In addition to excellent bars and great restaurants, Belfast also has a fascinating museum scene that spans everything from local history to contemporary art. Belfast’s best museums can be found in the pretty parks outside the city center or literally floating in the waterways near the heart of downtown. Whether you are looking for great things to do with kids in the capital city, want to step back in time with costumed performers, or interest to dive into the history of the Titanic, these are the best museums to visit in Belfast.
The sinking of the Titanic made headlines around the world and the story of the ship has since captivated the public for decades. The ill-fated cruise liner began life in Belfast, where it was carefully constructed in the city’s busy dockside area. Capitalizing on the infamous history, the Titanic Belfast is an impressive multi-media experience that makes you feel like you have joined the journey at sea. There are a few artifacts, but the main emphasis of the educational experience is to bring you (virtually) aboard the ship. The construction of the modern museum has also played a major role in helping to revitalize the city’s Titanic Quarter and is now one of the top attractions to visit in all of Ireland.
The Ulster Museum is a gem of a museum that covers hundreds of thousands of years of natural history. It transports visitors from Jurassic times to Ancient Egypt and through to the 20th century. There are fossils and mummies, exhibits on flora and fauna, and artifacts from all over Ireland. Set inside the Belfast Botanic Gardens, many people stop in to experience the discovery centers and then have a relaxing cup of tea in the cafe. Another reason this Belfast museum is so popular? The Ulster Museum is completely free to visit.
Named after the five questions it wants visitor’s to ask (who, what, where, why, when), W5 is a fantastic interactive science museum. The museum is aimed at children but the exhibits will certainly capture the adult imagination as well. W5 covers a range of STEM topics, ranging from space exploration to robotics and rockets. In addition to educational areas, the museum encourages visitor involvement and its installation revolve around ideas like SEE/DO and GO, to allow science enthusiasts of all ages to learn while doing. There are also live demonstrations and shows during the day.
Crumlin Road Gaol
The Crumlin Road Gaol was once Belfast’s most notorious prisons. First built in the mid-1840s, the Victorian stone jail housed many infamous prisoners during its more than 150 years of operation. The cells have held the likes of Éamon de Valera and Bobby Sands, two major figures in the struggle for Irish independence. The gaol became notorious during the Troubles when as many as three prisoners were stuffed into a single small cell. Over the years, 17 executions were held inside Crumlin Road Gaol and some say that the jail remains haunted to this very day. Now closed to prisoners, the Victorian jail is a major Belfast landmark. In addition to daily tours of the historic building, the Crum is also available for events like weddings and often hosts concerts or other performances. There’s also no need to rush off to eat after exploring the former cells. The jailhouse has a restaurant called Cuffs Bar and Grill that specializes in local cuisine.
The Titanic is not the only ship with a strong link to Belfast. One of the city’s best museums is a floating exhibit inside the HMS Caroline. Belfast was a major naval station during World War II and the best place to experience this history is on board the decommissioned cruiser. The old military craft has been converted into a museum where visitors can learn about the 100-year-old ship while exploring what life would have been like at sea. Hooked after just one visit? The good news is that your museum ticket is valid for 12 months, so you can re-visit as many times as you like within the next year.
Contemporary art and culture lovers will find the best international exhibits at the MAC. The Metropolitan Arts Centre is located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and hosts a mix of performances, workshops, installations, and family events seven days a week. The MAC doesn’t have a permanent art collection so it is always a good idea to check the list of current exhibitions to see what is on show inside its three galleries or refer to the calendar if you plan to attend an event. However, it is always worth stopping by to wander through or simply to enjoy a coffee in the modern cafe that makes up part of the main floor.
Ulster Folk Museum
Those willing to venture 7 miles (11 kilometers) outside of Belfast’s city center will be rewarded with a time traveling experience at the Ulster Folk Museum. The living exhibit features actors going about their days creating traditional handicrafts, working on a farm, visiting a chapel, or even running a local shop—all exactly as would have been common in Northern Ireland 100 years ago. The effect is like stepping back in time to experience history for yourself and children, in particular, tend to love the chance to actually walk inside the historic buildings while speaking to the costumed guides. The most popular exhibits are usually the handicraft demonstrations which expertly show the traditional crafts that were once made in the area.
Northern Ireland War Memorial
For history buffs, the Northern Ireland War Memorial recounts the impact of the two World Wars on Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole. The small museum has an interesting exhibit on the Belfast Blitz 1941 and a number of artifacts related to the wartime industries that dominated Belfast life during WWII. There are also several pieces of art that serve as memorials to those lost during the wars, as well as a wealth of information about the role U.S. forces played in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. Located next to St. Anne’s Cathedral, it is a centrally located museum that is well worth a quick visit.
While Belfast has come a long way in recent decades, the so-called Troubles remain a major part of the history of the city. The Irish Republican History Museum was established in 2007 and recounts the story of just one side of the struggle—the Republican cause. The museum offers artifacts from the Troubles and highlights the role of women during the difficult moment in Northern Ireland’s history. The exhibits may be upsetting to some and feature information on the IRA, so its single vision approach should be appreciated as only one half of the story. The museum is community-run and located inside an old linen mill in West Belfast.
The Museum of Orange Heritage
The Museum of Orange Heritage based inside Schomberg House focuses its mission on recounting the Williamite War of 1690 and the formation of the Orange Order. Named for William of Orange, the Protestant king of England, Scotland, and Ireland who defeated the Catholic King James II, the fraternal order is still active in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK today. The museum aims to support education and continued peace, but visitors should know that the Orange Order remains a controversial part of life in Belfast. As with the Irish Republican History Museum, this museum tells one side of a divisive issue.