The great thing about visiting Belfast in a weekend is that there isn’t too much to do.
I mean that in the best possible sense, because Belfast had enough to pack our time full of great activities, but not so many that I was overwhelmed by which to choose for our short trip, or tempted as I usually am to cram in as many as possible. In fact, we discovered there’s plenty that we could go back for as well, but there wasn’t the sense of urgency I sometimes get on trips to try and do it all.
In the end, I think we had the perfect amount of time to fit in what we wanted to do, as well as time to relax with drinks – in fantastic pubs, as it happens.
The day we arrived, we got straight into a car and drove in the opposite direction to Belfast – up to the north coast to see some of Northern Ireland’s highlights such as the Giant’s Causeway and beautiful Ballintoy.
This left us with one full day in Belfast, plus the evening before, giving us more than 24 hours in the city.
We arrived in the city in the early evening, checked in to our hotel with some time to relax before heading out, and then grabbed dinner at the Chubby Cherub.
Naturally, I had noticed the restaurant for its name, but I stayed for the menu, photos and the reviews before promptly booking it. With Northern Ireland easing restrictions just a couple of weeks before we visited, I wasn’t going to leave a Saturday night meal out to chance.
The Chubby Cherub was a fantastic choice – it’s a highly rated Italian restaurant just along from the City Hall, and I had an exceptionally overpriced cocktail to go with my delicious dinner. It was a good cocktail, though!
Afterwards, we met my friend Ian, aka Barefoot Backpacker, for a few post-road trip drinks. Again, I’d highlighted a handful of bars and pubs that I wanted to check out, so we went for one on the list – the Crown Liquor Saloon Bar.
I LOVED it!! As soon as we walked in, I was amazed by the ornate wooden carved ceiling, the old-fashioned stained glass signs, and most of all, the booths that lined the right hand side, like carriage compartments. I was thrilled to find a booth was free so I grabbed it… except that I couldn’t figure out how to open the door. A bartender came round and opened it with ease, rendering me an idiot.
Anyway, I highly recommend it – it’s a really unique pub!
Also – in the photo on the left, notice the lady laughing. Her husband and I tried to take photos at the exact same moment from opposite ends of the pub, so we couldn’t stop laughing before diving out of each other’s pics!
Black Cab Troubles tour
In the morning, I had booked us on a taxi tour of Belfast, which sounds most unlike anything I’ve ever booked before, but this was with a twist.
The political taxi tours of Belfast are generally lauded as one of the best things you can do in the city – after all, taxi drivers were one of the few professions that served “both sides” of the community throughout the Troubles, so theoretically they can show you an unbiased view of everything that happened in Belfast’s turbulent past from the 1970’s to the 1990’s.
Disclaimer: our taxi driver was not unbiased at all, but it was absolutely fascinating listening to someone who could make you feel, of all things, sympathetic to the IRA.
We were picked up from our hotel on the Sunday morning by Stevey from Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab Tours.
Immediately, he launched into a history of Northern Ireland leading up to the start of the Troubles, and it quickly struck me just how little I know of Northern Irish politics and history. It’s something we simply don’t get taught at school, yet the Troubles were still going on while I was growing up in the 90’s.
I remember reading a book as a teenager about two girls during the Troubles, and I thought it must have been exaggerated until I read more into the actual history that had happened within my lifetime.
So, a quick history lesson on the Troubles: Catholics, or republicans / nationalists, want to re-join with the Republic Of Ireland. Protestants, or loyalists / unionists, want to remain part of the United Kingdom.
The conflicts really started in the late 1960’s as a result of discrimination against Catholic workers – generally, Catholics were only able to work the lower-class jobs, while Protestants had better access to the higher-paid work; the same discrimination applied to housing and government, too. It was classic classism filled with political undertones that were bound to lead to tensions boiling over at some point.
As the conflicts escalated, sectarian measures were introduced and a wall was built between the catholic area and the protestant area, not unlike the Berlin wall. What’s particularly incredible is that the wall in Belfast is still standing today, and the gates between the two sides are still locked at night, and earlier on weekends. This still happens and I had absolutely no idea.
I asked Stevey why, and he said “because you never know what will happen if they don’t”. He pointed out the carnage that broke out only last year after Brexit measures threatened to break the Good Friday Agreement.
Stevey took us to the protestant area first, and what instantly fascinated me was that they are far more patriotic than anywhere else in the UK. This was American levels of flag-waving – and as for the tributes to the Queen:
After learning that we’re from Scotland, he also stopped by some anti-SNP stickers, showing that they were anti-any nationalism. (Though I find there can be a fine line between nationalism and patriotism…)
I found this particularly interesting as my knowledge of politics in Northern Ireland even today is lacking – I didn’t realise that their devolved government must have a leader from each side. In fact, the day before we went to Northern Ireland, their First Minister resigned, forcing their “matching” opponent to also step down. I was almost expecting chaos on the streets with political activists, but actually saw no sign of the news all weekend.
Anyway, this is all to say, I’m surprised that they care enough about Scottish politics to be anti-SNP. I mentioned that this was curious, and our driver (in case you hadn’t guessed which side he’s on) mused that if Scotland votes for independence, he reckons Northern Ireland reunification won’t be too far behind.
So I suppose it’s understandable that unionists in NI are feeling threatened by the idea of it.
And then there’s the murals.
The murals all tell a story, whether it’s to remember entire forces, or in remembrance of specific people who were killed in the Troubles. It’s really interesting and teaches you a lot about the people who lived and died during the conflicts.
There was one man who was killed by republicans while taking his child to school; 23 years later, the child grew up to find himself meeting a similar fate but from loyalists. It’s incredibly sad thinking about how the conflicts went on for so long that several generations were affected across so much time – and by different sides even within families.
Most of the tour is in the protestant area, because when we went to the catholic side… there was nothing really to look at. Small plaques acknowledged the sites of some events, but otherwise things were “normal”.
Next, we stopped at the famous line of murals between Shankill Road and Falls Road, where the gates would be closing a few hours later.
This was my favourite part because it mixed history with the present – lots of support for Palestine and political figures around the world, representation of minorities and workers. I wonder if any have been added for Ukraine this week.
We then headed to the largest section of the wall, still standing up to 20ft high in some places. Here, thousands of people have left messages of peace, and we were invited to add to it. I wish I’d thought of something a bit more interesting after reading Ash’s and Ian’s!
I asked Ash where his quote was from, and he said he’d come up with it on the spot! I assumed it was from a speech or a book!
Still, there was a good mix of silly ones and poignant ones all over the wall.
I also messed up our group photo in front of the taxi as my hair blew across my face! But we got this nice one of us with the wall.
And finally, we went to the famous Bobby Sands mural, on the side of the Sinn Fein office. We remarked that their headquarters look very new.
“That’s because it was bombed and rebuilt,” Stevey replied, which immediately seemed obvious.
Bobby Sands died in prison while leading a hunger strike in 1981. He was voted in as an MP during the hunger strike, which brought media attention to Northern Ireland, and his death led to a surge in recruitment for the IRA, as well as bringing Sinn Fein to the forefront of politics in Northern Ireland. He’s one of the most famous faces of the Troubles.
But while he’s lauded as a hero by nationalists, plenty of people simply see him as a criminal who incited violence and nothing else. Much like the wall still standing, there are two sides to every story in this tale, which makes it complex at best, and nuanced enough that it’s hard to decide which side was right.
Read more about Northern Ireland: Road Tripping Northern Ireland In One Day
After the tour, we asked to be dropped off in town, so we were dropped outside the City Hall – perfect as I wanted some daytime photos.
Just around the corner, I had my eyes set on a place for lunch.
Harlem Café looked cute, quirky, and admittedly absolutely pretentious, but following an Instagram nose turned out to be a disaster. A lady that seemed like she’d dropped straight out of Instagram came over and said she’d find us a table, just give her a couple of minutes. She then came back over… to take photos of the place on her phone, before standing behind the counter, most likely uploading them to Instagram.
Meanwhile, tables were emptying but none of them were being cleaned. And so we walked out. Lesson learned: don’t bother going for overly hipster places.
We were actually quite short on time now anyway, as we’d booked the Titanic Museum for 2pm and our taxi tour had lasted a lot longer than we’d anticipated.
St George’s Market
Luckily, I remembered another recommendation I’d seen for lunch – St George’s Market, and even better, it was in the direction we needed to go. I find it slightly jarring that there’s something named after St George in Belfast, but I suppose it makes sense.
Anyway, it seemed like a twist of fate that the café had been a disaster, because this was SO much better.
This Victorian market feels like not much has changed, and rows of stalls selling all sorts of artworks and clothes and antiques had me browsing until it was time to go. We did manage to grab a seat for lunch though, and I got an excellent bagel from one of the stalls at the end.
In hindsight, I should have gone for soda bread for a traditional Belfast lunch, but I didn’t really think until afterwards that I could have substituted my bagel for a different bread!
I have to admit I wasn’t too bothered about visiting the Titanic museum, but Ash was really keen, and to be fair we’d heard it’s excellent.
We decided to walk, as the weather wasn’t actually all that bad, although after our experience of being caught in hail the day before, I was feeling a bit hesitant.
We made it alive, and slightly earlier than our booked slot, but we were allowed straight in.
It is, in fairness, a very, very good museum. Some of it is set up as if you’re actually in a shipbuilding yard, complete with a ride through to show you what it was like working in the industry. This was probably the highlight of the whole museum.
There’s a whole section on Belfast’s shipbuilding industry and the biggest achievements of Holland & Wolff, who went on to build one of the world’s most famous ships of all.
There are also lots of artefacts and replicas from the Titanic, stories from survivors, and an area you can stand in surrounded by screens for a 180 degree tour of every floor of the ship.
At the end, you even get to go on a cinematic underwater expedition to explore the wreck. It’s set up really well and the place is absolutely huge.
Tickets also include entry to the SS Nomadic, White Star Line’s last remaining ship. We actually missed entry by about 10 minutes as it closes earlier than the museum, but I wasn’t too bothered. Apparently tickets are valid for a year, so if we go back, we’d be allowed to use our existing ticket!
The burning question is, is it worth the whopping £22 entrance fee? Honestly, if you’re really interested in the Titanic, then yes. It’s a fantastic museum. But £22 is steep. I personally wouldn’t have gone if I was by myself, and if you’re on the fence about going, I’d perhaps prioritise something else.
I would rather have gone to the Ulster Museum (free) to get more of a history of Northern Ireland – although that seemed a bit much for one day when we’d already had a heck of an education with our taxi driver. It’s definitely one for next time though!
Exploring the city centre
Belfast, unsurprisingly, isn’t huge. I was wavering between walking from the Titanic museum back to our hotel or getting a taxi, but we decided to just walk.
I’m glad we did – it gave us a much better overview of the city centre. Unfortunately a group of people were just stood around on their phones while I tried to take photos of the excellently named Salmon Of Knowledge – although I did accidentally capture behind them the two famous, absolutely massive yellow cranes fondly known as Samson and Goliath, now a landmark of the city.
Anyway, I ended up getting a much better photo of… this sign.
This is partly why I was glad Belfast isn’t just full of stuff to do. There aren’t landmarks on every corner; only the odd thing to take a photo of, like the Albert Memorial Clock, which is apparently ever so slightly wonky.
Is the clock tower wonky, or is my photo wonky? Who knows, maybe both.
After a brisk walk through the city centre, we got back to our hotel in no time, to pick up our bags and head straight back out to go to a pub.
Duke Of York pub
Another pub I found that came highly recommended was the Duke Of York. It was even BETTER than I expected. In fact, and this is no mean feat, I’d probably rate it one of the best pubs I’ve been to.
The outside as well is very kitsch, while inside is just full of things to look at. Absolutely love places like this, and there were even a couple of people in the corner who whipped out guitars and had a wee sesh.
This was the perfect end to our weekend, to be honest!
Where we stayed – The Warren, Belfast
The Warren deserves its own section in this post, because I am not exaggerating when I say it’s probably one of the nicest places we’ve ever stayed!!
We were actually planning to stay in the Titanic Hotel, and someone regrettably booked the last reasonably-priced room while I had it open. I clicked on the book button and it had gone!! I therefore turned my eye towards The Warren, which looked just as good.
In a lot of ways, it turned out for the best, because our room was spectacular! It was a bit more of a B&B, with no-contact check in and no front desk at all, and the breakfast was basic and hostel-like (cook your own eggs & toast etc), but the decor all over was really lovely.
All in all, I don’t think we could have asked for a better weekend in Northern Ireland! Weather woes aside, we had an excellent time exploring the coast, and ended up enjoying Belfast far more than I ever expected. Not that I thought it would be bad, as such – but instead of being another city to tick off the list, we immediately decided we need to go back, if just for a proper night out!
And with it being within such easy reach of Edinburgh, with flights that make it one of the cheapest destinations for us, I have no doubt that we will be back for another quick visit.
Want to read more about our Irish adventures? I have a few north & south of the border!
⭐ Road Tripping Northern Ireland In One Day
⭐ A Getaway In Galway, Ireland’s Colourful City
⭐ A Day In Dublin: How To Have Fun When You Don’t Like Guinness