Most travelers who visit Ireland eventually end up having to settle the Dublin vs Belfast debate. This is true even if they end up visiting both cities, which in spite of their relatively close distance are quite different from one another.
Personally, I’m not quite sure where I fall. While Belfast might be the more interesting city if looking at the two in a vacuum, Dublin is both the capital of Ireland, as well as where most adventures around the Emerald Isle again. Its value is as much in symbolism as its substance.
Over the next several paragraphs, I’ll explain some key differences—and to be sure, many similarities—between these two capital cities, as well as how both fit into larger Ireland trips.
How Dublin and Belfast Fit Into My Ireland Trip
Before I delve into specifics, I thought it might be a good idea to explain how I placed both of these cities within my Ireland itinerary. It’s pretty simple: After landing in Dublin and spending a couple days there, I drove clockwise around Ireland, down to Cork and over to the Wild Atlantic Way, eventually looping up to the North and ending 10 days later in Belfast.
Seeing the entire rest of Ireland really helped contextualize the differences between its two large cities. One of these I didn’t realize when I was traveling? Casinos are actually forbidden in Northern Ireland. If you want to gamble while traveling in Northern Ireland, you’ll either need to do so at an online casino or drive back across the border to the Republic, whether or not you head all the way to Dublin.
How to Compare Dublin With Belfast
Dublin is arguably home to more must-see attractions than Belfast, starting with the Guinness Brewery and the Temple Bar, but not ending there—both St. Stephen’s Green park and the Trinity College Library are very worth visiting. While Belfast has plenty to do, spots like the Titanic Museum, Belfast Castle and the Stormont parliament building are slightly less well-known to travelers.
While most buildings in Dublin are modest (and, well, Irish—lots of Catholic churches), Belfast’s city center is slightly grander (and, well, British). I’d say the one building that best defines Belfast is the grand, patina-roofted Belfast City Hall. In Dublin, on the other hand, it’s a bit more difficult to pick just one spot. While an obvious choice would be the huge (but polarizing) Spire, a less divisive one might be the aforementioned Temple Bar.
Food and drink
Irish food is as once unremarkable and extraordinary; it’s one of the only countries I’ve ever visited where breakfast is the best meal of the day. With this being said, neither Belfast nor Dublin limits visitors to eating Irish (or even British) food; both have more pubs than any drinker could ever want. My favorite spot to have a cocktail in all of Ireland is probably the stylish bar at the Belfast’s Merchant Hotel.
Both Belfast and Dublin are cities on the water, although to slightly different ends. While Dublin centers on the relatively tranquil River Liffey, Belfast’s own river (the Lagan) is larger and louder; the city is situated near where it empties into the city. Belfast’s surrounding areas are generally relatively flat, but the Dublin region has more elevation, namely at the Killiney Hill viewpoint just south of town.
Day trips and excursions
If you’re renting a car after leaving Dublin you probably won’t take any proper day trips from it. With this being said, the storybook-looking city of Kilkenny is an easy day trip from Dublin, as is colorful Cobh in County Cork. The most obvious day trip from Belfast, meanwhile, is the dramatic Giant’s Causeway, although you could also visit cities like Londonderry and Portrush.
Other Cities in Ireland
Dublin and Belfast are the highest-profile destinations in Ireland, but they’re not the only places to go. Here are some other spots you might consider on your next Ireland trip:
- Cork: The largest county in southern Ireland, Cork is home to picturesque towns such as Cobh and Kinsale.
- Iveragh and Dingle peninsulas: The unofficial start of the Wild Atlantic Way, these two finger-shaped land masses will get you started on postcard-perfect scenery before you reach the…
- Cliffs of Moher: I won’t delve into whether this place is or isn’t overrated, other than to say the vast majority of people do end up coming here when they visit Ireland.
Just as Ireland itself is so much more than a question of Belfast vs Dublin, these suggestions are only the beginning of all there is to discover on the Emerald Isle.
Other FAQ About Belfast and Dublin
Is Belfast or Dublin more beautiful?
If I’m honest, neither Belfast nor Dublin are especially beautiful when compared with the natural scenery the rest of Ireland boasts. With this being said, I do sort of prefer the grander British architecture in the center of Belfast, when compared to the humbler buildings that define Dublin’s city center. On the other hand, the tranquility of strolling along Dublin’s River Liffey is hard to find anywhere in Belfast. The city’s own River Lagan is much larger and louder.
Is Belfast or Dublin cheaper?
As a general rule, I’d say that Belfast tends to be a bit more expensive than Dublin, since the British pound is always a bit more valuable than the euro. However, neither city is especially cheap. You should expect to spend no less than 100 USD per person, per day (and probably much more than that) when traveling in either Belfast or Dublin.
Is Belfast or Dublin safer?
Although Belfast has a reputation as being dangerous, much of this is down to history (and not especially recent history), rather than the present reality. Most areas where tourists are likely to stay are just as safe as anywhere in Dublin. Unless you plan to explore rougher areas of Belfast on your own (and not, say, with a Troubles tour), I really wouldn’t recommend worrying very much.
The Bottom Line
I hope I’ve helped you work out some of the key differences between Dublin vs Belfast. As far as I’m concerned, Belfast is a more interesting city in its own right, although a stop in Dublin is essential for unlocking the rest of the country. The reality, if I’m being honest, is that you’ll need to visit both these cities if you truly want to get a 360º picture of Ireland. If you can’t, however, decide based on the answer to a simple question: Are you taking a weekend trip from somewhere in the UK or Europe, or coming to enjoy a longer Ireland road trip? Belfast should be your choice in the first case, while Dublin makes more sense in the second—assuming you don’t add a couple extra days for Belfast at the end.