When it comes to drinking, no one does it better than the Irish! And Belfast has more than its fair share of wonderfully traditional and quirky pubs, oozing with character and overflowing with superb beer. Whiskey, gin and cocktail aficionados won’t go thirsty either. From down to earth historical establishments to more upscale, modern bars, there’s a Belfast bar to suit any occasion.
Belfast may be a somewhat sleepy town midweek, but there’s an underlining energy that gathers momentum until it erupts onto the streets on a Friday evening. Walk down Hill Street in the Cathedral Quarter, dodging the taxis dropping off revellers, and you’ll likely hear the crowds singing along to their favourite tunes as they spill out onto the cobbled streets. Popular choices of watering hole include the elegant Harp Bar, the more down to earth, Dirty Onion or the traditional Duke of York in adjacent Commercial Court. There’s many a hangover nursed each Saturday and Sunday morning in Belfast.
What to drink in Belfast
Before looking at where to drink, let’s take a quick look at what to drink in a Belfast bar.
One of the first things I want to do whenever I visit Ireland is to enjoy a smooth pint of the black stuff, Guinness just doesn’t taste the same in England as it does in Ireland. And it’s the island’s unofficial national drink so it would be rude not to.
How to pour the perfect pint of Guinness
To achieve the best flavour and the ideal creamy foam head check that your Guinness is being poured a follows:
- Hold the glass at a 45-degree angle and pour until about 3/4 full (to the bottom of the golden harp on a Guinness glass).
- Leave to stand for 2 minutes to allow the bubbles to settle and the head to form.
- Hold the glass straight and top it up.
On my first visit to Belfast, one of the pubs we passed on a Black Cab Tour was the Duke of York in Commercial Court. Having popped back later in the day to take some photographs of some nearby street art, I decided to nip into the pub to warm up. It was a bitter day in January, so 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 was a revelation, as I had no idea that whiskey (with an ‘e’ here in Ireland) 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. After a tour of the distillery, pop by the Bushmills Inn for a spot of lunch and a glass of Hot Bush!
There’s no sign of the gin craze that has swept across the UK abating, and that’s as true in Northern Ireland as it is anywhere. And during my intensive research, I’ve discovered a rather splendid collection of artisan gins. Try any of these, and you won’t be disappointed.
Craft Beers & Ciders
Craft beers have come into their own in recent years in Northern Ireland, and there’s a fabulous range to choose from most notably for me the superb range of stouts my favourite being the smooth, full-bodied and chocolatey Yardsman ODG and my favourite place to drink it is the John Hewitt, Donegall St in the Cathedral Quarter. Hilden Brewery Company is another great local brewery, and you can sample their fare at their Belfast restaurant Molly’s Yard in the University Quarter. It’s also available in many supermarkets and pubs including the Sunflower in Union Street and Bittles Bar, Musgrave Channel Road.
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The best bars in Belfast
The Cathedral Quarter
Dating back to 1711 in the oldest building in Belfast, today McHughes offers two bars and a one hundred-seater restaurant. The Old Bar is a traditional Irish pub with open fireplaces and historic memorably. The Basement has the same traditional charter and is an intimate live music venue. The Restaurant serves “traditional Irish cuisine with a modern twist”. Look out for Kreme de la Kremlin, a satisfying, chocolatey, Russian Imperial Stout by Whitewater. Be warned at 10.5% ABV it will knock your socks off.
The Dirty Onion
Live music 7 days a week | 3, Hill Street, Belfast BT! 2LA
Also claiming to be in the oldest building in Belfast, the Dirty Onion’s most significant feature is the large courtyard in a derelict warehouse built in 1680 opening onto Hill Street with live music every evening, great beer and cocktails.
The Duke of York
Bags of character | 7-11 Commercial Court, Belfast BT1 2NB
The Duke of York is oozing with traditional Irish character and charm, and of course serves great beer, not to mention Bushmills Whiskey. You’ll find it tucked down a cobbled side street off trendy Hill Street. The original pub was here for some 200 years when it was accidentally flattened by a terrorist bomb in 1972. It was rebuilt and is certainly not lacking in genuine Irish character. With bright red hanging baskets picking out the red paintwork of the benches, red fairy lights, and illuminate umbrellas, it’s a pretty scene. Step inside, and it’s just as interesting with the walls covered in local memorabilia. It’s one of my favourite little corners of Belfast. Their motto “Come in soberly, drink moderately, depart quietly and call again.” Don’t mind if I do!
The Dark Horse
Waiter service bar | 30 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2LB
Serving excellent coffee and Suki tea as well as alcoholic beverages, The Dark Horse is hidden behind a wall of photographs and is easily overlooked. Step inside you’ll find a large elegant bar with dark wood panelling and red velvet seats. Don’t miss the beautiful Game of Thrones carved wooden, one in a series of seven, each depicting a different episode in the big hit HOB television series. It’s just inside the Hill Street entrance. The main entrance is in Commercial Court.
The John Hewitt
Great beer | 51 Donegall St, Belfast BT1 2FH
The John Hewitt is unique in that it is owned by The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, a fabulous initiative generating funds beyond the more usual routes. It’s named after the late poet, socialist and Freeman of Belfast who officially opened the Resource Centre on Mayday in 1983. It offers a great range of craft beers, both local and from further afield and good pub lunches. The perfect pub to enjoy a great pint in good company.
Pub and Tapas Bar | 3 Skipper Street, Belfast BT1 2DZ
Dark, intimate, bohemian, The Spaniard is a great little bar perfect for a clandestine meeting. There’s not a lot of room in the downstairs bar so perhaps not one for a large group, but we loved the friendly and somewhat quirky vibe here. I didn’t make it upstairs, so that’s a good excuse to go back for more. Not that I needed one!
The Cloth Ear
Celebrating the gentle art of conversation | 16, Skipper Street, Belfast BT1 2DZ | 0289023488
Having recently re-opened following a refurbishment, The Cloth Ear shows off its Victorian heritage with modern flair. Antique and vintage clothing and accessories from a psychedelic 60s jumps suite to Victorian ladies’ gloves add a dash of eccentricity.
A great range of drinks are on offer from traditional beers to innovative cocktails and punchbowls — their house beer is excellent. Phone goals are provided to encourage ‘the gentle art of conversation’. A small private snug is tucked away discretely out of sight. Snug etiquette dictates no hip thrusting or bosom heaving and while lying is not permitted exaggeration is entirely acceptable.
Part of the luxurious hotel, The Merchant, it came as no surprise that the service is first rate, whether dining here or merely popping by for a drink. The Cloth Ear is a unique, elegant, upscale pub with its feet still firmly rooted in Ireland.
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Castle Court Area
Traditional Irish Pub | 74 Berry Street, Belfast BT1 1FJ
Tucked away behind the Castle Court Shopping Centre you won’t find a more traditional Irish music bar than Maddens or a more perfectly poured pint of Guinness. You’ll regularly find a group playing traditional instruments in the corner by candlelight in this intermit pub. There’s no craft beer here, but the atmosphere couldn’t be better. Entry is by buzzer so don’t be put off if the door won’t open. Press the bell, and they’ll let you in. A must if you want to get a real feel for Irish culture.
Traditional Irish Pub | 30-32 Bank Street, Belfast BT1 1HL
One of Belfast’s oldest pub, Kelly’s has been serving up an excellent pint for nearly 200 years. Little has changed since it was built in 1720 retaining its whitewashed walls, uneven concrete floor, low arches and open fireplaces. Kelly’s is renowned for its Guinness, Irish Stew and live traditional music.
Award-winning pub | 17-19 Pottingers Entry, Belfast, BT1 4DT
Another great traditional pub is The Morning Star. First built as a coaching stop for the Dublin to Belfast post in 1810, this is one of the city’s oldest pubs. It’s been in the same family for three generations. As well as a good range of craft beer they have an excellent reputation for pub grub. From the beer to the beef, everything they sell, wherever possible is locally and ethically sourced, however, while Neill’s meal was spot on (pictured below) I had a very disappointing steak here so I couldn’t include them in the where to eat section. Nevertheless, they are a worthy entry under best bars in Belfast, most notably for local craft ales.
Muriels Café Bar
Great Cocktails | 12-14 Church Lane, Belfast BT1 4QN
Nearby in Church Lane, Muriels is a quirky little bar known for great food, cocktails and G&Ts. The ladies undies which hang from the ceiling is said to be a nod to its rumoured past as a brothel. Today, it’s a great, friendly bar popular with locals and the LGBT community.
Belfast City Hall area
The Crown Liquor Saloon
National Trust owned | 46 Victoria Street, Belfast, BT 7BA
The only National Trust owned bar, The Crown is the most stunning bar I’ve ever seen with carved mahogany booths, etched glass windows, s beautiful wooden ceiling and tiled bar. I’ve visited Belfast many times and supped in a great many bars, but this Victorian pub built in the 1820s is still one of my all-time favourite pubs. The staff and locals are friendly, the Guinness top-notch, and the decor and furnishings stunning.
Traditional Irish bar with Live music |38-42 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7BA
Fibber Magee’s is a friendly, traditional Irish music bar on Blackstaff Square, just opposite the Europa hotel at the back of Robison’s. 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.”
Do you have a favourite bar in Belfast? What’s missing from my list.
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Disclosure: Some of my visits to Belfast were courtesy of Ireland and Nothern Ireland Tourism Boards, some were not. As always, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.