Belfast has boomed in the 21st century thanks to its vibrant arts scene, a culinary culture that has given rise to Michelin-recognised restaurants, a thriving television-and-movie industry that’s caused some to dub it the “Hollywood of Europe”, and gentrification projects celebrating local heritage in once-neglected neighborhoods. 

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Though the capital of Northern Ireland is now a safe and increasingly popular place to travel, it was embroiled in violent sociopolitical conflict from 1968 to 1998. Peace has continued unabated since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, yet some still hold entrenched views over whether Northern Ireland should remain a part of the UK or join the Republic in a united Ireland.

This is the conversational topic you should avoid when visiting – it's a complex subject and respecting that fact is appropriate. This is especially important if you plan on venturing into areas around the city’s fractured peace lines. But don’t let this deter you – Belfast is a wonderful tourist destination and the locals are incredibly warm, funny and welcoming.

So, if you want to visit Belfast like a pro, keep the following 10 tips in mind.

Group of friends at the Crown Liquor Saloon Belfast
You'll better understand "the craic" after an afternoon at the pub in Belfast © Tourism Northern Ireland

The Belfast dialect is unique

The Belfast brogue is often praised for being one of the most pleasant accents in the Anglophone world. But you’ll notice the local vernacular is rife with slang, linguistic quirks and dialectic phrases that don’t always follow an obvious logic.    

“Craic” (pronounced as crack), means “fun” or “a good time”. If someone says “What’s the craic?” it means, “How’s it going?”. “What about ye?” or simply “Bout ye?” carries the same meaning. 

You’ll become well acquainted with the words “aye”, meaning “yes”, and “wee”, meaning “small”. People may use odd grammar, like “I says” or “Here’s me” when talking about something they said in the past tense. Many finish their sentences with a reaffirmation; a holdover from Belfast’s Celtic language routes. As an example: “I'm from Belfast, so I am.”   

If you frequent pubs, as Belfast natives are wont to do, you may encounter the word sláinte (pronounced “slawn-che”), meaning “cheers” in Irish Gaelic. In present company, you’re okay to repeat it, but be wary of using it elsewhere as the Irish language can be a conversational hot potato in unionist neighborhoods. 

Make restaurant reservations, particularly on the weekend

As Belfast’s restaurant scene has grown in stature, so have the waiting lists for its premier eateries. If you plan on sampling the Michelin-star fare – OX, Deanes EIPIC, and Muddlers Club currently make up the roster – make sure you book your weekend reservations early. The same applies to other fine dining options and the most popular theater shows in the city.  

Fine dining dish from James St Restaurant, Belfast City Centre
Belfast's competitive restaurant scene is stronger than ever © James St & Co / Tourism Northern Ireland

Tipping is recommended, but not mandatory

Tipping 10 to 15% is usually standard in Belfast restaurants, especially during dinner times. There is no obligation – if you find service unsatisfactory, forgoing a tip is down to your own discretion – though Belfast’s competitive restaurant scene has fostered a workforce of high-quality front-of-house staff, knowledgeable sommeliers, and career waiters that usually merit a few extra quid (pounds) for their service skills. Also bear in mind, that some restaurants will include a gratuity on the bill.

Sundays can be sleepy

Because of its Christian roots – and the sanctity of the Lord’s day of rest – it was once common to see tourists wandering around Belfast city center on Sundays wondering why everything was shut. Though this has changed somewhat in recent years, there remains a stipulation that shops of 280 sq meters or more can only sell goods between 1pm and 6pm. Restaurants, bars and amenities stores may be open, but business hours will likely be affected. Most businesses will also shut down on religious holidays, such as Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. Make sure to check in advance before venturing forth in spontaneity.

Always prepare for the possibility of rain

Northern Ireland’s climate is defined as “temperate”, with summer humidity, heavy winter snowfall and weather disasters exceedingly rare. That said, given Belfast’s northern latitude and coastal location, rain is never off the table. Carrying a rain jacket, umbrella or extra layer, even in the summer, is a good idea.   

Use sterling, not euros

Though Northern Ireland shares a porous border with the Republic of Ireland, which is in the Eurozone, pounds sterling is the traded currency. It’s also worth noting that Belfast is financially digitized, meaning you can use contactless payments in most bars, restaurants and shops.   

Touring Around Belfast gives visitors an insight into Belfast the city, its history, its murals and its people while driving the city in a classic black cab.
Belfast Black Taxi Tours come highly recommended for better insights into Belfast and its history © Rob Durston / Tourism Northern Ireland

Use guided tours when visiting certain neighborhoods

Belfast’s street art is among the most powerful and provocative in the world. Depicting political prisoners, paramilitary groups, and the nexus where peace and conflict collide, the murals are reminders of Belfast's troubled past. Many are splashed across gable walls in politically divided neighborhoods, so it’s recommended you visit with a licensed tour guide. Not only will this add historical texture to the experience, but it will also help you avoid stumbling into areas deemed less safe for tourists. The Belfast Black Taxi Tour is the best option.

Belfast doesn’t have the most efficient transport network

Belfast hasn’t seen a tram since the 1950s, but in a recent attempt to streamline its public transport service, it introduced the Glider bus service – multiple journey tickets and travel cards are available. The Gliders currently run from East to West and from the Titanic Quarter to the city center. A north-to-south route is expected to be introduced, but not until 2027. There is a train system, but it's primarily used for transport between Belfast and surrounding towns and cities. Late-night services are currently non-existent. 

It’s fair to say this isn’t the most efficient transport system in the UK – evidenced by the fleets of cars chugging along Belfast’s streets – though taxi services are relatively affordable. Belfast is also quite compact, so walking around the city center should pose no issue for most travelers. Alternatively, you can use the Just Eat Belfast Bikes Scheme, which has 46 docking stations dotted throughout the city.

Private taxi firms still reign supreme over Uber

Belfast is Uber-friendly, but most locals still use the traditional taxi firms, of which Value Cabs and fonaCab are the most popular (you can book these over the phone). In the post-pandemic era, however, many locals and politicians have lamented the lack of taxi drivers doing late-night shifts, so it's best to pre-book evening cabs home where possible.

Republican Mural featuring Bobby Sands on the Falls Road, Belfast
A Republican mural featuring Bobby Sands on the Falls Road, Belfast © Paul J Martin / Shutterstock

Tensions can rise on July 12th 

July 12th is a public holiday and a significant day in Northern Irish history. Often shortened to “The Twelfth”, it’s an Ulster Protestant celebration dating back to the 1700s, commemorating the victory of Protestant King “Billy” William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Protestant areas of the city erect Union flags, paint their street curbs red, white and blue, and look under siege as huge bonfires are burnt on the 11th night, signaling the forthcoming celebrations. Orange-sashed parades are then held on July 12th, when the city streets chorus with politically divisive marching tunes.

Many Catholics, and those who identify as Irish, take this opportunity to vacate the city for a few days. And unfortunately, it's not uncommon for tensions to escalate. In the past, this has led to rioting in segments of the city, particularly where traditionally Protestant and Catholic communities collide. Though one can easily avoid the most contentious areas, it’s probably not the best weekend to book a sojourn to Belfast

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