Often known only as the setting for the conflict that plagued the city throughout the late-20th century, Belfast is still struggling to fully shed the reputation of its darker past in the eyes of tourists. But in reality, Belfast has long since rebounded from “The Troubles,” evolving into a young, vibrant, and laid-back city that’s become one of the most exciting destinations not just in the United Kingdom, but all of Europe. While there’s plenty to do for the curious “Troubles Tourist,” this is just one of Belfast’s many facets; the capital of Northern Ireland has become modern and affluent with the advent of tech startups, and a trendy food and nightlife scene has followed in its wake. Belfast is also now home to some of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, including the massive Titanic Belfast, and filming locations HBO’s Game of Thrones. Whether you’re looking for hip local haunts, gritty historic tours, a selfie in front of Winterfell, or traditional Irish craic, Belfast will continue to surprise and deliver.
Predicting the weather in Belfast is a bit of a fool’s game. There’s rarely any extreme temperature, but visitors should be prepared for anything from light showers to heavy rain at the drop of a hat. The chances of this are slightly lower during June and July, but neglect to pack a raincoat at your own peril.
The most popular time of year to visit Belfast is late August through to the end of September. This is when most of the city’s arts, music, and food festivals take place, as well as the legendary Culture Night. September also sees the return of Belfast’s student population, which gives the city an atmosphere of excitement and fills the bars and cafes.
For a more chilled out experience, Belfast should be visited in the spring. That said, be warned that you’ll have to contend with what the locals would call “fierce changeable” weather. This can be worth the tradeoff as Belfast in the spring is a picturesque and wallet-friendly destination.
Like the rest of Northern Ireland, Belfast uses the British pound sterling. That means that visitors who have spent time in the Republic of Ireland, which uses euros, will need to change their money when they arrive. This can be done cheaply in post offices and major supermarkets, including Marks & Spencer on Chichester Street. The conversion is 0.80 pounds per $1.
The only situation where tipping is expected is in restaurants. Depending on the levels of service, the average rate is about 10 percent. While tipping bar staff, taxi drivers, or your hotel concierge will certainly be met with appreciation, it is by no means a requirement. You can use your own judgement and offer a tip where you think someone has gone above and beyond for you.
Most Belfast locals speak English as their first language, but you may need to exercise a little bit of patience with the dialect. Many locals speak incredibly quickly and with fairly strong accents, which can take a little bit of getting used to. As a quick crash course, “craic” is fun, “scundered” is embarrassed, and a “quid” is one pound sterling.
Belfast is also home to several minority language communities. There are small pockets of people who speak primarily Irish, as well as a handful of tourist destinations that center around Ulster Scots. These are excellent for visitors who want to connect with their local heritage, but in either case, you’re very unlikely to meet a speaker of these languages who does not also speak English.
Saying you’re going to Belfast is often still met with reservations from people who still associate the city with “The Troubles,” and it’s one of the only European cities to have this reputation from travelers coming from the United States, in particular. These reservations are misplaced; Belfast is on the whole a very safe city, and the locals are hospitable towards visitors.
Still, like anywhere, it’s important to keep your wits about you. If you want to avoid extortionate taxi fares, be sure to only use cabs that display their operating license on the bumpers and windows. Taxi drivers are also required to use a meter, so don’t use a driver who tries to negotiate a set fare.
If you try and engage with the locals about the years of conflict, be sure to be sensitive and courteous. Understandably, this is a raw issue for some. Others will be happy to share their experience, often with a surprising amount of humor. If you're American, one thing you should definitely not do is try to order an "Irish Car Bomb" or a "Black and Tan" at a bar in Northern Ireland. Actually, you probably shouldn't do this anywhere.
Central Belfast is semi-pedestrian, and most of the areas of interest for tourists are doable on foot. You can also pay for short-term usage of the public hire cycle scheme known as Belfast Bikes, which are available at dozens of locations around the city centre and inner suburbs.
If you’re staying a little bit further out of the city center, you’re well served for public transport. Belfast is often hailed as the most congested city in Europe, so unless you love traffic or you’re planning to explore outside of the city, you probably shouldn’t bother with a rental car.
In short, there are trains which run North to South, serving the suburbs, commuting towns, and neighboring cities. The new spaceship-like Glider buses run from the Easternmost to the Westernmost suburbs, while the more old-fashioned Metro buses serve arterial routes in and out of the city. There are daily options for each, as well as short-term joined-up ticketing. Daily iLink cards, which give you the use of all public transport, start from give pounds.
Belfast has Uber, but it competes with the local private hire taxi companies, many of which have their own apps and offer similar service and prices. Visitors should note that it’s illegal to try and hail taxis, except for a small number of London-style black cabs that operate in certain districts in the west of the city.
Taxis from the city center can be extremely difficult to get on Friday and Saturday nights, and public transport ends at 11:00 PM. Here are two tips for getting around this: If you know what time you want to head home, pre-book your taxi. If you’re stuck, try walking five or 10 minutes out of the center as it will be much easier to get a cab.