A weekend in Belfast
We cannot recommend Belfast enough for a city in which to spend a couple of days. In fact, let's put our heads out there and say that this could be Ireland's best city in terms of content, in terms a stay that will leave keep you thinking after you leave and will lead you to telling everyone you know about. Be it the attractive city centre, unique modern history and genuinely lovely locals, Belfast will stay with you,.
A Belfast city sightseeing hop on hop off bus tour is a good way to get yourself acquainted with the Victorian city centre, From the giant Victorian show of wealth that is Belfast City Hall to the Hogwartsian Queens University and the iconic giant yellow cranes at the dockyards, there is actual interesting stuff on the way round.. The commentary is typical of the excellent self-deprecating Northern Irish humour and will help you get your ear in to the local accent. To book on, just let yourself be accosted by any of the thousands of red-jacketed reps loitering around the city centre.
The must-do activity to really get under the skin of the city is the black taxi political tour. These super informative but depressing as hell tours delve into the period of Northern Ireland's history known euphemistically as the Troubles. For decades from the 960s Catholic Republicans (wanting one Ireland), Loyalist Protestants (supporting the status quo) and the British Armed forces (initially brought in to keep the peace) engaged in a brutal decades-long armed conflict on the streets. The blackly funny and likeable guides and storytelling murals make these tours so good as they bring these times to life without making them unbearably bleak. Research carefully online to choose a well-reviewed company to get the best, most factually accurate tour. We recommend Cab Tours NI as a good place to start.
Just a little assuring aside: Belfast is a very safe city for tourists and there have been very little disturbance outside of Marching Season (early July) in recent times. This should not be a worry for the 2019 traveller.
An attraction that also focusses on Belfast's recent political history is Crumlin Road Gaol. This excellent - but again, very bleak - tour takes in 150 years of history from the Victorian times until closure in 1996. To avoid having to hit the Bushmills hard in the evening we recommend not to do both the black taxi tour and Crumlin Road Gaol tours in one day.
Talking of the drink, Belfast is a great place to sup a lunchtime pint after a morning of sightseeing or to go all out in the evenings. Drinking is not as centralised as a Disneyland-for-drinks like Dublin so you have to hunt out some of the best bars. Our favourite has to be The Sunflower Pub. Behind the Troubles-era safety cage at the front door lies a bar offering an excellent beer selection, a nice yard complete with pizza oven and live music on most evenings. Other options around the city centre are the historic John Hewitt Pub, Muriel's cocktail bar and the mural decorated Duke of York to mention but a few. Outside the immediate city centre and close to Queen's University, the Lisburn Road is a lively student area that offers a dense collection of pubs, restaurants and takeaways. You'll also hear a lot about The Crown Bar, an ornate watering hole with distinctive private stalls which is worth a look inside but is generally filled to the rafters will tourists jostling for the good spots.
Talking of sinking a few - forgive me, I am on a roll one might only have once in a lifetime - Belfast is famous for one sinking in particular - that of the HMS Titanic. The super modern Titanic Belfast has been a real success story since opening up at its riverside location in 2012. This interactive museum tells the story of this ill-fated ship from the construction in Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyards through to the sinking in the Atlantic Ocean. A visit here should take at least 90 minutes to two hours so give yourself enough time to properly enjoy it.
Northern Ireland is more than just gritty, phoenix-like cities as it has some of the island's most beautiful scenery and standout attractions.
The all conquering daytrip from Belfast is to the Causeway Coast. This strip of beautiful coastline offers up a procession of excellent man-made and natural attractions. Either take a leisurely stroll north from Belfast by taking the picturesque coastline hugging A2 road or head straight up the M2 for more time to explore a number of the highlights At the heart of it is the Giant's Causeway, a geological anomaly where you can scramble over 40,000 interlocking hexagonal basalt columns - an impressive sight indeed Just down the coast is Carrick-a-rede which links the mainland to a craggy island by a slightly terrifying minimalist rope bridge that can still be crossed today. Close to Derry, set on a rocky outcrop overlooking the wild sea below, Dunluce Castle is about as dramatic as dramatic castles come. Finish it all off with a tipple from Ireland's longest continuously opened distillery - Old Bushmills - where a tour of a proper working distillery, and an attractive one at that, is one of Ireland's best whiskey experiences.
This is without even mentioning that this area is now also famous as the setting for any scenes in TV's Game of Thrones series where it's not sunny or snowing. The dramatic coastal views lend themselves perfectly to the fantasy elements of the series. There are a number of recognisable spots all around the coast all with their own official information boards to give a nice connectivity, such as Ballintoy Harbour and Cushendun Caves.
Elsewhere, but paling in comparison to the north coast, you can spend time at the bombastic Carrickfergus Castle, a proper Norman bruiser, or explore the bleakly beautiful Mourne Mountains, Additionally, Mount Stewart, Hillsborough Castle, Rowallene Garden are all within easy reach of Belfast and offer pretty special garden scenes during the spring and summer. Finally, just a couple of stops on the train to the south of Belfast is the Hilden Brewery, Ireland's oldest independent brewery, where once-daily tours and an excellent restaurant give you a taste of some of Northern Ireland's best loved craft beers.