How to Belfast: 4 Days in This Electric City
Cathedral Quarter, Belfast. Photo: Brian Morrison
Belfast is having a much-deserved moment, and eager travellers are flocking there in droves. Over the past two decades, Northern Ireland’s capital city has quietly, yet assuredly transformed from afterthought to renaissance city, and with arms wide open, is warmly welcoming visitors to experience its rich history, jaw-dropping natural wonders, charming artistic soul and legendary nightlife. From museums and markets to Peace Walls and pubs, Belfast’s electric energy is palpable, contagious and, above all, unifying. Get ready to have the time of your life because Belfast will blow you away.
Day 1: Explore the Quarters on Foot
Experience Belfast’s pulse on foot. Start in the Cathedral Quarter, the oldest part of the city named after the stunning Belfast Cathedral, built on the site of an older church dedicated to St. Anne. This storied, cobblestoned corner of the city is home to annual art and music festivals, eclectic street art and lined with clubs, restaurants, bars and beer gardens. A must pre-dinner ‘tipple’ is White’s Tavern, Belfast’s oldest dating back to 1630, or Kelly’s Cellars, a beautifully maintained pub, complete with low ceilings and live music since 1720.
In the 1700s, a global shortage of cotton created a demand for alternate fabrics. In the British Isles, Belfast became the epicentre of fine Irish linen production, earning the moniker Linenopolis. These days, the Linen Quarter is home to City Hall, which in turn stands on the site of White Linen Hall, demolished in 1896, Ulster Hall — ‘Grand Dame of Bedford Street’ — and the Grand Opera House.
The Queen’s Quarter is a quaint corner minutes away from the city centre, where you’ll find the nearly 200-year-old Victorian Botanic Gardens, and within it, the curvilinear cast iron glass Palm House and the Tropical Ravine, housing plant species such as Killarney Fern and banana. The Ulster Museum, largest in Northern Ireland, houses collections of fine art, the Lyric Theatre still pulls them in on the banks of the River Lagan, while Queen’s University’s iconic Lanyon Building takes the cake, still standing elegantly since 1849.
Wrap the day with dinner at Deanes at Queens, a Michelin Bib Gourmand gem, located adjacent to the Botanic Gardens, and top it with a pint at the Crown Bar, a Belfast landmark where exceptionally poured pints complement craftsmanship that’s truly a sight to behold.
Day 2: Titanic Experience and a Black Cab Tour
Belfast and the Titanic are synonymous with each other. While the fabled ship’s fateful voyage is the stuff of myth and legend, the city’s Titanic Quarter is undergoing one of the biggest urban regeneration projects on the planet, and at the centre sits Titanic Belfast, an architectural masterpiece shaped like the bows of a ship. Nine galleries over four floors illustrate Belfast’s shipbuilding zenith. Meanwhile, across the street is the Titanic Hotel, once the nerve centre of the largest shipyard in the world, now a luxurious 119-room, art deco, nautical-themed hotel and museum all in one. The dual Victorian Drawing Offices, with three-storey high barrel-vaulted ceilings are the only living examples of this type of shipyard architecture left on Earth. Get a tour by head concierge, William Mcllroy, before enjoying lunch and drink inside the awe-inspiring Drawing Office Two.
Synonymous with Belfast Black Cab Tours is Billy Scott, a Blue Badge Guide whose engaging and entertaining nature will leave you totally immersed. Winding through alleyways and hidden corners, Scott explains Northern Irish inventions, including chocolate and air conditioning, but more poignantly, explains ‘The Troubles’, stopping to explore key political and historical murals, and of course the Peace Walls, which divided Loyalists and Republicans, even giving you a chance to write your own message of peace on them.
For dinner, head to Home, another Michelin Bib Gourmand in the Linen Quarter, before capping the night at Madden’s, a cosy pub where kids are known to bring their own instruments and spark spontaneous jams.
Day 3: Scrumptious and Musical Belfast
Open Friday to Sunday, St. George’s Market is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions, and easily one of the best markets in the U.K. and Ireland. It’s also the launching point of a four-hour food tour led by the impeccable Meave Davison, who goes off the eaten path, showcasing the best and most unique food and drink spots around the city centre. Don’t bother with breakfast because by tours end you’ll understand why this foodie odyssey is an award-winning experience that blends the history of a people with flavours from the land.
Now, all you need is music. Led by two professional musicians, who double up as guides, the Belfast Traditional Music Trail is a unique and interactive way to experience the city through traditional Irish music. Stopping at several bars for pints, bites and stories, the duo of Buzz (pipes) and Jason (concertina) perform traditional tunes in what feels like a personal jam session all while sharing their passion about the instruments, language, customs and history that have turned Belfast into a UNESCO City of Music.
While you’re in the Cathedral Quarter, stick around for dinner at The Waterman restaurant or get festive at any number of bars on Commercial Court including The Dark Horse, a beautifully decorated restaurant with polished copper, mirrored walls, a Game of Thrones door, and a spacious, art-filled back patio big enough to fit you and 100 of your new best friends.
Day 4: Experience Rugged Northern Ireland
The country is calling. And in these parts the outskirts are mind-boggling. Hop on the McComb Coach and hit the road for an all-day, nature-loving adventure along the Causeway Coastal Route. Make sure to snag a window seat to get luscious views of the lush mountainside on one side and Irish Sea on the other. After a quick stop at Carrickfergus Castle and Cushendun Caves, it’s on to the Giant’s Causeway, a jaw-dropping UNESCO World Heritage site featuring 60 million-year-old molten lava cooled by the sea water, taking the shape of hexagonal basalt columns that you’re free to climb on and explore. If you’re ambitious, make sure to take the red trail, which leads along the mountaintop, allowing for cliff-edge vantage points of the coast and columns below.
Game of Thrones was filmed throughout parts of Northern Ireland and among the famous sites featured on the show are The Dark Hedges, a long line of beech trees, planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century, and intended to impress visitors approaching the entrance to Gracehill House. Today, the tree-lined driveway is easily one of the most photographed natural phenomena around. While ruggedly stunning bare, they’re full and beautiful during the warmer months.
Rest Up, in Style!
The Belfast Hotel makes for a unique stay along the water, but closer to the city centre in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter The Merchant is a luxurious, even regal escape complete with a rooftop gym and hot tub. Winner of the 2011 Best U.K. Hotel, this elegant, city-centre oasis is a Grade I Listed building dating back to 1860, and features everything from en suite marble bathrooms to traditional afternoon tea in the famed, domed-ceiling Great Room.
Opposite the Grand Opera House, along the city’s Golden Mile, the historically famous four-star Europa Hotel is walking distance to everything and offers spectacular skyline views, including City Hall down the road. Glass and chrome bathrooms, luxury bedding with Ralph Lauren-designed fabrics and topped with the Piano Bar serving extroverted-inspired cocktails, and you have a stay like no other. Besides having locally sourced Northern Irish beef and Mourne Lamb on their menu, Italian marble bathrooms, all in an ideal location to boot, Benedicts of Belfast makes for a luxuriously comfortable stay thanks to 600 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, feather-topped mattresses and goose-down duvets.
Finally, The Harrison Chambers of Distinction, is as enthralling as its owner, Melanie Harrison. Each of the 16 boutique, bohemian suites are decorated in a way that reflects the story of creative legends with links to Belfast. Vivid wallpapers and quality linens, bay windows and stellar views, antique furniture and Victorian-style baths all make for an unforgettable, Zen-like
experience. Whether you have breakfast delivered to your room or have a nightcap in the electrifying lobby bar, The Harrison is a vacation within a vacation.