Capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, Belfast (in Irish Béal Feirste, meaning "mouth of the sandbanks") is the second largest on the island of Ireland. Having suffered greatly during "the Troubles" period of conflict, the city has experienced substantial economic and commercial growth in recent years, with expansion and regeneration, especially around the Victoria Square area.
The BBC recently posed the question concerning Belfast: "is there room for the rainbow flag to fly?" With religion and politics more deeply intertwined here than elsewhere in the UK, members of larger political parties often cite religion in their debates. Ian Paisley most infamously shouted "sodomy is sin" in 1982. This was the last place in the UK to legalise homosexuality in 1982, 15 years after England and Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly declined to implement the equal marriage legislation that passed at Westminster Parliament in 2014.
Locals might sometimes look to London, Manchester, or Dublin, or fly off to Amsterdam, Paris or Berlin for larger gay and arts scenes, or to Spain for more sunshine, but there's plenty of life here too. As in other smaller cities, you might find more solidarity and creative energy. The people of Belfast have lively clubs and pubs, many community organizations, plenty of arts and entertainment, films, plays, comedy or cabaret for those rainy days, a Pride parade that will celebrate 26 years in 2016 -- and they love to welcome visitors from abroad.
Belfast has two airports: George Best Belfast City Airport in the city, with shuttle buses to Translink/NI Railways connections from Sydenham train station to Central and Victoria Street Stations; and Belfast International Airport 15 miles (24 km) to the west. For BIA taxi information and online bookings see Belfast Airport Taxis.
Airport Express 600 service from George Best Belfast City Airport to Belfast Europa Buscentre departs every 20-30 minutes from the front of the terminal building. Buy a £2.50 ticket at the tourist information desk at arrivals, or from the driver.
Airport Express 300 operates regular weekdays and weekends service from Belfast International Airport (bus stop opposite the terminal exit) to Belfast Europa Buscentre - a trip of 30-40 minutes with departures every 15 minutes. Buy a £7.50 ticket at the tourist information desk at arrivals, or from the driver.
Find passenger ferry services at the commercial and industrial docks along the Belfast Lough shoreline. Stena Line runs regularly scheduled ferries to Belfast from Cairnryan in Scotland with crossing times of just over 2 hours, and from Liverpool in about 8 hours, both day and night. Rail and Sail tickets may be booked from Belfast through Liverpool to cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, London, and Manchester. Stena also offers Holyhead, Wales to Dublin crossings in just over 3 hours.
The Enterprise Belfast Central to Dublin Connolly direct rail connection, operated jointly by NIR and Iarnród Éireann, the Irish Rail state railway of the Republic of Ireland, has daily trains, a journey of about two hours - see schedules at their website.
UlsterBus Tours offers extended tours to England, Ireland and throughout Europe, by coach or by air.
Metro Bus and Northern Ireland Rail public transport systems are operated by Translink. Rental cars may be found at the airport, or at city center - but remember they drive on the left side of the road in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Black Taxi Tours and Paddy Campbell's will show you the sights, and private hire taxis provide an easy means of getting around at all hours. fonaCAB is one of the most gay-friendly companies. Transport for Ireland provides a useful overview of the various systems.
Currency and Money
The currency of Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is the British pound (£). ATMs are sprinkled throughout the downtown area, in all the usual places. Contact your home bank for possible local partner banks to save on withdrawal fees. A smart chip credit card with a 4-digit pin number, now required by some ticket machines on this side of the Atlantic, can also be useful. The currency of the Republic of Ireland is the Euro (€), but you'll have to exchange those for pounds, or visit an ATM, before using cash in Belfast. Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted.
The Queen's Quarter, named after Queen's University, has a large student population, centered just above the Botanic Gardens. The Lyric Theatre, and the Ulster Museum are located nearby. North of the campus, the Golden Mile between Belfast City Hall and Queen's University, including Bradbury Place, Dublin Road, and Shaftesbury Square, is home to some of the city's best bars and restaurants. Lisburn Road, an extension of the Golden Mile, has more boutiques, wine bars, restaurants and coffee houses. Nearby the Grand Opera House, dating from 1904 on Great Victoria Street, hosts musicals, dramas and comedy performances. At Mandela Hall, at QUB on University Road, Taboo LGBT monthly club nights take place. The district is also home to the Crescent Arts Centre, the Naughton Gallery at Queen's and the Queen's Film Theatre arthouse cinema, where the annual Outburst Queer Arts Festival shows films in November. The Victoria Square Shopping Centre lies northeast of City Hall, between Queens Quarter and the Cathedral Quarter.
The Cathedral Quarter, taking its name from St Anne's Cathedral, is another cultural district at city center, with an annual Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in January at The Black Box, a visual and performing arts festival of music, theater, comedy and special events. The Belfast Film Festival screens in April at the BeanBag Cinema and other venues. The Belfast International Arts Festival takes place at The MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre), among other venues in October. Belfast Exposed displays the works of local and international photographers, with new works and a large archive of images. The district also encompasses what is sometimes called the Queer Quarter, home to several LGBT pubs, clubs and cafes, around where Union and Donegall Streets intersect.
Many residential neighborhoods still reflect the divided nature of Northern Ireland, highly segregated along ethnic, political and religious lines of 'Republican' or 'Loyalist' sympathies, and invariably marked by flags, graffiti and murals. Minority communities, including Poles, Chinese, Indians and Eastern Europeans, make up the 7% of the population born outside the UK and Ireland.
Media & Resources
Gay Community News (GCN), the free gay monthly magazine distributed throughout Ireland, focuses mainly on Dublin and the Republic of Ireland, but also covers news events in Belfast and Northern Ireland.
EILE Magazine monthly print and online LGBT lifestyle publication for Ireland and Ulster, covers fashion, film, music, politics and health, with interviews, news and current affairs.
The Rainbow Project at The LGBT Centre, Waring Street, is one of a number of community organisations providing services to the LGBT community in Belfast that include helplines, counselling, advocacy, provisions for sexual health, and a youth group. Queerspace hosts an InSpace Coffee drop-in each first and third Saturday at 3:30pm, offering a chance to relax, meet people and enjoy free Fairtrade gourmet coffee.
The Outburst Queer Arts Festival explores and celebrates LGBT stories and experiences in Northern Ireland through the arts; supporting encouraging and inspiring local creativity, and bringing the best in international queer arts to Belfast each November.
Belfast Pride takes place over ten days July-August 2016, a 26th anniversary celebration to include a festive Saturday afternoon parade, stepping off at 1pm from Custom House Square with a festival and parties to follow. Other events pop up at clubs, pubs and on stages around town. Foyle Pride in Derry/ Londonderry later in August, and the Pride in Newry Parade & Festival in early September, are two more annual events in nearby towns.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland provides protection against discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, race, religion and political opinion, sex and sexual orientation.
See some photos from Pride and around the clubs in our gallery pages.
The Apartment (2 Donegall Sq W), gay-friendly upscale cocktail bar and bistro, mixed crowd; DJ sets, live music, roofterrace.
Boombox Club (108 Donegall St), gay dance club, various theme nights/ music varieties; urban/ RnB to indie/ folk, drag diva hosts, live bands, queer icons.
The John Hewitt (51 Donegall St), gay-friendly Cathedral Quarter pub, live music, daily lunch menu, gin list.
Kelly's Cellars (30-32 Bank St), the city's oldest traditional Irish pub; gay-friendly gem with live music, theme parties and Pride events.
Kremlin (96 Donegall St), Soviet-theme decor gay dance club/ cocktail bar, men and women; theme parties, drag shows.
Maverick Bar (1 Union St), mixed LGBT bar/ lounge, live music, drag cabaret shows, DJs, karaoke, open mic, TV sports; the former Front Page Bar.
Muriel's Café Bar (12-14 Church Lane), near Victoria Square, gay-friendly cozy cafe/bar lunch/dinner, meat/cheese/seafood platters, open fireplace.
Queens Café Bar (4 Queen's Sq), gay-friendly pub in Queens Arcade, steaks, fish, pasta, sandwiches, "lite bites," salads, veggie-optional curries; cocktails.
The Spaniard (3 Skipper St), gay-friendly Cathedral Quarter Belfast/Basque tapas bar, live music; unusual selection of cocktails, rare spirits, liquers and beers.
Sunflower Pub (65 Union St), gay friendly mainstream/traditional belfast bar and beer garden, flea markets, live music, wood-fired oven pizza.
Taboo at QUB Students' Union (Mandela Hall, University Rd), monthly gay club nights at Queens University, cabaret and live music entertainment, games, dancing, theme nights; men/women, all-ages.
Union Street Bar + Shoe Factory Club (8-14 Union St), gay bar, nightly entertainment, Irish-British-American fish, burgers and wraps, curries and pasta; Green Room upstairs cocktail bar, karaoke, Sunday bingo and cabaret shows. Monthly men-only BuBu bear parties.
White's Tavern (2-4 Winecellar Entry), locals' pub since 1630, open fireplaces, courtyard cinema nights, pub grub, occasional gay afternoons/nights.
Envy Bar and Night Club (Strand Road), Wednesday-Sunday gay nightclub, karaoke, theme parties, male strippers, drag shows.
Central Bar (5 Castle St, Strabane), gay/straight mixed bar, 10 miles from Derry,
Outside Sauna (1-5 Donegall Lane), gay sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, dark room cruise area, video lounge, horny zone garden area/ chill-out zone, internet access.
Pipeworks (2-6 Union St), gay steam/sauna, Jacuzzi, private cabins, restaurant/bar, TV lounge, internet access; pool parties, bears' events.
Cinemas, Theaters & Entertainment Venues
BeanBag Cinema (23 Donegall St), April Belfast Film Festival home theatre; ongoing film series throughot the year.
The Black Box (18-22 Hill St), performing arts center; music, theatre, comedy, film, visual arts, circus, cabaret, and literature.
Crescent Arts Centre (2-4 University Rd), performing and visual arts; dance, music, spoken and written word events.
Grand Opera House (2-4 Great Victoria St), 1904-era building; musicals, dramas, comedy performances.
Lyric Theatre (55 Ridgeway St), Belfast's main full-time producing theatre; new works, established playwrights, Northern Ireland’s finest actors.
The MAC | Metropolitan Arts Centre Belfast (10 Exchange St, W), visual and performing arts; comedy, dance, spoken word, classes and workshops.
Movie House (14 Dublin Rd), multiplex cinema chain, mainstream current-release films and film festival screenings.
Queen's Film Theatre (20 University Sq), digital and celluloid films, indie arthouse, new and classic world cinema, filmfests.
SSE Arena (2 Queens Quay, Titanic Quarter), large sports and entertainment complex; Belfast Giants ice hockey games, concert tours.
Strand Arts Centre (152-154 Holywood Rd, E Belfast), not-for-profit cinema and arts centre; new and classic films, music concerts.
Ulster Hall (34 Bedford St), Victorian-era music hall; orchestral and pop music concerts, gallery exhibits, cafe.
Waterfront Hall (2 Lanyon Pl), arts and entertainment center, film festival screenings, special events.
Restaurants & Cafes
The Coffee Den (4-6 Union St), coffees, teas and more beverages, pastries, sandwiches, soups, curries, burgers, sausage rolls, pasta and salads; BYOB and Sunday brunch.
Darcy’s of Belfast (10 Bradbury Pl), traditional Irish meat pies, stews, roast ham, duck, beef, mussels and seafood; Draynes Farm Lisburn dairy products.
Deanes Deli (44 Bedford St), simple/stylish, elegant lunch, pre-theatre, à la carte + Deanes Meat Locker/ Eipic/ Love Fish (28-40 Howard St) trio of subtle flavours, set menu restaraunts, with fine wines -- by star chef Michael Deanes.
Hadskis (Commercial Court/ 33 Donegal St), trendy restaurant, ever-changing locally-sourced classic European dining, lunch and brunch, wide selection of wines by the glass.
Home Restaurant (22 Wellington Pl), all-day meat, seafood, vegetarian and vegan cafe/bistro/bar; fresh, local, and seasonal lunch and dinner.
Made in Belfast (Wellington St + 23 Talbot St), City Hall and Cathedral Quarter restaurant/bars, Northern Irish cuisine with East London and Left Bank Parisian influences; eceletic design, free-range poultry and wild game, organic wines, daily changing menu.
Mourne Seafood Bar (34-36 Bank St), fine-dining seafood restaurant/ oyster bar; daily lunch/dinner specials at affordable prices.
The Northern Whig (2-10 Bridge St), cosmopolitan cuisine, lunch and dinner, set specials, Sunday brunch; premium wines, spirits and beers, classic cocktails.
Stix & Stones (44-46 Upper Queen St), premium quality seafood and steaks, dry aged meat, cooked on hot stones
Zen Japanese Restaurant (55-59 Adelaide St), Asian/Western fusion cuisine, Robata grill poultry and seafood specialities.
See more Belfast restaurant & cafe suggestions at our map and listings pages, and listed with some of the hotels below.
Belfast International Youth Hostel (22-32 Donegall Rd; 44-28-9031-5435), Queens Quarter all ages hostel dorm beds or private en-suite rooms; cafe, WiFi, guest laundry.
Premier Inn Belfast City Centre Hotel (Alfred St; 44-871-527-8068), Cathedral Quarter budget hotel rooms near St George's Market; restaurant/bar, free WiFi access.
Ramada Encore Belfast City Centre (20 Talbot St; 44-28-9026-1800), Cathedral Quarter, Saint Anne's Square luxury hotel, 165 ensuite bedrooms, The Hub cocktail and coffee bar, and SQ Bar & Grill Restaurant.
Ten Square Hotel (10 Donegall Sq S; 44-28-9024-1001), 23 unique guestrooms and suites by Belfast City Hall, dinner-Bed & Breakfast.
See more Belfast hotel & guesthouse options at our map & listings pages.
More Cities in Britain & Ireland
For more UK cities see: Birmingham, Blackpool, Brighton, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Manchester in England, Cardiff in Wales, plus Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland. In the Republic of Ireland see Cork and Dublin.