Belfast Castle is set on the lower slope in the Cavehill Country Park in North Ireland and offers gorgeous views of Belfast city and Belfast Lough. The burnt sienna coloured sandstone castle has a beautiful sweeping style grey-brown staircase that winds up and down creating a striking contrast… you can almost imagine a princess descending those stairs!!
The castle is a good example of Scottish Renaissance-style architecture. The castle is surrounded by formally landscaped gardens and a park. The main building is spread over 2 floors and there are semi-circular round towers at each of the corners. Cave Hill (11-mile long-range stretching between Newtownabbey and Lisburn) and its statuesque outline that rises 1207 feet above sea level can be seen from any part of the city, is as big an attraction as the Castle!!
The 5 caves built into the sides of the cliffs are said to contain a plethora of archaeological and natural wonders and these gave the hill its name. A visit to the Belfast Castle and the Cave Hill Country Park combines history, nature and entertainment is hard to resist cocktail!!
The original Belfast castle stood in the City centre and was built by the Normans in the 12th century. The famous Marquis of Donegal/ Baron Arthur Chichester of Belfast stayed there. When the castle burnt in 1708 another one was built in deer park on cave hill by the Donegal family who later passed on the castle to the Shaftesbury family.
The Shaftesbury family who were the owners and residents of the castle were very generous patrons of the city. The 9th earl of Shaftesbury became the mayor in 1907… an indication of his political clout. Eventually, the family donated the castle to the Belfast city around 1934.
There were a lot of debates about the possible uses of the castle. Finally, the castle was remodelled at an exorbitant cost into a wedding and party venue while a portion of its interiors was used as a museum. The sandstone walls and towers are restored and most of the rooms have been turned into public tea rooms.
Many events have been held in Belfast like the 2015 Belfast Castle Hospice Walk. From 1978 to 1988 the castle was closed for 10 years for a 2 million pound refurbishment project. The Cave Hill Country Park was established much later in 1992 and includes land from Hazelwood, Bellevue, Belfast Castle, Carr’s Glen and the top of Cave Hill.
The castle cellar has the visitor centre which tells the story of the Castle, Country Park and Cave Hill. There is an insightful video presentation that lets visitors know about the inhabitants of the castle and how they have been influencing and watching over Belfast.
Don’t miss the beautiful bedroom preserved in its medieval 1920’s splendour… this is one of the 4 rooms that comprise the Visitor centre. There is a great collection of wedding photographs that range from the 1940s to the present era. Note the change of fashion and different kinds of wedding gowns used through all those years.
Another room retells the story of the inhabitants of cave hill… from the Stone Age to the modern age. This room has a collection of photos, videos and clippings about how the Bellevue Pleasure Gardens, Zoo and Floral Hall looked in the past. Yet another room explores the geology and natural flora and fauna of the hills.
The Cave Hills country park’s diversity of flora is stunning considering the fact that it is so close to the city and it’s a good idea to learn more about it in the Visitor Centre before you actually stroll through the Country Park.
Most of the Castle Rooms have been converted into event spaces that hold wedding receptions as well as civil ceremonies. Nevertheless, you are free to look and imagine what they were like in the past. The Chichester Room, for example, was the ballroom and it has a great view over Belfast Lough and the city. You can use the striking snake-like staircase to descend into the gardens from this room.
There is the Donegall room on the ground floor and it affords a great view of the fountain and garden. The Ben Madigan Room has impressive bay windows while the Fisherwick Room is the only room in the castle that overlooks both the city and the gardens. Don’t miss the Ashley Room that looks over the cat garden.
Don’t miss a look at the quirky cat garden on the castle grounds. According to legends, the Belfast Castle would remain safe and its occupants will be lucky as long as white cats stayed there. In medieval times many felines made it their home. Right now there are 9 cats represented through sculpture, mosaics and even designer shrubbery shapes. It’s so much fun discovering all 9 cats while exploring the garden.
Cave Hill Country Park
The impeccably maintained country park is ideal for walks, jogs or a bout of nature watching. There are dedicated paths for cyclists and bird watchers who can be seen looking out for the rare avian species like long-eared owls and sparrow hawks that have made the park their home. Look out for Belfast’s rarest plant ‘the town hall clock’ inside the park. The chance of seeing 5 caves including Napoleon’s Nose (this supposedly inspired Gulliver’s Travels) makes the park special.
Evidence of early settlements was discovered on Cave Hill and that threw archaeologists into a frenzy. A stone cairn was discovered on the summit (dated 4500 BC) along with ring forts from early Christian times. Limestone used to be quarried from the south slope of the hill and it’s said that the Devil’s Punchbowl (huge hollow below caves) is the result of limestone removal.
You can examine the natural beauty in more detail when you take the walking trail. The park is full of spring flowers or the purple heather that marks late summer. Autumn gifts it with red and gold foliage and there is plenty of shade from the ancient sycamore, elm and oak trees.
Even if you aren’t an ornithologist you will enjoy the ravens, kestrels and skylarks that weave their own chorus. Maybe a bat or a hedgehog will drop in to say hello to you!! Ballyvaughan and Hazelwood are local Natural Reserves inside the Country Park.
You will get free maps of the terrain from the Belfast castle reception. There are orienteering courses suitable for all age groups available at the country park. It’s refreshing to see that such a piece of wild natural beauty exists within 20 minutes of a car ride from the busy Belfast city.
A medium difficulty well signposted 7.2 km walking trail is available at the Country Park and this will let you climb over the Cave Hill upper slopes while admiring views over Belfast. There are many viewpoints along the trail and during the course of this 2.5-hour walk, you will see (if the day is clear) Strangford Lough, Mourne Mountains, Scrabo tower and even the Scotland coast across the Irish Sea. Peer harder and you will see Isle of Man across the Irish Sea.
You will also pass by a steep ground depression that’s called Devils Punchbowl and the caves that gave Cave Hill its name. Mc Art’s Fort ruins and its moat (former defence quarters) can be seen. But the best thing about the trail is the woodlands that exist since the 9th century… lots of oak, elm, larch, pine and sycamore trees can be seen here. If the rather long trail scares you the join in for a shorter version from Upper High town Road or Upper Cavehill road.
If you climb the summit then look out for the outlines of Samson and Goliath (twin huge cranes of Belfast’s iconic shipyard) dominating the Belfast skyline.
Cave Hill Adventure Playground
Let your kids enjoy the slides, spring rockers and cradle swings at the Cave Hill Adventurous Playground. There is a sand play area and a bicycle roundabout too. If your kids are older then they can enjoy the space net and the runway (aerial).
There is free Wi-Fi, accessible toilets, breastfeeding rooms and diaper changing facilities at the Belfast castle. The ample amenities and sufficient parking enables the Castle to act as a family tourist destination. Kids especially love the expansive grounds, playground and the inclusion of kids menu in the onsite restaurant.
There is a small gift shop inside the castle that stocks replicas of antiques and castle-themed souvenirs besides books on history and heritage… this is a good place to drop in.
Where To Eat
Cellar Restaurant/ French Village
The restaurant focuses on locally sourced food and the all-day menu has light entrees like crispy beef and local seafood chowder. Breakfast is offered from 8 a.m. and comprises of soda and potato bread, pancakes, bacon and sausage, beans, tomato and mushroom sautéed. Vegetarians can try the roast squash risotto while beef lovers will love the grilled Irish beef burger.
There are special menus for Sunday brunch and also for different events like Valentine’s Day, Christmas etc. dinner is available till 9 p.m. from Thursday to Saturday and on all other days the Cellar closes at 5.30 p.m. there is a special Vegan menu as well as a kids menu.
The Afternoon Tea session is a beautiful affair at the French Village with hot tea in delicate-looking china accompanied by a range of goodies. You can look at the castle grounds and imagine yourself being a ‘baron’ while you sip your tea. You can pack and take home whatever you can’t eat!!
The small yet inviting Castle Tavern is perfect for coffee and homemade scones or a relaxed drink. You will only get light food here including salads and soups.
The Belfast Castle is open from 9 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. from Sunday to Monday
The Cave Hill Country Park is closed on the weekdays from October to March and is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the weekends. From April to September the Cave Hill Country Park and Adventure Centre is open from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the weekends and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekdays
The Visitor Centre is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday and on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
It will take you almost 2 to 3 hours if you wish to see all aspects of the castle so arriving near the opening hour is a good idea.
Timings are subject to change so keep checking the official website before you plan your visit.
This 2-hour luxury chauffeured vehicle tour kicks off by exploring Belfast’s political landscape and checking out the best public murals and artwork. The visitors will then be taken to the Belfast castle for a 45-minute tour of the grounds and the castle. End to end pick up and drop is offered in this popular tour offered by Viator.
You can book this tour online through this Viator website page.
Belfast Castle is an important historical attraction and most history tours of the city cover it. The 4-hour complete history tour of Belfast stops at Belfast Castle and Shankhill Road –Falls Road besides Titanic Belfast, Ulster Museum, City Hall and Parliament buildings.
You can book this tour online through this Viator website page.
How To Reach
The castle has good signposting. You can access it from the Antrim Road in north Belfast via the M2. There is a car park at the corner of the driveway. There is even a special car park for visitors with mobility issues.
You can catch the Translink metro bus route (upper queen street) from Belfast City centre and disembark at Strathmore Park on Antrim Road. Walk down to Belfast castle from here… there is good signage on the path. The walk is a 15-minute invigorating task so make sure you wear suitable footwear. The Belfast Castle is covered on the hop on hop off bus route operated by City Tours Red Line (this is different from City Sightseeing Tours).
Belfast Castle and Cave Hill Country Park
Near Whitehouse, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Phone: 028 9077 6925; Email: Email: [email protected]
What To See Nearby
The Belfast Zoo makes for a good stop after you have explored the castle… it is less than 2 km away. The 55-acre zoo stands on Antrim road and is home to more than 1000 animals. Kids will love the gorillas and zebras while adults will like the fact that there are unusual species like sea lions and meerkats. Belfast Zoo is invested deeply in conservation programs and is one of the most visited attractions of Belfast.
You could also venture out deeper into Antrim County and visit the wild Glens of Antrim (roughly an hour’s drive away) that are famous for their rugged beauty. Seeing the World Heritage Site of Giant’s Causeway is a life-changing experience… it is a good 1.5-hour drive from Belfast Castle though.
There are lots of options around if you are not specifically looking for fine dining restaurants. Murphy Brown on Cavehill Road is great for all 3 meals; breakfast lunch and dinner and if you don’t mind the restricted space you will enjoy their steaks and pies.
CT 15 Café Bistro is lovely for dinner and the staff are solicitous enough to call taxis for diners. Look out for the burritos, chicken pesto wrap and salad with sweet potato fries and the Cajun chicken sandwich with blue cheese mayo. And if pizza is your vice then there is Four Star Pizza North Belfast that serves great portions of pizzas and tasty garlic baguette bread.