14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Belfast
Once a powerful ship-building center, bustling Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland and the birthplace of the infamous doomed ocean liner, RMS Titanic. Mention Belfast and, to a certain generation, images of conflict may spring to mind. It would be wrong, however, to jump to such conclusions these days.
In recent decades, the peace process and power-sharing government mean that Belfast, along with the rest of Northern Ireland, has undergone a rebirth and remarkable transformation. Visitor numbers continue to increase year-on-year, and with good reason. Expect a warm welcome, a wicked sense of humor, and an enthralling history.
Highlights of a visit include the impressive must-see Titanic Quarter, along with a variety of other points of interest associated with the ill-fated vessel. Excellent shopping experiences can be enjoyed at Victoria and Donegal Squares, along with a variety of restaurants and dining opportunities. Other things to see include discovering the city's superb Victorian architecture - be sure to check out the famous Albert Memorial Clock in Queen's Square - and visiting its many noteworthy museums.
To make the most of your time here, be sure to consult our list of the top tourist attractions and things to do in Belfast.
See also: Where to Stay in Belfast
1. Immerse Yourself in Maritime History at Titanic Belfast
Billed as "the world's largest Titanic visitor attraction," the distinctive looking Titanic Belfast opened in 2012 and is a landmark building that pays tribute to the story of the city's rich maritime history. This distinctive building houses nine interactive exhibitions that show how Belfast has developed from a city that once boasted the most powerful ship building industry in the world into a reborn visitor destination.
More than a century ago, the infamous and ill-fated ocean liner, Titanic, was built at this precise spot. There are guided tours around the slipway and gigantic dry-dock, once the heart of the Harland & Wolff shipyards. The building, which is star-shaped to represent the logo of the White Star Line, houses a number of fascinating artifacts related to the ship, including letters, brochures, and menus.
A particular treat is the fully restored tender to the Titanic, the SS Nomadic, which visitors can board and explore for an additional charge. In fact, a great way to learn more about both vessels is by purchasing a Titanic Belfast admission package that includes the SS Nomadic. In addition to having access to the Titanic exhibition, you'll get complimentary access to the Ocean Exploration Center and the SS Nomadic.
For a special treat, why not consider a stay at the Titanic Hotel Belfast? Set in a former shipyard building right next to the main attraction, your accommodations feature period-style furnishings and decor and offer a taste of the opulence those traveling aboard the Titanic would have experienced.
Address: 1 Olympic Way, Queen's Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: http://titanicbelfast.com/
2. Take in a Concert at Waterfront Hall
Just over a mile from the Titanic Quarter and overlooking the River Lagan in central Belfast, the Waterfront Hall is a world-class entertainment and conference venue that, in no uncertain terms, reflects the regeneration of the city. Since opening in 1997, the center has seen more than five million visitors and now attracts top musicians and performers from around the world, as well as hosting a range of exhibitions.
When lit up at night, the building is particularly impressive. In fact, many will visit not only for the world-class concerts held here - ranging in style from pop to symphony - but also to dine at the attraction's on-site restaurant, The Arc Brasserie. Somehow, a meal here is all the more magical for the superb panoramic views over the river and beyond.
Address: 2 Lanyon Place, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.waterfront.co.uk
3. Explore Northern Ireland's History at the Ulster Museum
A five-minute drive from the Waterfront Hall will bring you to The Ulster Museum. Having undergone a major refurbishment in recent years, it's now one of Belfast's must-see attractions. This impressive national museum should be high on the list for any visitor for a number of reasons, not least of all that it doesn't shy away from the city's recent troubled past.
Exhibits include a 2,500-year-old Egyptian Mummy (Princess Takabuti, unwrapped in Belfast in 1835), the Armada Room, and a gallery of modern art masterpieces. Other highlights include collections of ancient relics, a richly diverse collection of art, history, and natural science exhibits spread over several floors.
Address: Botanic Court, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: http://nmni.com/um
4. Take a Free Tour of Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall is another government building that should be included on your Northern Ireland travel itinerary. Located in the city center, this handsome structure was built in 1906 and remains one of the most distinctive landmarks in Belfast's downtown core. Tourists are welcome to explore the building as part of a guided tour, so popular that they've become one of the top free things to do in Belfast. Please note, though, that tours are available on a first-come, first served basis, so allow plenty of time in your schedule.
Highlights of these one-hour tours include seeing a good-sized art display and historic stained-glass windows and an exhibit outlining the city's history. Afterwards, you can browse the gift shop or visit the café.
Be sure to also visit the grounds of the City Hall, with its Titanic Memorial Gardens and vast lawns (and pack a picnic!). A fun thing to do at night in Belfast it to walk the grounds, as the building is colorfully illuminated.
Address: Donegall Square N, Belfast, Northern Ireland
5. The Botanic Gardens
A pleasant way to relax for a few hours, the Botanic Gardens was established in 1828 and has been owned by Belfast City Council since 1895 when it became a public park set on 28 acres. The elegant Palm House was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and contains a diversity of tropical plants, including birds of paradise and lush hanging baskets. Comprised of curved iron and glass, the structure is one of the earliest examples of a glasshouse made in this way, and demonstrates how advances in technology at the time allowed horticulturists to grow exotic plants.
The Tropical Ravine was built in 1889 and houses exotic delights such as bromeliad, banana, orchids, and cinnamon, and protects some of the world's oldest seed plants. The gardens are also a popular venue for concerts and festivals, and once once hosted a concert by famed Irish band, U2. Just north of the gardens is Queen's University with its fine Tudor-style buildings.
Address: College Park, Botanic Avenue, Belfast, Northern Ireland
6. Climb aboard HMS Caroline
A newer addition to the already excellent collection of attractions in Belfast's Titanic Quarter, HMS Caroline is one of the last surviving vessels to have seen service in both world wars. Recently refurbished, the ship was commissioned in 1914 and patrolled the North Sea, as well as participating in the pivotal Battle of Jutland.
Opened in her present location to the public in 2016, a tour of this floating museum and its visitor center provides a great deal of fascinating information about WW1 and the ship's history. Highlights include audio-visual displays, tours of the fully-restored sections of the ship, plus educational opportunities that give kids the chance to have some hands-on fun. In addition to a café and gift shop, there's a playground and picnic area on-shore.
Address: Alexandra Dock, Queens Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.nmrn.org.uk/exhibitions-projects/hms-caroline
7. St. Anne's Cathedral
Designed by architect Sir Thomas Drew and begun in 1898, St. Anne's Cathedral is the main church of the Anglican Church of Ireland. Also often referred to as "Belfast Cathedral," it was built in neo-Romanesque style of the basilican type and has three west doorways adorned with sculpture.
The baptismal chapel features an exquisite mosaic ceiling. Further points of interest are the carved stonework, many fine stained-glass windows, marble tiles on the floor and walls, and delicate woodwork. In the chapel, you'll find the tomb of Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists, who died in 1935.
Address: Donegall Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.belfastcathedral.org
8. Spend a Night at the Grand Opera House
West of the City Hall on Great Victoria Street, the highly ornate Grand Opera House is well worth visiting to take in a show or concert. Dating from 1895, it has seen its share of troubles over the years. In 1972, at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the building was sold to property developers and nearly demolished. Thankfully, due to a campaign, this didn't happen.
Between 1976 and 1980, the structure was extensively restored, including the restoration of the ceiling panels in the main auditorium. A large extension was added in 2006, and these days it hosts musicals, operas, and live performances and is one of the city's true landmarks. Guided tours are available.
Address: 2-4 Great Victoria Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.goh.co.uk
9. Take a Tour of Crumlin Road Gaol
When it closed in 1996, many believed the infamous Crumlin Road prison would never reopen. How wrong they were. The once notorious jail has quickly become one of Belfast's premier visitor attractions since reopening just a short time ago in 2012. This is one of the best places to visit to learn about Northern Ireland's history. Fascinating guided tours tell of the women and children who were incarcerated here, as well as the segregation of republican and loyalist prisoners.
You can wander through the underground tunnel that used to connect the jail to the courthouse, sit in the Governor's chair and, rather gruesomely, pay a visit to the condemned men's cell. Guided tours are available, including special themed affairs that even include a show and dinner (Jailhouse Rock, anyone?).
Address: 53-55 Crumlin Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.crumlinroadgaol.com
10. Belfast Castle
Around four miles from the city center along the A2/A6-Antrim Road stands Belfast Castle. There are plenty of events here year-round, and it's a popular wedding venue due to its picturesque location and beautiful historic building. A castle has existed on this site since the 12th century in many different incarnations. The current structure dates from 1870, although additions and embellishments have taken place since then.
There's a restaurant on-site, along with Cave Hill Visitor Centre. Cave Hill Country Park and the Adventure Playground are well worth exploring, and the grounds are particularly popular for picnics during summer months.
Address: Antrim Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.belfastcastle.co.uk
11. See the Animals at Belfast Zoo
Around three minutes' drive from Belfast Castle is Belfast Zoo, set on 55 acres with views over Belfast Lough. Home to more than 140 species of animals, this fun family destination was opened in 1934 and is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. It was extensively upgraded in recent years, and nowadays in excess of 300,000 people visit the zoo annually.
Highlights include ring-tailed lemurs, Asian elephants, monkeys, Malayan sun bears, Sumatran tigers, and Barbary lions. A must-see here is the rainforest exhibit, which brings together tropical plants with fascinating animals such as sloths and fruit bats. Check the zoo's website for details of its daily animal talks and feeding schedule.
Address: Antrim Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.belfastzoo.co.uk
12. Stormont, The Parliament Buildings
No visit to Belfast, or indeed Northern Ireland, would be complete without at least seeing this grandiose and often controversial building. This is the home of the "Power Sharing Executive," or Northern Ireland Assembly, the place where former foes sit down together and carry out the day-to-day business and politics of running the state.
Dating from 1921, it was built to house the then newly formed government of the Province. It's impossible to miss the statue of Unionist Sir Edward Carson on the front lawn. Despite its controversial legacy, the scenic grounds are popular with day-trippers, joggers, and those simply wishing to escape the city for a while. The building is open weekdays for tours.
Address: 587 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland
13. Shop at St. George's Market
No Belfast itinerary is complete without allocating time to do a little shopping, especially if it includes St. George's Market. The oldest covered market in the city, St. George's Market was completed in 1896 and now provides a place to do business for some 300 vendors selling everything from food to art and crafts.
It has also become an important venue for activities other than shopping, including food festivals, art shows, dancing, and even pop and rock concerts. In addition to its regular market hours, there are a number of special events such as the frequent "Twilight Market," popular for its extended evening hours and entertainment.
Address: 12-20 East Bridge Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: www.belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket
14. W5 Interactive Discovery Centre
One of the top things to do in Belfast for families is spending time exploring the W5 Interactive Discovery Centre (it's also another great excuse to visit the Titanic Quarter). This state-of-the-art science center consists of over 250 hands-on exhibits, encouraging kids to explore a variety of areas of learning spread across four large areas, including displays related to technology and biology, as well as educational programs, events, and workshops.
Star attractions here are "Climbit," a massive multi-story 3D climbing structure; "RoboThespian," a large robotic character that can be controlled by visitors; and "MED-Lab", a fascinating look inside the human body. A café and gift shop are located on-site.
Address: 2 Queens Quay, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Official site: https://w5online.co.uk
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Belfast
- Tour the Best of Northern Ireland: With Dublin as your base, it's pretty easy to get to Northern Ireland in order to see the rest of the region. A great way to catch the region's top attractions, including the spectacular Giant's Causeway, is by joining a Northern Ireland Highlights Day Trip. After departing Dublin in your luxury coach (with Wi-Fi) you'll be whisked to destinations including Belfast, with time allocated to explore the Titanic Quarters; the Giant's Causeway on the Antrim Coast; and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, with its incredible views.
- Game of Thrones Highlights: For fans of the hit TV show and novels, the Game of Thrones and Giant's Causeway Full-Day Tour from Belfast is a great way to see some of the series' best film locations. In addition to the remarkable Giant's Causeway, highlights include a guide who's well-versed in the show and the region, on-hand to answer your questions and share the low-down on attractions, including Dark Hedges Road and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, to name but two. Plenty of time is allocated at each stop for photos and exploring, and hotel pickup is provided.
Where to Stay in Belfast for Sightseeing
Looking for a top-notch place to rest your head in central Belfast? We recommend these great hotels in the center of Belfast, close to the top attractions and points of interest.
- When it comes to choosing a luxury hotel in Belfast, be sure to include the Merchant Hotel on your list. This exquisite heritage hotel offers sophisticated styling, an Art Deco wing, a rooftop gym, an upscale restaurant, a pampering spa, and an evening turndown service.
- Also worth considering, The Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast is close to all the action and comes with classy rooms, a great breakfast, on-site dining, and valet parking.
- And check out (or into) the extremely elegant Malmaison Belfast, featuring quality rooms and suites (some with separate living rooms, and even snooker tables), and a fine-dining restaurant.
- The Europa Hotel - Belfast is a great mid-range priced hotel featuring well-appointed rooms, a piano lounge, and modern bistro. Consider yourself a hipster (even moderately so)?
- Then the centrally located Bullitt Hotel is for you. It features bright rooms with rainfall showers, a free breakfast (bagged), a coffee shop, and a great rooftop patio with superb city views.
- Also trendy, the House Belfast offers comfortable rooms and casual on-site dining.
- Those seeking a good quality yet affordable stay might want to book into the Holiday Inn Belfast City Centre, popular for its great rates, on-site mini gym, ample breakfast buffet, and friendly multilingual staff.
- Also popular is the Premier Inn Belfast City Centre (Alfred Street) Hotel, a budget hotel in a great central location on a quiet street that's spotlessly clean.
- Those comfortable in a hostel-style environment with shared amenities should consider the John Bell House - City Centre (Campus Accommodation), a seasonal offering that offers great clean rooms at a very reasonable rate.
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Day Trips from Belfast: Belfast makes for a great jumping-off point for those wanting to explore some of the top attractions in Northern Ireland, as well as Ireland itself. In addition to the spectacular Giants Causeway, great day trip destinations from Belfast also include Carrick-A-Rede Bridge and Dunluce Castle.
Ireland Vacation Ideas: Given its location at the top end of the island, Belfast makes a great location from which to explore the top attractions in Ireland, most of which are within easy reach. Must-sees within an easy drive include the Irish capital of Dublin with its many museums and parks. The much smaller community of Sligo is also a great drive, and boasts stunning coastal scenery. Also worth a visit, historic Galway is popular for its large public squares and medieval architecture.