Belfast Guide: Planning Your Trip

The River Lagan in Belfast, Ireland.
Neil Carey Photography / Getty Images

The capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast, is a busy modern city with a trendy dining scene, a growing arts and cultural center, and a vibrant nightlife that includes everything from cool cocktail bars to traditional Irish pubs. With lovely gardens and great new museums, the city’s popularity with tourists has grown in recent years as it leaves its history of “troubles” behind it.

Find out how to plan the best trip to Belfast with tips of what to see, where to stay, and a look at the culture of the dynamic city.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Belfast is in the late spring to early autumn, from April to September. June, July and August are the busiest times to travel to Belfast but also offer the warmest weather. May and September are ideal because they tend to be less crowded but still warm enough to enjoy the outdoor attractions of the city.

Language: The official language spoken in Belfast is English. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, Irish and Ulster Scots are also recognized as languages that form an essential part of Northern Irish culture, but it is rare to hear them spoken.

Currency: Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, and the money used in Belfast is the pound sterling (£).

Getting Around: Belfast is a compact capital city, and the quickest way to get around the center is usually on foot. The city also has a bike-sharing system as well as public buses. Taxis are available but can be hard to flag down, so it is best to call and reserve one directly.

Travel Tip: If this is your first time to Belfast, look for a hotel in the Cathedral quarter to ensure that most of the main attractions, plus great bars and restaurants, are all within easy walking distance.

Things to Do

Belfast is located on the River Lagan and has outdoor walks and areas like the Cave District and Botanic Gardens to enjoy when the rain is held at bay. In the historic central district, you will find fantastic architecture and history at City Hall, the Grand Opera House, and St. Anne’s Cathedral. In terms of museums, the Ulster Museum and the fantastic Titanic Belfast both show a different side to the history of the city.

  • Get Outside of the City Center: It is easy to find lots to do in downtown Belfast, but many of the best city attractions are just outside the center. Head up to Belfast Castle or spend the afternoon walking through the gorgeous Botanic Gardens. For the best hiking, try tackling the rocky outcropping known as Napoleon’s Nose in Cave Hill Country Park.
  • Take a Black Cab Tour: While the city has moved forward, the period known as the Troubles left a significant impact on Belfast. The culturally tense time was marked by sectarian violence, and a series of murals and former high-security checkpoints still exist in the city. A Black Cab Tour offers visitors the chance to visit Catholic and Protestant strongholds of the city, see the peace lines, and learn about the history with a local driver who is well versed in how to approach the residential areas respectfully.
  • Listen to live music: Belfast has a great bar scene, and some of the most beloved pubs, including Sunflower Pub and the Dirty Onion, are famous for their live music. If you want a more formal setting, the Grand Opera House has regular concert and dance performances, and it's hard to imagine a more spectacular venue.

Explore more attractions with our full-length article on the best things to do in Belfast.

What to Eat and Drink

Food in Belfast tends to be hearty fare that offers a bit of warmth in the cool, wet climate. You will find stews and roasts on most traditional menus. In recent years, seafood has grown in popularity, and local catches (as well as local oysters) are popping up on menus around the city. For a local specialty, try a Belfast pastie, a kind of fried sausage patty that is popular at fish and chip shops. There are two Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, but it is much more common to eat in classic pubs or casual restaurants with contemporary menus.

Going out to the pub for a few drinks is common, and Guinness is incredibly popular, though you will find lots of Harp and other lagers as well. Craft beer is growing in popularity, and many bars sell local brews. The most famous whiskey is Bushmills, which has its distillery in Country Antrim. However, mixology has caught on in recent years, and many chic cocktail bars are also to be found in the city center.

Where to Stay

Staying in the Cathedral Quarter is an excellent idea for those who want to have more time to explore the heart of Belfast without needing to figure out bus schedules or pay for too many taxi trips. The vibrant neighborhood is full of bars and restaurants and makes exploring much more manageable. To save some cash, nearby Queen's quarter is more residential, and more and more Airbnb rentals are popping onto the market. The Titanic Quarter is right on the waterfront, and while it is a little bit outside the rest of the center, it can be a great way to stay in Belfast’s newest hotels and experience a historic area of the city.

Getting There

Belfast has two airports: Belfast International Airport (BFS) and George Best Belfast City Airport (BHD). Belfast International is located about a 30-minute drive from the city center, while City Airport is only a few minutes away. However, BHD only serves flights from within the UK.

While it is possible to fly directly to Belfast, many people choose to fly into the larger Dublin Airport, which is located in the Republic of Ireland. Private coach buses leave Dublin Airport (and Dublin City Center) regularly with direct service to the Belfast City Center. The drive takes about two hours.

If you are traveling by train, bus, or car from the Republic of Ireland, you will not need to show your passport. The seamless border will hardly be noticeable.

For even more information on flight options, read our full-length guide to the airports in Ireland.

Culture and Customs 

Belfast is a part of the UK, and much of the culture will be familiar if you have traveled to other parts of the United Kingdom. Family life is central here, and you will notice that community pride is very high. Church attendance is also fairly common, but religion is a conversation topic that is best avoided except among close friends. In terms of what to know as a visitor, if you are dining for the night, plan to tip waiters 10 percent (unless the bill includes a service charge). There is no real need to leave gratuity if you are ordering drinks at the bar.

Finally, Belfast is a safe city, but there is always a small chance of new republican or loyalist demonstrations. Sudden gatherings of large, protesting groups are rare but should be avoided if they do occur.

Money-Saving Tips

Belfast can be a very affordable city to visit, but here are some tips on how to save as much as possible:

  • Go to the free attractions: Some of Belfast’s most famous things to do are completely free, so make certain places like the Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens are at the top of your list of things to see.
  • See street art: Belfast is famous for its political murals, but a new wave of street art has hit the central downtown area. Spend an afternoon walking through the city to find the coolest modern murals and to see a more contemporary side of the city.
  • Spend a morning at St. George’s Market: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are market day in Belfast, and St. George’s is the place to be. The indoor market fills with food stalls where you can pick up farm-fresh ingredients or indulge in some affordable street food. Vintage vendors also appear, and you can score great deals on some eclectic or handmade items. Entry to the market is free.
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