The capital city of Northern Ireland
, and second largest conurbation in the whole of the Emerald Isle (after Dublin
, Republic of Ireland
). But for decades Belfast was less associated with green than with grim – owing to the "Troubles". Sincet the Peace Process more or less brought an end to that, this very legacy has become a major element in the city's tourism portfolio. Here, dark tourism meets mainstream tourism like in only a few other places on Earth.
Belfast's other claim to fame that also has a dark twist is the Titanic
. That tragic ship was built here and that fact is now celebrated massively with a whole range of tourist attractions.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The name Belfast alone used to be on a par with Beirut as a worldwide symbol for a once-great city that had been drawn so deep into the quagmire of endless conflict that it was way off any tourist map. I remember that well. For outsiders like me the name Belfast stood for the whole Northern Ireland
conflict at least as much as Bloody Sunday
So when a university colleague of mine (when I still lived in Hamburg
) took up a job in Belfast in the early 1990s, we all thought he was mad to accept the offer and move there. Conditioned on the usual cue words whenever the name Belfast came up in the news, we only associated the place with bombs and bloodshed.
This has changed dramatically over the last 25 years or so. The end of "The Troubles" and a huge amount of regeneration investment that has flooded into the city since 1998 have totally transformed both the look and the feel of the place. It's now a really cool city destination with loads of intriguing attractions to offer that are more or less unique to Belfast (see below
But the grim past is not altogether in the past. This was brought home to me clearly while I was first there in early December 2012 and out of the blue the old tensions flared up again. Not because of me, of course. On 3 December (the day I happened to have arrived) the City Council decided to stop flying the Union Jack on the City Hall every day, and to restrict it to only a few special days. The Unionists/Loyalists were outraged and staged a protest the same evening. At one point they even broke into the City Hall. I was blissfully unaware of all this, having narrowly missed the events and was by then sitting in a pub in a different part of town … until I was alerted to what was going on by a friend in Dublin who texted me suggesting that I tune into the BBC – adding a sarcastic "Welcome to Ireland!". Back in my hotel room I then watched the news coverage, shaking my head …
Indeed, the enraged protests and riots sparked by Loyalists/Unionists carried on for weeks and months. In addition to rioting, there have even been death threats, vandalism, injuries, and – most worrying of it all – bombs were planted again (e.g. in Catholic churches), though none went off and killed anybody. But this development was as nasty and baffling to the outsider as the whole Northern Ireland
conflict has always been. One crucial difference to the past, however, is that on the party political front there is now agreement on all sides that the Peace Process must not be undermined by these recent outbursts of violence.
It is worrying, though, that there seems to be a dangerous combination of renewed underground orchestration of violence by radical organizations … the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) has been especially implicated. And that radicalism is feeding on the readiness for violent protests by mobs of angry young men (in the literal rather than literary sense). Organized masses of disillusioned angry young men is never good news.
And it didn’t go away after 2012. When I returned to Northern Ireland
in April 2023, there were again violent protests, not so much in Belfast but more in the area of Derry/Londonderry, where police cars were set on fire by angry mobs. I watched it on the news while in Belfast before heading to Derry/Londonderry
myself, and hence I got a little worried, but when I got there everything was quiet again.
However, one has to remember that the old and renewed troubles have never been directed against foreign visitors in Northern Ireland
(very much unlike in some other parts of the world today). I even heard it claimed by people from Belfast that it would always have been quite safe for a tourist to wander up the Falls
Road even back in the 1970s and 80s. That's perhaps a bit far-fetched, though. There had always been the risk of finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time when West Belfast
was seeing regular bombings and violent clashes between the factions. And you don't want to become caught in the middle of either, even if you are not the chosen target in the first place.
For today, this means you can probably still go to Belfast and feel perfectly safe and not even notice much of the tensions – as long as you stay away from any protests or known hotspots of trouble (such as Short Strand). Be informed. The City Hall, for instance, may not be a good place to include on your sightseeing plans on a day when a demonstration has been organized. But it may be cordoned off on such occasions anyway.
Most of Belfast's other tourist attractions, however, will remain unaffected by all this, including Black Taxi Tours
… that, if anything, should actually increase your safety, because the cabbies will almost certainly be aware of where to avoid if need be.
Having already dropped the names Falls Road
and Shankill Road
– what about the historical background then? Well, these two street names have become so associated with the Troubles because they are the main West Belfast
thoroughfares in the Catholic and Protestant quarters, respectively, where many clashes occurred … as well as bombings and drive-bys.
The close proximity of the two communities even prompted the authorities to build a wall to physically separate the opposing sides from each other. It was only supposed to be a temporary measure in the early 1970s, but the wall is still there. That means it's already been in existence longer than the Berlin Wall
was! The Belfast wall is euphemistically called the "Peace Line" – and indeed there have been efforts in making it look a bit more placid and friendly. But for the most part there is no denying that it is still a grim and ugly piece of architecture. It's literally concrete evidence that not all trouble is really over. See under Black Taxi Tours
and West Belfast
The other big ‘T’ in tourism in Belfast revolves around the “Titanic
”. The tragic ship was built (like many, many others) at the Harland & Wolff shipyard on Queen’s Island in Belfast’s harbour on the eastern bank of the River Lagan. Today a large part of Queen’s Island has been redeveloped into what’s now called Titanic Quarter
. At the heart of this is a flashy state-of-the-art museum of sorts (although they prefer to call it an “experience”). But you can find “Titanic” commemorated and celebrated in many other parts of town as well.
What there is to see: Quite a lot these days. More than you may expect at first. The main points of interests/activities for dark tourists to aim for in Belfast are given the following separate entries here:
There is a clear split into two main categories of dark tourism in Belfast, one Troubles-related
, the other concerned with the legacy of the "Titanic"
. The latter is a relatively new development, boosted massively by the 2012 centennial of the ship's sinking. The even darker political, Troubles-related bits, on the other hand, have been attracting attention ever since Belfast began opening up to tourism. This happened following the official end of the Troubles, marked especially by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent formation of a power-sharing government at the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The home of the latter is thus of related interest: the huge Stormont
estate on the eastern edge of Belfast. The imposing parliament building can be visited, there are even guided tours (at given times – check ahead), but security is tight. For good reason. In 2006, Stormont was the target of one of the most bizarre attacks, namely by the Loyalist radical and paramilitary volunteer Michael Stone. He first scrawled graffiti on the walls of the parliament building and then attempted to break in, apparently with the intent to murder leading Republican politicians, but he was overpowered and disarmed by security guards. It turned out that his firearm was a fake (his knives, nail bombs and a garrotte were not, though). He later claimed in his defence that the whole charade was an "art performance" – what a joke! But the authorities were not amused. Stone had been in prison for murders committed in 1988 (at a funeral in Milltown Cemetery
!) but was released in 2000 under the Good Friday Agreement. After his almost comical 2006 stunt at Stormont he was sentenced again for another 16 years ... so by now he should be out again. Let's see whether he'll behave now.
In the city centre, the City Hall
is also of interest. I don't mean because of its attraction of Loyalist demonstrations and rioting, but rather for some details in the publicly accessible parts of the interior. Note especially the stained-glass windows in the corridor leading from the central hall to the north wing. These are quite modern and include many references to Belfast's history, including the Great Famine in Ireland
and the "Titanic
". But it also goes beyond Belfast; for instance, I also spotted a window dedicated to the Spanish Civil War
Just outside the north wing stands the city's main Titanic Memorial
. The original main part is a classic affair of statues and plaques with names (including the ship's designers). Just behind it is now a more modern Titanic Memorial Garden
. This opened on 15 April 2012, i.e. the exact centenary day of the tragedy, and apart from a panel with a complete list of all those who perished in the disaster, there are also a few background information panels and a map detailing other Titanic
-related sights in Belfast (see Titanic Quarter
and Titanic Tours
A key attraction not only for dedicated dark tourists but for any tourist with an interest in the history of the place are the famous political (and these days also non-political) murals of West Belfast
. One well-established dark-tourist activity in Belfast to cover this aspect are the famous political tours by black taxi – or their equivalent walking or even coach tours – see under the separate entries for Black Taxi Tours
and West Belfast
Guided tours (whether by taxi or on foot) usually concentrate on the murals on the Falls Road
and some also take in the Shankill
ones and many also stop at the Peace Line
(i.e. wall). But there are many more murals and other manifestations of the divided political positions in other parts of the city as wel, such as in the Loyalist East Belfast
. The Catholic enclave around Short Strand
on the eastern side of the river may also be a bit dicey to visit at times. But you may well be passing some of those murals when being driven around (like I was en route to Stormont), so keep your eyes open. It may also be possible to ask for an extended customized Black Taxi tour
to take in those less touristy murals.
Also related to the Troubles is another street in West Belfast: Crumlin Road
. Not only is the notorious Crumlin Road Gaol
here, which has been turned into another major tourist attraction. Right opposite, the dark tourist may also get a kick out of the derelict former Crumlin Road Courthouse
. This was not only associated with the Jail opposite for obvious functional reasons, but also was physically linked to it by means of an underground passage. Unlike the prison, though, the courthouse has not (yet) been developed for tourism. There had been plans to that effect, but vandalism and a succession of fires put an end to these for the foreseeable future. So it just stands there as an imposing ruin.
Bookworms or anyone who wants to dig really deep into the history and all aspects of the Troubles should head for the famous Linen Hall Library opposite City Hall. Its Northern Ireland Political Collection is simply second to none: 250,000 items of all types covering every opinion and political angle imaginable that has ever been put out about the Troubles between 1969 and the present day. Totally unique. It's open daily except Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (only to 4 p.m. on Saturdays); free.
Another exercise in trying to take in the views from all sides involved in the conflict could be had at the Police Museum at the Police Service of Northern Ireland HQ at 65 Knock Road in Brooklyn, near Stormont. As this police service is the successor of the controversial Royal Ulster Constabulary, it's also known as the RUC museum. I've not seen this either but amongst the displays are said to be "terrorist weapons" used against the police during the Troubles. (Nominally open to the public on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., free guided tours of 40 minutes duration are offered; it's best to check ahead).
Finally, one spot in the city centre, namely on Great Victoria Street, shall be pointed out here even though today it doesn't look remotely like any thing dark at all: the refurbished Grand Opera House and the Europa Hotel next door. The opera was badly damaged by IRA
bombs in the 1990s. At the time the hotel next to the opera was the main base for journalists. So it was joked that maybe the IRA brought the bombs close to the journos so they didn't even have to leave the hotel bar. In realty it was more likely the hotel itself that was the actual target. Today there are no signs of anything sinister at all. The Opera House rather impresses through its OTT Victorian decorative opulence, which even includes carved elephants' heads and such oriental elements.
On my second trip to Belfast in April 2023 I made sure I stayed a few nights in the Europa Hotel. It’s a perfectly functional business/tourist hotel, but the sense of history makes it special. In one part of the large lobby area is a history corner which outlines the role the Europa has played during the Troubles and since, and also names a number of illustrious guests who have stayed there.
All in all
, Belfast impressed me more than I had anticipated when I first went there in 2012. Not only did I find it a very pleasant and friendly place, but also extremely interesting. I had far too little time in the city on that occasion; so when I returned in April 2023, in contrast, I made sure I had plenty of time at my disposal, eight days it total, in fact. And I had no trouble at all filling these.
Access and costs:
fairly easy to get to overland from within (Northern) Ireland, also by air; quite variable price-wise.
To get to Belfast from within Northern Ireland
or from the Republic of Ireland
, buses are the usual form of public transport. To/from Dublin
there are also train links, but these cost about twice as much, unless you pre-book well in advance. Both the main train station and bus station are centrally located, at East Bridge Street and Great Victoria Street, respectively.
Driving by hire car in these parts can also cost you a pretty penny. It's only recommended if you really absolutely need the flexibility and want to go independently to places otherwise not so easily reachable.
Belfast has two (!) airports. One is labelled "international", located some 20 miles (30 km) south of the city and has connections to Great Britain
, Europe and even to the USA
). The other, newer airport is George Best Belfast City Airport (so renamed after the city's notorious, flamboyantly boozing, but greatly talented footballer superstar who died in 2005). This airport is much closer to the city centre, only 4 miles (6 km) away and also has various connections to Great Britain as well as to Paris
within Belfast is mostly doable on foot with relative ease. The centre is certainly walkable, and even to get to the Titanic Quarter
you only need to cross the river and follow the new footpaths along the other bank. To see the West Belfast
murals, most people go on a tour (especially by Black Taxi
), but it is also doable on foot, guided or unguided. Walking all the way to the end of Falls Road
and Milltown Cemetery
will take a while, though. So may want to take a bus (run under the umbrella of "Translink").
in Belfast can be expensive if you go for one of the luxurious new boutique hotels, of which a couple are quite spectacular new developments (such as the grand Titanic Hotel – see Titanic Quarter
); but you can also find very reasonable prices if you go for a simple chain hotel (even bang in the centre), B&B, guest house or hostel.
With regard to food & drink
, there's also plenty of choice these days. Furthermore Belfast sports a pub scene that can almost Dublin
's, and a few are veritable tourist sights in themselves (see below
). You can even book guided pub crawl walking tours.
And you no longer have to make do with the ubiquitous mass-produced stout that everybody associates with Ireland,. The craft beer revolution has reached Northern Ireland too by now, and there are excellent locally brewed beers to be had in Belfast both in brewery taprooms and at a number of pubs. Moreover, whisky distilling has also returned to Belfast (see Titanic Quarter
!). Wines remain all imported, though, as is the coffee served in numerous trendy cafes. Tap water is good to drink here too; no need to go for bottled water.
In culinary terms, Belfast has turned into a veritable gourmet hotspot! Eating out is a veritable pastime in Belfast and indeed I’ve rarely had so many excellent restaurant meals in succession as in Belfast when I visited in April 2023, from outstanding seafood to highly creative all-vegetarian Asian fusion cuisine. Even the fish & chips I had in a very traditional establishment near the Great Victoria Street bus station was well above the average standard for that ultimately British type of fast food. Of course, the other end of the culinary scale hasn’t gone away, so it pays off to do some preparatory homework before heading for Belfast to make sure you make the best of the wide range of options. I’m not dropping names here, but if you contact me
personally I could give some concrete tips regarding pubs and restaurants.
Some pubs also echo the political divide of Northern Ireland
, with some defiantly Union-Jack-clad Loyalist establishments (especially in the Shankill
area) to staunchly Republican equivalents. One of the most established city centre pubs was also the place where a young Gerry Adams pulled pints as a young man (before ascending to the leadership of Sinn Féin). So you get dark elements even when it comes to the city’s watering holes!
Time required: Most visitors make do with only a long weekend or so, but for the dark tourist that is nowhere near enough. A whole week is a much better estimate, especially if you really want to explore the political aspects in detail and view the murals that are a bit off the usually trodden path. On my second visit in April 2023 I spent eight days in Belfast and never ran out of things to see and do.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Belfast is one of very, very few places on Earth where the prime dark-tourist attractions are also in the top league of mainstream tourism at the same time. (Don't just take my word for it – check the ranking on e.g. Tripadvisor!)
But of course the city also has lots to offer beyond these. The city may not be especially pretty in many parts, but there is plenty of splendid Victorian architecture in the centre, for instance Belfast's own leaning tower, the Albert Memorial Clock Tower. It's not quite as inclined as its famous Pisa counterpart, but it is visibly tilted. Other traditional architectural highlights include the City Hall, bang in the centre, and Queen’s University in the south of the city, or the splendid greenhouse in the Botanical Gardens further south still (near the Ulster Museum).
The riverbanks have undergone a massive refurbishment all round, though not all new architecture is visually appealing. The river itself, however, is another success story. It used to be so polluted that it stank to the heavens, now it's largely been cleaned up. So much so that even salmon can migrate up its course again. As if to celebrate that fact, one of the largest public pieces of art in the city is the Big Fish by the western end of the Lagan Weir. Its tiles depict various aspects of Belfast history.
Even if you discount all the Titanic developments, Belfast also boasts other landmarks of industrial heritage, such as the old Clarendon docks north of the centre on the west bank of the river just beyond the nearby Harbour Office and Seamen's Church. The area around these landmarks, however, shows signs of city development strategies that did not exactly take aesthetic aspects into much consideration. The most drastic example is the motorway overpass that slices straight through the city like a chainsaw. Well, ugly as it may look, at least it makes road access convenient (same as, infamously, in Birmingham).
In addition, there are of course yet more museums, various churches/cathedrals, parks, a very good zoo, and so on and so forth. Shoppers can find plenty of shopping streets and shopping centres too these days – especially Victoria Square with its spectacular dome over the central atrium (you can go up and enjoy a fantastic view from the top).
Foodies can head for St George's Market, a Victorian covered market. And Belfast's own Christmas market in December is a very cool place for foody discoveries as well (I discovered some outstanding Irish craft cheese specialities there!)
And if all this makes you thirsty, then the Belfast pub scene beckons. The city has a huge range of often very atmospheric pubs of all types. A few are top tourist sights in themselves. This is particularly true for the famous Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street. Both its exterior and interior are an extravaganza in Italian tiles and Victorian OTT decorative design. OK, it's more for tourists than for locals, but it's absolutely worth a look.