Is Belfast Safe to Visit? A guide to visiting Northern Ireland

Is Belfast Safe?

Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, which is considered to be the safest region of the United Kingdom – much safer than Scotland, England and Wales. It is a beautiful city but is often overlooked due to its troubled history. That is why we are going to answer the question – Is Belfast safe to visit?

Over the past 50 years, Belfast and Northern Ireland have gained a bad reputation. News headlines and stories across the world gave a very negative impression of the country during its dark period, but today the city and Northern Ireland as a whole has moved on.

Recent surveys have even ranked Belfast as the second safest city within the UK after Birmingham. That makes it much safer than other popular destinations in the United Kingdom including London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff.

Is Belfast safe to visit?

Although Belfast has had its troubles, today it is considered one of the safest cities to visit, not only within the UK but in Europe too.

Although Belfast is considered to be a very safe city, there is always a reason to be cautious, especially when visiting a new destination. If you are exploring a new area and are feeling a bit apprehensive, it’s always best to go with your gut and use common sense wherever you go.

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about Belfast’s history, its current political affairs and some top tips to keep you safe during your stay.

Belfast’s troubled history

Belfast Peace Lines
Belfast Peace Lines

When Belfast is mentioned, ‘the troubles’ is often what people’s minds head to. The Troubles was a period of conflict that lasted between the late 1960s to 1998. Fueled by political ideas, this awful period caused the deaths of around 3,600 people and injured around 30,000.

The origin of the troubles started when the Catholic people of Ireland tried to break free of British Rule. In 1922, the Republic of Ireland became an independent nation whilst Northern Ireland remained governed by the United Kingdom and its government.

The country of Ireland became divided between Catholics who favoured Irish traditions and protestants who strongly associated with British traditions. The majority of Protestants resided in Northern Ireland, why is why the decision was made to keep that part of Ireland in the United Kingdom.

Catholics and Protestants

However, a minority of Catholics still lived within Northern Ireland, and mistrust began to occur between the two communities. The Catholic community felt as if they were being treated as ‘second class citizens and wanted to break free of the Protestant government of the United Kingdom.

These tensions escalated and created ‘the troubles’ which was considered to be a violent civil war. For the next four decades, Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast would see endless bombings, battles, riots and murders. During this time, it was a very unsafe place to visit for tourists, and the country gained bad press all across the world for good reason.

The tensions hit a peak in the 1970s when a member of the IRA started hunger strikes within the Hm Prison Maze where he had been imprisoned for 14 years due to firearms possession and helping to plan the 1976 bombing. He later died due to this food strike, and this caused rioting all over Northern Ireland.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement

IRA Mural in Belfast
IRA Mural in Belfast

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was an agreement between British and Irish governments and a lot of the political parties in Northern Ireland. The agreement focused on how Northern Ireland should be governed, and its aim was to make sure that everyone had equal rights and respected each other’s traditions and religions.

Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast are considered to be relatively safe ever since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. However, recent political issues have caused some tension and stir among Irish parties.

Recent Incidents in Northern Ireland

Although crime and violence have plummeted in Northern Ireland over the years, the recent Brexit agreement has caused a stir and created some tension across the country.

The new trade border between Ireland and the UK which was caused by Brexit angered a lot of people. Some Loyalist paramilitary groups told the UK Government they no longer supported the peace deal from 1998 and although the groups haven’t become violent yet, there are fears that in the future they will and attacks could start.

Aside from this, the most recent incident in Northern Ireland was in April 2019, when a journalist from Belfast called Lyra McKee was killed during a riot. The riot was caused by a police crackdown on paramilitary groups, and unfortunately, Lyra was shot by a member of the New IRA.

However, these politically fuelled acts are not considered to be a threat to tourists and occur few and far between.

One of the best ways to learn more about Northern Ireland’s past is to take one of the political walking or taxi tours. Get Your Guide have a range of tours, some of which even include ex-prisoners as guides.

  • Conflicting Stories 3 Hour Walking Tour – Book here

Are there some areas of Belfast to avoid?

Clonard Martyrs Memorial
Clonard Martyrs Memorial

The majority of Belfast is incredibly safe to visit, especially the main city centre. The only thing to be cautious of in the centre is simply the alcohol-fuelled shenanigans that occur in every city. With everybody out on the town in the evening, things can get pretty rowdy especially outside nightclubs and bars, so this is something to keep in mind.

Although Belfast is considered very safe for travellers, every city has its areas to avoid. It’s always best to avoid dimly lit areas, and areas that are off the beaten track. We are going to go through a couple of areas that are best to keep off your radar!

In Southern Belfast, Botanic avenue is known for being charming during the daytime however, recent news reports have stated that there has been a significant rise in open drug use in this area.

If you are wanting to hike up Cave Hill or visit Belfast Castle, then it’s very likely to you will head through North Belfast. Generally, it’s not a place you would visit in the evening due to the unionist and Nationalist areas located here. Short Strand in East Belfast should also be avoided during the evening as this area has previously been the scene of riots and political tension over the years.

How to stay safe in Belfast

Although Belfast is considered to be very safe for tourists, here are some tips to stay safe whilst exploring:
Avoid the annual Loyalist marches which take place between April and July each year, as political tensions are high at this time.

  • Don’t discuss politics or religion with people, just in case people’s opinions differ dramatically from yours. It is the best way to avoid causing offence, or even arguments.
  • Avoid walking through dark streets in the evening, as gang violence and drug crimes are increasing in the city.
  • Try not to wear any clothing that may offend people or come across as a statement e.g the Union Jack Symbol or English jerseys. It is best to keep clothing neutral and unoffensive. Likewise with Celtic/Rangers jerseys!
  • Be vigilant when around public transport hubs, train stations and popular tourist attractions as pickpocketing does occur in these areas.
  • Consuming alcohol is forbidden in most public places, so do your research.

Know Before You Go

As a tourist, there aren’t a lot of things to worry about, especially not political attacks. However, petty crimes do occur in the city especially in touristy areas, and the number of public offences has also been increasing.

In recent years, gang-related crime and gun crime has also increased within the city. However, many large cities within the United Kingdom suffer from these issues, and that doesn’t mean Belfast isn’t safe to visit.

The main thing when exploring Belfast (or any city) is to use your common sense and do a bit of research first. If you know you’re heading out late in the evening, and you’ve found the area is one to avoid, then hire a taxi rather than walking through.

If you are planning a night out in the city centre or travelling alone then just let a family member or friend know where you are and roughly what time you will be home. Not only will it give you peace of mind, but it will also help you enjoy your time in this incredible city.

So is Belfast Safe?

These tips are just simple measures for you to take during your trip if you are feeling a bit apprehensive. However, you shouldn’t be! Although Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast have had troubles in the past, today it is a popular tourist spot and a great destination to visit.

So the question everyone wants the answer to – is Belfast safe to visit? Aside from the recent effects of Brexit in Northern Ireland, the city of Belfast is considered to be a very safe city to visit. Recent studies actually suggest that it has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe and petty crime is considered to be low compared with other big cities.

The city of Belfast has come a long way since the 1960s so shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush, as this vibrant city has a lot to offer for tourists today.

Steve Rohan

About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang, the tropical paradise of Sanya and Hong Kong.

He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.

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