The yellow gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff, the company behind Belfast’s shipbuilding industry and the creation of the Titanic, rise high above the River Lagan and can be seen from nearly everywhere in the city center, a reminder of the working class that built Belfast. As the capital of Northern Ireland — increasingly known for its new restaurants and stimulating galleries — turns its Troubles into tourism, it is fast coming into its own as a European hot spot. Though HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — parts of which were filmed in local studios and nearby areas — deserves credit for helping to put Belfast on the map as a destination, much of the city’s appeal is its warm residents, who are unfailingly ready to share a joke. So build some time into your visit to sink a pint or a cup of third-wave coffee and engage in some impromptu local conversation.
1) 3 p.m. Gardens and galleries
Just next to Queen’s University, the Victorian-era Botanic Gardens (free) are home to students enjoying the intermittent sunshine on the lawns, and beautiful Victorian-era buildings. The Tropical Ravine recently underwent a renovation, modernizing the beautiful brick-and-glass structure, which is filled with ferns — a passion of the era — and some of the world’s oldest plants. Next to it, the Palm House still retains its rattly old charm, with windows cracked open to let in breezes through the iron-and-glass exterior. A few yards away is the excellent Ulster Museum (free), where sleek exhibits on the history, ecosystems and art of Northern Ireland make an excellent primer for your visit.
2) 5:30 p.m. Pints and pipes
The Sunflower, unprepossessing from the outside (despite the sign saying “No topless bathing — Ulster has suffered enough”), still has a security cage around the door dating from the decades-long, late-20th-century conflict known as the Troubles. Beyond it, you’ll find an eclectic range of live music (traditional pipes, Appalachian, jazz) and a chilled vibe that draws a wide range of patrons. Out back is a small beer garden with long communal tables and a wood-fired pizza oven where the artisanal pizza makers — The Boxing Hare — turn out pies (from £5 to £8.50, or about $6.25 to about $10.50). Come here for lively conversation and session I.P.A.s from Boundary, a local brewing cooperative.
3) 7 p.m. Going global
Creative restaurants in Belfast are opening up at a rapid rate, creating a sense of energy around the city’s dining scene. One of the most successful of these is Buba (dinner for two, around £45), which has a stellar location in St. Anne’s Square in the trendy Cathedral Quarter. Middle Eastern and African-inspired dishes like baked garlic prawns with za’atar, and baharat cauliflower with pickled carrot and harissa salsa, are meant for sharing, and fully half the menu is vegan. Dynamite cocktails, infused with curry oil and lime powder, match the restaurant’s cheerful, brightly colorful interior, which is illuminated by glowing geometric lanterns.
4) 10 a.m. Jail tour
One of the darker sides of Belfast’s history can be experienced in Crumlin Road Gaol, a Victorian building with wings extending from the center in a starfish shape. The 70-minute tour (£12 per person) introduces visitors to the cells, some of them padded, where suffragettes, loyalist and republican internees (often imprisoned without trial), and “ordinary decent criminals” were housed. The prison was open from 1846 until 1996, when it was closed because it didn’t meet new human rights regulations — a lack of toilet facilities in the cells meant prisoners had to “slop out” chamber pots twice a day. During the Troubles, the British army used the watchtowers to keep an eye on the surrounding suburbs as well as the prison.
5) Noon. Veggies first
If you’ve had all the Ulster fries and fish and chips you can handle, head to The Muddlers Club (lunch for two, around £40) for a vegetable-forward meal. The impeccably plated dishes, like wild garlic gnocchi, are amplified by farm-fresh veggies such as squash, spinach and basil. Be sure to try the housemade crackers that come with the local and French cheeses. Business people love lunching in the intimate dining room, illuminated by plate glass windows, but it’s more relaxed in the evening when the cocktail list, populated with ingredients like rhubarb syrup and spiced rum, is a draw.
6) 1 p.m. Provocative culture
Arts budgets are being slashed all over Northern Ireland, but The MAC is still putting on provocative exhibitions. This contemporary arts gallery (free) has three main galleries housing temporary shows by artists like Lindsay Seers, whose multimedia pieces incorporate robot arms, video and audio that explore treatment therapies for people with schizophrenia. From here, stroll a few minutes south to the Oh Yeah Music Centre (free). For a small country, Northern Ireland has had an outsize effect on many musical movements, from punk to country. Oh Yeah combines a live music venue with a permanent exhibition that details decades of the Northern Irish music scene, from the show bands of the 1960s to the punk rock years of Stiff Little Fingers, which formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles. Memorabilia includes posters from 1981 Thin Lizzy shows (they played on the same bill as U2) to Snow Patrol guitars. There’s also a bar and a full calendar of gigs — check the schedule to catch the newest “you heard them here first” band.
7) 2 p.m. Walking through history
Whatever your feelings on “tragedy tourism,” there’s no getting away from the fact that the Troubles has impacted every aspect of life in Belfast. A History of Terror, a two-hour walking tour (£18 per person; the tour time changes between October and March), passes by a number of sites bombed by both sides in the 1970s. The tour guide Paul Donnelly, a history teacher and mediator, is full of information, conveying a sense of the deep fear the city experienced at the time without diverging from an impartial perspective on what is an emotional and highly sensitive era of history. The tour ends at the waterfront, and with a sense of hope — most of the bombing sites are now shops or restaurants, without a mark or plaque to note the event. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of opinion, but it’s definitely a sign the city has moved on.
8) 4:30 p.m. Lions, witches, wardrobes
East Belfast is getting trendier by the minute, and it’s recently added a few outdoorsy spots that are ideal for getting some exercise and fresh air without leaving the city. Start at CS Lewis Square, a plaza dedicated to one of Belfast’s most famous sons, and studded with statues inspired by “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” Rent a Belfast bike (first 30 minutes free) from the station in the square and cycle up part of the recently completed Connswater Greenway (about 5.5 miles) along the canal to Victoria Park, where lakes and lawns make a lovely place to bike or walk. The EastSide Visitor Centre, on the Square, has maps of the Greenway and its attractions. If biking’s not your thing, walk around the statues and then relax with a coffee or some piri fries at Freight, one of the city’s buzziest restaurants, housed in a shipping container next to the visitor center.
9) 7 p.m. European Edō
A late 2017 opening, Edō (dinner for two, with wine, around £80) is expanding Belfast’s palate with modern European food. The restaurant is run by the Gordon Ramsay alum Jonny Elliott, who has taken inspiration from around the continent for small plates like chicharrones, sardines on toast, and roasted leeks with hazelnut dressing. The highlights, though, are the meats emerging from the Bertha oven (fired with peat and pear and apple woods), which include beef cheeks and melt-in-the-mouth ribs. The salt-aged steaks from Northern Ireland’s top supplier, Hannan Meats, are not to be missed. Order up a bottle of a Spanish red and kick back.
10) 9 p.m. Get Your Guinness
Enjoy your post-dinner pint at Kelly’s Cellars, which, with its whitewashed walls and slanted floors, probably doesn’t look much different than it did when it was built in 1720. It was used as a meeting place for leaders of the 1798 rebellion against the English and today signs in Irish (and Irish-speaking staff) enhance the feel of a pub with a strong link to history and tradition. Round tables outside fill up fast on a sunny day, while the wooden tables and stools inside get crowded in winter with locals sipping pints of cider and Guinness, or listening to the traditional music sessions that happen four days a week.
11) 9:30 a.m. Mountain trek
It’s best to do the trek around Divis Mountain on a clear day, when the views down into Belfast and northeast to Scotland are truly spectacular, but the challenging walk is pleasurable even when skies are gray, thanks to the gloriously fresh air and pastoral landscapes of lush fields and tranquil cows. Peregrine falcons and red grouse also call the mountain home. The drive to the car park, where you can begin the hike, is about 7.5 miles west of the city center, around a 20-minute drive in your rental car or a taxi.
12) 11 a.m. Over to Ormeau
On Ormeau Road, General Merchants (breakfast or lunch for two around £25) is a hip neighborhood favorite that’s got a full menu of interesting breakfast dishes (cooler alternatives to the traditional Ulster fry), including eggs scrambled with chile oil, and buttermilk rolls laden with local bacon and excellent black pudding, as well as Irish oats with apple and raspberry compote. After brunch, stroll up the road to AL Gelato, home to Belfast’s best ice cream, in flavors like Guinness and white chocolate, or Jammy Dodger (a popular jam-stuffed cookie). You have your pick of top-notch indie cafes on Ormeau Road — Kaffe O and 387 Ormeau Road are both good options — but strolling a bit farther south brings you to the excellent Root & Branch, which roasts its own impeccably sourced coffee in the back.
13) 12:30 p.m. To the lighthouse
Don’t leave Belfast without paying tribute to the city’s shipbuilding industry and its most infamous export, the Titanic. Titanic Belfast (admission £19) is a blockbuster museum in the “Titanic Quarter” of the city (Belfast’s increasing number of geographical “quarters” is standard joke fodder). Its eye-catching architecture — four sharply angled silver wings designed to look like ships’ hulls — is reason enough to visit, but the museum’s deep dive into the Titanic’s history, design and passengers, as well as fascinating exhibits on the lives of workers in Belfast’s linen and other industries, is very well done. Many “Game of Thrones” scenes were filmed in the adjacent studios, and if you’re in town before Sept. 1, you can catch the show’s touring exhibition, which showcases sets like the Crypt of Winterfell. Afterward, stroll north toward the Great Light, a 19th-century lighthouse, then up the newly opened Titanic Walkway, a stretch of Victoria Wharf that connects the Titanic Slipways to the HMS Caroline, a World War I light-cruiser that’s now a floating museum.
Titanic fanatics can live out their fantasies in the Titanic Hotel Belfast (doubles from £109), which opened in 2017 in the old Harland & Wolff offices. Neat rooms have rivets for décor and sinks that are replicas of those on the Titanic, but it’s the spectacular bar, its high arching roof crammed with skylights, that’s the most impressive (it’s also where the draftsmen once sat).
The enviably central Bullitt Hotel (doubles from £85) has become a local hangout spot, with ground floor bars, cafes and terraces playing host to the laptop crowd. Rooms are compact but comfortable, and the fourth floor Babel bar has sophisticated (though pricey) cocktails and city views.
Airbnb options are plentiful in Belfast, with one-bedrooms coming in an average of about $100 a night. Staying near City Hall means walking distance to most tourist attractions, while a spot on the Ormeau Road offers quick access to trendy bars and restaurants.