In Northern Ireland, Belfast is positively buzzing with a newfound confidence. The city is home to some of the most popular attractions and unique visitor experiences in the whole of Britain and Ireland. Here’s how to make the most of one day in the city.
The traditional way to start the day is an Ulster Fry – the Northern Ireland version of the full Irish breakfast. This dish will come loaded with fried eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, potato bread and soda bread. Tuck in amid a crowd of sleepy students at long-established Queen’s Quarter hangout Maggie May’s, or linger over the newspapers in the more sophisticated surroundings of Harlem Cafe.
Once you’ve cleaned your plate, begin your city explorations with a visit to the Ulster Museum. You could easily spend most of the day browsing its state-of-the-art exhibits, but limit yourself to 90 minutes and be sure to take in the Armada Room. This section of the museum hosts artefacts retrieved from the 1588 wreck of the Spanish galleon Girona, the 2500-year-old Egyptian mummy of Princess Takabuti (unwrapped in Belfast in 1835), and the bronze Bann Disc, a superb example of Iron Age Celtic design.
On the museum’s ground floor is a potted history of the Troubles, the perfect primer for a 1½-hour black-taxi tour of West Belfast (you can arrange to be picked up anywhere in the city centre). While safe today, this neighbourhood provides a window into the past when religious tensions tore the city apart in the last decades of the 20th century. West Belfast visitors will find political murals, memorials and the infamous Peace Line – a four-mile-long series of barriers between Protestant and Catholic communities that was begun in 1969 as a temporary measure but still stands today. Along these walls, you’ll find ever-evolving messages of peace written by visitors from around the world.
There are a number of companies offering tours, including Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours, Harper Taxi Tours and Official Black Taxi Tours.
Ask the taxi driver to drop you at City Hall, a monument to the prosperity derived from Belfast’s 19th-century linen and shipbuilding industries. The gardens are littered with statues, including one of Sir Edward Harland (1831-95), mayor of Belfast and founder of the famous Harland & Wolff shipyard that built the SS Titanic.
Walk east along Chichester St to the River Lagan, where the redevelopment that revived the city’s fortunes began back in the 1990s. The riverside plaza is now home to Waterfront Hall (the city’s main concert venue), the Obel Tower (Northern Ireland’s tallest building), and a series of modern artworks (pick up the Laganside Art Trail leaflet at the tourist office for details).
Moored near Waterfront Hall, the Belfast Barge houses a fascinating museum that charts the city’s maritime and industrial history through old photographs, ship models and video interviews with retired engineers and shipyard workers.
The barge is also home to Holohan’s restaurant, the ideal place for a lunch of half a dozen oysters followed by a hearty Irish stew. Alternatively, there’s OX just across the street for fine modern Irish cuisine, or the varied delights of the artisanal food stalls at St George’s Market a short walk south.
After lunch, walk across the footbridge at Lagan Weir, where you’ll find a giant ceramic sculpture of a salmon (known as Bigfish) that celebrates the cleaning up of the River Lagan in the 1990s. Turning left along the river, you’ll enter the Titanic Quarter. This once-industrial area has undergone rapid redevelopment centred on the former shipyards and quays where great ocean liners were once constructed.
The area’s centrepiece is the angular modern architecture of Titanic Belfast, a gleaming multimedia extravaganza that chronicles Belfast’s industrial heritage and the story of the ill-fated Titanic, built here in 1912. High-tech displays allow you to explore every detail of the ship’s construction, including a computer ‘fly-through’ from keel to bridge and replicas of the passenger accommodation.
Extending beyond the Titanic Belfast building are the two slipways where the Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic, were built and launched. Nearby is the Paint Hall, once used for the painting of ship parts; today it houses Titanic Studios, which were used during the filming of the TV series Game of Thrones. (Several outfits offer day-long bus tours of Game of Thrones film locations throughout Northern Ireland, including Game of Thrones Tours and McComb’s Tours.)
Around 5pm, head back to the city centre to enjoy a leisurely pint of Guinness in Belfast’s best-known pub. The Crown Liquor Saloon dates from the late 19th century and is famous for its ornate Victorian décor of stained and cut glass, polished marble, ceramic tiles, mosaics, mirrors and mahogany, all atmospherically lit by original gaslight. Although it’s a historic building and tourist attraction owned by the National Trust, it still fills up with crowds of locals dropping in for a drink after work.
Take your drinks to one of the Crown’s intimate snugs and settle down to the hard work of choosing a place to have dinner. These days you’re spoilt for choice as the Belfast food scene can hold its own against the best in the region.
For elegant fine dining try the formerly Michelin-starred Deanes Eipic, just around the corner from the Crown; for a more casual meal (but with food of just as high a standard) you can’t beat Ginger in the city centre, or the Barking Dog in South Belfast. All three create imaginative menus based on the best of fresh Irish produce.
Book a table for 8.30pm, which gives you time to take in an atmospheric evening tour of Crumlin Road Gaol first (tours start at 6pm, Fridays and Saturdays only; check times and book in advance). Built in 1846, Belfast’s most notorious prison was modelled on London’s Pentonville, and was the scene of 17 executions between 1854 and 1961.
Afterwards, lift your spirits with a drink at one of the Cathedral Quarter’s many bars – craft beer at the John Hewitt, artisan gin and tonic at Muriel’s, or rum and cool tunes at the Spaniard, before heading off to your chosen dinner venue.