It’s no secret that the entire Emerald Isle is a fabulous place to travel, but sometimes you just have a few days and you have to settle on picking a single city to explore. Or maybe you need to decide which city to fly into to start your time on the island. Here’s how to decide which city is better for your trip, Dublin or Belfast.
Choose Dublin if…
In the game of Dublin versus Belfast, here’s how to know if you should choose Dublin.
…You Want to Get Your Guinness On
Yes, you can drink Guinness all over Ireland, and it’s true that Guinness just tastes better here. However, if you want to see the Guinness Storehouse, the number one tourist site in Ireland. With nearly two million visitors a year, you can see that it’s quite the draw. While here, you’ll learn about the history of Guinness, learn about how its brewed, and learn to pull your own perfect pint. If you’re successful, you can earn your own Guinness certificate.
…You Want to Explore Irish Literature
Don’t get me wrong, Belfast and Northern Ireland have great opportunities for literary tourism as well (C.S. Lewis and Seamus Heaney come to mind), but every pore of Dublin oozes with bookish charm. Whether you go on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, visit the Dublin Writers Museum, or simply read a tattered copy of Ulysses on St. Stephen’s Green, you’re never far from a ghost of Dublin’s literary past.
…You Love Old Libraries
While the Library at Trinity College is world-renowned, it’s not the only stop you need to make in Dublin if your goal is to bask in the glory and aroma of old books. You’ll also want to savor your time in Marsh’s Library and the National Library as well.
…You Fancy a Night at the Theater
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Dublin loves its literature. If you’d rather watch than read while you’re here, get a ticket to a production of an Irish play. While shows by some of the great Irish playwrights can be seen here, you can also find adaptations of Irish novels. Just check the schedule ahead of time and book your tickets early, since shows here tend to sell out.
Choose Belfast if…
Still not sure if you should choose Belfast or Dublin? Here’s how to know if you should go to Belfast.
…You Want to Learn about The Troubles
While you can learn about the Irish independence movement in Dublin, the period of time known as the Troubles (and its contemporary ramifications) are something you can only really understand while in Belfast. Take a Black Cab tour to really get into the details of it all, but even a regular city tour will cover the basics and take you through some of the most important political murals. It’s hard to remember that this violent period only ended during the Clinton administration, and it does still have effects that linger into today.
…You Want to Experience the Titanic
Okay, I was obsessed with the movie Titanic when it came out (I was twelve, so it was basically my job). However, even I didn’t know what to expect at the Titanic museum. But IT WAS SO COOL. You get to learn about the ship, the wreck, and how it was recovered with some 3D experiences that make it come alive. The museum is located right where the ship was built and launched, but the experience covers so much more. And yes, you can totally buy a fake sapphire heart necklace in the gift shop. DUH.
…You Travel for Game of Thrones
Yes, I drove out to the Dark Hedges in the middle of a muddy rainstorm just to get a peek at the King’s Road. But Game of Thrones tourism in Northern Ireland is so much more than just these beautiful trees! There are entire tours dedicated to showing you the spots on the coast where it was filmed, plus the studio in Belfast where everything shot on stage was created. The show may end in 2019, but these beautiful locations live on. And yes, some people wear costumes.
…You Want to Get Off the Beaten Path
No Belfast isn’t exactly a secret, but it does get far fewer tourists than Dublin does. While ten million people visit Ireland from overseas last year, Northern Ireland saw fewer than four million. This means that if you spread out into some of the more off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods in Belfast, you can find some hidden gems that most tourists don’t get to see.
Choose Both for…
If you still can’t decide which city wins in the travel battle of Dublin versus Belfast, (or if you have time for both), below are four things that both great cities have in common.
…Great Street Art
Belfast has amazing political murals, while Dublin has colorful literary ones. Both cities also have some pockets of traditional graffiti and street art to seek out as well. I appreciated this aspect of Dublin and Belfast while on official tours of the respective cities because the tour leaders were able to give me the backgrounds and meanings behind the pieces.
…Traditional Irish Pubs
Yes, Dublin has some famous bars (like the over-crowded Temple Bar). But both have great traditional Irish pub scenes. You can pick touristy pubs, literary pubs, historic pubs, or pubs that cater to locals. Whichever you choose, you’re never far from a Guinness in either city.
…Exceptional Food Scenes
No, Irish food is not all meat and potatoes. In the last decade, the food scenes in both cities have been revolutionized. I haven’t had a bad meal in either, and there are trendy cafes and restaurants spread across both cities. So yes, you can still find completely traditional Irish cuisine, but you can also find Irish food cooked in new ways and with new vigor.
…UNESCO Day Trips
From Belfast, you can take a day trip to the Antrim Coast to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Giants Causeway. From Dublin, you can take a trip out to the mounds of New Grange. So if you love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, either city offers you the chance to see one. Which is better, New Grange or Giants Causeway? They’re so different. If you have time to see both cities, then you get to see both!
Ireland only has three UNESCO Sites, and the third, Skellig Michael, is out on Ireland’s west coast.
Ireland & Northern Ireland Travel Resources
Since the cities are so close together, I have some travel resources that apply whether you choose Belfast or Dublin. Start with my Ireland & Northern Ireland Packing List so you know what to bring with you year-round.
Next, here are my favorite Instagram spots in Ireland and Northern Ireland from my own trips.
If you’re interested in Dublin, I have podcast episodes about the city:
- The Literary Pubs of Dublin
- The Storied History of the Guinness Storehouse
- Rick Steves Over Brunch (Dublin episode coming soon!)
If you prefer Belfast over Dublin, check out these podcast episodes:
Finally, Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Whichever city you choose, make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in cities where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
Note: I have traveled Ireland and Northern Ireland both independently and at the invitation of Failte Ireland, the tourism authority for Ireland and Northern Ireland. This post also includes activities I did while traveling with Visit Belfast and Visit Dublin. All opinions are my own.
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