Belfast Sights and Black Taxi Tours

Belfast offers plenty of sights to keep you busy for two full days. If this is a fly-by-night visit, at least take the Black Taxi tour for a crash introduction to the city’s sectarian politics. You’ll learn more in two hours than you might in a semester-long university course.

front view of Belfast City Hall beneath a cloudy sky
The copper dome on Belfast’s City Hall dates back to between 1898 and 1906. Photo © Kit_Leong/iStock.

Sights in Belfast

City Center

If you’ve got time, take a guided 45-minute tour of the magnificent Belfast City Hall (Donegall Sq., tel. 028/9027-0456, tours 11am, 2pm, and 3pm weekdays and 2pm and 3pm Sat. Feb.-Dec., free), with its 173-foot copper dome, built between 1898 and 1906. Admire the classical Renaissance architectural details during your introduction to Belfast civic history. Even if you don’t have time for a tour, pop in to admire the lobby and see what’s posted in the “What’s On” room near the entrance.

Across the street is the Linen Hall Library (17 Donegall Sq. N., entrance on Fountain St., tel. 028/9032-1707, 9:30am-5:30pm weekdays, 9:30am-4pm Sun.), the city’s oldest, which has a substantial collection of art, political posters, and photographs on the Troubles and the sectarian conflict in general. Linen Hall makes a point of advertising itself as a neutral space in which to ponder the collection. Get a free visitor’s pass on your way in.

The great thing about the cavernous, Anglican St. Anne’s Cathedral (Donegall St., tel. 028/9032-8332, free, £2 donation appreciated) is the warm reception you receive at the door. Volunteers jump to answer any questions you might have—and the answers might turn into a minitour. This Hiberno-Romanesque edifice was built at the turn of the 20th century and features gorgeous gold ceiling mosaics in its Chapel of the Holy Spirit and Baptistery on either side of the entrance. On Sunday at 11am and 3:30pm (excluding July and Aug.) you can hear the Cathedral Choir sing.

The purpose of the 143-foot Albert Memorial Clock on Queens Square, built in 1865, is pretty self-explanatory. It stands four feet off center, so locals like to call it Belfast’s own Leaning Tower.

The Golden Mile

The late-19th-century Grand Opera House (Great Victoria St., tel. 028/9024-0411) has more than opera on the calendar: Stop in anytime for a drink at the bar and take a look at what’s on in the exhibition space.

The exhibits at the Ulster Museum (tel. 028/9038-3000, 10am-5pm weekdays, 1pm-5pm Sat., 2pm-5pm Sun., free) run the gamut from contemporary art to Egyptian mummies to interactive natural science exhibits for the kiddos. Just next door are the city’s splendid Botanic Gardens (entrances at Stranmillis Rd. and Botanic Ave., daily until dusk, free). The restored Palm House (tel. 028/9032-4902, 10am-noon and 1pm-5pm weekdays, 1pm-5pm weekends, shorter hours in winter, free) dates to 1852, and the Tropical Ravine features a fishpond with mutant waterlilies (and enough steam to unwrinkle your button-down shirt). These delightful gardens, perfect for a long stroll or jog, are basically the backyard of Queen’s University. The original college, the ornate English-Gothic Lanyon Building, is named for its architect, Charles Lanyon, and was opened in 1849. The Lanyon Building houses the Naughton Gallery (tel. 028/9097-3580, 11am-4pm Mon.-Sat., free), which showcases local and international artists in an exciting variety of media.

Belfast Castle towers into a cloudy sky in Ireland
Belfast Castle was built in the 19th century. Photo © jose1983/iStock.

West and North Belfast

It’s older (1860s) than St. Anne’s, and with its neo-Gothic twin spires it’s just as grand, but the interior of St. Peter’s Cathedral (St. Peter’s Sq., off Falls Rd., tel. 028/9032-7573) isn’t of much interest for non-Catholics. The cathedral is a 15-minute walk west of the city center in the Falls Road neighborhood.

Brian de Breffny offers a few colorful words to describe the 19th-century Belfast Castle (off Antrim Rd./A6, 3.5 mi/5.6 km north of the city, tel. 028/9077-6925, reception 9am-10pm Mon.-Sat. and 9am-6pm Sun., private rooms 9am-1pm daily by arrangement, free), overlooking Belfast Lough, and the attitudes that shaped its design: “Intellectual and aesthetic values were subordinated to a romantic nostalgia, producing a showy mixture of gables and turrets with strangely contrived proportions . . . massive six-story tower, crow-stepped gables, conical turrets and restless skyline . . . the porch is an uneasy combination of Doric columns and bogus-looking strapwork; two gaunt bow-windows sit spuriously on curved courses of corbelling heavily carved with foliage and flowers.” Unsurprising given this description, the refurbished sandstone castle is now one of the city’s most popular wedding venues, though you can visit as part of a trip to Cave Hill Country Park. Downstairs, The Cellar restaurant (11am-5pm daily, 5pm-9pm Tues.-Sun., 3-course lunch/dinner £20/25), brimming with Victorian atmosphere, is a fine choice for lunch.

The Belfast Zoo (off the Antrim road/A6 4 mi/6.4 km north of the city, tel. 028/9077-6277, 10am-5pm daily Apr.-Sept. and 10am-2:30pm daily Oct.-Mar., £12) houses more than 160 exotic and endangered species.

East Belfast

No doubt many history buffs and fans of James Cameron’s movie will travel to this city especially for Titanic Belfast (1 Olympic Way, Queens Rd., tel. 028/9076-6386, 9am-6pm Apr.-Sept., until 7pm June-Aug., 10am-5pm Oct.-Mar., £17.50). The Titanic was constructed at a shipyard on this site in 1910-1911, but be forewarned that this fancy new museum offers “interactive” overload to justify the extortionate admission price (not to mention what you’ll pay to park and eat). Next door is the dry-docked S.S. Nomadic (Hamilton Dock, Queens Rd., tel. 028/9076-6386, same hours, £7), the last White Star steamship in the world. You may want to skip the fancy museum and just check out the restored 1911 mini ocean liner instead (though it’s much smaller than the Titanic was). A combo ticket (a “White Star Premium Pass”) will run you £25 and includes a souvenir photo.

mural on a brick wall in Belfast Ireland
Take a Black Taxi Tour of Belfast to get a thorough introduction. Photo © Camille DeAngelis.

Black Taxi Tours

Most folks come to Belfast without a solid grasp of the Northern Ireland conflict, but a Black Taxi tour will remedy that in two hours or less. The black taxi dates to the Troubles era in the late 1960s, when renegades on both sides would hijack buses to use as barricades in street fights. Law-abiding citizens needed a safer and more reliable means of transport.

An experienced and articulate driver will take you to the murals and memorial gardens in the Falls Road and Shankill Road neighborhoods, home to Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant working class populations, respectively, and provide you with a thorough background of the Troubles. Frankly, some of the murals are downright frightening—the loyalist ones tend to feature ski-masked men with machine guns, and not even skillfully rendered at that—but you can’t say you’ve truly seen Belfast without them. At the end your driver will take you to a “peace wall” where tourists have been scribbling pacifist messages for years.

There isn’t one “Black Taxi” company; there are several with very similar names, and more than one claims to be the “original.” Try Black Taxi Tours (tel. 028/9064-2264 or 078/1003-3831, freephone tel. 0800/052-3914) or Taxi Trax (tel. 028/9031-5777). The tour lasts 1.5-2 hours and generally costs £10 per person (for a 3- to 6-person tour; 1-2 people might run you £30 total). If you’re traveling alone, ask at your lodging to see if you can join in with a group. Or just ask one of the drivers at the taxi rank outside the Europa Hotel.

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Belfast, Ireland, offers enough sights to keep you busy for two full days – from museums to historical buildings and murals. For those looking for a crash introduction to the city’s sectarian politics, a 2-hour Black Taxi tour is just the ticket.