unit 1 Boucher Crescent, Tel: 9066 6767. Belfast has branches of all the usual rental companies, but Enterprise are generally the best for weekend specials, when the daily rates are reduced by 50%. Friday afternoon to Monday morning deals on a class A sub-compact start from £48, and Enterprise is one of the very few rental companies who rent to those under 25: expect to pay around £63 for a driver aged 21-25. Call ahead for a free pick-up and drop off at the start and end of your rental. If you need a car for the duration of your stay, the branch at Unit 3, Building 10 Central Park Mallusk, Tel: 9084 3749, will be able to meet you and drop you off at either airport or the ferry terminals.
Belfast's reputation as a dangerous city is often exaggerated, a recent study by the United Nations International Crime Victimisation Survey (ICVS) shows that Northern Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates in the industrialised and developed world, only behind Japan. The majority of incidents are commited by local people against local people, unsurprisingly following religious, sectarian or political differences. Tourists are outside this culture, and should not be very concerned. On the other hand, Northern Ireland is notorious as being one of the most racist areas in Europe. The Monitoring Group (www.monitoring-group.co.uk) reports that racist attacks on people of Asian and black origin are a third higher here than they are in England and Wales. Racist attacks on children doubled between 1996 and 1999. As with any city, it pays to be careful, and to always be aware of your surroundings. Do not flash valuables or money, or walk around reading your guidebook or map. If you need directions, ask in any shop or bar.
West Belfast is the location of most of the trouble spots in the city. Once infamous as the most violent spot in 'Bomb City', West Belfast is today more associated with being a normal, working class housing area. However, it is not unheard of for trouble to erupt here - particularly during the so-called 'Marching Season' in the summer months.
Once troubled Belfast areas include:
The Shankill Road
The Shankill is a Loyalist neighbourhood, working class and somewhat run-down in places. The Shankill Road is known locally as being a good shopping street and attracts a small number of on-foot visitors who wish to see the murals.
The Falls Road
The Falls is like a bastion of the Irish Republic in Belfast - full to the brim with Irish tricolours and Guinness-serving pubs. The Falls was once a very dangerous place, but not anymore. It is a common curiosity for British tourists to visit the Sinn Fein Gift Shop which is located near the Bobby Sands Mural. The Culturlann Irish language arts centre in this area also has an Irish speaking restaurant, a book/gift/craft shop and frequently hosts ceilis, traditional music sessions and plays with English translation.
Loyalist Sandy Row
A shopping street in South Belfast known mainly for its striking mural. There is no doubt of Sandy Row's political affilitation - it can appear more British than anywhere in Great Britian. Sandy Row is home to a Loyalist souvenir shop among other more mainstream establishments.
The area between the City Hall and Queens University is mostly safe, except for on Friday or Saturday nights when crowds of young drinkers gather at closing time outside major bars and clubs, often resulting in minor scuffles, and regular assaults. If spending time in this area on weekends, organise transport in advance if possible, as taxis take notoriously long to appear.
Perhaps more importantly, it is not adviseable to make any overtly political statements about Northern Ireland unless you are confident of the people to whom you're making them. The sporting of Rangers or Celtic (Scottish football teams) shirts should avoided due to their sectarian connotations. The same can be said for English or any Irish football (soccer) shirts. Rugby shirts shouldn't cause a problem.
Generally, ask locals for advice and enjoy the hospitality of the majority of Belfast people.
Northern Ireland receives the same basic package of national television and radio services as the rest of the United Kingdom, with regional variations on the BBC channels and UTV. UTV carries most of ITV-1's national programming, but is branded as UTV. It is the last remaining television channel in Britain to feature a live, on camera announcer introducing the evening's programming; usually the effervescent Julian Simmons. To get an understanding of what is happening, you'll find high quality regional news programming on BBC One at 1.30PM, 6.30PM and 10.30PM and on UTV at 6pm.
Regional variations of shows on the national BBC Radio One and the excellent Across the Line on BBC Radio Ulster promote local music, and can be listened to online. These are a great way to find out about forthcoming concerts and gigs.