Travelling Around Belfast
Belfast has a city centre that is best explored on foot given its relatively small size. On the whole, though, it is best to travel around the city in the relative comfort of your own car, given Belfast’s extensive road network that includes the 10-lane M2 motorway. Compared to other European cities, Belfast is relatively car-dependent.
Traffic has been a perennial problem in some areas, but it may soon become a thing of the past. In 2006, for instance, one of the most significant road developments in Belfast began construction to free the Westlink dual carriageway from chronic traffic congestion. Westlink circles the City Centre’s western edge and connects all three Belfast motorways. It is timed for completion in 2009 and should be a major boost for car drivers. Future road developments also target the York Street intersection and are scheduled for 2011 to 2016.
A word to the wise when renting a car in Belfast: Although most of the leading car rental companies have branches in Belfast, regular travellers usually recommend Enterprise Rent-a-car for its reliable but budget-friendly offerings, especially on weekends when they cut their regular rates by 50%. Located at Unit 1 Boucher Crescent (Tel: 9066 6767), Enterprise is also one of the few rental companies that allow persons below 25 to rent a car. It is possible to arrange pick-up from the airport.
Belfast has also gained some fame for its Black Taxi tours of the city, and they are highly recommended. Travellers can arrange for a Black Taxi through most hotels, hostels and at the tourist office just north of City Hall (47 Donegall Place, above the Boots pharmacy). The main attraction of these so-called tours are the taxi drivers and their wealth of knowledge and history, replete with very personal experiences from the troubled years. These drivers are always enthusiastic about sharing what they know with interested visitors during the Black Taxi tour which can last up to two hours.
Some taxis operate on a share basis, particularly along North and West Belfast routes. Shared taxis ply set routes that usually begin at the City Hall and traverse all around the city. There are four to five passengers per taxi, each one paying around £1 regardless of the distance of his destination. The practice of shared taxis dates back to the darkest days of the Troubles when violence and discord frequently disrupted regular bus services. Today, they are an enticing way for first-time visitors to Belfast to see the city’s sights.
Minicabs, which are regular saloon cars bearing taxi license plates and illuminated roof signs, still outnumber the regular taxis but they refrain from operating as black taxis.
Translink and its subsidiaries operate most of the public transport systems in Northern Ireland. For example, Translink Metro runs the urban bus network that covers the city proper and the nearer suburbs. Its mission is to link the city’s residential districts with the city centre through 12 colour-coded main bus corridors running along radial roads. The bus service from the city centre runs from 6 am to 11 pm. Meanwhile, Ulsterbus services the more distant suburbs.
Donegall Square serves as the hub of the urban bus system as all major bus routes start from or pass through it. Donegall Square has a Metro Information kiosk on its north-western side where passengers can acquire maps or ask directions. The kiosk also provides tourist passes and a pre-load Smartlink card that gives credit for bus trips.
In addition, Metro Night Link operate a limited bus service on Friday and Saturday nights that cover most of the suburban areas in Belfast. These include bus routes from Donegall Square to Antrim, Ballygowan, Ballynahinch, Downpatrick, Bangor, Carrickfergus, Comber, Lisburn, Newtownabbey and Newtownards. Note that these routes feature a fixed rate system, which means that, if you are travelling only within Belfast, it may be cheaper to get a taxi.
For £10 per person, tourists may want to avail of the two-hour “Belfast Sightseeing” bus tour, an open-top ride around the famous sights of the city centre and suburbs, including Queens University, the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built and the renowned political murals painted on terraced houses near Falls Road during the Troubles. The guides on this tour are informative, accommodating and charming, although some critics say that travelling through once troubled neighborhoods in a bright red open top tour bus may not be an ideal way to go sight-seeing.
Travellers may also visit the suburbs through the Northern Ireland Railways, which operates the Belfast Suburban Rail System. They have three lines running to the northern suburbs (towards Carrickfergus and Larne), the easterly suburbs (towards Bangor) and the south-west suburbs (towards Lisburn and Portadown).
The key rail stations in Belfast are Belfast Central, Great Victoria Street, Botanic, City Hospital and Yorkgate.
Reports from January 2007 indicate that the city is currently undertaking a feasibility study regarding the construction of a light rail system in Belfast. Initially, the light rail system will cover two routes and later on expanded to four. Reports say the planned light rail system will be comparable to Luas, the tram system in Dublin.