Belfast, a city previously defined by The Troubles, is quick becoming a destination worthy of a city break. Slowly rising from its dark past, Belfast is less crowded and cheaper than Dublin.
There for two days before a race weekend in Dublin, I was excited to explore a new city, and see more of the beautiful Irish countryside.
Day 1: Exploring the city
Exhausted from a late night arrival, we slept in and had a slow morning at our Airbnb. Mid-morning, we walked into the city to start exploring.
We didn’t have a plan in mind, per se but knew there were a few things and places we wanted to check out over the course of the day. This is where Google maps come in handy, and why I love them so much- having plotted out a few stops we wanted to make, it was easy to see where things were as we explored.
Stops on our day of exploring:
- St Georges Market: Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, more than 150 traders set up stalls offering everything from crafts to antiques to fresh baked bread and gorgeous produce.
- The Crown Saloon: Owned by the National Trust, this beautiful Victorian pub has been in operation since 1885. The decor is incredible- most of the finishings are original. A real gem. I’ve included a few more of the pubs we enjoyed below, but this should be considered a can’t miss for a glimpse into Belfast’s history.
- The Cathedral Quarter & Commercial Court: The perfect spot for a night out- plenty of great bars and restaurants. Also, charm is everywhere with cobbled streets, colorful murals and beautiful brick buildings.
- Titanic Belfast: As the city that built her, Belfast is the home of the Titanic. The museum is a tribute to Belfast’s shipbuilding industry with a focus on how the Titanic came to be- it’s even built on the slipways where the ship was constructed over 100 years ago. We were here for a little over two hours, and really enjoyed the experience. Definitely book tickets in advance though, the museum gets very busy, and if you buy day-of, you may have to wait over an hour to enter.
- The Merchant Hotel: Renovated from the old Ulster Bank, the hotel’s restaurant and bar exude elegance. We popped in for a few drinks at the bar, it’s considered to be one of the best hotels in the world for cocktails. I loved the menu- it’s built on classic services, but offers alternate versions for each one in case you want to try something new.
- Food & Drink:
- Established Coffee: Proper coffee, the espresso was excellent
- Root & Branch: Popped in here for flat whites on our second day on the way to our coastal tour, small simple cafe with good brews
- The Pocket: Love a cute local coffee shop
- Little Wing Pizzeria: Great lunch stop if you’re on a budget – we had the £6 pizza and salad deal
- Made in Belfast: Good craft brews, and although we didn’t eat anything here, the menu looked great
- Muriel’s Cafe Bar: Great cocktails, we came here for another pre-dinner tipple after The Merchant hotel
- The Duke of York: Adorable, lively pub
- Kelly’s Cellars: One of Belfast’s oldest pubs, it’s said to be the best authentic Irish bar in the city – was certainly lively on a Friday evening
- Bittles: An odd shaped pub with great music and a good selection on draft
- The John Hewitt: Another good pub, we came here because I heard they had a solid cider selection
- Bootleggers: The food here is so good, we came for dinner two nights in a row. It’s rare you find a place with ace cocktails, great beer selection and lots of delicious vegetarian options on the menu. The halloumi tacos and burger were amazing
With only one day to see as much of the city as possible, there were a few things we didn’t get to, but I’ve heard great things about, like the Black Cab tours and street art in the west.
Day 2: Driving the Causeway Coast
Regarded as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route is the kind of rugged coastline you don’t really find anywhere else in the UK.
Travelling with one other person we looked at the cost of renting a car for our coastal explorations, but ultimately decided it would be more affordable (and easier) for us to join one of the guided Causeway tours.
Normally not one for guided tours, I was a bit hesitant about signing up for a mass group experience. But, when found a Game of Thrones tour with Irish Tour Tickets that had great reviews and stopped at every place both of us were interested in seeing, we decided to go for it.
Turned out to be a great decision. Even though we were on a coach, our driver kept us on a tight schedule- at most stops, we arrived ahead of other buses, which meant no where we went was too crowded.
Back to the tour. I’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but still enjoyed the tour. The reason we decided to do the GoT tour over the other Causeway options was because of the day’s final stop at the Dark Hedges.
First stop: Carnlough, a quaint Irish coastal village. We were only stopped here for 20 minutes, but it was just enough time to walk around the harbour and snap a few pictures.
Next, we drove to the Cushenden Caves. After perusing the caves for a bit, we walked through town, popping into a cosy cafe for raspberry scones to bring back to the bus for an afternoon snack.
Heading further north, we drove through beautiful valleys- so much greenery and endless rolling hillsides.
On the way to the Giant’s Causeway, we stopped for pictures at Dunluce Castle. Roofless castle ruins on the edge of a cliff? Breathtaking. The medieval castle is also said to be inspiration for many fantasy writers.
Early afternoon, we arrived at the Giant’s Causeway, a definite highlight of the afternoon. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the causeway’s unique look was formed by volcanic activity 60 million years ago.
Although, local legend would have you believe otherwise. Legend says a giant by the name of Finn McCool was having trouble with someone across the water. The Scottish giant Benandonner was thought to be threatening Ireland. An enraged Finn grabbed chunks of the Antrim coast and threw them into the sea, forming a path for Finn to follow to teach Benandonner a lesson.
Folklore aside, the causeway is spectacular, so unique in appearance, it’s hard to believe it’s real. Some of the columns are appear symmetrical, it seems only logical they’d be human crafted but that’s not the case.
When we visited, it was crowded, but still enjoyable. We had two and a half hours here, and spent the entire time walking along the columns and hiking the coast. There’s also a visitor’s centre with a cafe, toilets and educational materials.
Ready for the next adventure, we hopped on the coach and drove to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Before heading to the bridge, we stopped at Larrybane, a limestone quarry with gorgeous views where scenes from GoT were shot.
Ready to challenge my fear of heights, we picked up our bridge tickets and hiked 20 minutes to the start of the bridge. We couldn’t have been more lucky with the weather- 60 degrees F, sunny and a light breeze keeping us cool from the water.
The rope bridge played a big role in Northern Ireland’s history, with salmon fisherman crossing the bridge daily during fishing season with their daily catch. Since the bridge opened to the public, they’ve ensured safety features, like two side handles for crossers to grip while walking across.
A few years ago, crossing the rope bridge wouldn’t have been laughable for me- I had such a paralysing fear of heights, I couldn’t even look at the window of high office buildings. Since then, I’ve made major progress in becoming more comfortable off the ground, even skydiving once. That said, while the bridge is high (but not unbelievably high), I did find myself taking deep breaths across the bridge each time I crossed it.
Even if you don’t want to cross the bridge, seeing it and walking along the adjacent cliffs is reason enough to visit.
At last our final stop of the day, the Dark Hedges. The hedges are almost surreal- towering hedges shading part of a country road, surrounded by farm side.
Back in Belfast at 6 pm, we headed to Kelly’s, one of the oldest pubs in Belfast for a few pints with the after-work Friday crowd. Next up: A stop at another pub, Bitter’s, before heading to Bootleggers for burgers, fries and a couple craft cocktails.
A beautiful two days in Northern Ireland.
Have you ever been to Northern Ireland? Have you explored Belfast or drove along the Causeway Coast?