20 years ago, Belfast attracted just over half a million tourists, which injected about £63 million into the economy. Then came the signing of the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the period of the Troubles that had dominated Northern Irish life for so many years, and sent the nation into a rapid period of transformation. In 2017, just under 5 million people visited Northern Ireland, bringing almost £1 billion pounds with them. Now, Belfast is absolutely overflowing with things for tourists to see and do, so below are some of the best of what the city has to offer.
The National Grand Café
Located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, in the former headquarters of the National Bank, the National Grand Café is easily accessible to anyone visiting Belfast. Architecturally, the building is very interesting, as the exterior has a beautiful, historic facade, which is a dramatic contrast to the modern interior. Plants hang from the metal rafters supporting the glass roof, against a backdrop of metal, brick, and painted walls, all of which make for a beautiful setting in which to have a nice lunch. In terms of food, the restaurant doesn’t try to be too flashy or innovative, instead their serving high-quality takes on classics such as croque monsieurs, eggs benedict, or pancakes. While the National Grand Café may not be the place for those in search of an adventurous meal, it is the perfect place to go if you just want something well-made. Best of all, you won’t find a single item on the menu that costs more than £8.
It may seem like an obvious choice to some, but if you go to Belfast without visiting the Titanic museum, then it doesn’t really count as a trip to Belfast. Opened in 2012, 2 weeks before the 100th anniversary of the sinking, this 130,000 sq ft museum is extremely high-tech and interactive, with ultra-modern design to boot. The facade is made of silver coated aluminium, the shape is designed to be reminiscent of the Titanic’s hull, and peaks at 126 feet, the same height as the original ship’s hull.
Inside, visitors will find life-sized reconstructions of various rooms, including the famous staircase (which can even be rented for private functions); interactive projections that will display the ship’s blueprints, and illustrate the damage sustained; a complete and searchable list of passenger and crew information, allowing you to find any relatives you may have had and learn their fate; artifacts recovered from the Titanic, including a piece of the hull that you are allowed to touch; and my personal favorite, the shipyard ride, a short, fairground-like ride that carries you through several stages of the ship’s construction. Tickets generally cost £18 pounds, but vary depending on the time, and there are great discount deals available for those willing to visit outside peak hours.
The Great Room Restaurant
If at any point during your trip you want to feel ridiculously fancy, then head straight for the Great Room Restaurant at the Merchant Hotel. The Merchant is a five-star hotel located in the former headquarters of Ulster Bank, and the Great Room is the jewel in its crown. The walls and ceilings are intricately decorated from top to bottom with fine Victorian-era plasterwork, all of which draw the eyes to the large glass dome in the center of the roof, hanging from which is the largest chandelier in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Given the absolutely awe-inspiring surroundings, the menu items available will come as no surprise, and include the likes of seared quail breast, wild rabbit, and lobster ravioli, as well as some more traditional options such as Irish beef fillet and corn-fed chicken. What may come as a surprise, given the venue’s complete unadulterated decadence, is the pricing. While you could rack up a sizable bill on the À La Carte menu, the set menu is extremely good value, costing just £23.50 for 2 courses, or £28 for 3.
Black Cab Tours
One of the most efficient and entertaining ways to take in as much of Belfast is possible is by going on a Black Cab Tour. These tours aim to provide an unbiased, informative, and ultimately fun experience that is customized for each individual group. The tour guides themselves are all locals who have lived and worked in Belfast for their entire lives, and understand both the modern city life and the history of both sides of the Northern Irish conflict in a way that is frankly invaluable.
The tour includes many of the city’s most popular sights, such as the Titanic Quarter, Queen’s University, Belfast Castle, and, most famously, the murals of Northern Ireland. These 2,000-odd murals have been painted over the course of decades, and depict both sides of the conflict. These images offer an unparalleled insight into the sentiments of the locals, and are one of the best ways to truly understand the pain and complexity of the troubles.
Belfast may not be one of the biggest or most-famous cities in the UK or Ireland, but it is definitely one of the best places for tourists. While the city does not shy away from it’s dark past, it also refuses to be defined by it. A person with no knowledge of or interest in history could visit and never run out of things to do, so whether you want to learn, have fun, or both, Belfast is the place to be.