10 great reasons to visit Belfast
There is a vibrancy to this city, with a lively food, drink, art and music scene – plus an exchange rate that makes it a steal
Belfast: the big yellow gantry cranes built by shipbuilder Harland & Wolff
The exchange rate
A favourable exchange rate means a trip to Belfast is great value for Euro travellers. Keep an eye on the rates and change currency in the Republic before your trip to save on bank withdrawal fees. If you are paying by card, you will be generally better off paying in sterling but compare the rate being offered by the individual shops, restaurants or hotels on the card machine to make sure you are getting the best deal.
All things Titanic
Turn towards the water from many of Belfast’s city centre streets and Samson and Goliath dominate the skyline. They are two thumping big yellow gantry cranes built by shipbuilder Harland & Wolff. You know the ones. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t lift Titanic into the water but they are hard to resist all the same. Let yourself be lured across the Lagan footbridge and follow the water’s edge to the Titanic Quarter, which celebrates Belfast’s history as a sea-faring city. Its showpiece is Titanic Belfast (titanicbelfast.com), a shimmering visitor centre. The centre’s interactive galleries bring you on the journey of the RMS Titanic and her passengers – from the building to the launch, maiden voyage and sinking on April 14th, 1912. A visit is worth every pound of the £18 entrance fee. Buy tickets online and go early to avoid the crowds. Don’t miss the second stop – and last room – of the exhibition where you venture under the ocean to explore the wreck. The last stop is to board the SS Nomadic.
After your visit, go across the road for a drink at the bar of the Titanic Hotel. The redbrick hotel is housed in the former Harland & Wolff offices, with the bar occupying one of the drawing offices where the drawings for the Titanic and other White Star Liners were penned. The tiles lining the bar are the same as those used on the swimming pool on the Titanic and you’ll find the telephone exchange room, where the call was received about the ill-fated vessel, on the opposite side of the building.
Belfast is famous for its street art. Political murals have peppered the streets for decades and have flashed across TV screens around the world as symbols of the Troubles. However, a new generation of artists is claiming public spaces, most notably in the Cathedral Quarter. Head for Hill Street to be confronted with this contemporary art on walls and hoardings or for more insight, join a two-hour walking tour led by local artists who have driven the scene. The tour runs on a Sunday and costs £8. Find details on seedheadarts.com or the Belfast Visitors Centre at 9 Donegall Square North.
In the words of John and Sally McKenna, the Northern Ireland foodie scene is “more exciting than it has ever been, more hungry, more eager, more ambitious”. This is definitely evident in Belfast where new openings compete with old names. The city has two Michelin stars. Michael Deane’s Eipic (michaeldeane.co.uk) has one of them. It is the “finest” dining option in the Deanes restaurant portfolio, which includes Deanes Meat Locker, Deanes Love Fish, Deanes Deli Bistro & Vin Café, Deanes at Queens and Deane & Decano. Quite the empire. Try the fritto misto with chilli oil at Love Fish or the laid-back tapas ar the Deli Bistro around the corner. Also in the area is James Street South (jamesstreetsouth.co.uk) where pre-theatre menus offer very good fine dining value. In case you are wondering, the brainchild of chef Stephen Toman and Alain Kerloc’h, Ox (oxbelfast.com) has the other Michelin star. Of the older establishments, visit Mourne Seafood Bar (mourneseafood.com) for bare brick walls, scrubbed wooden tables, oysters, seared scallops and smoked haddock. Don’t miss out on their cocktails either. Also top notch for cocktails, especially the Old Fashioned that scents the air, is the Muddler’s Club (themuddlersclubbelfast.com). Outside the city centre, in the university area, the Barking Dog (barkingdogbelfast.com) is the place to go for laidback food. You’ll have to download their app to see the menu. It’s that kind of cool.
Staying with food, Belfast breakfasts deserve a category of their own. Harlem Café (harlembelfast.co.uk) is known for its Ulster fry-up, which may sound traditional but the café is anything but. It is adorned with antiques from all over the globe, sourced by the owner and hostess, Faye Rogers. The veggie sausage sandwich is the perfect way to start the morning or if you don’t rise until later, try their hot pot chowder. For a more minimalist approach, visit Established Coffee (established.coffee), which is best known for its “outrageously good coffee” but don’t stop there – try the white chocolate waffles with passion fruit yoghurt. Or hang around for lunch, when kale is sure to feature. For Saturday grazing, visit St George’s Market for food stalls crammed with local produce. Think Cork’s English Market in a lofty shed.
Nice pads / hotels
Names such as the Merchant (themerchanthotel.com), the Fitzwilliam (fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com) and, of course the Europa (hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast), known as the “most bombed hotel in Europe” have been on the scene for years. But there has been a hotel building boom in the city and now nearly every second grand building is being converted into a hotel. The Titanic Hotel (titanichotelbelfast.com), a sister hotel to the Titanic Liverpool, opened this month. The Hastings Group is turning the former Windsor House offices into the Grand Central Hotel, due to open in June next year; George Best’s face adorns the hoarding around the former Scottish Mutual Building which will house the George Best Hotel; and the Marriott is set to take on the City Quays hotel project.
Other brands are bringing a more hipster urban feel to offerings. The Bullitt Hotel (bullitthotel.com), a sister of the Merchant, offers just that vibe with rooms from €122 per night. If you can get past the super cool website, it does indeed offer what it says: “no nonsense rooms in the city centre”. The Grub to Go breakfast bags – hung on your door – are a simple way to help you make the most of your time in the city. Check out Airbnb for city centre or waterfront views from about €40 per night.
Game of Thrones day trips
There is no escaping the Game of Thrones fever that has swept Northern Ireland for the past seven seasons. So, embrace it. Out by Queens University and the Botanical Gardens, visit the Ulster Museum to see the Bayeux-style tapestry, exceeding 77 metres, that is immortalising the scenes and characters. There are a number of filming locations within an easy drive of the city. The Dark Hedges are about one hour north and while there, continue on to Ballinatoy Harbour. In the other direction, you’ll find Castle Ward, the Winterfell home of the Stark family. This weekend (September 24th) it hosts the National Trust’s Winterfell Festival (tickets £22.50). Special guests including two of the original Stark family Direwolf dogs.
Take a cab to explore the political history of the city, namely a Blackcab Political Tour (touringaroundbelfast.com) with someone who knows the city and its intricacies inside and out. You’ll visit the Peace Wall, political murals and learn about the Troubles from someone who has lived through them. Alternatively, walking guides with Coiste (coiste.ie) are former political prisoners from the Republican community, who weave their personal account of the conflict into the wider history of this centuries old conflict. Belfast is also a city where numerous hop-on, hop-off bus tours allow you to explore the surrounds easily.
Belfast’s streets are full of venues heaving with personality. The Black Box Belfast (blackboxbelfast.com) is a crucial hangout for the Belfast arts scene. It maintains a packed programme of theatre, arts, cabaret, music gigs, comedy and you’ll find craft beers to wash it all down. Voodoo (voodoobelfast.com) hosts everything from drum’n’bass nights to thrash metal gigs. It is described by Charlotte Dryden, who manages Oh Yeah Belfast music complex, as “a city-centre safe house for punks, rockers, ravers and rude boys”. Vandal (vandalbelfast.co.uk) is a geek bar, movie bar and pizza joint with regular club nights. It’s located on the top floor of the 17th century White’s Tavern, whose landlords used to run the legendary Stiff Kitten club.
The streets of Belfast are not the easiest to navigate but getting there is very simple. With no pre-Brexit border, it is an easy 90-minute drive from the M50. The Enterprise train service from Dublin Connolly will add an hour to your journey but seats have power outlets and you can bring your bike for free. Buy tickets in advance online for the best rates. If you are on two wheels – a great way to explore the city – leave Central Station and turn left for the city centre. Or, if you prefer a scenic route, turn right and right again to find your way on to the Lagan towpath for a different view of the city.