You could spend hours browsing this state-of-the-art museum, but if you're pressed for time don't miss the Armada Room, with artefacts retrieved from the 1588 wreck of the Spanish galleon Girona; the Egyptian Room, with Princess Takabuti, a 2500-year-old Egyptian mummy unwrapped in Belfast in 1835; and the Early Peoples Gallery, with the bronze Bann Disc, a superb example of Celtic design from the Iron Age.
Free tours (10 people maximum; first-come, first served) run at 2.30pm Tuesday to Friday and 1.30pm Sunday.
On the ground floor, a potted history of the Troubles leads up to the 1st-floor History Zone. Its spectacular collection of prehistoric stone and bronze artefacts help provide a cultural context for Ireland's many archaeological sites. Exhibits include the Malone Hoard, a clutch of 16 polished, Neolithic stone axes discovered only a few kilometres from the museum.
The kid-friendly, interactive Nature Zone on the 2nd floor covers geological time, evolution and natural history; highlights include the Snapshot of an Ancient Sea Floor, a fossilised portion of a 200-million-year-old seabed with jumbled ammonite shells and petrified driftwood.
The top floors are given over to Irish & European art, most notably the works of Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (1856–1941). More modern paintings include Edward McGuire's 1974 portrait of poet Seamus Heaney.