Moving beyond its turbulent past, the capital of Northern Ireland is a vibrant city with a rich array of cultural, foodie and historical attractions to explore. Belfast first grew into a city thanks to its prolific shipyards where workers built boats to cross the seas — including the famed Titanic. The late 1960s brought the start of the Troubles, but peace finally arrived in Belfast with the Good Friday agreement of 1998.
Without ever forgetting its past, the city has moved beyond the time of the Troubles, experiencing a kind of Renaissance starting in the cool Cathedral Quarter, all the while ensuring the beloved landmarks like St. George’s Market and Cave Hill remain an important part of city life today. The northern city is also the gateway to discovering the treasures of County Antrim, such as the Giant’s Causeway.
From the iconic stops like the Belfast Zoo and the city’s castle to the street art and museums, here are the top things to do in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Delve into History at the Titanic Museum
The shimmering metal façade of Belfast’s famous Titanic Museum is mesmerizing, but the real historical treasures lay inside the modern, multi-media exhibition space. Built on the same dockyards where the ill-fated ship was constructed over 100 years, the museum is one of the best things to do in all of Ireland and a must-see when visiting the Northern Ireland capital. There is an impressive collection of artifacts from the sunken ship, but the most amazing features are the interactive galleries which allow visitors to feel as though they are walking the decks or traveling to the depths of the ocean.
Check out the Cathedral Quarter
Named for the towering St. Anne’s Cathedral church, the Cathedral Quarter is one of the oldest areas in Belfast. The neighborhood was once the center of literary life in the city, with several newspapers and publishers tucked away along the blocks. These days, the Cathedral Quarter is the Belfast’s main nightlife destination and is best known for its lively pubs. In addition to bars and restaurants, the neighborhood is also home to great cultural destinations, including the contemporary galleries of the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) and the Oh Yeah Music Centre.
Have Lunch at St. George’s Market
St. George’s Market is the last covered Victorian market that is still in operation in Belfast today. The market stalls have a long history, and there has been a Sunday market on this spot since 1604. The current market building was constructed in the late 1800s and underwent an award-winning refurbishment in the 1990s. On Friday, the Variety Market features nearly 250 stalls selling fresh produce, local seafood and street food. On Saturday and Sunday, the market switches gears to focus on arts and crafts as well as antiques, but the food stalls remain open — making this one of the best places to grab a weekend lunch in the city.
The political murals of Belfast are a famous part of the city backdrop. Painted during the Troubles, the wall-high are often poignant memorials to the people and politics which defined a turbulent time in the history of Ireland. In addition to these deeply meaningful (though divisive) paintings, a new kind of street art has recently emerged in Belfast’s cool Cathedral quarter. The rainbow-hued murals depict everything from wild animals to David Bowie and add a fun splash of character to the former warehouse district.
Visit the Crumlin Road Gaol
Known to locals as The Crum, the Crumlin Road Gaol is a Victorian-age jail that offers fascinating tours. The jail first opened in 1846 and housed 25,000 prisoners over its 150 years of operation. The jail closed forever in 1996, but not before the high-security setting gained special notoriety for being the place where many Republican and Loyalist prisoners were detained during The Troubles. The 70-minute tours will lead you through the cells and execution chambers, all while highlighting parts of the jail’s colorful but tragic history.
Take in the Views From Cave Hill
Named for the five caves that are tucked away in its slopes, Cave Hill is one of Belfast’s most recognizable landmarks. Sitting high above the city, the hill offers amazing views of the port and the capital. It is also home to a playground, park, the Belfast Castle and the zoo. For a truly local hike, head towards Napoleon's Nose — a rocky peak that is said to have inspired the book "Gulliver's Travels."
Take a Stroll in the Botanic Gardens
The Belfast Botanic Gardens have been one of the best places to take a stroll in the city since 1828. The gardens were created to satisfy a growing public interest in plants of all sorts and the park is now full of rare and exotic trees, shrubs, and flowers. The most recognizable features are the two Victorian greenhouses, the Tropical Ravine and the Palm House, where you can find everything from bananas to cinnamon growing in a lush setting. The rest of the park is outdoors and ideal for a sunny Irish day. In the summer, the Botanic Gardens are often used for concerts and other festivals.
Spend the Day at the Zoo
Tucked away from the city lights and sounds of traffic, the Belfast Zoo is a unique animal sanctuary on the slopes of Cave Hill. The zoo is home to over 140 species of animals; offering the opportunity to see giraffes, elephants, lemurs, penguins, and more as they frolic in beautiful enclosures.
Indulge in a Pasty
Belfast has an incredible food scene with new pubs and restaurants serving up the best international cuisine. The favorite hometown snack, however, remains the humble pasty. This battered pie is a diet killer, but it is worth it to indulge at least once while you are exploring the city. A Belfast pasty is made of a battered sausage that is then slipped between two pieces of buttered bread (a ‘bap’). If you prefer, you can skip the bread and enjoy your pasty with a side of French fries. It's not the healthiest dinner, but it is a true Belfast experience. The best in town can be found at John Long’s Fish & Chips.
Find all the Cats in the Belfast Castle Garden
The original Belfast Castle was built in the 12th century in the center of Belfast. When the Norman structure burnt to the ground several centuries later, the noble family who controlled the castle decided to rebuild on the slope of Cave Hill, overlooking the growing city. The 19th-century castle is now a venue for meetings and special events, but its lovely garden can be visited for free. Inside the manicured garden are several artistic cats – in the form of sculptures, tiles, and mosaics. Hunting for the castle cats is a fun family activity while exploring all that Cave Hill has to offer on a day out.
There are nine counties in the province of Ulster, including all of the six counties which make up Northern Ireland. Arguably Belfast’s best free museum, the Ulster Museum dives into the history of the north of Ireland and human history more broadly. The collections stretch back to the time of the dinosaurs, and also include an Egyptian mummy, in addition to the exhibits which are exclusively dedicated to this history of human life in this part of Ireland. The free museum is located inside the Botanic Gardens.