In December I was fortunate enough to travel to Ireland with my family and boyfriend for a ten day getaway. We spent the first four days of our trip in Belfast, which is part of Northern Ireland.
Belfast is located an hour and a half north of Dublin where we flew in, and the drive there had me anxiously sitting at the edge of my seat. Since we were in the United Kingdom nobody had data on their phones, which made navigating a logistical nightmare. I highly recommend getting the google maps app on your phone before any international trip and downloading maps for where you’ll be. This isn’t too helpful when you’re going from one major city to another, but it makes life exponentially easier when you’re within the range of the map you downloaded. The best part is you can use turn-by-turn navigation while on airplane mode when you do it this way. Take my advice and save yourself the anxiety!
Once we made it safe and sound to our Airbnb off Laganview Court we were able to relax and explore all the city had to offer. There is so much to do, see, and eat in Belfast, and I hope this post empowers you to book a trip of your own!
What to Do
Here’s a general itinerary of what my family did in Belfast. We had the luxury of having a rental car (albeit a tiny one) which allowed us to see some of the more iconic sights outside of the city. There’s still plenty to do within the city if you don’t plan on renting a car, but if you’re stoked about some of the spots that are farther away but don’t have to means to get there on your own I recommend booking a tour with Gray Line Ireland. John and I went on one of those tours when we were in Dublin (blog post coming soon!) and it was a fun and affordable way to see the sights without a car.
Day 1: Visit the Giant’s Causeway, the rope bridge, and the Dark Hedges
Our first day in Belfast set the bar for the trip pretty high and ended up being one of my favorite days overall. We started the day by hopping in the rental car and driving an hour up to the coast in order to see the Giant’s Causeway. This five-mile stretch of coastline features over 40,000 iconic basalt columns that formed during a volcano millions of years ago. Irish mythology claims that the causeway was built by an giant named Finn MacCool so he could cross the Irish Sea and spy on a rival giant from Scotland. Once Finn saw how big and strong the Scottish giant was he ran across his bridge and destroyed it, which explains why the same basalt columns are present in Scotland.
The main attraction of the Giant’s Causeway is obviously the basalt columns and the towering cliffs, and while they were stunningly beautiful I got just as much enjoyment from looking at the rolling hills spotted with sheep and cottages that surrounded the cliffside.
A word of advice: if you visit the Giant’s Causeway don’t go to the visitor center! The area is free to the public, so if you park down the road and walk to the trail you can experience the magic of the causeway without paying for parking and the museum.
After we wandered around the causeway we got back in the car and drove along the coast on our way back to Belfast. We stopped by the Carrick-a-Rede bridge; a rickety rope bridge suspended almost 100 feet over the water that connects the coast with Carrick-a-Rede Island. The hike to the bridge is a mile long and the bridge itself stretches for 65 feet. If you’re afraid of heights then this definitely isn’t the attraction for you.
Our last destination as we drove down the coast was the Dark Hedges. This iconic road is surrounded on either side by beech trees that were planted in the eighteenth century and famously featured in Game of Thrones. The canopy was beautiful even during the frigid winter, but it was extremely crowded. Once again you don’t need to pay the fee to visit this site – just park on the side of the road and hop out of your car.
Day 2: Hunt for murals on a Black Cab tour, shop around Victoria Square, and visit the Ulster Museum and the Botanic Gardens
On day 2 we were all up bright and early because we had booked a Black Cab tour of the city. I wasn’t super excited about the tour at first but it ended up being super informative and interesting. Our driver picked us up at our Airbnb and showed us around the city while educating us about the Troubles.
A little over twenty years ago Northern Ireland faced huge turmoil, and Belfast got the worst of it. The conflict was predominately between Catholics and Protestant but wasn’t over religion: the Catholics identified as Irish whereas the Protestants identified as British and Irish. This was due to England’s occupation of Northern Ireland. During the twenty years that the Troubles went on the citizens of Belfast never felt safe. According to the Index of Death’s from the conflicts in Ireland, “More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict, of whom 52% were civilians, 32% were members of the British security forces, and 16% were members of paramilitary groups.”
As a result of the Troubles the city is covered in walls that divide Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic neighborhoods and in murals that depict the history of the city and memorialize people who died. It was fascinating and heartbreaking to learn about the hardships that the people of Belfast had to endure, but also inspiring to see how dedicated the people are to creating peace. Our cab driver told us that his family members and friends were killed during the Troubles, but he is raising his daughter with love and acceptance in her heart instead of prejudice.
Once the tour was over our driver offered to drop us off anywhere in the city, so we went to the Ulster Museum. This four story museum features art, natural history, and historical exhibits, and is completely free. We breezed through the museum because we wanted to see more of the city but you could easily turn this into a half-day activity.
Just outside the Ulster Museum are two large glass Botanic Gardens that are also free to the public. The gardens were hot and humid, so stepping inside felt like being back in Florida. I was shedding my many layers as I walked around admiring the flowers and spiky plants.
The Airbnb that my parents booked was walking distance from a huge indoor shopping mall called Victoria Square. The streets around the square are very pedestrian friendly and have lots of shops and cafes as well. Walking through the square was a nice way to decompress from the heaviness of the tour earlier in the day.
Day 3: See the C.S. Lewis Statues
My brother Alex was the one who suggested we see the C.S. Lewis statues, and when he first brought it up I quickly shot down the idea because I thought it was just another statue of an old guy. Man oh man was I wrong. For starters the statues are located in a beautiful park surrounded by murals and trees, and instead of depicting the author himself the statues are of his characters from the popular series The Chronicles of Narnia.
As we strolled through the park I felt like I was stepping into a fairytale world and reliving the wonder and amazement of my childhood. We weren’t able to explore the surrounding area as much as I would have liked because we were on our way out of Belfast, but it seemed like there was a lot to do nearby.
After three days in Belfast I felt like I had done so much, but looking back there is so much more that the city has to offer. I’m glad my family planned a trip that went all over Ireland but I could have easily spent three more days exploring Belfast.
Where to Eat
Belfast is home to some rocking restaurants and bars. Live music wafted out of every open door and the streets were crowded with people every single night while the pubs often had lines out the door.
Just a little disclosure before we get into the food: whenever I travel I’m less strict with my diet. I still strive to be mostly plant-based and to consider the environmental impact of what I eat, but I also want to fully experience the culture of wherever I am. Part of why I love traveling is because it allows me to try new things and experience things like a local, and I love eating while traveling for the same reasons. That being said I tried to incorporate as many vegan/vegetarian options as possible.
Wagamama is a chain of restaurants that serves Asian food inspired by Japanese cuisine. I had low expectations when we wound up at the mall on our search for dinner, but this tiny place served up some big flavors and did not disappoint. I’m a sucker for anything Asian – Thai food, Japanese food, Vietnamese food, you name it – and Wagamama hit the spot. They have plenty of vegetarian and vegan options with portions big enough for two meals.
I ordered a dish with tempura sweet potatoes, eggplant, and butternut squash over rice with a spicy curry sauce (pictured on the left) and John got a savory tofu ramen (pictured on the right). My family got non-vegetarian dishes and we all split veggie dumplings.
My parents wanted to go to Kelly’s Cellar because the internet told them it was one of the oldest pubs in Belfast – later we learned that every pub thinks it’s the oldest pub in Belfast. All that aside it was a lively pub with live music and tables packed with thirsty Irish men and women. We didn’t eat any food there but we all got Guinness (only a half pint in my case) because you can’t go to Ireland without drinking a Guinness from a pub.
The Dirty Onion
The Dirty Onion is an adorable hole-in-the-wall pub in Belfast that features live music almost every day of the week. Once again this was a quick pit stop for a pint to drink so I didn’t get to try the food. This pub was a stone’s throw away from Commerical Court; a busy corridor packed with bars, restaurants, murals, and hanging umbrellas.
The name and decor of this trendy restaurant suggest you’ll find Cuban food within it’s walls, but instead you’ll find modern Irish dishes with a separate vegan/vegetarian menu featuring local produce. The food was pretty good, but for a born and bred Cuban girl like me it was a little disappointing when I found out it wouldn’t be black beans and rice with platanos maduros like I was expecting.
The Crown Bar
The Crown Bar has very limited vegan options, so instead of eating a limp salad I opted for a salmon open sandwich. The bar downstairs was rowdy and full but the restaurant upstairs was classy and quiet. The food was delicious, and the dessert was even better.
Little Wings Pizzaria
This is hands down my favorite restaurant in Belfast. John and I walked through the rain to get to Little Wings Pizzaria for a late-night date night and the food blew me away. They had a vegan menu with all kinds of different pizzas but we opted for a simple Margherita pizza with a strawberry milkshake. Sometimes simpler really is better, and this pizza was living proof.
That’s all I have to say about my time in Belfast! Be on the lookout for more blog posts coming soon about the rest of our trip through Ireland.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption. Header photo by John Miller.