How to Spend Less Than 24 Hours in Belfast, Northern Ireland
In the summer of 2016, I was in London, England for an internship program. I had been wanting to go on a quick trip to another country that I hadn’t been to before. So, in July 2016 I decided to go to Belfast, Northern Ireland for a quick day trip. Day trip to a completely different island? Sounds crazy, right? Well, it kind of was, but we did it!
Why Belfast? I had learned about the murals in Belfast from the time of The Troubles (more info here) in my art education. Sounded really interesting, so I wanted to go. That’s basically the only reason, but we ended up seeing much more there too. And yes, I know Northern Ireland isn’t another country, but it’s a different “area” of the UK, so it was still good!
I know this post is quite long, but you can actually do quite a lot in very little time! I hope some of it will get you excited about trying this short trip!
I am not an expert on all that has gone on in Belfast over the years, and my trip was over two years ago. Please do your own research. These are just my suggestions and what I have found from my own research.
How We Got to Belfast
Travel in Europe is so much easier than the US because everything is so close together and there’s a bunch of transportation options! Also, everything is fairly cheap comparatively. It’s crazy that we can go to Paris or Rome or Madrid in only a few hours for less than $100 roundtrip sometimes. In the US, I can barely fly anywhere (even close by) for less than $200. We are more spread out, but still, flying the next state over shouldn’t be that expensive.
Anyways, I was joined on the trip by another person in the same internship program. The flight was from London Stansted to Belfast International. For two people round-trip, it cost $288 when bought a couple weeks ahead. That’s $144/person, which is a bit pricey, but considering the time of buying it, it’s not bad. The flight there was at 7am and the flight back was 9:40pm. So, it’s safe to say that we were tired.
We had to get to the airport by 5am, and all the London airports are an hour away (of course). We got a taxi (at probably 2am), which took us to a bus station. We took a pre-booked bus to the airport and I believe that was less than £20. We got to the airport on time and to the gate with a lot of time before the flight. Once on the flight, we got a little nap, yay!
The flight took a little over an hour and it was daylight by the time we got there. We didn’t have anything but backpacks, so no checked baggage to worry about. Since we didn’t change countries, I didn’t get a stamp in the passport (sad day) and we got out of the airport pretty quick.
From the airport, there is an Airport Express 300 bus that goes straight to the heart of Belfast. At the time of writing this, it is £7.50 to go to Belfast, or you can buy a round trip ticket for £10.50. I believe we did the roundtrip. The ride takes about 30-40 minutes. The bus dropped us off at Belfast Europa Buscentre. This is where you will go for the return bus to the airport.
From the bus station, everywhere else is walkable. The day we went, a Sunday, there wasn’t many people around. A lot of shops and such were closed, and the streets were basically empty. It was kind of creepy, but at least it wasn’t crowded. The weather wasn’t great, it was off-and-on drizzle. That’s the UK, though!
Since we were in Belfast for less than a full day, we had to do everything ourselves so as not to restrict our schedule. No tours, just exploring with a good ‘ol map! As mentioned, the best way to get around is walking around. Below you will see everything you can do in less than a full day in Belfast! The city is very walkable!
Near the Bus Station
Right near the bus station, you can see a whole bunch of stuff in just a few minutes of each other. Since this was a short trip, this was perfect! We could knock out a few things in less than 30 minutes!
If you walk to the east of the bus station, you will find the Europa Hotel, which is considered “The Most Bombed Hotel in the World”. An odd claim to fame, but this was one of the centers of turmoil during The Troubles from 1969-1998. It opened in 1971, near the beginning of The Troubles, and has been bombed 33 times! We didn’t go into the hotel, but it was cool to see it. It is still a functioning hotel to this day, despite all of its destruction. Good for them!
Informative article here.
The Crown Liquor Saloon Bar
We did go into this place, and it was well worth it! It is right across the street from the Europa. It is considered “The Most Famous Pub in Belfast”. Every inch of the establishment is covered in ornate designs, even the glass! It dates back to 1826 and was at the heart of Victorian Belfast. There is so much on the outside and inside that it is hard to see every unique detail and color. Apparently, the colorful decorations on the front windows were meant to shield customers from passers-by; and the “drinking snugs” were meant for the comfort of those wishing to drink with privacy. Along with the great design, there is some good pub food and some local Belfast lagers to try!
More info about this must-see can be found here.
The Grand Opera House
A block up the road from the Europa, you will find a fine example of Victorian architecture at the Grand Opera House. It was built in 1895, and is the only remaining Victorian theatre in all of Northern Ireland! The inside is beautiful, but so is the outside if you are just walking by! We didn’t go inside, but if you want, there is a tour you can schedule. More info about the tour, and a virtual tour, can be found here.
Belfast City Hall and Titanic Memorial Garden
From the Opera House, you want to walk east a few blocks. You will hit the city hall, which has a nice square in front of it (on the north side). You should be able to go inside and see the architecture. We didn’t do this; however, it was a nice-looking building from the outside! If you walk to the side of it, you will find a memorial garden for the victims of the Titanic sinking. It’s a beautiful little garden with a statue and memorial for those that died at the Titanic sinking in 1912. A good little walk around is nice and relaxing!
If shopping is your thing, there is a big shopping center east of City Hall. There are some nice sculptures around it, or you can go in to shop. BUT, don’t be deterred by the shopping! There is a giant dome at the top of the building which can be seen from far and wide. Take the elevator up to the top and take in the 360° view of Belfast! If you want to skip this, you can find a virtual 360° here.
Lunch at St. George’s Market
Since we arrived so early, we actually went here after the Titanic museum (see below). However, it is near the above attractions, so I leave it to your decision! There has been a market on this spot since 1604! The building itself has been there since the 1890s. When we went, there were musical performances and a lot of stands with food and art. I got some great local green tea to bring home. Inside the market, you can eat at George’s of the Market, which is a restaurant overlooking the actual market! It’s fun to watch everyone do their shopping while enjoying a good meal. It was a great place to stop for lunch and see what the locals were doing! The market is only opened Friday-Sunday, so take this into account if you really want to go here (which you should)!
The Main Attraction and Getting There
Here we go, the main thing you definitely can’t miss when visiting Belfast, and what to see on your way there. This will take up the most time, but it is definitely worth it.
Albert Memorial Clock
Going north from Victoria Square or the Market, you want to walk by the Albert Memorial Clock! This clock tower definitely isn’t a Big Ben (nothing is), but it is definitely something to see. The tower was erected in 1865 in honor of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. There is a statue of the Prince, as well as other decorations. You can’t go up the tower anymore, but it is definitely a quick must-see for anyone coming for a day!
The Big Fish
Once you see the tower, continue heading east until you hit the River Lagan and see a giant fish. A giant fish? Yes! The Big Fish, also known as The Salmon of Knowledge, is a 32ft (10m) salmon sculpture built in 1999 by John Kindness (what a name!) to celebrate the regeneration of the river and the history of the city. The fish is covered in ceramic tiles that have images of different scenes from Belfast’s history. This is definitely a photo-worthy spot to see on your way to the Titanic museum. In fact, right by it, there is a footbridge that goes to the other side of the river. You want to do this to get to the museum easily.
Finally, the main attraction! Once you cross the river from the Big Fish, it is a 20-minute walk to the museum. You can enjoy the river and watch the boats that still go along it. The museum isn’t hard to miss, as it looks like a giant ship covered in glass. It’s a beautiful building! Outside, you can see the SS Nomadic, a boat that is included in the Titanic ticket, or just look from the outside like we did. You can pose by the giant letters spelling out “Titanic”.
Titanic Belfast is the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. The museum is multi-level, with 9 interactive galleries and an electronic dark ride! The Titanic Experience is what you will want to do. There is the optional Discovery Tour, which we didn’t do, and I don’t think you need to do unless you have been to the museum before.
The Titanic Experience takes you from the very beginning of the Titanic’s design, to the construction, to the launching, to the fateful night, and all the way to the end when it’s at the bottom of the ocean being researched.
The whole thing took a few hours, so be prepared for it to take up a large portion of your day. It is well worth it, though! Make sure you check out the gift shop afterward! I got some more tea here and a couple souvenirs. The museum is a great place for kids and adults alike. Definitely, don’t skip it! Ticket info here.
By the time we were done, we saw a lot already and it was only early afternoon! Like I said, we got lunch after the museum at St. George’s Market. From there, we went on the hunt for murals.
Belfast Murals and The Troubles
The murals from The Troubles are spread throughout Belfast. Seeing them, you can really see the split between the Unionist areas and the Nationalist areas. There are probably over 100 murals throughout the city, so follow this map to walk around and discover them. I’d suggest doing this after seeing everything else you want to see, like the museum, and definitely do it during daylight. It will take a big chunk of the day to see a lot of the murals. Be prepared to walk. If you don’t want to walk, you can find a mural tour bus to take you to the main locations and save your legs a bit of walking.
Some of the murals we saw walking around are below, but there is definitely one that is a must-see. The Bobby Sands Mural was painted in 1998 and is in the Nationalist area to the west of Belfast’s city center. The area is surrounded by Irish flags and the Irish language on many signs.
Be aware that there is a lot of segregation in Belfast between the Catholic (Nationalist) and Protestant (Unionist) areas. There are still many large walls (called peace lines) throughout the city that separate these different areas and are meant to keep the peace between them. They are now slowly coming down, but it will still be a long time until there is true peace.
Be prepared for the shift in cultures across the city. In the Nationalist areas, the Irish language is used on many of the signs. In each of the areas, there will be a lot of flags (either UK or Ireland) around that should alert you to which area you are in. The murals are also good indications.
*Some of the murals may be too graphic for kids, so be aware.
**Be mindful of the different areas and be respectful. Many of the murals are in neighborhoods with families, or by schools. View the murals and take pictures, but if you feel you are intruding, then please respect this and move on. There is still a lot of tension from The Troubles too, so just be aware.
***Belfast is quite safe now, but like anywhere, be mindful and aware of your surroundings! As long as you don’t try to get involved in a conflict, you shouldn’t have to worry!
Ending the Day and Going HomE
Around dinner time, we headed to a tourist shop to get the required Belfast souvenirs (of course!). Then, we headed to dinner at an interesting place before heading back to London!
Dinner at Whites Tavern
Considered Belfast’s oldest tavern, the Whites Tavern is a hidden gem. Literally, its hidden. We had trouble finding it! It’s hidden behind surrounding buildings. You have to go down Winecellar Entry, an alley that leads to a tiny open area and the Tavern. We had dinner here, classic pub food, and it was good food. We ended the trip well and headed straight to the bus station from here.
Getting Back Home
Go back to the Belfast Europa Buscentre you were dropped off at. If you have a round trip ticket, you need to find your bus. Otherwise, go inside and buy a ticket to go to the Belfast International Airport. Make sure you leave enough time for the bus to get there and to go through security and such. We had a lot of time to wait. There aren’t many places to sit unless you want to pay for food, which we didn’t. We opted for the floor.
Got on the plane and got back to London after a short flight. We took the bus back to the station and then took a combo of the city buses and the Tube to get to where we needed to go. Be aware that, given the late time we got back, a lot of busses and tube lines weren’t running. It made it a challenge, but we didn’t want to pay for a taxi. We got back okay, just super tired!
All in all, I’m glad I went to Belfast. It is a bit off the beaten path, as compared to other European cities. But it is worth it for a short trip. If you are ever in the area, I suggest giving this short trip a try. If you can stay longer, go explore the rest of Northern Ireland too! It is all beautiful and unique.
Hope you enjoyed this and will give it a try! Happy travels, friends!