“Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.”James Nesbitt
Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was only within the past 20 years when this place was even considered as a safe travel destination. I am drawn to places slightly out of the norm and had been curious about Belfast for quite some time.
I experienced a city that’s vibrant and modern yet carries the heavy weight of a tumultuous and tragic past. There are reminders of this past everywhere from the politically themed murals, to memorial gardens, to the fences and gates that still separate the Protestant and Catholic areas. To really understand Belfast I think it’s important to read the history of the conflict and also to take a Black Cab Tour where your driver will take you to the different parts of town and explain the background of the murals you’re seeing (see below).
While I would never advocate visiting a destination that is truly dangerous, I am all for exploring places that were once considered dangerous but have become safer in the recent past. Also keep in mind that if you are touring around Ireland and mention to others that you are visiting Belfast, you might get a mixed reaction. While the younger generation seems to have a more positive reaction and openness towards the Northern city, there is still definitely tension among those who lived through the Troubles.
Jurys Inn Belfast | Great Victoria Street, Belfast, BT1 6DY, United Kingdom
While I usually opt for AirBnBs or Boutique hotels, for my first trip to Belfast I wanted to be extremely centrally located. Not knowing the different neighborhoods yet or having a feel for the safety situation, we wanted a place was 100% in “neutral territory”. Our room was great and the hotel staff was attentive and friendly. We particularly enjoyed that the hotel also had a restaurant and bar and was in walking distance to the Courthouse, the Cathedral Quarter and Crowne Bar. They also arranged our Black Cab Tour (see below) for us for immediate pickup onsite.
EAT & DRINK
44 Hill Street | 44 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2LB, Northern Ireland
Mediterranean cuisine served tapas style – a lovely option in the cute & vibrant Cathedral Quarter. Also close to all the bars and nightlife in the area so a great place to start your evening. The cheese plate was delicious!
Cafe Metz | 55 High Street, BT1 2AB Belfast
Found this place when walking from the Cathedral Quarter back to our hotel and liked the cafe atmosphere. I was also happy that they offered a Vegetarian version of the famous “Ulster Fry” – it was delicious and filling!
The Pocket | 69 University Rd, Belfast
We stopped in here after walking around the Queen’s Quarter and the Botanic Gardens and I loved the atmosphere and food at this adorable place! The interior is cozy and the food and drinks were healthy and delicious. I loved how in Ireland and Northern Ireland so many places offered Haloumi cheese (which is more rare in the States) and adding it to the Buddha Bowl was delicious!
White’s Tavern | 2-4 Winecellar Entry, Belfast, BT11QN
Very cool old pub, in fact one of the oldest in Belfast. Nice place to grab a pint, the food was also good (even though we had to take it to go to not miss our tour bus)!
Crown Liquor Saloon | 46 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7BA, Northern Ireland
I would say this is a “must visit” in Belfast – we happened to luck out because it was right by our hotel. I would say it is the most well-known and famous pubs in the city, a beautifully restored relic from the Victorian era complete with intricate wooden interior booths and stained glass.
Cab Tours Belfast | (Arranged through the front desk at Jurys Inn)
First off, I would 100% recommend doing a Black Cab tour when in Belfast. Belfast has so much history and I believe it adds so much to the experience of seeing the city when you try to understand the culture and background. I found the murals and memorials and was fascinated by all the history we learned.
Run by a Catholic and a Protestant, this company gives you an unbiased tour of the city. Our guide Jimmy drove us through both the Protestant and Catholic areas and gave us a real understanding of the history and tensions between the two groups. We were also able to get out and take pictures at the murals and memorials while he told us the information and history behind them. He went above and beyond to provide us an unbiased history of The Troubles along with stories of his personal experiences.
I would say that a cab tour is essential when visiting Belfast and I would definitely recommend this company as I’ve heard they don’t all equally show you both sides.
Botanic Gardens | College Park, Botanic Avenue, BT7 1LP
Adjacent to the Queen’s University Campus (aka real life Hogwarts), the Palm House was a lovely spot to warm up on a brisk damp day and enjoy the beautiful tropical plants. If you are a fan of the BBC/Netflix crime drama The Fall, you will recognize it from the first season when serial killer Paul Spektor went to stalk his next victim.
Street Art | Cathedral Quarter, City Center, everywhere
In addition to the political and historical murals you will see on your Black Cab Tour, Belfast has a TON of other street art everywhere. There are a lot of cool facades and murals in the Cathedral Quarter, including a little alleyway with umbrellas that was sadly under construction when I went. You can find the umbrellas and some other great gems on Commercial Court, the Alleyway between Hill Street and Donegall Street. See some of my favorite finds from the city below:
STAYING SAFE & SENSIBLE
As an American tourist in Belfast City Center, with no local political or religious affiliation I felt perfectly safe.
Safe/Not Safe Areas?
That said: there are definitely still tensions between the Protestants and the Catholics in Belfast and a clear separation outside the city center. It was described to us as “Sure, everyone gets along and works together in the city, then the Catholics go home to their neighborhoods and the Protestants go back to theirs.” There are still gates that separate the sections of town that are closed and locked at a certain time every day. Falls Road is where the Catholic neighborhoods are centered around, while Shankill Road is where the predominately Protestant/Loyalist community is centered. People will ask each other, “Where do you hail from?” to get insight into what their affiliation is, a kind of asking without asking sort of thing. Again, I highly recommend doing the tour we did above because they take you to the different areas and explain what you are seeing and why.
We stayed predominately in the City Center, Queens Quarter (during the day around the University and Botanical Garden), Cathedral Quarter (in the evening) & did a run from our hotel to the Titanic Quarter. I did not feel awkward or unsafe in any of those places.
The guide books will tell you to not discuss politics with locals, to not wear any colors seen as Irish (green, yellow, orange) when walking or running through the city. It would also make sense not to walk into some random pub in a neighborhood you are not familiar with and start discussing Irish or UK politics. You will likely NOT run into this problem in the city center. In fact, the young staff at a local bar we grabbed drinks at were actually quite open to discussing the situation in Northern Ireland, Brexit, healthcare, etc. My take on it is, the younger the person is you are talking to, the more open they will be about discussing it, especially if you are in a touristy area. I was happy we were able to have these discussions with the locals, as I find history and politics fascinating. I wouldn’t recommend bringing it up unless they do first though. Like American politics as of late, it could be very polarizing.
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