Do you need a car in Belfast?
( BFS )
The Northern Ireland peace process has brought about a significant rise in the number of tourists visiting Belfast. As with most European cities, the main attractions in Belfast itself are easy to walk to, so what about places to visit beyond the city?
Do you need a car in Belfast? Introduction
Why should you rent a car in Belfast?
In terms of factors like the cost of the hire itself, fuel costs, road tolls and parking charges, is it worth hiring a car in Belfast?
Belfast Car hire summary
Cheapest rate for one week
How much should I expect to pay in the peak season?
Free parking score
Total 114 - of which 50 have free parking. [full notes - parking]
Do you need a car in Belfast?
- Giant’s Causeway — this is surely the most impressive natural feature on the Emerald Isle, and is only a short drive from Belfast.
However, scheduled (from Belfast, Coleraine or Portrush) or guided bus trips are available, so there is no need to get a hire car just to visit Giant’s Causeway.
- Inland — the railway routes in Northern Ireland generally stay close to the coast, so to go anywhere inland, especially to visit the various points of interest around Lough Neah, you will need a rental car, or you will have to rely on slow bus services.
- Blue Stack mountains — head across into Co Donegal for some superb scenery on Ireland’s northwest coast.
Public transport limitations
- Limited railway lines — look at any major city in England or central Scotland, and you will usually see a network of rail lines fanning out, including local and long-distance services. There are only four railway lines heading out of Belfast. Two of these only provide suburban connections to Larne and Bangor respectively. A regional service operates as far as Derry (Londonderry), whereas the Enterprise service continues down to Dublin Needless to say, you can head out of Belfast in any direction you want in a hire car. This network, branded as Translink, is not just short on routes, frequencies outside the Belfast area are also extremely poor. For example, trains to Derry depart roughly every two hours, considerably less often than might be expected on an equivalent inter-city service elsewhere in the UK.
- Poor public transport — although Northern Ireland has seen a lot of investment in recent years, little of this has gone on to noticeable public transport infrastructure, although the Translink fleet itself has been upgraded. No new lines have been built, and unlike many comparable cities in central or northern England, there is no form of tram in Belfast. The city remains car dependent, and it has relatively few good routes to explore by bike.
GB Railcard note
- No railcard discount – if you are visiting Belfast from any other part of the United Kingdom, and you already have a railcard of any kind, then this will not give you any discount on the railways in Northern Ireland, as they are a completely separate network.
Why not? Visiting Belfast without a car
Belfast public transport quick facts
Overall public transport score
Walking and Cycling Overview
Active travel score
(walking + cycling)
- Coastal trains — what Northern Ireland lacks in quantity is more than made up for in quality. The train hugs the coast in many areas, offering some excellent scenic views, especially between Coleraine and Derry, along Lough Foyle, and south of Newry most of the way to Dublin. My personal favourite is the train journey into Belfast from Larne Harbour.
- Ramble by bus – you can take “Rambler” buses along designated scenic routes, giving you access to the Mourne Mountains to the south of Belfast, or the Sperrins to the west. A Rambler bus service also operates along the coastline near Giant’s Causeway. Other buses run directly in to scenic areas, such as the Davagh Forest country park.
- Boat trips – from Ballycastle, you can take a boat to Rathlin Island, with its nature reserve. Further west and into the Republic of Ireland, you could take a boat from Burtonport to Arranmore Island. The outings themselves are car-free, however, although you can reach both ports by bus, it is still easier to get to these places in a hire car.
Beyond Belfast & Northern Ireland
- Celtic cousins — instead of just visiting Northern Ireland, why not combine a trip to Belfast with a visit to Glasgow or Edinburgh? This is an easy rail trip, with plenty of flights available from throughout Europe at either end if you extend to the Scottish and Irish capitals. The train south of Ayr towards Stranraer is particularly scenic, and you also get to include a short ferry crossing on the Irish Sea. This now needs a bus link from Cairnryan harbour to Stranraer station.
- Dublin and the Irish Republic. It’s very easy to continue into the Republic of Ireland by train or coach. If you are travelling by public transport, you can then head home from any airport without having to worry about one-way rental fees.
- One-way car rental from the UK to Ireland is not usually possible.
Conclusion — Do you need a car in Belfast? Despite some useful bus connections to supplement the handful of railway routes which are on offer, public transport options in and around Belfast are still relatively limited, and the best attractions in the region are landscapes rather than cities.
This makes our verdict lean heavily towards recommending getting a hire car.
Verdict — yes (strong)
Note — it is easy to pick up a hire car at either Belfast International or Belfast George Best city airport. If you don’t plan on getting a hire car, you’re better off flying into Belfast city airport, which is much closer to central Belfast. You can even take a short shuttle bus journey to nearby Sydenham station to start onward rail journeys within Northern Ireland. For getting to the city centre, it is quicker to take a taxi or shuttle bus. Belfast City airport has a wider network of domestic flights from the rest of the UK, whereas Belfast International has more flights from mainland Europe.
Belfast and Northern Ireland Local transport links:
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