“Bout ye?”

Visitors to Belfast will hear this phrase constantly as locals greet one another on the city’s busy streets or shout to a friend in a packed pub over the sound of traditional music and clinking glasses. In its essence, it’s a local way of asking “How are you?” or “What’s going on?”

“Bout ye” is a uniquely Northern Irish way to get to know what’s been happening, what it’s all about and where you stand. From the charming characters who’ve made the city what it is to heritage in shipbuilding and linen making, Belfast’s museums are one of the best ways to get to know what it’s all about. 

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Walk in the footsteps of former prisoners at Crumlin Road Gaol

The phrase “sent down” resonates on a whole new level as visitors follow the footsteps of former prisoners at Crumlin Road Gaol. A dim underground passage once connected the former courthouse across the road to this Victorian-era prison, where across 150 years some 25,000 men, women and children were incarcerated. Today, the site offers an award-winning experience that brings history to life via a self-guided tour with audio and visual prompts, or a more extensive visit led by an expert (human) guide. If these cold, damp walls could talk…

The interior of the Titanic museum in Belfast showing the various levels of it
The interior of the Titanic Belfast museum is just as spectacular as the outside © Alamy Stock Photo

Deep dive into epic exhibitions at Titanic Belfast

An exciting, world-leading museum, Titanic Belfast is a must-visit for visitors of any age. Crafted by Belfast builders, the RMS Titanic – the largest ocean liner in the world at the time of construction – tragically sank in the north Atlantic on its maiden voyage in 1912. Titanic was the pride of Belfast, and left a legacy long after its launch from this very dock.

The nucleus of the redeveloped Titanic Quarter, this unique, star-shaped building (a nod to the logo of the White Star Line) comprises several levels and nine interactive galleries that details Belfast’s emergence as a shipbuilding powerhouse, before taking a deep dive into all things Titanic, from its design and construction to its sole voyage to the 1985 discovery of its wreckage underwater. A powerful display of items, replicas and recreations related to the liner bring visitors close to the designers, shipyard workers and passengers associated with this most famous of ships. 

At Stormont, walk the marble halls to experience politics in real time

Many visitors to Northern Ireland will likely know a bit about the intense history and current political setup of the territory. Yet to fully grasp how politics is practiced with a passion here, head to Stormont, seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Just 20 minutes east of the city view the rapid Glider bus, the beautiful Greek-style building is set atop an imposing hill.

Free guided tours take place for small groups twice daily on weekdays (11am and 2pm, excluding public and bank holidays; must be booked in advance online). As you walk the halls of the building, you’ll learn about the structure of government in Northern Ireland, admire architectural details and even take a seat in the legislative chamber itself. Before or after the tour, you can also grab a bite in the Members’ Dining Room (12–3pm weekdays). In advance of your visit, familiarize yourself with what’s to come via a 10-minute video preview.

An exhibit titled Table and Four Chairs by Robert Therrien in the MAC museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Table and Four Chairs by Robert Therrien is one of the many intriguing exhibits at the MAC in Belfast © Alamy Stock Photo

Discover art in many forms and discplines at the MAC

The Cathedral Quarter’s cultural art and performance hub, the MAC offers continuously cutting-edge and ever-evolving art, theater and dance works through exhibitions, performances, concerts installations and experimental presentations. Visit one day for a comedy show, the next for an interactive art workshop; one month brings a focus on sculpture exhibition, the next month a theater festival. The Permanent Present is the only fixed feature, a 400-wire kaleidoscopic metal sculpture displayed in the foyer, while the onsite Cafe Bar is a popular spot for breakfast, lunch or quick flat white and catch-up.

The four institutions of National Museums NI spotlight treasures, transport, traditional communities and New World travelers 

Under the banner of National Museums NI, four separate institutions illustrate what makes Northern Ireland such a special corner of the world. Located in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum exhibits Northern Ireland’s treasures of art, history and the natural sciences, taking guests on a journey from home soil across the globe and into space. Follow the handy color-coded routes to make your way through each of the museum’s three curated themes. 

Slightly outside the city in Cultra (near Holywood), the Ulster Folk Museum takes guests back in time through immersive experiences exploring Ulster life in the 20th century. Walk through a rural patchwork of farms, cottages, schools, shops, mills, forges, towers and halls, understanding how traditional small-town communities of the time operate; daily craft demonstrations include basket weaving and printing. Nearby, buckle up for the Ulster Transport Museum, which drives home how various modes of transport in the region have embodied excellence in engineering, science and invention. Visitors can hop on board trains and trams and get up close to horse-drawn carriages, vintage motorbikes and cars. (While you’re in the area, stop by the deluxe Culloden Estate and Spa for afternoon tea, a decadent dinner or an elegant overnight stay.) 

A little further afield in Omagh, County Tyrone, the Ulster American Folk Park addresses the topic of emigration from Northern Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Exhibits delve into rural life in Ulster at the time, then recreate the extraordinary and perilous journey crossing the Atlantic – before exploring the opportunities (and challenges) of starting over an ocean away in North America. Meet local characters in each area and walk in their footsteps in interactive settings and recreations. Experience demonstrations of traditional crafts daily like forge work, willow weaving and wool spinning as you make your way through this expansive park. 

A small boy gets a closer look at the 'Dragon Skull Fossil' during the unveiling of the AMAZE exhibit at W5 in Belfast.
The W5 space at the Odyssey Complex is one place kids will never get bored of visiting © Alamy Stock Photo

W5 will spark curiosity in young minds

Igniting imaginations and sparking curious minds, W5 is an award-winning science and discovery center located in the Odyssey Complex on Queen’s Quay. Boosted by a recent, transformative renovation, this center features 250 interactive exhibits spread across several floors and eight interactive zones, covering key topics from nature and climate change to medical science, and engineering to media, film and TV. Learning as they go through tactile spaces and immersive role play, kids of all ages will find slides, mazes and soft play areas as well as optical illusions, climbing challenges and dinosaur- and outer space–themed zones. Don’t miss the daily science shows at the purpose-built science bar.

Admire the ornate architecture of Belfast City Hall

In the heart of the city on Donegall Square, you can’t miss City Hall. The building was commissioned after Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status and completed in 1906 – and its over-the-top Baroque Revival architecture is imposing indeed. Much of the grounds and gardens are open to the public, offering an urban oasis, while free guided tours (suspended during the pandemic and set to resume soon) are run by local guides with cheeky charm, offering an extra peek inside. Attendees can snap a selfie on the marble grand staircase, marvel at the walls of portraits and unique stained glass windows and even sit in the City Council chamber.

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