Last Updated on October 12, 2021
Beginner’s Belfast – Exploring the City
Table of Contents
Introduction to Belfast.
The first thing any visitor to Belfast needs to know is that it’s a city of quarters. Depending on which guide you read there are anything from five to seven quarters. Each one has a distinct culture and heritage, and each has its own stories. There are two airports (Belfast International and Belfast City) and two main railway stations (Great Victoria Street and Lanyon Place). There’s also a ferry port with connections to Scotland, the Isle of Man and Liverpool in England. So, no one should have a problem getting there and once in the city, you can walk to most places if you have time or use a cab or public transport to get around.
The best-known quarters are: Titanic Quarter where you’ll find the Titanic Exhibition and a lot more including various shipbuilding tributes. Queen’s Quarter is also sometimes called ‘University Quarter’ and is home to Queens University and to the Botanical Gardens. The Linen Quarter, the area of Belfast city centre south of the City Hall, has a mix of offices, bars and restaurants together with the Grand Opera House and the Ulster Hall. The old 19th-century linen mills have been converted and it’s now a great place for a night out. The Gaeltacht Quarter is, as its name suggests, a focus for Irish language, music and culture. Cathedral Quarter juxtapositions old with new in an area that includes St Anne’s Cathedral and the Metropolitan Arts Centre. You might also hear people talking about Smithfields Market and Library Quarter, about the Market Quarter and about neighbourhoods including the City Centre, the Shankhill and Eastside. There’s a lot to discover in Belfast and thankfully, there are plenty of options to help you explore.
Exploring central Belfast on foot is not difficult, but in addition, you might want to consider one of the famous Black Cab Tours. It’s a good way to learn more about the Loyalist and Republican heartlands of Belfast and to understand the geography of the relatively recent troubles.
I found that with a Blue Badge guide to take me around the Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast and to see and explain the peace walls to me, the stories which I heard on the news during my youth took on a new meaning.
The origin of Belfast’s street art is very much driven by politics and the shrines that you’ll find in some of Belfast’s most troubled districts are a poignant reminder of the recent past.
Seedhead Arts run one of a handful of Street Art tours around central Belfast. Each tour is lead by an artist – mine was eager to point out his own contribution to the annual Street Art Festival ‘Hit the North’ and to explain the stories behind the intricate works which colour Belfast walls.
I loved the story behind The Son of Protagoras. MTO or Mateo, a famous French street artist, arrived in Belfast to take part in the festival in 2014 and quickly discovered that religion underpinned many of the political challenges that Belfast faced. His work is a painting of an angry child holding a dove killed by the twin arrows of religion. The child is staring out at Belfast Cathedral, just across the road.
The Duel of Belfast is a fabulous black and white work by Irish artist Conor Harrington, which depicts two duelling men fighting over the carcass of a dead animal. Their fighting distracts them from the fact that the prize is worthless and the world is decaying around them. Created in 2012 it was a commission by the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
There are so many more works to see – I’d recommend taking a tour or, if that doesn’t fit with your itinerary, you’ll find a comprehensive guide on the Street Art Cities app.
While it’s quite possible to guide yourself around the Golden Mile, there are also plenty of guided walking tours – from free group trips to bookable blue badge guides who specialise in a particular area of interest. Taking you from City Hall to the Botanical Gardens through the Linen Quarter, it’s a good way to ensure you don’t miss any of the landmark sites in central Belfast.
This iconic building was constructed in 2012 at a cost of £97 million. It’s built to resemble the bows of a ship and made up of 9 galleries over four floors. Although it is named after the famous cruise ship, the start of the exhibition focuses on how Belfast came to be a centre of shipbuilding and includes more about other industries which contributed to the growth of the city to Boomtown Belfast in Edwardian times.
As you progress through the exhibition, become immersed in the lives of the people who built the Titanic and the passengers and crew who made the voyage. There’s a fascinating ride into the virtual bows of the ship where you can see the building in progress. And, live streaming from where the wreck lies on the ocean floor.
A little down the road, you’ll find SS Nomadic, the Harland and Wolff tender built in 1911 to transfer passengers from Cherbourgh Harbour to RMS Titanic. It’s the last remaining ship built by Harland and Wolff and it’s been restored so that you can go on board and really get a feel for what it might have been like travelling in the days of the Titanic. Free admission is included with Titanic experience.
The Botanical Gardens
Originally opened in 1928 as the private Royal Belfast Botanical Gardens, it wasn’t until 1895 when Belfast Corporation bought the gardens that members of the public were allowed in on any day other than Sunday.
There are two glasshouses, the Palmhouse built in 1840 is one of the earliest curvilinear cast iron glasshouses and was designed by Charles Lanyon and built by Richard Turner. It predates the glasshouses at Kew and the Irish National Botanical Gardens, which Turner went on to built. The Tropical Ravine house was build in 1889 by Chares McKimm and features a sunken ravine that runs the length of the building.
The Botanical Gardens showcase the prosperity of Belfast in Edwardian days and are still a popular place to meet up.
The present Queen’s University was first chartered in 1845 and opened in 1849, founded as part of the Queen’s University of Ireland at the same time as Queen’s Cork and Queen’s Galway to encourage higher education for Catholics and Presbyterians as a counterpart to Trinity College Dublin which was at the time almost exclusively Anglican.
The Lanyon Building was designed by Charles Lanyon who also designed the Botanical Gardens. Until 1950 the University was one of eight in the UK that had a member of parliament in the House of Commons!
You can walk around the grounds or take a self-guided tour.
Belfast City Hall
The stunning Belfast City Hall was designed by Alfred Brumwell Thomas in the Baroque Revival style. It’s a great place to learn a little more about the history of Belfast because the grounds have several memorials to the history, people and events that have shaped the city.
You’ll find the Cenotaph, commemorating those who died in the first world war and the Titanic Memorial Gardens which names all of the 1512 victims.
Crumlin Road Gaol
If you take a black cab tour you will probably go past the Crumlin Road Gaol. But, you can also go inside! There you have the option of a self-guided or guided tour around the prison where over 25,000 prisoners were interred. Northern Ireland’s last remaining Victorian prison was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and is now a Grade A listed building. The guided tour takes you from the tunnel linking the courthouse on the other side of the Crumlin Road, to the hanging cell, the holding cells C wing, the graveyard and the centre circle. You can even eat in the Gaol if you want – at Cuffs. Or, how about getting married there – something to tell the grandchildren in years to come!
Where to Eat.
Belfast is full of places where you can get good food at a reasonable cost. We are particularly looking forward to revisiting the Harrison now their new restaurant has opened. Owned and run by the same people who operate The Shed, Blank Restaurant will offer a five-course fine dining menu with matched wines for £25. Their aim is to offer predominantly seasonal and local dishes – but, the ingredients won’t be disclosed until each dish comes to the table! Right now it’s only open for dinner on three nights of the week, but I am sure that will change!
We loved the food at Home, in the heart of Belfast – the menu is packed with tasty dishes made from locally sourced ingredients
This dish of seabass with leeks and romanesco sauce is a great example of the type of food you can expect there.
My third recommendation is Deanes at Queens. It’s one of a group of restaurants run by Michael Deane, a chef from Lisburn in Northern Ireland. His Eipic restaurant on Howard Street has held a Michelin star for five years in a row. Deanes at Queens serves an accessible menu with great meat and fish dishes from the charcoal grill Definitely worth a visit.
Where to Drink.
Of course, Belfast is full of famous drinking taverns. We only had time to visit a couple – but both are worth visiting for very different reasons!
The Crown Liquor Saloon
The Crown is a Grade A listed building owned by the National Trust. A two-minute walk from Great Victoria Street station, and only a short stroll from the Grand Opera House, it’s very centrally located and the minute you walk in the door you’ll feel as if you are transported into a past age.
Drinkers enjoy leather banquettes and comfortable booths.
A traditional pub has stood on the site of The Sunflower for over a hundred years. It is a simple corner pub, free of gimmicks or themes, and it is one of the few remaining.
What makes it truly notable is the security cage on its front door, a relic from 1980’s Belfast which has been kept and preserved as part of the city’s social history.
Where to Stay.
The recently opened Harrison Chambers of Distinction offers a quirky place to stay near the Botanical Gardens and Queen’s University. Each individually designed room has been themed after famous Belfast personalities and filled with vintage pieces. But, what makes the Harrison Chambers of Distinction so very special is Mel, the owner, who goes out of her way to make everyone comfortable
The Titanic Hotel
Opposite the Titanic Experience, The Titanic Hotel is a conversion of the Harland & Wolff’s Headquarters. Many of the world’s most famous ocean liners were designed and built in Belfast by Harland & Wolff.
Even if you choose to stay elsewhere, it’s worth popping in for a drink or a bite to eat, just to see the converted spaces
This is just a toe-in-the-water in my mind. There’s so much more in Belfast and I’d love to visit again. When we get the chance to return, I’ll be updating this guide. In the meantime, do check Ireland.com for more information about places to visit in Northern Ireland AND Southern Ireland
With many thanks to Tourism Northern Ireland for hosting this trip