There was a time when Belfast was in the news for all the wrong reasons. And while the worst of the Troubles are in the distant past, there are still large portions of the city divided along religious and political lines.
In some ways this gives Belfast a certain cachet and you can check out the Peace Lines in the west of the city, where walls have been put up between neighbourhoods and are coated with murals.
But the truth is that 21st-century Belfast is a completely different place, and those walls will soon become a thing of the past.
The historic port has been revitalised by the Titanic Quarter, where two of a clutch of riveting museums are based.
Sightseers can investigate Stormont, City Hall, and many more Victorian landmarks, all bounded to the west by brooding basalt hills.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Belfast:
1. Ulster Museum
On the northwest limit of Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum has a bit of everything, from a masterpiece by Jacob Jordaens to dinosaur skeletons and an Egyptian mummy.
People with an eye for decorative items can peruse a wealth of glassware, ceramics, textiles, costumes, jewellery and metalwork.
From the distant past there are polished Neolithic axes, pieces of jewellery and the mummy of Takabuti, a noblewoman from Thebes during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt.
Some other cool things to see are a slice from a meteorite, jewellery from a Spanish Armada wreck and the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Mairead Corrigan.
She witnessed three of her nieces and nephews being killed in a road accident caused by the shooting of an IRA member, and reacted by organising rallies striving for peace and reconciliation.
2. Titanic Belfast
The old Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast’s docks is where the world’s most famous ocean liner was assembled.
This nook of the Belfast Lough had been derelict for decades after the decline of shipbuilding, but is today known as the Titanic Quarter and has been completely regenerated since the 2000s.
The icing on the cake is this cutting edge museum, with a bold design that resembles four ship bows.
The museum opened in 2012, and uses multisensory technology to send you back to Belfast in the 1910s when the Titanic and its sister ships Olympic and Britannic were assembled and launched.
Elements from the Titanic’s interiors have been meticulously reproduced, and you’ll read contemporary accounts from the ship’s sinking.
3. City Hall
Belfast’s striking neo-Baroque City Hall opened its doors in 1906 and is one of the unmistakeable landmarks.
Plans were underway as early as 1888 when Queen Victoria awarded Belfast city status, following sudden growth in the period fuelled by the shipbuilding, rope-making and linen industries.
There are three free hour-long tours Monday to Sunday, ushering you around the plush interiors, which have Brescia, Carrara and Pavonazzo marble and abundant stained glass.
One window is a portrait of Queen Victoria while another depicts Belfast’s coat of arms.
There’s a Titanic memorial garden outside, and the ground floor of the east wing now has an exhibition in 16 rooms about the history of Belfast.
4. Botanic Gardens
Established as a private park 1828, it would be almost 70 years before the Botanic Gardens were fully opened to everyday people.
The thing you have to see is the Palm House, built at the turn of the 1840s and one of the first curvilinear glasshouses anywhere in the world.
The building was put together by the Irish iron founder Richard Turner, who would go on to build the iconic glasshouses at Kew and Glasnevin.
A couple of specimens to look for in the Palm House are the globe spear lily, 11 metres in height and a Xanthorrhoea four centuries old.
Another 19th-century wonder is the Tropical Ravine, which has an indoor sunken garden with tropical fauna and birds of paradise between two raised viewing galleries.
5. St Anne’s Cathedral
Belfast’s cathedral was built in stages at the beginning of the 20th century on the site of the old St Anne’s parish church going back to 1776. The architecture is neo-Romanesque and has a lot in common with High Medieval churches, like carved tympanums on the western entrance, carved column capitals in the nave, and an apse with an ambulatory.
Those ten capitals in the nave are mostly the work of Morris Harding and each has a different theme.
In the sanctuary look for the Good Samaritan window, which is the only surviving element from the 18th-century church.
A fun piece of trivia about St Anne’s is that it isn’t really a cathedral as it isn’t the seat of a diocese, even though it’s the main church for both the Down and Dromore, and Connor dioceses.
6. Crumlin Road Gaol
Once HMP Belfast, this Grade A-listed building is the only Victorian jail left in Northern Ireland.
Crumlin Road Gaol was founded in 1846, and over the next 150 years housed murderers, suffragettes and both Unionist and Republican terrorists.
It was linked to its courthouse across the road by a tunnel that you’ll traverse on your tour.
There were 17 executions at the jail, the last of which took place in 1961, and you’ll be able to see inside the cell where these took place.
These walls have other tales to tell, like escape attempts going back to 1866 and a Provisional IRA bombing in 1991. After lying empty for 15 years the jail was spruced up in 2010 and doubles as a live music venue and functions hall for dinners and weddings.
7. HMS Caroline
Launched in 1914 and moored in the Titanic Quarter, HMS Caroline is the surviving vessel to have fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Up until 2011 she was still commissioned by the Royal Navy, having been docked in Belfast since the early-1920s.
In the Second World War she was the navy’s headquarters at in Northern Ireland, and after that served as a training ship.
After decommissioning, HMS Caroline’s future was uncertain, but the ship was eventually restored as opened as a floating museum.
On board you can see the restored cabins and mess, and check out interactive exhibitions about naval warfare in the First World War.
8. Titanic’s Dock and Pump House
You could say that the Thompson Dry Dock and the attached pump house are where the RMS Titanic was born.
These were vital cogs in Harland and Wolff’s operation, and when you witness the immense berth for the ship’s hull in person you realise the full scale of this liner and the other White Star Vessels like the Olympic and Britannic.
Accompanied by a guide, you’ll go down 13 metres into the dry dock, which is like a huge footprint left by the Titanic.
Meanwhile the pump house has audiovisual displays picturing the Titanic in the dock, alongside authentic tools used by the shipbuilders.
The pumps have been conserved and were able to empty this enormous dock in just 100 minutes.
9. Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
The Ulster Folk Museum has collected historic buildings from around Northern Ireland, constructing the fictional town of “Ballycultra” to shed light on Ulster town and country life in the early 20th century.
There are farms, cottages, churches and houses in all shapes and sizes.
You can pop into the tearoom and watch demonstrations of printing, cooking at hearths and needlework.
The separate Transport Museum recounts centuries of travel in Northern Ireland, with particular attention to the Modern Age.
There’s a Class 800 locomotive from the 1930s, one of the largest and most powerful ever to run in Ireland and a Short SC.1 vertical takeoff plane jet, a forerunner to the Harrier.
Movie buffs will be thrilled with the early clay model of the DeLorean DMC-12, a car manufactured in Belfast and made famous by Back to the Future.
10. Grand Opera House
Conceived by the celebrated theatre designer, Frank Matcham, the Grand Opera House opened in December 1895. What sets this building apart from UK theatres is the influence of oriental architecture, most obvious in the domes on the facade.
The theatre puts on opera productions, concerts of all types, pantomimes, dance performances, musicals, comedy shows and dramas.
The auditorium is rich with stuccowork and frescoes and can seat more than 1,060. This was refurbished in 2006, while the building was damaged by bombs a couple of times in the early-90s as it sits next door to the Europa Hotel, the “most bombed hotel in Europe”.
11. Stormont Parliament Buildings
The Northern Ireland Assembly sits at this Grade A-listed parliament building nicknamed the “House on the Hill” in the leafy Stormont Estate.
The ceremonious Neoclassical complex is fronted by a statue of the Irish Unionist politician Lord Carson, standing on an axis with the portico and approached by the kilometre-long Prince of Wales Avenue.
There are six pillars in the portico, each representing one of Northern Ireland’s counties, while the building is 365 feet wide, each for day of the year.
The estate is surprisingly open: You can go inside to be wowed by Sir Arnold Thornely’s architecture, attend debates and committee hearings, and join a free guided tour.
The grounds are mostly unrestricted and woven with walking paths, while there’s a coffee shop to put a cap on your visit.
12. Cave Hill Country Park
Over Belfast’s northern suburbs is a set of basalt cliffs riddled with five caves.
These could be ancient iron mines and were used as bomb shelters during the Second World War.
Cave Hill, as it’s known, is embedded in heaths, meadows and moorland, peppered with fascinating archaeological sites and blessed with panoramas of the city, the Belfast Lough, the Mourne Mountains, Carrickfergus and the Scottish coast.
The most striking natural feature is Napoleon’s Nose, a bulky basalt outcrop that may have inspired Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th century as the rock could be mistaken for a sleeping giant next to the city.
At the top of the Napoleon’s Nose is McArt’s Fort, fortified as early as the Neolithic period and now a scenic place to spot peregrine falcons and kestrels.
13. Crown Liquor Saloon
A Grade A-listed building owned by the National Trust, the Crown Liquor Saloon is an exuberant Victorian gin palace going back to the 1880s.
This unmissable stop on the Golden Mile is famed for its highly ornate decoration produced by the same Italian craftsmen who worked on the city’s churches.
There are intricate wood carvings on the ceiling and on the ten booths (for reserved Victorian drinkers). Fitting for a port city, the style is a clash of cultures, and has hints of Hindu temples in its textured columns and multi-coloured plasterwork along the bar.
The bar itself is laid with a red granite counter and lit by gas lamps, while the footrest below is heated.
Less a museum than a world of discovery for kids, W5 is an interactive science centre with more than 250 hands-on stations in four exhibition zones.
Children are encouraged to be active bundling through the multi-sensory Spacebase activity zone or scrambling up Climbit, a three-dimensional climbable sculpture, a kind of cross between a jungle gym and a maze.
There are also more cerebral activities dealing with flight, electric circuits, natural forces, health, hygiene and geology in the “Go” exhibition, while “Discovery” for under-eights has a virtual rockpool, digital storybooks and a soft-play area where little ones can assemble a Formula 1 car.
15. St Malachy’s Church
A breeze from Belfast City Hall, St Malachy’s Church is the third-oldest Catholic place of worship in Belfast.
Consecrated in 1844, the building has Tudor Revival architecture, and was initially intended to house 7,000 worshippers until financial constraints required more modest proportions.
That takes nothing from the beauty of the church, admired most of all for its feather-light fan vaulted ceiling, a faithful reproduction of the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey.
The workmanship on the stencilled tracery around the sanctuary and mosaic floor is masterful, and these features were both returned to their 19th-century appearance during restoration work a decade ago.
16. Belfast Castle
At the southern boundary of the Cave Hill Country Park is a Scottish Baronial-style stately home, built in the 19th century by George Chichester, 3rd Marquess of Donegall.
The name of the building comes from the Norman Belfast Castle, originally at the very heart of the city.
After that stronghold was burned down at the start of the 18th century, its owners, the Chichesters, moved to this location in the suburbs.
The Scottish Baronial style is a mix of Renaissance and Gothic, and the house is endowed with corner turrets, stepped gables and false machicolations.
From the grounds you can take in far-ranging vistas of Belfast, and inside is a visitor centre, antiques shop and restaurant.
17. SS Nomadic
Here’s a ship that’s seen it all.
In dry dock next to Titanic Belfast, the SS Nomadic was also built at the Harland and Wolff dockyard, and is the only White Star Line vessel existing today.
Launched in 1911 the ship was a tender, shuttling passengers from the RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic in and out of Cherbourg Harbour, which couldn’t accommodate these massive passenger liners.
In the World Wars the SS Nomadic swept for mines and carried troops, and then spent almost three decades berthed next to the Eiffel Tower as a restaurant ship.
The ship returned to Belfast in 2006 and went through a thorough restoration in which the original wooden panelling was refitted.
Now you can see the first and second class lounges, climb up to the bridge, dress up in period attire and find out about the different people, from aristocrats to soldiers and diners, who have trodden these decks.
18. Belfast Zoo
One of Northern Ireland’s top attractions in terms of traffic, Belfast Zoo is in 22 leafy hectares to the north of Belfast Castle.
There are roughly 130 different species in the park, and along with universal favourites like giraffes, zebras, tigers, lions and Asian elephants, you’ll meet a wide array of primates.
These might be Western lowland gorillas, Venezuelan red howler monkeys, moloch gibbons, cotton top tamarins, François’ langurs and red titi monkeys.
The zoo has a schedule of feedings and talks, for extra information about the chimpanzees, gorillas, meerkats, Gentoo Penguins, California sea lions, Andean bears and a variety of reptiles and amphibians.
At the zoo children can feed and befriend Shetland ponies, Tamworth pigs, miniature donkeys and African pygmy goats.
19. Peace Lines
In places Belfast is a city still divided along Loyalist and Protestant, and Republican and Catholic lines.
They might seem like relics from a different era, but the Peace Lines have increased in number since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the Troubles in 1998. The first walls were put up in the late-60s and as of 2018 there are almost 60 Peace Lines, adding up to a total 34 kilometres.
Something as sensitive as these barriers needs an in-depth guided tour, which you can do in a black cab with someone who has lived through Belfast’s violent flare-ups.
They’ll take you to hotspots on both sides of the lines, help you interpret the many murals and talk you through the history of the Troubles.
This slice of history may not be around much longer as the Northern Ireland Executive is committed to removing the barriers over the next decade.
20. Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park
Off the M1 on the road to Lisburn in the south, Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park is over 50 hectares of natural and landscaped parkland.
In undulating county you can ramble through meadows, forest, along riverbanks and into a variety of gardens.
The Japanese Garden, Camellia Trials and Walled Gardens are a joy, while the formal Rose Garden has 40,000 roses and hosts the ever-popular Rose Week every July.
In the park grounds is Wilmont House, built at the start of the 1760s by the Stewarts.
This Scottish landed family introduced large-scale carrot farming to Northern Ireland.
At the old stables there’s a quaint coffee shop, while on the park’s borders are the Dunmurry and Malone golf clubs, high-quality courses both welcoming visitors.
21. Black Mountain
The Divis and Black Mountain are the highest peaks in the Belfast area, filling the city’s western horizon.
They stand at 478 and 388 metres respectively and are made up of limestone and basalt.
You can get up here in minutes from the city centre, to hike along four trails and contemplate views of Scotland, Donegal, the Strangford Lough, the Mournes and Sperrins.
Once you cross the first ridge you may forget there’s a capital city behind you as you amble among grazing horses and cattle, into upland heath and blanket bog.
22. Albert Memorial Clock
At just under 35 metres this neo-Gothic Victorian monument is a handy wayfinder on Queens Square, by the left bank of the River Lagan.
That square lies on land reclaimed from the river, and the clock tower was built in the late-1860s in memory of Queen Victoria’s consort and husband Prince Albert.
The clock is just upriver from the docks and would have been a useful vantage point to see the Titanic’s launch in 1911, but is sadly closed to visitors today.
The marshy ground underfoot has left the tower with a 1.3-metre lean, which was even worse until a preservation project in the early 2000s.
23. St George’s Market
The Friday market at this very spot has been trading since 1604. In the 1890s the marketplace was given a new iron and glass design, with a handsome brick facade and this was all restored in 1997. St George’s Market comes to life on Fridays when nearly 250 stalls trade at the Variety Market, selling antiques, books, clothes, fruit and vegetables, and with an generous 23 fishmongers.
Saturdays bring the epicurean delights of the City Food and Craft Market, when there’s artisanal coffee, tapas, crêpes, international cheeses and Northern Irish specialities like Cookstown pork and Beef from Armagh, all soundtracked by live music.
On Sundays you’ll find a cross between the Friday and Saturday markets, with more live music and masses handmade crafts.
24. Streamvale Open Farm
On Belfast’s eastern fringe, Streamvale is a genuine commercial farm that provides milk for the Dale Farm dairy brand.
But in the summer the whole enterprise is opened up to the public to give kids a privileged look into how a farm works.
You can see cows being milked, watch a border collie in action, feed lambs and goat kids and pet chicks, rabbits and border collie puppies.
There are tractor and pony rides, pedal go-karts, zip-lines and tyre swings.
The new Play Village is an agricultural-themed attraction with milking parlour, mechanic’s garage, vet and farm shop where kids can dress up learn about the different professions involved in farming.
25. A2 Road
At Belfast you can get behind the wheel for a drive you’ll never forget.
The A2 to Derry is also known as the Antrim Coast Road and the Causeway Coastal Route.
There’s an absurd amount of things to see on the way, from the UNESCO World Heritage Giant’s Causeway to romantic castle ruins, magnificent glens, basalt cliffs and a host of places where the hit show Game of Thrones was filmed.
When the weather’s good you’ll be tempted to park up at a fishing village for tea, wander a wild sandy beach, head off on a cliff-top walk or play a round at one of the profusion of courses.
The Old Bushmills Distillery has been perfecting its whiskey since 1784 and is open for tours, and just down the road you can test your legs on the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, 30 metres above the water.