No tour of Northern Ireland would be complete without a few days in Belfast, the capital city. Like any urban area, Belfast is multi-layered. It has a hip, creative culture, an active opera house, great restaurants and museums as well as those seedier areas to avoid at night. Belfast’s greatest distinction, then, may lie in its colorful past, which includes its status as a key port city, construction of the Titanic, and its role as a central battleground for the intense period of conflict known as “the Troubles.”
I enjoyed my time in Belfast and stuck to a fairly tight budget while factoring in a few splurges. As is the case in many cities, Belfast has plenty of free and low-cost attractions, and it’s easy to keep yourself entertained all day without spending much money. For purposes of this post, the items marked “splurge” identify all activities that aren’t free (even if they are relatively cheap).
Here are 10 recommendations for the best things to see and do on a budget in Belfast.
- Black Cab Tour (splurge)
Because there’s so much to see and do it Belfast, it might be easy to miss the sad history of “the Troubles” and the divisions that still exist in the city. If you’re interested in learning more about the conflicts in Belfast, a black cab tour is a great way to hear first-hand accounts and see some of the places that were central to the city’s sad history.
Numerous black cab/black taxi tour companies operate in Belfast, but I believe they all follow a similar route, stopping to discuss the stories portrayed in the murals along Falls Road and the history behind the Peaceline, a wall that still divides the Nationalist and Loyalist neighborhoods in Belfast. The tours also drives through neighborhoods where bombings and other tragic events occurred during the Troubles.
The generally tours cost around £30 for one to three people with a per-person discount if your group includes more than four people. It definitely pays to make some friends and go with a group if you’re traveling alone! I shared a tour with a couple of girls I met at the hostel where I was staying.
2. Ulster Museum (free)
The multi-level Ulster Museum is filled with with a wide range of exhibits, including art, natural history, and Irish history. And it’s free!
The museum is so extensive that I chose to focus only on the Irish history exhibits, and I had no shortage of things to see. I browsed through collections of military artifacts from the 1600s, enormous weaving looms from the industrial revolution, and relics from the depression area. The museum also includes an interesting display of photographs, quotes and video footage covering the Troubles.
The collection I found most captivating, however, was a temporary exhibit of portraits called “Silent Testimony.” Painted by an artist who grew up in Belfast, the portraits feature regular people who were somehow affected by the violence that took place during the Troubles. Some were physically injured. Others lost loved ones…some before they themselves were born. Each heart-rending story and accompanying portrait illustrate that the terrible events of 30 or more years ago continue to have painful and powerful effects on the lives of so many.
3. St. George’s Market (free)
I love creative and handmade items, so I was in heaven when I visited St. George’s Market on a Saturday during the City Food and Craft Market. The exhibition hall is large and was filled with stalls featuring unique, high-quality crafts and lots of yummy food.
The market is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with a different assortment of vendors each day. Entry is free, and it’s a great place to while away a couple of hours browsing through stalls, enjoying delicious foods and chatting with locals.
4. Botanic Garden and Rose Garden (free)
Belfast’s Botanic Garden is adjacent to the Ulster Museum and is a great place to go for a jog or power walk, or simply to get some fresh air and enjoy the flowers. A prominent feature at the edge of the garden is the the Palm House, an ornate Victorian-era greenhouse featuring a variety of tropical plants.
Another highlight is the rose garden, which includes a large variety of beautiful roses. The garden was so lovely that it took me back to the days when I was growing up and used to cut out photos of roses from the seed catalogs my parents received in the mail to decorate my bedroom. The roses in this garden were just as beautiful.
5. City Hall Tour (free)
Belfast City Hall is an impressive centerpiece of the city’s downtown area, and it offers free tours daily. Check the website for the latest tour times and be sure to arrive 10-15 minutes early to reserve a spot because space is limited. The hour-long tour of City Hall is worth doing, and not only because it’s free. The building’s interior is beautiful, and the tour includes some background on the history of Belfast as well as details about city government and the building’s legal functions.
6. Titanic Museum (splurge)
The folks at the Titanic Experience have really got it made…the museum is truly a must-see in Belfast, so they can basically charge whatever they choose. Luckily, the museum is worth it. Admission fees are £17 for adults and £12.50 for students, and the ticket covers access to nine interactive galleries that tell a detailed story of the Titanic, from it’s inception to its construction to what remains of the wreckage today.
Unsurprisingly, the museum’s narrative is deeply influenced by the city surrounding it. The Titanic’s story begins with the story of Belfast in the early 1900s. An interactive ride tells how work in shipyards provided the primary source of income for most families in Belfast at the time, and visitors can identify with the sense of pride felt by the entire city when the Titanic was finally launched.
The museum certainly covers the Titanic’s tragic end, but that portion of the story doesn’t get as much play as the blood, sweat and force of will that went into the ship’s construction. And maybe that’s a good thing. We’ve heard and seen so much about the terrible disaster that was the Titanic. This museum embodies a narrative thread that we aren’t as familiar with. It allows us to see the Titanic as the pride of Belfast…before it turned into a source of shame.
I didn’t want to rush through the museum, so I arrived first thing in the morning to avoid the lines and allowed myself to wander through the exhibits at a leisurely pace. When I left the museum, I checked my watch and realized that I had stayed for three hours. I definitely got my money’s worth! Others I talked to stayed for just half that time. Either way, it’s a good idea to make some room in your schedule for this interesting museum.
While you’re in the Titanic Quarter, don’t miss the chance to visit The Dock Cafe! I loved this big warehouse-like space. It’s part cafe, part art gallery, part living room…decorated with an eclectic mix of mismatched and artfully-arranged furniture, throw pillows and books. Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home.
The menu includes a daily soup at lunchtime and coffee, tea and a variety of baked goods all day long. The volunteer “employees” working the counter will pour unlimited refills and fill your plate with cakes and cookies of all kinds if you ask. The best part? You decide what you want to pay! Drop a donation in the “honesty box” when you get your food or before you leave. It’s up to you. And if you can’t afford to pay a thing, that’s okay too. What a cool concept.
7. St. Malachy’s Church (free)
St. Malachy’s is a restored church known for its incredible “wedding cake” ceiling. Located in the heart of the city, it’s a quiet and beautiful space for prayer and reflection or just to take a short break from sightseeing. I had the church to myself when I stopped in on one weekday afternoon, and I was glad I had taken the time to find it. Don’t miss a look at the beautiful alter paintings.
8. Ulster Fry (small splurge)
All around Belfast, you’ll see signs outside restaurants advertising the “Ulster Fry,” Northern Ireland’s take on the traditional Irish Breakfast. I kept passing one such sign outside a very cute-looking restaurant called Harlem Cafe. When I did a little research on where to get the best Ulster Fry in Belfast, Harlem Cafe was listed as one of the top spots in the city. Perfect! I decided to treat myself to this legendary breakfast on my last morning in Belfast. Oh my goodness, the calorie splurge it was so worth it!
First of all the interior of Harlem Cafe is gorgeous. I asked for a table in the back specifically so I could have a great view of the restaurant! It’s filled with antique furnishings, flowers, opulent chandeliers and vintage art in gilded frames. It’s like a hipster version of your elegant granny’s sitting room.
I perused the menu even though I knew exactly what I was going to order. Black coffee. Harlem’s All-Day Fry. Quoting the menu, the dish includes “Locally produced pork sausage, oak smoked bacon, free range egg, grilled tomato, sauté mushrooms, potato bread, soda bread, pancake & black pudding.” I ate every last artery-clogging bite, including the black pudding, and had no regrets. Ah-mazing. Just do it…you’ll thank me.
9. Queen’s University (free)
Queens University happened right around the corner from my hostel, and it’s an easy walk from the Botanic Garden and the Ulster Museum. The school is Belfast’s largest university, and the main building’s architecture is stunning. I enjoyed walking around the campus and through the main courtyard. The campus is surrounded by artsy cafes and shops and is a great place to grab a drink or coffee.
10. Live Music/Pub Crawl (cost of a drink… or five)
While you’re in Belfast, don’t miss the chance to enjoy live music at a real Irish pub. My first night in the city, a couple of the hostel employees led a group of us on my favorite kind of pub crawl. We visited just a handful of historic, local pubs where the music was fantastic (Irish, of course!), and loud enough to enjoy but not so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation.
We started at the famous Duke of York, which is hidden on a cobblestone street. The atmosphere was fun and there was space for our whole group to sit down and listen to the music.
Our next stop was the cozy and traditional Kelly’s Cellars, which was built in 1720 and bills itself as “Belfast’s oldest traditional Irish pub.” Apparently there’s some debate about that, but I loved the atmosphere and the music. A bunch of musicians just gathered around a table and played incredible music. Occasionally someone else would show up and join in, and then one guy would take a break and get a beer. I loved every bit of it.
Our last stop was Fibber Magee’s, where a great Irish band was performing at the edge of a dance floor. I ended the evening being twirled around the dance floor by an inebriated Irishman…always a sign of a good night! 😉
I highly recommend that you check out all 10 of these activities on your next visit to Belfast. And if I’ve missed a great place or tour, let me know!