While I had visited Dublin a few times and travelled around the republic of Ireland in the past, somehow I’d never made it up to Belfast or beyond before. An oversight that I’m glad has now been set right.
As luck, or rather good planning, would have it, I was staying in the Cathedral Quarter. The area may be named after the historic St Anne’s cathedral but today it is a creative hub, with a winning combination of art galleries, museums, shops, and of course great bars and restaurants.
The Cathedral Quarter loves a good festival and its calendar is packed with music, comedy, theatre, arts, circus, film, blues, and other festival offerings.
When a friend heard that I was in Belfast, I got a message insisting that I go to The Duke of York pub which was a very good suggestion and just happened to be around the corner from my hotel.
This old Belfast bar is crammed with mirrors and memorabilia, and when the live music is pumping people spill out into the laneways. There’s even a little plaque on the wall to remember when Snow Patrol first played there in 1998.
Around the corner one of Ireland’s oldest buildings, which has been around since 1780 and had been boarded up for 90 years, has now been given a new life as The Dirty Onion, a bar where they have traditional Irish music, and where you can learn to play an instrument or two, along with taking weekly conversational Irish language lessons.
Another Cathedral Quarter favourite is The Spaniard; a quirky bar where you can have cocktails surrounded by religious icons while listening to a rather eclectic mix of great music. When I was there the DJ jumped from classic Rolling Stones and T-Rex to MGMT and Foster the People. He also gave me the chance to dance to Teenage Kicks in Belfast. That’s hard to beat.
Having enjoyed the Good Vibrations movie based on Terri Hooley and the Belfast music scene, I was interested to learn about the controversy over a mural based on The Undertone’s punk anthem.
There was outrage when a mural with the lyric “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat” was removed from a flyover a couple of years ago. So much so that a new mural based on the 1978 song was unveiled in March this year.
That may seem a little strange in another city, but in Belfast, murals are important. There are hundreds around the city, marking everything from music legends to the political “Troubles”.
There are murals remembering the 1981 Irish hunger strike and strike leader Bobby Sands, ones that highlight the Ballymurphy massacre, others calling for peace.
It’s sobering to look at the series of murals on the 40 foot tall barrier that divides Belfast’s two most famous streets, the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road.
As well as artists’ works, you can see where the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton left their words, and where some tourists have added their own names on the walls.
But while The Troubles are obviously an important part of Belfast’s history, the city and the people are very much about moving forward.
Everyone we met was incredibly friendly and open, and I now understand the saying that when you’re in Belfast you may sit down with a stranger but you get up with a friend.
When we talk about places we’ve been these days, what and where we ate is up there with the things we saw and did. And I’m happy to report Belfast has that side of life covered very well.
Northern Ireland’s food and drink companies have broken plenty of records in the UK Great Taste awards and a food tour of Belfast is a good way to try some of the winners’ wares.
Caroline Wilson from Belfast Food Tours met me at St George’s Market where she showed me the award-winning Suki Tea, some very yummy cheese including the Young Buck variety, moreish artisan breads and other treats around the market.
There are usually eight stops on this walking tour through the city centre, including to-die-for chocolate at Co Couture (check out their golden chocolate slipper) and local stouts and ciders at a gorgeous pub.
Speaking of pubs (which I seem to be doing a lot when I talk about Belfast) another must on the list is The Crown Liquor Saloon. This former Victorian gin palace is one of Ireland’s most famous pubs and is now owned by the National Trust.
The Crown is filled with carved mahogany booths, or ‘snugs’ where you can either leave the door open to invite people to join you, or close it if you just want to be in a snug and happy private place with your friends. The snugs still have the original gun metal plates for striking matches and an old antique bell system, and between the snugs, the etched glass, the gas lamps and the mosaics I do believe it’s the prettiest pub I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy a drink in.
If you love fine food another must do is Ox, which has a long series of awards under its belt. I’m told Ox is Ireland’s most talked about restaurant, and having now dined there I can see why. Dish after dish of exquisite seasonal food. Just divine. Take the time to also pop next door into the Ox Cave for some great wine and cheese.
Those who love their steaks need to make a bee line for The Meat Locker at Deane’s which is one of the famous Irish chef Michael Deane’s restaurants, and I also look forward to heading back to The Bar + Grill at James Street South the next time I’m in town.
I remember seeing a comedian a few years ago who joked about the fact that Belfast was building a museum around the Titanic, and had the crowd laughing at the idea of a city being so proud of its role in one of history’s best known disasters.
Having now visited Titanic Belfast, I take those laughs back, because this is one of the best museum experiences around.
Clearly I’m not the only one to think so, as Titanic Belfast has become the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland and one of the most popular in all of Ireland since it opened in 2012.
The £97m Titanic Belfast museum is shaped like the bow of the great ship, and covers Belfast’s history along with the tale of Titanic herself over nine galleries.
There are interactive features, full scale reconstructions, and even a ride that helps to take you through the history from the shipyard, to that tragic night, and then through the discovery of the ship at the bottom of the ocean.
Titanic Belfast is built on the former site of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where RMS Titanic was built. Just across the road lies another piece of Titanic history, the SS Nomadic, which was the tender vessel that transferred passengers from Cherbourg Harbour to the Titanic which, due to its size, was obliged to anchor well off shore.
The last surviving White Star Line ship, SS Nomadic is now fully restored and sits in dry dock, where visitors can see how the passengers made it to that fateful voyage, from the fancy first class area where even the toilet roll holder looks posh, to the more spartan section for the other classes.
The Nomadic has a fascinating history beyond that night with the Titanic, and went on to transport everyone from movie stars to soldiers. On this ship you stand where Marie Curie, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and of course some of those famous Titanic passengers including the unsinkable Molly Brown and Benjamin Guggenheim stood before you.
It’s well worth a visit, and when you’re there don’t forget to press the Ring For Service bell at the bar, as then the ghost of a first class barman will appear and share lots of gossip about the passengers. (Disclaimer: Ghost may be a projection on the wall).
The Nomadic and Titanic Belfast also share the old shipyard with Titanic Studios, best known as the home of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
While visitors are not able to enter the studios to see the Iron Throne, they can visit a long list of the show’s filming locations around Northern Ireland.
We visited a few of the key GOT locations with a great guide named Dee Morgan who is a fan of the show herself and really knows how to set those scenes and remind you what took place in the spot where you’re standing. Dee is a private blue badge tour operator who can tailor tours to all sorts of interests, so if you’re heading to Belfast and are looking for a great guide, definitely give Dee Morgan a shout.
Published under license from Well Travelled.