2016 is the Year of Food and Drink in Northern Ireland, so, if like me you’re a gastrophile, there’s never been a better time to visit this wonderful corner of the world, as I found out for myself on a flying visit to Belfast last week. To say the city exceeded my expectations is a huge understatement. I had no idea that it was such a fascinating, vibrant place, and, with its compact city centre, so easy to get around. Beautiful Victorian and Edwardian architecture, fabulous food and drink, and extremely welcoming locals abound. So please read on, as I think you too might be pleasantly surprised by the many treats that Belfast has to offer.
My Top 6 Things to See and Do in Belfast
1. The Crown Liquor Saloon
I visited a number of wonderful pubs, all oozing with character, but the one that was repeatedly recommended to me was the Crown, which just happened to be across the street from my hotel, the Europa on Great Victoria Street. It is now possibly one of my all time favourite pubs, and it’s certainly in first place when it comes to decor. Step inside and you are in for a real treat.
I have never seen a pub where so much attention to detail has been paid to the decor – from the carved mahogany booths to the etched glass windows, the beautiful wooden ceiling, to the tiled bar. Glorious. Simply stunning. And it’s owned by the National Trust. However, I’m holding something back here. Keep reading…
2. Belfast City Hall
Built at a time when Belfast’s industry was flourishing and ships such as the Titanic were being built, this iconic building reflected the wealth that was flowing into the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The lavish interior is well worth seeing, and there are a number of free guided tours every day. As well as the council chambers, there is a popular coffee shop, and occasionally exhibitions and concerts are held here. By day or by night, this elegant building presides over the city with grace and grandeur.
The City Hall is by no means the only building that was designed to impress. A wander around the city centre will reveal many fine architectural gems.
3. The Titanic Experience
I’ve always been spellbound by the style and grandeur of the trio of Olympic-class liners of the White Star Line, namely, the Olympic, the Titanic and the Britannic. But it is, of course, the middle of the three and her ill-fated maiden voyage, that we are all most familiar with.
The Titanic Belfast imaginatively brings to life the majesty, power, and tragedy of this epic tale, and is probably the most impressive attraction of this type that I have ever seen – well worth the £17.50 entry fee for adults.
I was disappointed not to have been able to visit on a Sunday for a spot of Afternoon Tea by a stunning replica of the grand staircase in the Titanic Suite, one of a number of rooms that can be hired for events including weddings. What a fine setting that would be for your big day. Having recently set the date for mine, I can’t help but picture myself and Neill posing for our wedding snaps on these stairs as Rose and Jack (a somewhat older version, that is).
4. A Black Cab Tour
A great way to see Belfast’s highlights is on a guided mini cab tour. And this was the first thing I did after I had checked in to my hotel.
My driver and Blue Badge Guide, Billy, was superb. Although the rate at which the facts were coming was somewhat overwhelming, I wouldn’t have missed meeting this jovial character for the world – a first-rate introduction to the city, from the political murals to a glimpse at the infamous Crumlin Road Gaol (which I didn’t visit myself, but the tours are said to be excellent). Read more about tours offered by Billy on Visit Belfast’s website.
5. Street Art and the Belfast Peace Walls
The best part of the minicab tour was being able to get out of the city centre to see some of Belfast’s political street art. Many of Belfast’s peace walls are covered in murals, as are a number of end of terrace houses outside of the city centre. The history of political murals in Belfast actually dates back way further than most would realise, to the time of when the City Hall and the Titanic were being built.
Since the Good Friday Agreement brought the Northern Irish conflict to an end in 1998, political murals yhave become one of the city’s main tourist attractions.
Another place well worth a visit is an alley off Commercial Court. Below a ceiling of bright yellow umbrellas, murals depict well-known faces from the world of music and beyond. These include some of Belfast’s famous sons and daughters, from the football player George Best to Republican Bobby Sands, 1 of 10 who gave their lives in the 1981 hunger strikes. He’s pictured here wearing a yellow, red and black shirt and in the end of terrace mural above. Surprisingly, while prisoners couldn’t vote, they could be elected as a member of the British Parliament. Bobby became an MP just a month before he died, and was never able to take up his seat. My favourite quote from the murals is written beside him on the terrace wall – “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
Above: More colourful street art found off Commercial Court
6. Live Music
Neill, my intended, and a keen musician himself, lived in Belfast for 6 months (while working on the first season of Game of Thrones) and rates it as the best place for live music he’s ever been to, “Free music in all the pubs, top name acts performing in intimate concert halls.” He fondly remembers that “While in Kelly’s bar, a bunch of people just started playing an impromptu session of superb traditional music.”
Above: Fibber Magees, long before the punters started arriving for the next gig
Sadly I didn’t have time to catch any live music, but I’m hoping to return before too long and top of my list will be a visit to Fibber Magees, a traditional Irish music bar on Blackstaff Square, just opposite my hotel, the Europa. Its website invites you to “Pull up a stool by the open fire and enjoy the tunes of traditional musicians, every night of the week. With fiddles, pipes and the bodhráns; the craic is guaranteed. C’mon over and join us for a pint, we’re keeping your seat warm.” All I had time for was to snap a quick photo just before I left for the airport but, Fibber Magees, keep my seat warm, I’ll be back.
My Top 6 Things to Eat & Drink in Belfast
Food and drink, however, were the reason I was in Belfast in the first place. I was to attend the New Year Banquet that launched the city’s Year of Food and Drink.
With wonderful timing, National Geographic has just featured Belfast in their top ten places to visit for food in 2016. They say that “Belfast’s easy access to top-notch food products keeps the local culinary scene buzzing”. Having met some of the producers and tasted their wares, I have to agree. You’ll find many excellent restaurants around the city, including Cast & Crew near the Titanic Experience, and Deanes at Queens (you must try their risotto). And with the likes of Michelin-starred restaurants like The Ox, being listed among the world’s ‘hot restaurants’ by Condé Nast Traveller, Belfast has firmly staked its claim on the global gourmet map.
1. Bushmills Whiskey
But first off, let’s talk whiskey with an ‘e’. One of the pubs we passed on the Black Cab Tour was the Duke of York in Commercial Court, just opposite the alley full of bright yellow umbrellas. Having popped back later in the day to take some photographs, I decided to nip into the pub to warm up. And to heat me up from the inside out I had a glass of Bushmills Whiskey, described as “an approachable whiskey with a rich, warming taste of fresh fruit and vanilla and a touch of honey sweetness”. It really was a revelation, as I had no idea that whiskey could be so smooth. Even if you think you don’t like whiskey I urge you to try it.
With a history dating back to 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in the village of Bushmills is a mere two miles from the iconic Giant’s Causeway. I think it would be well worth a return visit to see both.
Read on to find out how else I enjoyed some Bushmills.
2. The Ulster Fry
I was pleased to see that my hotel, the Europa, part of the Hastings Hotels chain, is particularly proud of Ireland’s wonderful food heritage. The next two items on my list will have you in quandary as to what to have for breakfast when you stay there. Of course, I simply had to try them both, in order to report back to you on my findings you understand.
I’m getting hungry just looking at it. The Ulster Fry is similar to a Full-English Breakfast but you won’t find fried bread, hash browns, or even a simple slice of toast here. Instead, your Ulster Fry is completed with both the traditional soda bread and potato bread, griddled until crisp. And while I’ve seen black pudding feature in a Full-English, in my neck of the woods at least, I’ve never seen white pudding, and both are delicious additions. And it’s all sourced from the finest local producers. Reading the hotel’s booklet ‘Who made my breakfast?’, another quote stood out: “The happiest hens lay the tastiest eggs”.
3. Porridge with cream, honey, and whiskey
As if the porridge from White’s Oat Mill in County Armagh isn’t creamy enough as it is, it’s not uncommon, especially on the weekends I’m told, for a little cream, honey and best of all, Bushmills Whiskey to be drizzled all over your porridge. What an excellent way to start your day.
The first thing Neill said when he found out I was going to Belfast, or rather the second thing after “Can I come too?”, was that I must visit the Crown, not only for its fabulous interior (see number 2), but because it serves the best pint of Guinness, Ireland’s unofficial national drink, in Belfast.
Obediently, on my first day in the city, I popped in and had a half, which went down very well indeed and the next day I popped back for a pint (well I needed the photo with the logo, which you only get on the pint glass).
The staff and locals were friendly, the Guinness top-notch, and the decor and furnishings even more stunning than I’d been led to be believed.
5. Craft Beers
Craft beers have really come into their own in recent years in Northern Ireland, and there’s a fabulous range to choose from. I sampled a glass of Yardsman, Belfast Pale Ale, with a superb lunch at Deans of Queens, brewed right here in the city. Find out more about Northern Ireland’s Craft Beers on BelfastVibe.com.
6. Street Food
The latest addition to Belfast’s culinary scene, having opened in this location by The Big Fish just a few days before my visit, comes in the shape of a food truck. With their impressive signature burgers, sweet potato fries and, pictured below, their Portavogie prawns and salmon fish cakes with salad and a mango and pomegranate salsa, Wolf and Devour is bound to be a big hit with office workers on their lunch breaks and visitors on their hols alike.
All their ingredients are sourced from Northern Ireland’s best local suppliers and their disposables come from eco-friendly, Greenman Packaging in Bangor and are fully biodegradable.
In just two short days, Belfast has gotten under my skin and I’m longing to return to discover more about the city and beyond. I’m sure that there are many more wonders to see, hidden gems to find and delectable tasty treats to wolf and devour.
With flight times from Gatwick to Belfast being less than an hour and a half, it makes a superb destination for a short break from London, and it’s only around a 20 minute taxi ride from the Belfast City Airport to the city centre hotels.
Hotel: I stayed at the hotel Europa and found it very comfortable, with excellent service and great food. It is also centrally located, and right opposite two of the pubs mentioned in this article, the lovely Crown Liquor Saloon and Fibber Magees. I felt very safe walking back to the hotel alone in the evenings, and would recommend it for solo female travellers, couples, or groups of friends.
Flight: I flew with Aer Lingus from Gatwick to Belfast City Airport. It takes no time at all and is very reasonably priced.
Transfers: Viator offer inexpensive private transfers from the airport to city centre hotels.
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Disclosure: My visit to Belfast was courtesy of Ireland and Nothern Ireland Tourism Boards. As always, the thoughts and opinions expressed remain my own as do the calories consumed (and the weight gained, gosh darn it!)