Think you know Belfast? Think again.
Once a byword for conflict — a bleak, industrial port city whose most famous export sank on its maiden voyage — Northern Ireland’s capital has metamorphosed into a hotbed of creativity and can-do attitude. While politicians at Stormont squabble, a new generation of entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and retailers are adding energy, layers and depth to a city seizing its moment. The result? People are living in Belfast not because they have to, but because they want to. And there are more reasons than ever to visit.
Belfast is best done on foot; its centre small, with shopping streets radiating outwards from City Hall. The Cathedral Quarter is its hipster hub, thick with cafes, galleries and nightlife. Queens, with its university, Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens, is a short taxi or bus ride south. The Titanic Quarter — dominated by the iconic Titanic Belfast — has rebooted the docks where the ‘unsinkable’ ship was built.
Titanic Belfast, which opened on the centenary of the liner’s loss in 2012, was one step on the road from Troubles to tourism. Victoria Square Shopping Centre, the new Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) and the filming of Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland were others. Tourists are waking up to what’s essentially a brand new UK city break.
Divisions still exist, of course. Forbidding ‘peace walls’ separate the Shankill and Falls Roads; murals beam down like communist propaganda. As a sign of the times, however, a Black Taxi Tours ride, taking in West Belfast, is perhaps the city’s definitive experience.
“When tourists hear there is a wall in Europe dividing people, they want to see it,” says my taxi driver. He’s concerned this section of the tour is negative. It’s anything but — the insights and access provided by these unlikely guides is exhilaratingly authentic. You can even sign the wall itself, adding your signature to Bill Clinton’s and the Dalai Lama’s.
Another day, another sign of a city in transition. Belfast has found a blossoming street art scene, the ability to serve decent cup of coffee, a canny line in boutiques, and some excellent bars and cocktails.
But most of all, it’s found the freedom to be itself.
Where to eat
Right now, one place stands out. Ox Belfast (1 Oxford St), an innocuous bistro in a former tile shop on Oxford Street, famed for its exquisite food and unstuffy ambiance. Dishes like Glenarm salmon — served with fermented cucumber, buttermilk and horseradish — or rabbit saddle and braised pork, artfully arranged with snippets of beetroot, carrot and broccoli, show you can aim high without getting on a high horse.
To his credit, Northern Irish chef Michael Deane also continues to evolve. Since losing the city’s only Michelin star several years ago, he’s adapted his suite of city restaurants — even running a bus tour (‘Dine Around Deanes’) that stops for a course in several of them. His anchor property on Howard Street houses three distinct concept restaurants: Meat Locker, Love Fish, and the fine-dining EIPIC (36-40 Howard St). Perhaps his greatest innovation, however, has been to bring back a former protégé — Danni Barry, from Mourne (34-36 Bank St) — as EIPIC’s head chef. From soused mackerel to tender venison with kale and baked celeriac, her tasting menus are seriously opulent.
Another one to watch is Bridgeen Barbour, Mark Ashbridge and their team at Established Coffee (54 Hill Street), an up-and-coming cafe in the Cathedral Quarter. “It’s all about the product,” as Mark says, and by that he means quality coffee delivered to your table. Like Monmouth Coffee in London, this is a cult waiting to happen.
From Muriel’s, it’s a short walk to The Spaniard (3 Skipper Street), a tiny, gritty hit of modern Belfast, and while the pub’s bouncers don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat, DJ Ghost makes up for it amid the votive lights upstairs, with his Noel Gallagher bangs and cracking indie tunes.
For a bit of sophistication, try a cocktail in The Merchant Hotel (16 Skipper Street), a Cathedral Quarter five-star set in a former Victorian bank. Newer kids on the block include The Harp Bar (35 Hill St) and The Dirty Onion (3 Hill St), both reinvented former whiskey warehouses.
Then there’s the old boozers, like White’s Tavern, McHugh’s Bar & Restaurant and Duke of York — all essential pit-stops, as is the The Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria St), with its timeworn snugs, mosaic tiles, stained glass and burnished primrose ceiling. For a final hit of grit, try The Sunflower (Union St), near the Cathedral Quarter. With graffiti on the walls, comedy, beer and stew (Friday and Saturdays), it’s a watering hole for the hippest folks in the city.
The city has its malls — notably the big, sparkling Victoria Square Shopping Centre. It’s worth a browse, but you’re unlikely to find delightful, quintessentially Northern Irish experiences here. For those, head to a boutique like Envoy Belfast (4 Wellington St). You’ll need a fat wallet, but Ruth Spence’s store is a gorgeous compendium of local and international brands, ranging from Paul Smith to Céline and Sara Lanzi. The goodies are personally nabbed by Ruth on trips to Paris, Milan and New York, and beautifully laid out in the warehouse-style space.
Head down Bedford Street and you’ll find The Steensons (Bedford St), a family-run jewellers that’s designed a number of pieces for Game of Thrones. Nearby is Smyth & Gibson (16-22 Bedford St), whose shirts are cut and stitched from Swiss and Italian materials in Derry.
For something a little more whimsical, try Fresh Garbage (24 Rosemary Street), a city institution selling ethnic, street, rock and dance wear on Rosemary Street; or Liberty Blue, for dresses, accessories and out-there jewellery. Meanwhile, on the Lisburn Road, Deja Vu (453 Lisburn Road) is the go-to shop for designer castoffs — you can flog your own (there’s a 50% commission) if you don’t fancy buying someone else’s.
Not all purchases have to be worn, mind you. No Alibis (83 Botanic Ave) is a specialist crime bookshop immortalised in Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man series, and worth the trip out along Botanic Avenue in itself. Staff aren’t shy about introducing you to a new author or crime series, and there’s good coffee while you peruse.
Another browse-worthy treat is Co Couture (7 Chichester Street), a chocolate boutique on Chichester Street. The confectionary is hand-crafted in small batches for your munching pleasure — using only the finest raw ingredients.
Top 10 local tips
02 Several gates in West Belfast’s ‘peace’ walls close at night and during times of potential tension — the 12 July marches, for example.
03 Since the 1890s, Sawers deli has provided Belfast foodies with their fix of fine fare. You know what to do.
04 For a bird’s-eye view of Belfast, head to Victoria Square Shopping Centre’s glass dome.
05 Got kids? Then head to W5, a brilliant interactive science centre in the Odyssey Arena. It just got a brand-new ‘Climbit’ adventure.
06 If you plan on using city buses, consider a Smartlink Card. It can be topped up with journeys or days of unlimited travel.
07 An Ulster fry is a Northern Irish staple (fried eggs, sausages, bacon, potato farls, soda bread). Book one in for brunch at St. George’s market.
08 HMS Caroline, the last surviving WW1 battleship, is set to open as a visitor experience in 2016.
09 Nibble your way across the city with Caroline Wilson’s Belfast Food Tour, from £35 per person.
10 Belfast is no stranger to rain, so pack a light raincoat, no matter when you visit.
Louis MacNeice, CS Lewis and Colin Bateman are among the authors associated with Belfast. Bateman was born in Bangor, but several of his books — including Belfast Confidential — are set in the capital. RRP: £8.99. (Headline)
Belfast has a rich musical pedigree — Van Morrison, Snow Patrol and And So I Watch You From Afar are all from the city. The fab Belfast Music Tour is a must-do during a stay. belfastmusic.org
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)