Philly and I grew up during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Unionists versus Irish Republicans. Scary men in black ski masks. Car bombs. Violence in Belfast was a staple of the nightly newscast. Aside from Vietnam, the Belfast of our childhood seemed like pretty much the scariest place on earth. I’m not sure it really has a current-day counterpart, but when we explain it to the Middle Age Miles kids, we invoke places like Baghdad, Iraq; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Aleppo, Syria. None of these places really “fit” as a reflection of Belfast in the 1970’s, but they at least convey the image of “scary.”
Fast forward to the 2010’s – The Troubles are long since over, having ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. If you drive between Dublin and Belfast, there won’t be a squadron of heavily armed guards and no gruff soldiers with machine guns gruffly questioning you about your intentions. To the contrary, there’s no immigration, no customs check, and no border crossing at all when you pass between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Believe it or not, there’s not even a sign welcoming you to the UK or Northern Ireland when you enter, nor is there a sign denoting your passage into the Republic of Ireland going the other way.
Now, the city center of Belfast reveals a calm and seemingly-safe area. Belfast is now about 350,000 people (roughly double that in its metropolitan area) that is in the process of evolving from an old industrial, shipyard-dominated town into a new and modern city. Visitors to Belfast can be comfortable, yet I feel that the true city neighborhoods still harbor a good deal of Protestant/Catholic religious-based tension.
I’d say that I enjoyed Belfast and I feel like we only scratched the surface of what’s there, but you don’t “need” to go to Belfast. Well, unless you’re a huge Titanic buff, in which case you absolutely must go to Belfast. Beyond that, it’s a very convenient place to base for an excursion to Giant’s Causeway (which as you know from our recent article is an absolute must-visit place), so it would be easy to spend a night or two there.
Key Sights and Things to Do in Belfast
Let’s take a look at some of the key sights and things to do in Belfast, starting with the Titanic exhibit. First things first, here’s a map to orient you to the sights we’ll cover here:
(1) Titanic Belfast
I think for all of us, the story of the R.M.S. Titanic is a captivating one – the largest and most luxurious ship ever built, the unsinkable boat rendered helpless by an iceberg in the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage, the human tragedy from her demise. The story became even more compelling when it was dramatically brought to life in James Cameron’s epic Oscar-winning movie. It’s hard to imagine that it’s been 21 years since Titanic was released.
If you’re a Titanic buff, then Titanic Belfast is probably on your bucket list. If that’s you, start planning your trip to Belfast now and get ready for a day you’ll always remember. For most of the rest of us, for whom the story of the Titanic is interesting, or who just liked the movie, Titanic Belfast makes for a very good and entertaining half-day.
Titanic Belfast is relatively new, having just opened in 2012. The building itself is impressive in both design and size. It’s located in the old Belfast shipyard where the Titanic and its sister vessels were built, now an urban renewal area known as the Titanic Quarter.
The Amazing Race tidbit: The Race has visited Belfast once, Season 22, Leg 11. One of the Detour choices, “Tray It,” took place in the drydock at Titanic Quarter. Teams had to choose the correct dishes to serve the “first class passengers” the last five-course dinner on the Titanic. The dishes were unmarked and had to be carried a fair distance, which made this a frustrating challenge for some of the teams and an interesting one for Race viewers.
As you can see from the map above, Titanic Belfast is located somewhat apart from central Belfast. It’s long-walkable on a nice day – but we made a mistake by walking there from the Hilton Belfast on a rainy morning and back into central Belfast on a very rainy afternoon. Uber or taxicab would have been far better choices on a bad-weather day.
Inside Titanic Belfast, you’ll find nine interactive exhibit sections throughout 8 floors of the building. The exhibit path takes you chronologically through early 1900’s Belfast, to the construction and launch of the Titanic, to her fit-out, to her maiden voyage and sinking, to the aftermath, the wreck, and the re-discovery. Throughout, the exhibits are nicely done, informative and engaging. The number and quality of the relics are remarkable. And the media presentations are nicely done. We purchased the audio handsets to supplement our visit, and I’m glad we did. I’d say they’re well worth it.
One quick word, to set expectations – the first exhibit about early 1900’s Belfast is a slow start for everyone who’s interested in jumping straight into the story of the Titanic. It’s not nearly as interesting as the story of the ship! We found that people moved slowly through this first section, trying to figure out what was going on and making sure they didn’t miss something important. Having been through it, my advice would be to either just blow through this section and get right into the Shipyard, or at least just relax in the knowledge that the good stuff is soon to come and you won’t miss anything important in this first section.
Titanic Belfast is open daily, year-round, except for December 24, 25 and 26. Tickets are sold on a time-specific basis, with slots every 15 minutes. Hours are as follows, with last admission being 1 hour 45 minutes before closing time:
- January-March: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
- April-May: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
- June-July: 9:00 am to 7:00 pm
- August: 9:00 am to 8:00 pm
- September: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
- October-December: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Ticket prices are 18.50 pounds for adults, 8 pounds for children 5-16. Children under 5 are free. On Monday through Friday, discounted tickets are available for 15 pounds for students and seniors 60+. A “family pack” ticket is also available for 45 pounds, which covers 2 adults and 2 children.
PRO TIP: Tickets can be purchased on-site at the entrance, but be forewarned that there may be lines and that you may get there only to find that Titanic Belfast is sold out for the next hour or more. That makes for a challenge, as the exhibit is somewhat remote and there aren’t a lot of things to do nearby to kill time while you wait. You’ll be much happier if you buy your tickets in advance. Advance tickets are available online at this website.
The website for online ticket sales also includes other options you can purchase such as a personal guided tour or an afternoon tea experience.
“Late saver” tickets are also available for one hour before Titanic Belfast closes, at 10 pounds for adults and 8 pounds for children 5-16 – but frankly, this won’t give you enough time to really enjoy the exhibits.
Hand-held multi-media guides are also available, for 3 pounds each. As we mentioned, we got these guides and thought they were worth it.
Complete Visitor Info is available on the Titanic Belfast website, here.
PRO TIP: You’ll endear yourself to the locals if you know this phrase: “Built by Irishmen, sunk by an Englishman.”
[in reference to the fact that the Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, was English]
(2) The Big Fish Sculpture (The Salmon of Knowledge)
The rest of our Belfast article covers other interesting sights in Belfast. An interesting and funny thing to see is the “Big Fish” mosaic sculpture near the River Lagan. The salmon itself is over 30 feet long (and hard to get into a photograph!). Its scales consist of ceramic tiles that display newspaper headlines from throughout the history of Belfast, along with other historical images.
(3) The Albert Memorial Clock
Who knew there was a “leaning tower” in Belfast? The Albert Memorial Clock leans – a lot! The clock tower dates to 1869. It stands 113 feet tall, and the top of the tower leans 4 feet away from its base. This is a very cool landmark – and it’s a little scary that it might topple over at any time!
(4) The Beacon of Hope Sculpture
The Beacon of Hope is a beautiful metal sculpture of an angel, also along the riverbank. The angel, constructed of stainless steel and cast bronze, stands atop a globe and holds aloft the ring of thanksgiving. The swirling metal strips create a sense of movement and beauty that we enjoyed. The most challenging thing about the Beacon of Hope is that she’s set at the end of a bridge, in the middle of a busy intersection, which makes getting a good picture of her very difficult!
The Amazing Race tidbit: The Beacon of Hope also made an appearance in Season 22, Leg 11. Racers were told to find “The Thing WIth a Ring,” and had to figure out that this referred to one of the local nicknames for the Beacon of Hope in order to retrieve their next clue.
(5) Belfast City Hall & the Titanic Memorial
With a dome reaching 173 feet, Belfast City Hall stands out in central Belfast. It’s a strong-looking, impressive Victorian building, completed in 1906. We didn’t enter, but we understand that the interior is grand and beautiful as well. City Hall is surrounded by gardens, which makes for a nice setting and would be a good place for an outdoor lunch on a pretty day. On the east side of City Hall, you’ll find the Titanic Memorial, a monument and sculpture paying tribute to those who perished when the Titanic went down.
(6) Victoria Square / The Dome
Between the Beacon of Hope statue and Belfast City Hall, you’ll find a 4-story indoor-outdoor shopping centre known as Victoria Square. Victoria Square is still relatively new, having opened in 2008. Aside from being able to buy some goodies and find a bite to eat there, you’ll want to make sure to visit The Dome, a geodesic dome that serves as an observation tower overlooking the city. The Dome is generally open from about 9:30 am until 6:00 pm (or later) Monday through Saturday, and from 1:00 pm until 6:00 pm on Sunday – but just to be safe, check the website for official opening hours before you go!
Victoria Square also has an underground car park, which is convenient but very expensive.
(7) Castle Court Shopping Centre
Another shopping centre in central Belfast is Castle Court. It’s not quite as fancy as Victoria Square, but it also makes for good shopping. And importantly, Castle Court has very convenient parking, a 1,600-car garage that is much cheaper and more accessible than Victoria Square. If you’re driving, it’s a great place to leave your car while you explore Belfast.
(8) Hilton Belfast
On our Summer Holiday in Ireland & Scotland, we stayed at the Hilton Belfast. We’ll skip the full review but offer a few observations:
- Overall, the Hilton Belfast was fine but not spectacular.
- There were very few options in Belfast for hotels where our elite status would help us, and the Hilton Belfast was an obvious standout choice on that front. Our then-Gold status got us free breakfast.
- We had two meals at the Hilton Belfast – a late-night dinner in the restaurant and an early-morning breakfast buffet – and both were good.
- Our rooms at the Hilton Belfast were small and dated.
- We got a great deal by booking “Family-Connecting Rooms.” This was a rate that was booked as 1 room but actually gave us 2 connecting rooms, We caught this on a Hilton flash sale for 170.10 pounds (then about $243), which was a terrific rate for all 4 of us to stay in 2 rooms at a solid hotel with breakfast included.
- Location-wise, the Hilton was on the fringe of central Belfast. It was walkable but not super-close to all of the locations we’ve mentioned here other than Titanic Belfast. As I mentioned earlier, Titanic Belfast was long-walkable but not really advised unless it’s a pretty day and you love to walk.
- According to the Hilton Belfast website, self-parking at the Hilton Belfast is now 18 pounds per night, and valet parking is not available. Be warned – the garage at the Hilton Belfast is the tightest garage we’ve ever encountered. We had a full-size car big enough for 4 people and our luggage. I’ll venture to say that getting in and especially out of this garage caused Philly more stress than any other European driving experience she’s had. The garage ramps were very, very tight. I would avoid this garage if at all possible.
(9) Europa Hotel
Having stayed at the Hilton Belfast, next time I might try the Europa Hotel. It appears to be the nicest hotel in central Belfast. Our Canadian friends, Edventures, stayed there during their May 2018 trip to Belfast, and they enjoyed it. During their stay, it even turned out that the Europa Hotel was hosting the Miss Northern Ireland pageant!
Unfortunately, the Europa Hotel is not part of any points or loyalty program, and it doesn’t appear to be available through Amex FHR or Virtuoso either. If we’re looking to save using points, this might be a good place to use the points from our US Bank Altitude Reserve card at 1.5 cents each.
If I were going to Belfast again, the one thing I’d be sure to add to the itinerary would be a Belfast Famous Black Cab tour. In a Black Cab tour, your driver will take you around Belfast in a London-style black taxi. You’ll get an oral history of The Troubles (which they say will be as unbiased as possible) and a tour of the city’s neighborhoods and murals. Our fellow travel blogger Matthew of LIve and Let’s Fly recently provided a very informative review of his Black Cab Tour of Belfast, which we enjoyed and are glad to share here.
Have you been to Belfast, to Titanic Belfast or any of the other sights we discuss here? What did you think? Do you have other suggestions for a visit to Belfast? Please share with us in the Comments!
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