Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a place the world is rediscovering. While fans of the city visit for its pubs, restaurants and friendly people, outsiders stay away because of Belfast’s historic Troubles. “The Troubles” refers to 30 years of conflict between Northern Ireland’s two populations: the mostly Catholic nationalists who believe Northern Ireland should be part of Ireland and the mostly Protestant unionists who believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, protests between nationalists and unionists broke out in Belfast and other cities in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. The tension led to violence and bombings, and more than 3,000 people were killed before the conflict ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The tension between nationalists and unionists still lurks in city, but the violence of the Troubles has stopped and attention is shifting to the small city’s bars, restaurants, museums and walkability.
Start your day at St. George’s Market, a covered market with food and crafts.
As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted by the smell of food—all kinds of it. Vendors offer specialties like crepes, paella, cupcakes, sandwiches, vegetables, breads and juices. Don’t get distracted; keep moving through the market by letting your nose draw you to the tables full of fish and your feet to the swampy floors below them.
After the food section, make your way to the craft stalls where you will find scarves, jewelry, greeting cards and paintings. It’s a great spot to buy authentic non-cheesy souvenirs, such as the Belfast-themed tea towels by Flax Fox Designs.
Before you leave the market, treat yourself to an Ulster Fry, the classic Northern Ireland breakfast. An Ulster Fry includes bacon, sausage, black pudding, mushrooms, beans, an egg and a slice of soda and potato bread. You can find an Ulster Fry at The Lazy Goose, an eatery located inside the market that looks like a food truck without wheels. Their Lazy Ulster Fry comes with a complimentary cup of coffee or tea, giving you the caffeine boost you need before taking on the city.
Photo by Haley Adams
After St. George’s Market, take a city tour with Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab Tours. Make a reservation in advance and ask to be picked up at St. George’s Market.
This company stays away from tourist attractions and instead takes you through the real Belfast neighborhoods that were hit hard during the Troubles. During the 90-minute tour, you’ll drive through neighborhoods and have a chance to walk down some of the streets, where you’ll see reminders of the city’s past, such as homes with cages on the back to protect it from thrown rocks.
On the tour you’ll also pass by the beautiful murals that dot Belfast and tell the stories of Northern Ireland’s history. Some of the murals can be unsettling, such as Belfast’s Mona Lisa, which you’ll see on the tour. It features a man holding a gun like he’s about to shoot; the gun seems to follow you wherever you stand, just like the real Mona Lisa’s eyes.
When the tour is over, your tour guide will ask where you want to be dropped off, so you can name the place.
Chances are you’ll be hungry for a pub lunch. Locals love The Garrick Bar. With its classic dark pub décor, the spot is ideal for a cozy afternoon pint of Guinness and perfectly crisped fish and chips.
Photo by Flickr/Macnolete
After lunch, make your way to Donegall Square. This is the location of City Hall (which most locals call the area), Belfast’s civic building which opened its doors in 1906. Located in the heart of Belfast, the area is often alive with fairs or protests, but on calmer days, locals picnic on the lawns. Within City Hall you can find the granite Titanic Monument, which is surrounded by gardens and plaques listing the names of those lost on that fatal night.
The plus side of going at night is that the columned structure with turquoise domes is even more stunning when lit up, making it shimmer gold. The lights change color and illuminated the building in pink on the evening after Princess Charlotte was born.
For dinner, make reservations at Made in Belfast, a restaurant that uses fresh local ingredients. There are two locations, but go to the City Hall location since you’re already nearby. Order the 8oz Irish Beef Burger, a large piece of meat that oozes juice as you pick it up. The meal comes with a hefty helping of beef fat fries.
With mismatched chairs and throw pillows, it’s obvious that the restaurant puts more money into the food than the furniture, which actually results in a very charming atmosphere.
After dinner, walk about four minutes and grab a pint at The Crown Liquor Saloon, also known as The Crown Bar. From the outside, the bar looks like it was left on the street from a different time period. The exterior has ornate details, which continue into the bar; once inside, you immediately notice the beautiful tiles on the bar and the creatively carved wood trim that lines the walls.
Order a pint of Guinness at the bar and try to get a seat in one of the “snugs” which were created, according to the National Trust, in Victorian times to give patrons some privacy. When you sit in a snug, you feel like you’re having a private party, because you’re completely separated from but can still hear the sounds of the crowded bar.
Next, walk to the Cathedral Quarter, the destination of choice for Belfast nightlife. The narrow cobblestone streets make the neighborhood feel like a little village where the residents only come out at night.
Stop for a pint at the Duke of York. The pub is located on a street with flower boxes hanging from the buildings and lights strung overhead. Inside the joint, the walls are covered in vintage Guinness and Irish whiskey signs, and the atmosphere is tight but cozy The signs inspire you to order another pint of Guinness or whiskey, or both.
Start your day with breakfast at the chic Established Coffee. Located in the Cathedral Quarter, Established serves the usual latte and banana bread, but the menu also features four breakfast dishes. Try the savory breakfast scone with bacon, a poached egg and spinach for a fresh take on a classic Northern Ireland breakfast.
Take a seat at the long table in the center with 20 electrical sockets, making it a millennial traveler’s dream. You’re bound to have a place to charge your phone or laptop, so it’s ideal for catching up on emails or checking the time of your flight.
After breakfast, give yourself at least three hours to visit Titanic Belfast. The relatively new museum—built in 2012—is now one of Belfast’s top attractions. Surprisingly, the museum is about more than just the Titanic’s failed voyage. The large institution tells the story of Belfast’s shipbuilding past and explains what an engineering achievement the Titanic was. The museum is a place for Belfast to celebrate its heritage and shares surprising nuggets of information, like how the city was at one point a larger metropolis than Dublin.
Photo via Getty by Peter Macdiarmid
After Titanic Belfast, walk 22 minutes to lunch at Yardbird, the restaurant above the popular bar The Dirty Onion. The building dates back to 1750 but the chickens spinning on the rotisserie on the back wall makes Yardbird feel like a mashup of Northern Irish and Southern traditions.
Yardbird is an example of Belfast’s culinary creativity. Based on rotisserie chicken, the menu offers the bird by whole, half or quarter. For the best deal, order the Lunch Offer, which includes a quarter order of chicken and a side for only 5 pounds (one pound sterling is about $1.40). Pair your meal with a pint of Heverlee or Beck’s and you’ve got yourself a hefty lunch and leftover pounds in your pocket.
Have a cab (download the app for FonaCAB or Value Cabs) take you to Botanic Avenue, a street with the atmosphere of a college town thanks to its proximity to the Queen’s University campus. Stop in No Alibis, an independent bookstore on Botanic Avenue where the shelves overflow with books and there’s a cute nook off to the side for children. The genre signs attached to the shelves look like they were made and printed out at someone’s home, giving the small shop a personal touch.
When you leave No Alibis, walk up Botanic Avenue toward the university and you will run into the Botanic Gardens, a beautiful public park. Located in the park is the Ulster Museum, which boasts history, art and nature exhibits all under one roof. With everything it offers, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that admission is free (though a 3 pound donation is suggested).
Photo by Haley Adams
For dinner, try Molly’s Yard, a restaurant nestled right on the edge between Queen’s University and Botanic Avenue. Head upstairs to the dining room and enjoy a meal in what feels like someone’s home.
The menu at Molly’s Yard changes seasonally, which means the food is made with seasonal and local ingredients. No matter what’s on the menu, you can’t go wrong with the permanent burger or lamb. For those on a budget, try the 5-10-5 menu, which offers an appetizer for 5 pounds, an entree for 10 pounds and a dessert for 5 pounds.
While the food is delicious, many visit for the craft beer, which is from Hilden Brewing Company, a brewery located about 7 miles down the road. The beers have Belfast-themed names like Belfast Blonde and Titanic Quarter.
After dinner, catch a show at Empire Music Hall, where you will find everyone from college students to retired travelers. In the bar downstairs, black and white films are projected onto white screens, and Titanic memorabilia is displayed on the walls along with vintage concert posters. There’s a relaxed vibe in the bar, as many people come to the Empire for a beer and stay for the music, even if they don’t know who is playing.
There are two options for music in the Empire. Downstairs in the bar area is a good place to catch the young, up-and-coming bands of Belfast. Upstairs is a larger music hall that hosts musicians and bands that are a bit more established, as well as tribute bands like Kings of Lyon and Guns vs. Roses. One of the best acts you can catch at the Empire is Rockaoke, which is like karaoke but with a live band. The band knows everything from Tina Turner to Motorhead.
When you’re ready to return to your hotel, take one of the taxis that line up outside the venue on Botanic Avenue, or go by foot for a nice stroll before saying goodnight to Belfast.
There are two airports in Belfast—Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport. If you cannot find a flight directly to Belfast, fly to Dublin and take the Aircoach shuttle to Belfast.
For about 220 pounds per night, The Merchant Hotel is pricey, but worth it just for its central Cathedral Quarter location because it will save you money on transportation. The grandiose building is known as the swankiest hotel in Belfast. It’s also a good place for nightlife lovers as it’s connected to Ollie’s Club, a popular Belfast nightclub.
Located on Dublin Road, Etap Belfast is located about halfway between the City Centre and Queen’s University. It’s within walking distance of all the places you’ll want to go, but the hotel is still reasonably priced. The hotel has the simple amenities every traveler needs, like a buffet breakfast and free Wi-Fi.
is an American living in Northern Ireland. Her work has appeared in Boston magazine, New Orleans Magazine and New Orleans Bride magazine.