Thanks to its tumultuous past, the city of Belfast is free-spirited, crazy and a little edgy. It’s the geographical equivalent of a punk rock girl in a pretty dress – wild, gritty, a little concerned, deeply creative and beautiful all at the same time. Thanks to the incredible street art scene, their tumultuous and painful history is exposed on the streets. It all sits side by side with a new Belfast that is filled with hope, innovation and sophistication. The city and its people have pulled off the ultimate turning point, creating a new legacy that’s bright and vibrant – with a party scene to match.
She’s also pretty easy on the eyes. In fact, in 2021, Belfast was voted the third most beautiful city in Britain by a mathematical formula called The Golden Ratio. With so many architectural gems scattered throughout the city, from Georgian relics to modernist inflection points, and its stunning location on the banks of the River Lagan, it’s no real surprise. Iconic might be an overused term, but when it comes to describing Belfast it just fits.
The city has always been a center for creative people. The Titanic was built here in 1909 when Belfast was the shipbuilding capital of the world. This led to an influx of carpenters, potters and weavers. In fact, Belfast was once known as Linenopolis as it was the headquarters of Ireland’s global linen industry. Today, these old warehouses have been transformed into the historic Linen Quarter, complete with chic international design and technology companies, as well as hip cafes, bars, restaurants, hotels and music venues.
Speaking of music, rock lovers will be thrilled to know that Led Zeppelin made their debut at the Ulster Hall in Belfast stairway to Heaven a live audience in 1971. Given that Belfast is a sister city to Nashville, Tennessee, it’s no surprise that live music plays an important part in the city’s DNA, be it traditional Irish tunes, atmospheric smooth Jazz or the unmistakable electricity of an indie gig.
From cutting-edge artistic expression to expertly crafted cheeses and premium whiskey, you’ll find your marmalade in Northern Ireland’s stunning capital.
Lose yourself in a kaleidoscope of art
The best way to appreciate the vibrancy of Belfast is to experience the city’s great artistic side. Seedhead Arts has been at the forefront of local street art for over a decade, organizing walking tours that shed light on the area’s fraught socio-political past. In the historic Cathedral Quarter, leading arts venue Black Box offers a fantastic calendar of events covering visual arts, theatre, music, literature and everything in between. And at the other end of the spectrum, the newly restored Grand Opera House offers a packed program of performances in stunning, regal surroundings.
Over in the Linen Quarter, Banana Block bills itself as a ‘living museum and venue in a historic linen factory, inspired by the strange connections between Belfast and bananas’. This connection dates back to 1911 when Belfast resident William Richardson was one of the first to grow bananas in the British Isles. It’s hard to imagine another city in the world celebrating this tenuous connection like this, but that way of thinking is Belfast in a nutshell (or banana peel). The space is home to a collaborative community of craftsmen, entrepreneurs and vinyl junkies – make sure to check out Sound Advice from Banana Block for all things vinyl, as well as live DJs on the weekends.
Get some culture at a world-class museum
Museums are a fantastic way to get a better sense of the city, its colorful past and inspiring future. The Ulster Museum is a great place to start, with a huge collection of art, history and science on display ranging from modern masterpieces to Egyptian mummies. In Omagh, Ulster American Folk Park is an open-air venue that explores three centuries of Irish immigration to the United States. Bibliophiles should make a beeline for the Linen Hall Library, which has captivated bookworms since 1788 and is home to the first printing of the American Declaration of Independence outside the United States. Imagine that.
Titanic Belfast is located on the slipways where the Titanic itself was built over 100 years ago. The experience tells the story of the fabled cruise ship across six floors of a stunning modernist building that reflects the grandeur of the great lady herself. And those with even the slightest interest in maritime history – or maybe just fans of Leo and Kate’s on-screen portrayals – should check out the Titanic Quarter. There you will find an interactive Titanic Museum that will take you through the history of the most famous ship in the world. And for game of Thrones Fans signing up for the Giant’s Causeway and game of Thrones Location tour seems like a no-brainer.
Kick back in a chic boutique hotel
In leafy Queens Quarter, hostess-with-the-mostess Melanie Harrison has created a little piece of heaven with her absolutely Instagram-worthy accommodations debut. The cheekily titled Harrison Chambers of Distinction opened their doors when the pandemic closed them, giving Harrison time and space to refine the finer details of their bijoux townhouse. And what details – all the rooms are named after literary figures and the small touches Harrison implemented have made this boutique charm the ultimate home away from home in the best possible way.
If you want to live by the river, the AC by Marriott is a comfortable, understated yet elegant retreat just a 10-minute walk from all major attractions. And for contemporary cool, the Ten Square Hotel is housed in a mid-19th-century former linen warehouse just behind City Hall. Location wise it doesn’t get much better.
Recharge with selected food and drinks
Belfast’s most famous restaurant is undoubtedly the Michelin-starred Ox, which manages to offer impeccable service without a hint of stuffiness. Expect some pretty darn fine cheeses, both as a course in their own right and woven into seasonal dishes from the tasting menu, like the pea tart or mountain lamb with white asparagus and lavender. For a more casual experience, the adjacent Ox Cave is a quiet wine bar, serving bites like charcuterie, salt-cured halibut, and pumpkin and buckwheat husks to complement your red and white wines.
Pizza lovers should chase down Flout Pizza for a slice along with a few beers from Boundary Brewing across the road, or head to Reggie’s Pizza in the Queens Quarter, where you can bring your own wine for a £3 per bottle corkage fee. Established Coffee is the place to go for coffee, cakes, vegan bowls and decadent milk buns with or without black pudding. Elsewhere, you can score impeccable, you guessed it, locally produced cheese at Mike’s Fancy Cheese.
Sticking to the Queens borough, Deane’s at Queens is ideal on a sunny day, stocked with modern European cuisine and a cozy patio overlooking Methodist College, where Jamie Dornan (of Belfast and Fifty shades fame) went to school. For the non-conformist, afternoon tea at A Peculiar Tea is a deliciously magical experience. Previous themes have included Roald Dahl and Cluedo, so you get the point.
Finally, we mustn’t forget whiskey devotees, who shouldn’t sleep on a trip to The Friend at Hand for a private tasting and a peek into the on-site whiskey museum. Don’t leave without picking up a coveted bottle from their collection of over 600 premium Irish whiskeys.
Marvel at fairytale castles
Despite its small size, Belfast and the surrounding counties have more castles than one can count. Arguably the most famous of all, Belfast Castle has housed various castle configurations since the late 12th century. Carrickfergus Castle was built in 1177 by the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy and is probably the largest castle in all of Northern Ireland. Fun fact, according to historical sources it was the site of the last witch trial in 1711.
A little further afield, the ruinous Dunluce Castle is an enchanting destination, perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the choppy sea. It was built by the second Earl of Ulster in the 13th century and it is rumored that CS Lewis (also from Belfast) was inspired by Dunluce for Cair Paravel Castle The chronicles of Narnia.
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