Things to Do in the U.K.’s Most Livable City
On a small tour bus outside of Dublin, the driver asked over the loudspeaker, “How many of you are visiting Belfast while you’re in Ireland?” Out of 15 people on the bus, my friend and I were the only ones who raised our hands.
The tour guide was very disappointed. He was a big fan of Northern Ireland, and as soon as he wrapped up his obligations on the bus, he was taking his son up North for the weekend. He went on to tell us that Belfast had recently been added to several cruise line itineraries, but many cruise patrons refused to even step off the boat in Belfast. People, for whatever reason, still see it as a dangerous and violent city.
In reality, “The Troubles” (the broad term used for the long period of unrest and violence in Northern Ireland) ended in the late 90’s, and a 2003 quality of life survey actually concluded that, in the entire United Kingdom, Belfast was the best city to live in.
Belfast is significantly more affordable than London, Dublin, and most of Scotland. If you’re on an extended sight-seeing trip through the U.K. and Ireland and you’re looking for a place to recuperate on the cheap for a few days, consider a respite in Belfast. But this isn’t to say that the city only caters to the bored and boring: like any city, Belfast is as exciting as you want it to be.
Belfast’s nightlife is as large as one might expect for a city of its size
The big difference is that Belfast’s bars and clubs are, on average, far less pretentious and more pleasant than their counterparts in “hip” cities like London. While there are always people pushing for Belfast to “modernize” (and become exactly like every other major Western European city) it is, for the time being, still a place where fun outranks fashion.
Though the nightlife is pleasant and accessible, the best thing about visiting Belfast is the abundance of free attractions. Start your sightseeing with a low-stress stroll through Belfast’s famous Botanical Gardens. Located in the University Area on Stranmillis Road, the gardens, which first opened in 1828, are free to everyone. You can easily kill an hour or two just wandering or sitting among the myriad species of plants. Special events are also sometimes held in the gardens. In recent years, U2, The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, and Snow Patrol have performed concerts there to crowds of 40,000 or more.
Another worthwhile freebie is the tour of City Hall. Centrally located in Donegall Square, Belfast’s City Hall is inspiring and easy to find. Frequent guided tours give visitors the inside scoop on the building’s ornate domed roof, grand staircase, and oak-furnished council chamber. You can even get your picture taken sitting in the Lord Mayor’s chair!
My favorite free attraction was Belfast’s simple-yet-moving World War II museum. This intimate space features uniforms, newspaper articles, ARP (Air Raid Precautions) placards, and various other military and civilian artifacts-even some World War II-era Guiness advertisements!
Accommodations in Belfast are also cheaply had. Hostelworld.com’s three top-rated Belfast hostels have beds available for $17, $22, and $13, respectively. If you don’t like bunking up next to “new friends”, the top-rated Belfast International Youth Hostel has private rooms available for around $50; some budget hotels also flirt with the $50 range.
Best of all, you won’t break the bank getting there. A bus from Dublin to Belfast is only about ten bucks. At the moment, round-trip flights from London, Edinburgh, or Glasgow can be had for under $100 with EasyJet or Air Berlin. And once you arrive, Belfast is laid out in such a way that-unless you’re lazy or in a hurry-you’ll rarely need a cab or bus to get where you want to be.
Belfast is a vibrant, diverse, and safe city and it is well worth adding to your U.K./Ireland itinerary. While it may not be as blatantly “historic” as many of its Western European counterparts, it is of historical significance in a more immediate sense. Belfast offers travelers a unique opportunity to witness artifacts from its not-so-long-ago days of conflict on a safe, affordable, and comfortable basis. Don’t let misguided stigma stop you from enjoying all of the history and fun that Belfast has to offer.