Your Ultimate Travel Guide to Belfast

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As recently as three years ago, I never watched TV, not even on long flights. Lately, however, television series are one of the only ways I can reliably decompress between trips and the bouts of work associated with them. Last summer, the show that served this purpose for me was “The Fall,” a BBC crime drama set in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I bring this up not to plug the series (although I do think you should watch it, if only to see the sublime Gillian Anderson at her best), but because the way it depicted Belfast is what first planted the seed of going there in my head. This guide to three days in Belfast, however, won’t more than tangentially reference anything from this program.

(And, that’s a shame—I was really hoping to run into the show’s sexy serial killer, or at least the actor who plays him, during my trip!)

Where to Stay in Belfast

I arrived to start my three days in Belfast after a long road trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, so location wasn’t as important to me as it might’ve otherwise been—I had a car! As a result, I chose a B&B called The Cookehouse, located about 10 minutes away from the city center, and which was one of the most pleasant, welcoming experiences I’ve ever had.

If you stay there, tell Linda and Martin that Robert says hi! Otherwise, if you’re looking for a more central location, a great option is The Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast.

(Pub) Crawling Around City Hall

Whether your current image of Belfast is from a BBC series or Instagram, it’s difficult not to associate Northern Ireland’s capital with the green-roofed Belfast City Hall.

Make sure to visit well-known attractions such as the Grand Opera House, St. George’s Market, the Ulster Museum, Made in Belfast  (hint: are a good idea!) and the Albert Memorial Clock Tower — they’re great city attractions in the center that you can easily do by foot.

Or visit lesser-known ones. This might sound like a strange command, given that Belfast is far from a tourist trap. But while many tour groups (and travel blogs) might recommend, for example, that you wet your whistle at The Crown Liquor Saloon (which, to be fair, is beautiful and iconic), a cozier place to drink in Belfast’s ambiance might be at The Merchant Hotel, a few minutes’ walk away.

Likewise, while Victoria Square is a more modern and less “cool” shopping destination than St. George’s, the view offered from its Epcot-like precipice beats even the most ethical cup of coffee at the old market.

Panorama and Periphery

Speaking of views, I recommend start day two of three days in Belfast with one. If you wake up as early as I do, you’ll probably arrive at Belfast Castle before it opens, but this shouldn’t be a problem if your priority is to enjoy a panorama of city (which you get from the public garden) rather than go inside the building itself, which is impressive but not un-missable.

In general, today will be focused on such peripheral experiences: Belfast Botanical Garden (tip: it’s all about the roses); Milltown Cemetery, where a lot of “bad boys” from the time of Troubles are buried; the dramatic and stately Stormont parliament building and garden complex; and Titanic Belfast, a museum complex dedicated to the fact that the doomed ship was built here, by the bright yellow cranes that still rise above the shipyard today, no less. My heart will go on, and so will Belfast’s shipbuilding industry.

While transport for yesterday was entirely by foot, that would be a difficult prospect today. If you don’t have your own car (and you very well might, whether you arrive after a road trip around Ireland like I did, or simply pick it up early before tomorrow’s coastal adventure), the easiest and fastest way to get between these attractions is taxi or Uber, although Belfast’s bus system works perfectly fine as well.

The Giant’s Causeway and Other Adventures

While the beginning of your adventure in Belfast are car-optional, it really be much more pleasant if you hire your own car. This can be expensive, and driving on the left can be scary if you’re not from the British Commonwealth, so one tip is to spend your first two days in Belfast talking to other travelers who might be down to split the cost with you, and offer you moral support as you drive. Of course you’re going to drive—why wouldn’t you?

The most ubiquitous Northern Ireland attraction you’ll visit to round out your three days in Belfast is Giant’s Causeway, and although I do recommend going there first (to avoid the crowds, arrive just before 9 a.m.), it shouldn’t be the only focus of your day. It’s a bit smaller than I imagined, among other reasons.

Rather, you might structure the day like this: Spend the morning at Giant’s Causeway, before driving along the coast and through the city of Portrush to charming Portstewart, where you can lunch at Harry’s Shack. Then, head back east along the Causeway Coastal Route (the name given to the Wild Atlantic Way once you leave Ireland for the UK), stopping at Dunluce Castle, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the Dark Hedges (from “Games of Thrones,” which I’ve never been a fan of) on your way back to the city.

The Bottom Line

Which reminds me—I never did see the sexy serial killer or the actor who played. And that’s fine, given how fulfilling three days in Belfast is, regardless of one’s TV preferences. From the well-known attractions of a city that’s barely known on its best days, to a quirky array of peripheral sights, to coastal gems that give a glimpse into the magic of Ireland at large, three days in Belfast is perfect both as an epilogue to a longer trip around island, or completely on its own like Stella in her pursuit of Paul.

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Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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