If your knowledge of Ireland comes from St. Patrick's Day parades and childhood tales of leprechauns hoarding pots of gold, you'll be quite surprised to find that the Emerald Isle is not a mystical land, but a real one.
Yes, it's green and beautiful and the Guinness flows freely, but this tiny country with a disproportionate hold on Western culture is so much more than that. While the country's two capitals, Dublin in the Republic and Belfast in the north, have a history of being at odds, they have two things in common: a pride in what Ireland has contributed to the world and a willingness to engage with the bloodier parts of their history. And bloody it's been. From the fight for Irish independence in the early twentieth century to the conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists known as "The Troubles," which ended just two decades ago, the question of what it means to be Irish has been asked and answered in lives. While this may not seem particularly relevent to the traveler that plans on journeying to Ireland's castles and carousing in its pubs, you'll find that this not-so-ancient history is everpresent, and you may leave the country a certified Irish history geek. It's not all tragedy and trauma, of course. In Dublin especially, the country celebrates the incredible authors, artists, and politicians that Ireland has produced and continues to produce. There's plenty of opportunities in both the north and the south to appreciate this culture in museums, theaters, and, in the case of music, in pubs on city streets. There's no doubt about it, Ireland is a fun and enriching place to be—even if it's not entirely what you were expecting.
Belfast's attractions are a bit more spread out than in many cities of similar size, so get ready to become best friends with the bus system. A good place to start is the city center, which is just west of the River Lagan. Here you'll find City Hall, the Grand Opera House, a tourist information center, and lots of places to shop. Just to the east of the Lagan and a bit to the north is the Titanic Quarter, home to all the Titanic attractions the city has to offer (and there are many). To the south of the city center is the Queen's Quarter, a district full of coffee shops, college students (Queen's University is located here) and youth hostels. To get to Belfast Castle and Cave Hill Park, Crumlin Road Gaol, or the Museum of Orange Heritage, you'll have to venture to the far north, northwest, and southeast of the city center, respectably. (Again, love the buses).
Belfast International Airport is the city's major airport. To get to the city center, you can take the Airport Express 300 (£7.50) or catch a bus or cab in front of the terminal building. If you're traveling from the U.K., taking a ferry is cheaper than flying. Popular ports include Liverpool and Cairnryan, a small village on the Scottish coast. Belfast Central is Belfast's main train station. If you're traveling from the Republic of Ireland, you'll likely have to change trans at Dublin because there are different service providers in the north and south.
Belfast's bus system, called Translink Metro, is the simplest way to get around the city. A single-day ticket (£3.70) can be purchased on-board. The Metro has 12 lines that run to various parts of Belfast and all converge in the city center. If you don't feel like figuring out which one you need to take, the people in the information centre in Donegall Sq. (across from City Hall) will be happy to help.
Tourist Offices: The Belfast Information Centre (9 Donegall Sq. N; 028 9025 6609; open M-Sa 9am-5:30pm, Su 11am-4pm).
Banks/ATMs/Currency Exchange: There are banks and ATMs all over Belfast. Here's on in the city center (Ulster Bank, 11-16 Donegal Sq. E; 0345 948 2222; open M-F 9:30am-4:30am, Sa 10am-1pm).
Post Offices: Belfast City Post Office (12-16 Bridge St.; 0345 611 2970, open M 9am-5:30pm, Tu 9:30am-5:30pm, W-Sa 9am-5:30pm).
Internet: Most restaurants and cafés in Belfast have Wi-Fi. Belfast City Council also provides free Wi-Fi (Belfast WiFi) at 109 hotspots around the city.
BGLTQ+ Resources: The Rainbow Project is the largest LGBT organization in Northern Ireland (23-21 Waring St.; 028 9030 9030; www.rainbow-project.org; open M-F 10am-5:30pm).
Emergency Number: 999
Police: Police Service of Northern Ireland (Upper Lisburn Rd.; 0845 600 8000; www.psni.police.uk).
US Embassy: The US Consulate General (223 Stranmillis Rd; 028 9038 6100; uk.usembassy.gov/embassy-consulates/belfast; open M-F 8:30am-5pm).
Rape Crisis Center: Nexus NI (119 University St.; www.nexusni.org; open M-Th 9am-5pm, F 9am-3:30pm).
Hospitals: Belfast City Hospital (Lisburn Rd.; 028 9032 9241; open daily 24hr).
- Urban Pharmacy (028 9024 6336).
- MediCare-Fitzroy Pharmacy (028 9023 0170).