This is the third in a series of posts about my December 2019/January 2020 trip to Dublin and Belfast. My last post, covering my three nights in Dublin, is available here. Note: this trip was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus may reflect a very different world than we are facing now.
After a two-month hiatus, and a hacking of this blog, I’m finally getting back to trip reports, and hope to finish up shortly coverage of my New Year’s 2020 trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland. It really seems like a lifetime ago, and certainly the world has changed massively since then. I’ve decided to still recap my experience, though, if only so we can all live vicariously through happier, more-travel-filled times.
When I booked my flights in and out of Dublin, I knew I didn’t plan to spend all five nights in Dublin. I’d been to the city before, and there’s so much more to the island. At first I thought about heading to Cork or Galway and the Cliffs of Moher. But upon researching, that seemed like a bit logistically annoying for just me for a few days, and probably meant renting a car. Instead, I decided to head north to Belfast. A lot of people seemed surprised by that choice, but I am very glad I made it. In just about two days, I got a really good sense of Belfast itself, plus a full day exploring the Antrim Coast/Giant’s Causeway. I’m sure it would be completely different in summer, but even in winter it was a good trip. And although Belfast definitely felt less-touristed than Dublin, there were still tons of tourists.
The Enterprise Rail from Dublin to Belfast
Getting from Dublin to Belfast is super easy. There’s a special train route, the Enterprise, which is a joint operation of Northern Ireland Railways and Irish Rail. The train leaves from Connolly Station in Dublin, and there are multiple trains throughout the day, about every two hours. I didn’t know whether there would be extra demand for the holidays, so I booked my tickets for the Saturday 9:30am train in advance, and paid a little extra for fully flexible tickets in case I wanted to change to a different train (I didn’t). It was still only 40 Euros roundtrip, and included seat reservations. (You could do “Enterprise Plus” and get a fancier seat and free OJ for double the price, but that seems unnecessary.)
Connolly Station was much smaller than I expected and I had arrived much earlier than I needed to. I had to collect my tickets from a machine which was easy, and then just waited in the special Enterprise waiting area until time to board.
The trains were pretty new, and since I had a reserved seat, there was a digital screen above my seat showing my name and my destination. If a seat was empty, it said so as well; if a seat was only empty for part of the journey, it said that too. Pretty nifty. The coach was a mix of standard 2 x 2 seating and sets of four around a table. Legroom was less than Amtrak, but was fine, and there was an outlet and tray table at the seat.
The distance by car between Dublin and Belfast is only about 105 miles. The train makes a fair number of stops, though, so the ride took just under 2.5 hours. The scenery is quite pretty, though, as the route stays fairly close to the coast of the Irish Sea. (There’s a bus that takes about the same length of time and is cheaper, but isn’t quite as pretty or as comfortable.) During the ride, an attendant came down with a snack and beverage cart and there was a dining car, but I had grabbed snacks ahead), and there was free wifi that was pretty reliable. At 11:40am, five minutes ahead of schedule, we were at Belfast’s Lanyon Place Station.
Lanyon Place is an ugly 1970s era building, formerly known as Belfast Central, and on the outer edge of Belfast’s city centre-about a half-mile from the heart of town. Your Enterprise train ticket entitles you to a free transfer to a bus. I had booked a stay at the Hilton Belfast, though, which is only about a five-minute walk from the train station, in an office park-y area between the station and the center. I’ll cover the Hilton separately in my next post; it was totally fine, though it was halfway through renovations so felt like two different hotels depending what part you were in. I could see the hotel from the train station, but it was a bit confusing how to get across the main road. I figured it out though, and was able to check in and drop my stuff before heading out for a solid afternoon of exploring.
Exploring Central Belfast
First, I swung by St. George’s Market, which was right by the Hilton. It was basically a large warehouse, mostly filled with food stands, and then with some craft/flea market stands as well. It was quite packed, and lots of food looked good, but the lines were long. I didn’t stay long, and ended up walking the short distance from there into the heart of the city, which was super busy on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The centerpiece of downtown Belfast is Belfast City Hall, a Baroque Revival 1906 building in Donegall Square. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get too close to the building, as they were in the process of taking down the Christmas Market that surrounded it. But you can tell it’s a really unique building.
Right around City Hall is the main shopping district, which was filled with locals taking advantage of after-Christmas sales. I browsed a bit before grabbing lunch at Made in Belfast, where I had a fancy and slightly overpriced, though tasty, fish and chips, before the 25-minute walk to the Titanic Quarter.
The Titanic Quarter and Titanic Belfast
The Titanic Quarter is a relatively recently redeveloped part of Belfast, built on and around an old shipyard where, yes, the Titanic was built. It’s mostly commercial and office buildings, with some large apartment buildings, and an entertainment complex, all on the east side of the River Lagan, northeast of central Belfast. The area feels pretty sparse and cold compared to central Belfast, but definitely worth checking out, if only for the Titanic Belfast museum. You can’t miss the museum as you near the Titanic Quarter, as it’s a massive, free-standing, architecturally unique building jutting into the sky.
The Titanic Belfast is very popular. I had pre-purchased my ticket on Expedia, using a discount code, for a 3pm entry on a Saturday in December, which I thought might be a quiet time. It was not. I still had to wait in line to exchange my voucher for a ticket, and there were tourists from all over the world.
The exhibition itself is really well-done, starting with the history of Industrial Belfast and moving into the history of the Harland and Wolff shipyards and the design of the Titanic. There’s then a little weird ride through a “shipyard” with video reenactments and animatronic-type gadgets building the ship. From there, there are a lot of high-tech, interactive exhibits of the ship’s interior and service, before exhibits about the fateful journey. The museum ends in a huge amphitheater with projections of dives into the shipwreck. It was definitely a good museum, and I think has something for folks of all ages.
By the time I was heading back to the Hilton it was already dusk. In the evening, I ended up just grazing on food at the Hilton lounge as dinner, before hitting two fairly busy gay bars, Maverick Bar and Union Street Bar, before getting dragged to Kremlin, a too-expensive theoretically gay club that seemed predominantly straight women and their boyfriends.
In my next post, I’ll cover days 2 and 3 in Belfast, which included a day trip to the Giant’s Causeway and a taxi “tour” of West Belfast.