When considering a visit to the island of Ireland, two major cities immediately jump out: Dublin and Belfast. In an ideal world, free of both monetary and time constraints, we would have the opportunity to spend some time soaking in the cultures of both cities. But alas, we live in the real world and a visitor to Ireland is often faced with a difficult decision; Dublin or Belfast?
In this article, we’re going to outline the major selling points of each, with a focus on accessibility, affordability and the variety of attractions on offer! While it may not be possible to give a one-size-fits-all solution to this dilemma, hopefully, the descriptions and comparisons below will help you to see something of yourself in either Belfast or Dublin.
Dublin, the capital city of the Republic of Ireland, is the centre of all business, cultural and political affairs in the country. With a population of 1.4 million, it is small by global standards, but its cultural and social reputation is known the world over. Many will know that when it comes to literature Ireland punches well above its weight on the international stage, being home to four Nobel Prize for Literature winners, with three hailing from Dublin.
Dublin’s origins can be traced to Viking raids that took place towards the end of the 9th century when a permanent base was established around the Poddle and Liffey Estuary. An eclectic mix of old and new, heritage buffs and socialites alike will find something for them in this vibrant city. Twice voted Europe’s friendliest city, it’s the Dubliners that make Dublin!
Dublin is well connected both locally and internationally. Most visitors will arrive in Dublin Airport, which is a 30-minute bus ride from the city centre. Direct flights are available from many major US cities and from almost all European capitals – you can browse Skyscanner for the latest routes. There are regular bus services from the airport to the city centre.
Once in Dublin city centre, a frequent train service operates from Heuston Station to most of the rest of the country, and many of Ireland’s more rural towns and villages are served by Bus Eireann from Connolly Station. It’s worth noting that some of the more popular routes are also served by private bus companies such as Aircoach and GoBus, that may offer a direct route for a lesser cost.
Getting around Dublin itself is quite straightforward, with a bus, train and tram service all available. The cheapest and easiest way to travel within Dublin as a tourist is with a Leap Visitor Card, which gives you unlimited travel on all the above services within your chosen time period. Leap Cards are available to purchase online and at many retailers throughout the city.
If you plan on remaining within Dublin for the duration of your trip, car hire is probably unnecessary and is recommended only if you plan on travelling further afield towards places like Galway, Cork or to Belfast. If that is your plan, then you can browse car hire options on Rentalcars.com which aggregates prices across all the major car hire companies.
When it comes to cost, Dublin is significantly more expensive than Belfast in just about all areas. Accommodation, transport and restaurants: when it comes to cost Belfast wins out. Something of importance to note regarding finances is that the currency of the two cities differs; Belfast uses the Sterling Pound while Dublin uses the Euro.
In Dublin, you can expect to pay about €6.50 for a drink and around €35 for a meal in a mid-range restaurant, while a one-bedroom booked through Airbnb will set you back around €145, though cheaper rates can be found in hostels and budget hotels. For many, cost may be a deciding factor when choosing between Dublin or Belfast.
Things to do in Dublin
In a nation that’s famed for its drinks, one stands out amongst many: Guinness. Known colloquially by many names, whether you call it your pint of plain or more simply still, the black stuff, Guinness has been a Dublin institution since its founding by Arthur Guinness in 1759. A visit to the Guinness Storehouse is well worth a visit, indeed its annual two million visitors would attest to this.
The Storehouse showcases the historical, scientific and cultural aspects of a pint of the stout, and when you’ve finally learned all you can about a pint of stout, you can take in a view of the cityscape from above at the Storehouse’s Gravity Bar.
Speaking of bars, Dublin has a well-deserved reputation as a bustling centre of nightlife and whether you choose to while away your time in the traditional pubs of Temple Bar, or dance the night away in some of Dublin’s larger clubs, you will not leave without a good story to tell!
Of course, Dublin is packed to the brim with interesting historic and cultural sites that are worth visiting, as well. Some of the most popular things to do in Dublin include visiting Trinity College where you can see the Book of Kells in the iconic library. You can also visit the Dublin Castle, wander through the lush Phoenix Park or take in the incredible St Patrick’s Cathedral.
If you have your choice of dates, two events stand out. St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th of March is the country’s largest celebration and the joviality spills throughout the city. Crowds gather to see the parade, to drink and to join in the merriment of the occasion; the city centre on the 17th of March is not for the faint of heart.
Secondly, Dublin hosts an annual Culture Night, with the date varying but generally occurring in the latter half of September. On Culture Night the doors of Dublin are thrown open and a myriad of tours, talks, exhibitions, concerts and performances are all on offer free of charge. If you want to really see what Dublin is all about, this is most certainly the night to find out.
Where to Stay in Dublin
Dublin is one of the most popular cities to visit in Europe and, therefore, there are countless accommodation options available throughout the Irish capital. Though hostel and hotel prices may be quite high compared to other cities in Ireland, there is still something for everyone in Dublin. If you’ve decided to visit Dublin vs Belfast and are wondering where you should rest your head for the night, check out these recommendations:
Sky Backpackers — This hostel is one of the best options for budget and solo travellers in Dublin. Centrally located to see everything Dublin has to offer, they have a range of both dorm and private rooms available. They also have great common areas to meet other travellers and organise social events. Click here to check their availability
Amberly House — A quaint guesthouse in Dublin’s North Side, this is a good place to stay to be able to explore the city. Well-located within an easy walk to most of the city’s main attractions, they have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available and a light breakfast is available for a small extra charge. Click here to check their availability
Kilronan House — This central B&B is the perfect place to stay in Dublin if you want to bit of a classic experience in the city. They have a range of cosy and comfortable rooms available, are ideally situated to explore all of Dublin’s top attractions, and there is an excellent breakfast included in the rate. Click here to check their availability
Airbnb — Airbnb is another good option in Dublin with many properties available on the platform ranging from whole apartments (such as this great city-centre flat!) to private rooms in someone’s home. Click here to see the best Airbnbs in Dublin.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels in Dublin
Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland. Once synonymous with violence and sectarianism, the former industrial city has transformed into a vibrant and thriving cultural centre. With a population of around 330,000, it is relatively small and can be easily be wandered through on foot.
Belfast is a city of divided cultural quarters, each with its own distinct character and personality, each certain to delight! Most central is the Cathedral Quarter, home to St. Anne’s Cathedral, and one can find a variety of live performances, art exhibitions and food markets during the summer months. The slips and shipyards where the RMS Titanic was once constructed now play host to live music and festivals from the month of May onwards.
Belfast is slightly less accessible to international visitors than Dublin. While direct flights are available from many European capitals, there are no direct flights from the US. This needn’t be an issue, however, as transport options from Dublin are numerous and a train journey between the two cities takes only two hours.
If you’re travelling from within Europe you’ll be flying into either Belfast International Airport or the George Best Belfast City airport. Belfast International Airport mostly serves continental Europe and further afield, while the George Best City Airport, named after Northern Ireland’s most iconic footballer, caters for flights within the UK. Regardless, both airports are well connected to the city centre, with a bus journey from each to the city centre taking approximately 40 and 20 minutes respectively.
Within Belfast, your best bet is to travel on foot, by bus or by taxi. Belfast is quite a compact city and is quite walkable. A visitor travel pass is also available which provides you with unlimited travel on Metro and Glider services, as well as on Ulsterbus and NI Railways for one, two or three days. Visitor passes can be bought both online or in-person at the Visit Belfast Centre ay Donegall Square, at the airport tourist information desks, or at any of the Translink stations throughout the city.
As is also the case in Dublin, car hire is generally only necessary if you plan on exploring some of the (stunning!) surrounding areas. If you hope to see much of the rest of Ireland, a detour to Dublin will probably be necessary as most of the services to the other cities of the Republic of Ireland radiate from there.
When it comes to affordability, Belfast is the winner hands-down. In the last decade, Dublin has become a hub of international business and this is reflected in the price tag of day-to-day goods. While Belfast is certainly also a city on the up, the cost of living is significantly cheaper than in Dublin.
As mentioned above, in Dublin you can expect to pay about €6.50 for a drink, around €35 for a meal in a mid-range restaurant, and roughly €145 for a one-bedroom apartment on Airbnb. In Belfast, you’ll pay £4, £20 and £60 for the same! It is also worth remembering that you will pay in Great British Pounds in Belfast and in Euro in Ireland. When it comes to finances, the bottom line is always clear and that is certainly the case here: if you want your money to go further, go to Belfast.
Things to do in Belfast
Perhaps the most visited tourist site in Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is located about an hour and a half’s drive from Belfast City Centre on the Antrim Coast. While the Republic of Ireland may have the cliffs of Moher about two and half hours from Dublin, nothing compares to the Giant’s Causeway when it comes to visceral otherworldly beauty, with approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns rising from the intense volcanic activity that once took place there. There are many day tours available to see the Giant’s Causeway from Belfast.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan then Belfast also wins out in that regard: countless iconic scenes were filmed at locations surrounding Belfast. From Winterfell Castle to the Dothraki grasslands, Northern Ireland has it all! A number of Game of Thrones tours operate, some of which also include the Giant’s Causeway such as this popular tour available on GetYourGuide.
In Belfast itself, there are a plethora of things to do and see. Any day spent exploring Belfast is best begun with a good breakfast at St. George’s Weekend Market, operating since 1604! While the Saturday market is mostly geared towards the sale of crafts, you can find yourself a good feed there at any stage throughout the weekend.
A brilliant way to get an insight into Belfast’s troubled history is in the back of a taxi; Belfast’s Black Cab tours take you through the city’s turbulent past where you can see the iconic political murals that cover many walls in both historically Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.
Take a wander around Belfast’s central Cathedral Quarter and grab something to eat in Maggie May’s café, a Belfast institution renowned for their milkshakes! If you’re feeling thirsty, The Dirty Onion is a traditional pub with a contemporary feel and hosts live music every night of the week, housed in one of Belfast’s oldest buildings.
Where to Stay in Belfast
If the Northern Irish capital has won your favour when trying to choose whether to visit Dublin or Belfast, then you’re in luck. There are countless accommodation options available for visitors to Belfast no matter what your preferences may be.
If you’re after a dorm in a backpacker’ hostel, a trendy Airbnb apartment (like this cosy, centrally-located flat), or a boutique B&B, Belfast has something to offer everyone. If you’re wondering where to stay in Belfast, have a look at these suggestions:
Vagabonds — This hostel is the perfect choice for budget or solo travellers looking for an affordable bed in a laid-back atmosphere. The hostel is centrally-located, has both dorm and private rooms available, and great common areas to help you meet other travellers. Click here to see their availability
Harpers Boutique B&B — If your budget allows for a bit more than a backpacker’s hostel, then this chic bed & breakfast is a great choice for you. They have a handful of comfortable and stylish rooms available, a great location in Belfast’s Queen’s Quarter and an excellent breakfast included each morning. Click here to see their availability
The Warren Belfast — If you’re after some luxury in Belfast, then this hotel is the place to stay for you. Offering a great, central location in the Queen’s Quarter, this hotel has numerous luxe and comfortable rooms available and a fantastic breakfast included in the nightly rate. Click here to see their availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Belfast hotels!
Dublin or Belfast: Which is Better to Visit
When choosing between Belfast or Dublin to visit, the decision is ultimately a subjective one. I’ve lost count of the number of times a friend has either recommended or discouraged me from visiting a particular city and my experience there has been contrary to that expected. With that said, Dublin and Belfast are two very different cities and there are certain factors that will likely prove to be a deal-breaker for many visitors.
Are you looking to travel throughout the rest of Ireland, to visit Cork, Kerry and Galway? Dublin would seem to be the better option. Are you travelling on a budget and eager to make every cent count? Your money would likely be better spent in Belfast.
If neither of the above is a deal-breaker for you then perhaps some less pragmatic concerns can help you make your mind up. When you think of your trip to Ireland, perhaps you see yourself sipping a cold pint of Guinness straight from the source in Dublin, immersed in a city where literature, heritage and craic are the order of the day.
But maybe instead you can more easily see yourself exploring Northern Ireland’s capital and learning about its all too recent past, where the wild beauty of the surrounding landscape formed the backdrop to some of Europe’s most deeply complex cultural tensions.
Dublin and Belfast are both great cities where one can experience first-hand two different strands of Irish culture and landscape. Whether you choose to visit Belfast or Dublin, you will not be disappointed.
When travelling in Dublin or Belfast, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a travel insurance policy so you’re covered for any unfortunate events! We like WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads
Are you trying to decide between Dublin vs Belfast? Which city do you prefer to visit? Let us know in the comments below!