First of all – Ireland and Northern Ireland are not the same thing. Know this and don’t forget it…people will correct you. After a wonderful three days in Dublin, my friend and I hopped on a train and in just a few short hours we arrived in Belfast. It may as well have been a different country; the two cities are vastly different. We knew this from people who had given us tips on Ireland before the trip but experiencing it was a whole different matter.
First of all – I have to give a shoutout to the BEST travel buddy. Check out her posts about our trip as well! We’ve both got that travel bug that keeps biting us and it is fun to have a partner in crime for all the travel shenanigans. Shenanigans, indeed.
Quick side story (mom, feel free to skip this paragraph, I promise I travel safe!): I have stayed at a number of different hostels in my day (Puerto Rico, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Rome). Some I was alone and others I was with friends, however, nothing tops our Belfast experience. The day we were officially PLAYED by TripAdvisor. We put serious effort into finding good places to book. This place had A TRIPADVISOR AWARD. Come on now. However, when we arrived, it was nothing short of a disaster. The highlights: a half eaten cookie by my bunk, a staffer with a striking resemblance to Pitch Perfect’s Fat Amy, and a drug-addicted man with one eyeball consisting of a checkerboard patterned marble. Suffice it to say, we were OUTTA THERE super quick. Let’s take a moment to praise the Lord for budget hotels with last minute booking options and friends that can tell by one look that it’s time to make moves.
Now that we’ve covered how essential a safe place to lay your head and a solid travel buddy is, we can get down to the good parts. We spent the next four days taking in the sights and sounds of Belfast. Here are the highlights:
Giants Causeway & Carrick-a-Rede
I’m going to start here, even though this is technically not IN Belfast. However, it is just a short ride from the city center and the Giants Causeway is worth seeing. Never in my life have I experienced a place like this. It is unreal. You feel like someone must be playing a joke on you because there is no way that nature could just create something this amazing on its own. I was stunned. The pictures do not even begin to do this place justice. This was by far my favorite day we spent in Ireland and I would go back in a heartbeat just to be in this peaceful, gorgeous spot one more time. Tips: dress warm, wear boots, go early!
The Troubles, Murals, & the Peace Wall
I had vague notions about what “The Troubles” were before this trip, but not enough to have an informed conversation on the topic. If you ever get a chance to explore Belfast, I cannot recommend a Black Cab Tour enough. You get picked up and dropped off by a cab at a location of your choosing and they take you through the streets of Belfast to tell you the history of ‘The Troubles’ and explain the various political murals painted around the city. It was fascinating to get to hear the history from someone who actually lived it. The atrocities that occurred in Belfast are not ancient history, unlike much of Europe and the battles you learn about, the troubles Belfast experienced are modern history. It has been in the last twenty years that Belfast has seen peace, stability, and revitalization. The Peace Wall is a commanding physical presence reminding this city of its history and hopefully ushering it into a more peaceful future. Definitely a must-do and must-see of Belfast.
Crumlin Road Gaol & Belfast Castle
The Crumlin Road Goal was a pretty cool experience. You get to walk through and the guide gives you the history of the building as well as the people who would have called this jail home over the years. While I wouldn’t designate this as a “must-see”, it was actually a beautiful building (weird for a jail), and the guide does a good job trying to keep it interesting. If you aren’t up for paying a few quid to see this, it would be pretty easy to pass up without too much disappointment.
The Belfast Castle is FREE! My favorite price! The grounds and the building are absolutely gorgeous and this is a great place to wander around, grab some afternoon tea, or go for a walk on one of the many paths around the castle. It was beautiful. Plus the view or Belfast from up here was stunning.
I don’t think I have a favorite. Dublin definitely catered to tourists, which I actually thoroughly enjoyed, where Belfast definitely had a much grittier and authentic Northern Irish vibe. Both cities were fascinating, and further solidified love for all of Ireland in my heart.