If you’ve never been to Belfast, Northern Ireland, you are in for a treat. Set aside any preconceived notions of a dull and dirty industrial city besieged by the dark legacy of “The Troubles.” Instead, prepare to discover a lively culture that charms and welcomes visitors. Belfast is chock full of fun activities for both adults and kids alike, and the city is a genuine treat to explore.
I hope to infuse my travel bug and world curiosity into my two kids (11 and 13 years old), so spending a weekend in Northern Ireland seemed like a fun learning and entertainment activity for all of us. Just like most people, my perception of the country has been so thoroughly tainted by The Troubles that I was a bit hesitant at first. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, travel is fatal to prejudice. Like many instances before, I found this maxim to be true once again.
The Belfast botanical garden and Queens University
We started our day out with an early morning walk in the Belfast botanical garden, enjoying the fall colors, the chirping of birds and the lively activity of squirrels diligently preparing for winter. While it was a bit chilly, we were fortunate in that we experienced no rain. To be fair, that is an anomaly for autumn so be sure to dress appropriately.
Directly adjacent to the gardens is the beautiful campus of Queen’s University. The main building, in its dramatic Gothic style, is a real pleasure to stroll through. Be sure to check out the magnificent great hall and its famed portrait gallery.
Breakfast at Saint George’s Market
After our morning meander, we made our way over to Saint George’s Market, Belfast’s oldest and largest. Here, we found a wide mix of cuisines, from traditional Irish soda bread to spicy Indian curries. My boys were particularly intrigued by the massive Spanish paella dishes.
The Titanic Museum
The Titanic was built in Belfast’s historic shipping yards and is still the pride of town. Though ship manufacturing is no longer common here, it’s hard to underestimate the legacy that shipping has imprinted on this port city. The modern and impressive Titanic Museum is a definite highlight and a major draw for both locals and tourists alike.
The largest trampoline park in the world
Breaking up sightseeing with fun activities is one of my secrets to ensuring that my kids enjoy these types of vacations. That’s why our next destination was Vertigo Belfast, the world’s largest trampoline park. You better believe both the boys loved that one! Besides the giant maze of trampolines, there’s also a ninja obstacle courses and skydiving available, though for an extra fee. Vertigo is conveniently located next to the Titanic Museum. By the way, it was freezing inside so be sure to bring jackets!
Exploring around town
We spent the next day exploring around town, enjoying the pretty Georgian, Victorian, and Gothic architecture, interspersed with modernist glass and steel high-rises. We made plenty of stops to sample the local desserts found in shops around town – which is also my other secret to successfully traveling with kids!
Taverns in downtown
When it comes time for dinner, nothing beats the fun and lively culture associated with Irish taverns. And those in Belfast didn’t disappoint in the least bit. Check out the absolutely beautiful and timeless Crown Saloon, the oldest in town. Its elaborate interior is composed entirely of beautiful ceramic tile, colorful stained glass and rich mahogany wood.
Halloween and the Belfast Monster March
As American kids living in Europe for a year, my boys were disappointed that they would miss Halloween. Yet, fortune shines on the curious. By pure luck, we happened to be in Belfast on the weekend of the Monster March. This is a giant celebration of Halloween, with over 30,000 people coming together in the old dockyards to eat, listen to live music and dress up. Though we were ignorant about the origins of this event, that didn’t seem to bother my boys in the least bit. We popped into a shop, bought some masks and jumped right into the parade. The evening was topped with a firework display over the harbor. How lucky we got!
Word on the street has it that the Monster March in Londonderry, about two hours from Belfast, is even more exciting. I guess we’ll have to check that out on another trip someday.
The Belfast peace walls
Google “The Troubles” to learn more about Northern Ireland’s historic struggle between Protestants and Catholics, republicans and unionists. Fortunately, the era of inter-religious violence seems to have largely ended. But get into a cab and you’ll quickly discover that the underlying tensions still simmer beneath. Depending on your driver’s political view, you’ll get two wildly different perspectives of what happened and how to resolve an issue that dates back centuries.
Cabbies are used to tourists asking for a trip to see the Belfast peace walls – massive concrete and steel barriers that still physically separate antagonistic neighborhoods. A maze of security cameras monitor intersections in high-risk areas and automatic gates shut down movement at night to and fro the affected areas. While this helps mitigate the risk of violence erupting, it leaves a surreal impression of a town divided. Just catch any cab and ask to be taken to the wall to experience if for yourself.
There are lots of mansions to explore around Belfast. We decided to forgo the typical trip to Belfast Castle and instead drove to the nearby town of Carrickfergus. Here, we had a chance to check out the ancient Norman castle, dating back to 1177 CE. Afterward, we stopped by for breakfast at a local pub – a nice way to start our day exploring rural Northern Ireland.
The countryside and the Giant’s Causeway
Belfast is surrounded by rolling hills on all sides and escaping the city is a breeze. I highly recommend setting aside a day for a drive through the lush and rural countryside. Farms, fields and livestock abound in all directions. One of the favorite destinations is to drive north along the coast to see the Giant’s Causeway. This is a natural rock formation that lines the beach and local lore has it that a giant built it so he could walk across the Irish Sea from Scotland.
GoT enthusiasts will also be excited to know that numerous filming locations can be visited within just a couple of hours from Belfast. The location of the scene of the Dark Hedges seems to be among the most popular.
So do yourself a favor and check out Belfast. My boys loved their time there and go as far as saying it was one of their favorite European cities they’ve visited so far. That in itself made the trip worthwhile for me. Hope you’ll enjoy it as well.