How does driving, not flying, to another country for some culture, history, countryside and cocktails sound? Not too shabby, I hear you squeak. How about, Belfast? It’s so close you have been meaning to organise a trip up there but it hasn’t happened yet. Well, no more excuses. Come with me for the weekend on the 2-hour journey from Dublin to Belfast and see what Northern Ireland’s capital has to offer, where to eat and where to stay.
Where to stay
Belfast has an ample supply of budget hotels to choose from and a double room, two-night weekend break costs from around €130 (at time of publishing this article) in a Holiday Inn/ Ramada Encore/ Travel Lodge/ Park Inn/ Ibis style hotel. I love the accessibility of the Cathedral quarter to stay in as it is close to everything and only a 30-minute walk to the Titanic Museum. I usually choose a chain/budget hotel as I am hardly in the hotel at all so it doesn’t need to be fancy. Of course, there are plenty of top-notch hotels in the city to choose from but for my budget conscious teachers who want to be in the centre of the action without spending too much check out the list above for deals.
Where to drink n’ dine
Ok so you arrive on Friday evening and you’re ready to chill out after a long week at work. Go to Bert’s Jazz Bar at the Merchant Hotel on Skipper Street for a French bistro style menu and delectable cocktails.
They have great, live jazz from 9 pm and if you appreciate The Great Gatsby style you will relish an evening here. Oozing Art Deco glamour this sultry, smooth bar has a cocktail menu to satiate your taste buds expertly prepared by knowledgeable bar staff. I’m going to recommend the Hemmingway daiquiri made with Havana rum, lime juice, and homemade grapefruit sherbet because it’s scrumptious.
Maybe you’re coming with kids and fancy something a little less Hemmingway. If tummies full of pulled pork tacos and drinks in mason jars ticks your boxes, visit Bootleggers on Church Lane. In keeping with the 1920’s era but a very different kettle of fish to your Gatsby gang. The Prohibition vibe in this establishment is more likely to echo of outlaws and moonshiners but great to feed your little gangsters. The taco x 3 is a great deal and will leave you stuffed but if not, add a chili dog, nachos or mozzarella sticks to the mix for a reasonably priced family meal.
Head back to the hotel because your Saturday is going to be a busy one!
What to do
Bear in mind, if you don’t have a car you can join one of the many tour groups that leave from Belfast city centre and takes in many of Antrim’s stunning, must see locations.
This sample itinerary from City Sightseeing Belfast costs £30pp.
- Check in at 9:00am
- Depart Belfast at 9:15am
- Carrickfergus Castle
- Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
- Bushmills Whiskey Distillery Visitor Centre
- Giants Causeway Site & Visitor Centre
- Dunluce Castle
- Drive through Cushendall, Glenariff and Cushendun villages
- Return to Belfast approx 6:30pm
What to do: Antrim countryside/ Game of Thrones film locations
If you are driving, the Antrim coast is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline I have ever seen. Ireland really is a stunning island. Hop in the car and head straight for the Causeway Coast from Belfast city centre. This day trip can be tailored to suit if you are packing little ones in the car too. You may want to go straight to the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge but if you do have time why not add a Game of Thrones detour to your drive. I could write an entirely new post on my Game of Thrones film locations tour but I will save that for another day. Even if you aren’t a fan I would highly recommend a drive to the Dark Hedges as early in the day as you can, to avoid having crowds of tourists in your photo.
Visit Castle Ward the location for Winterfell and (you need to pre book) meet direwolves and practice your archery skills. Drive the Dothraki Sea/ The Great Grass Sea through Binevenagh in the Glens of Antrim and follow in the hoofprints of Khaleesi and her hordes.
Or, you know, don’t. Even if you aren’t a Game of Thrones fan it’s still stunning countryside to admire on your way north (to The Wall, just saying!).
What to do: Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope bridge visit can get busy in sunny weather so be prepared for a bit of a wait. I have visited twice and only waited once (for 30 minutes) before being able to walk from the entry way to the rope bridge.
First erected by salmon fishermen in 1755 it is now maintained by the National Trust. Tickets are £7 for adults and £3.50 for children with family ticket prices available. Depending on the crowds you can be in and out of here in about an hour and a half. Also, the quarry car park was used as a film location for Game of Thrones.
There are information boards at each location with scenes from the show on them to give you an idea. There is a small coffee shop outside the ticket office for snacks. The rope bridge is staffed and the guides have fun facts about the island and its visitors. If you are incredibly lucky you may see a dolphin or seal. The rope bridge seems a bit hairy but in reality, the walk across is short and the bridge doesn’t rock unless you actively jump up and down on it. The staff are quick to quash that sort of carry on and only allow a small number of people on the bridge at a time. Do look down as the colour of the water on a clear, sunny day is positively tropical.
What to do: Giant’s Causeway
Leave at least 2-3 hours for the Giants Causeway UNESCO Heritage site and enjoy the leisurely pace of the audio tour and there will NEED to be plenty of photos taken here. I mean this place is the geography of legends. Everyone remembers Fionn McCool in their books at school. Book your tickets online (£9 online £10.50 standard adult ticket) to save a few pounds before hand. It is a fair bit of a walk from the visitor’s centre right out to the cliff walk past the organ pipes, so just bear that in mind for time keeping’s sake. There are restrooms and a dining area in the Visitor Centre fyi. They say this causeway was built by the giant in an attempt to reach Scotland, which also has a similar natural site on its western shore. Curiouser and curiouser.
What to do: Bushmills Distillery
Now if you have no sprogs in tow you may want to venture further out to the Bushmills Distillery. You will pass Ballintoy Harbor which is another film location for Game of Thrones, Pike. When I was there, there was a group of people (adults, they were all adults) dressed in GoT costumes and play fighting on the beach. They weren’t filming but I think it may be part of a Game of Thrones tour.
Whiskey isn’t my drink but it is the oldest working distillery in Ireland so surely worth a visit, right?! Adult tickets are £8.
Learn about the family run craft of oak aged barrel whiskey and check before hand if they are running tasting experiences on the day you are there.
More drink n’ dine options
Drive by Dunluce castle at sunset for some spectacular photos and marvel at the beauty of our coastline as the dusk rolls in.
After a fun filled day out you can refresh back at your hotel before wandering for dinner to Acton & Sons off Brunswick Street which is open until 10 pm with a full vegetarian menu. I can recommend the seabass and the harissa spiced chicken flatbreads. Not to harp on but they do have a good gin menu, try the Millers with strawberry and black peppercorn and Fevertree tonic. Yum. Also, their ‘grown up lemonade cocktail is just the treat after a long day of exploring and humming the GoT theme tune!
I really enjoyed 21 Social on Hill Street for its contemporary menu and friendly staff. All of these eateries are a short walk away from many budget hotels meaning you need to spend less money on taxis and more on yourself!
What to do: Sunday Funday food and fun-tertainment
Sunday mornings are made for cappuccinos and croissants. If, like me, you prefer not to avail of the standard, budget hotel breakfast in favour of discovering a local gem or patisserie then why not try Harlem Café on Bedford Street. A popular, little eclectic spot serving hot and cold breakfast dishes. It’s open from 9-11:45 am for breakfast at the weekend. If you would rather get going and grab something on the go stroll to St Georges Market. Combine a visit to this historic weekend market hall with a spot of breakfast before you start your busy day. St Georges is a stunning example of Victorian architecture and the last example of a covered market in Belfast. Inside there’s a mixture of food, furniture, and a few knick knack stalls. Walk and munch and tick this place off your list. Opening times Sat 9-3 Sun 10-4.
History and Culture
Start your Belfast history walk off with a stroll to the city hall who run free tours from June to September, I am told. Sounds like something I need to add to the list for my next visit.
Then head to Crumlin City Gaol who are open from 9am-5pm daily. 150 years of history lie within its walls and guided tours start from 10 am. The gaol closed its doors as a working prison in 1996 and is now used as a concert venue and conference centre. This prison’s history dates back to 1845 and even housed Eamon de Valera for a month as well as segregated Republican and Loyalist prisoners. There’s even a tunnel under the road running from the court house to the gaol to allow for easy prisoner transport. Tickets cost £9.00 for adults and £6.50 for children up to 15yrs. This is a good one for your primary age children as this prison used to house children during Victorian times and a full education program details what life was like in the gaol for children and has photos and costumes for added authenticity. You need to call ahead to check the availability of this program as it does not follow the main Gaol tour route.
Things to do: Black Taxi Tour
Belfast’s Black taxi tours can easily be arranged through your hotel reception and tickets cost around £35. I have been on three of these tours and each has been slightly different, depending on your driver. The drivers are locals with a personal knowledge and experience of the area. They drive you around the Falls and Shankill Roads explaining the reasons for the rise in hostilities that led to the Troubles. The tour includes seeing murals and memorial gardens to both sides as well as a really interesting insight into what life was like for ordinary, non political people living in fear during the Troubles. The sheer height of the peace wall is mind blowing. From 5.5m – 7.6m the segment of the wall on Bombay street/ Cupar Way highlights just how much the segregation was necessary in order to protect or divide both sides. These tours last, usually, about an hour and 15/30 minutes.
Things to do: Belfast Museums
In my opinion, I’ve saved the best for last. The Titanic Museum. I would highly recommend booking your tickets in advance to avoid having to wait for a time slot and possibly missing out altogether. This is one of my favourite museums in the country. The Titanic museum beautifully explores the birth of the Harland and Wolff shipyard and the commissioning of the Titanic and her sister ships as well as the heart wrenching stories from survivors.
The museum includes an informative, ride up through the gantry and explains the various jobs and trades at work on the ship. From her blueprints to her maiden voyage and the tragic subsequent demise this museum is a history lesson come to life of this ill fated ship.
One of my favourite parts, by far, is the exploration of the wreckage seen below the glass floor. There is also, included in your ticket, admission to the S.S Nomadic, the tender ship to the Titanic, berthed outside the museum. Check the website for opening hours and online tickets are priced at £18 per adult, £8 for children 5-16 and under 5s free.
If your little ones are too little for the Titanic Experience then not to worry because right across the road is the wonderful science museum W5. This interactive discovery centre is aimed at awakening curiosity and imagination in children about the world around them. Tickets start at £9.80 for adults and £7.50 for children. The Construction zone, Spacebase (extra cost), Discovery area and an augmented reality experience are all sure to keep them entertained for at least 30 minutes!
Belfast has lots to offer and I know I just scratched the surface but for your first introductory weekend to Belfast, it’s a jam packed, full of fun one!