Best of Belfast
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Belfast, we sat at a bustling outdoor bar, drinking craft cocktails and watching stylish people come through to meet their friends. The city was alive and it was hard to imagine in that moment that Belfast had ever been anything other than a bright, lively cultural center; however, most people in our generation know the history of Belfast is dark and it is a city which has survived decades as a warzone.
The precarious state of the city for almost 30 years made Belfast a no-go for most tourists. Tanks, rifles and security checkpoints were common on the streets until the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought a fragile peace to the region. Tensions still flare up, particularly around historical events and holidays, but the main tourist areas of the city are bustling with impressive hotels, innovative restaurants and remnants of architectural and historical prominence. Belfast has undergone a transformation, although most visitors to the city request a “black taxi tour” of West Belfast, where many Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods still remain separate and divided, almost 20 years after the agreements were signed.
The history and tensions in Belfast deserve their own post, and I’ll share my thoughts on our Black Taxi Tour in the coming weeks. For now though, Belfast is an exciting city with traces of both its British and Irish roots and a destination to be visited in and of itself.
Where to Stay
Located on Great Victoria Street in the middle of the bustling business and shopping district and a couple of blocks from City Hall, the Hastings Europa Hotel is not only well-situated, but nicely appointed with a large lobby, lively bar area and clean rooms. We went with the standard room and found them to be small so would recommend upgrading to the superior rooms for a little extra space and the ability to open two suitcases simultaneously. The location was perfect – we were able to walk everywhere and did not need to utilize cabs. We would highly recommend to anyone visiting Belfast!
Where to Eat and Drink
Belfast is full of talented chefs who are using local produce, making it a great place to experiment with fun restaurants. It even made the list of National Geographic’s best places to travel for food in 2016. We did not have a bad meal the whole time we were there! We were lucky our foodie friends over at Zack and AT provided us with Belfast recommendations from their recent trip, and they were all spot on!
To start, try to get a reservation at OX months in advance. The only reservation I could secure at the newly awarded Michelin-starred restaurant was at 9pm, but reviews convinced me it was worth it and I’m so glad we stuck with it. The best thing to do is to arrive early and head to OX Cave, the chic wine bar next door with a fabulous wine selection. When your table is ready they will move you (and your wine) next door into OX where you can partake in the seasonal tasting menu. Our spring tasting menu was full of innovative combinations such as veal with beetroot and kohlrabi and turbot with broad bean and squid ink.
Another standout dinner was at Made in Belfast. After a day of sightseeing and wandering, we jumped into this eclectic restaurant to snag their last open table at the Cathedral Quarter location. The furniture is mismatched and eccentric, but it only adds to the charm. The food is all sourced sustainably and locally and the hardest part about dining there was deciding what to get – everything looked so good! Luckily, I settled for the hake, and it was the best fish of the entire trip.
Also in the Cathedral Quarter head to Hadskis for lunch, a relatively new restaurant to the Belfast dining scene, which has a great casual vibe and a varied menu.
A trip to Belfast would not be complete without a trip to St. George’s Market. Built in the late 1800s, it remains one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. Stall after stall of produce, coffee and foodie delights ensures there is something for everyone. There are also crafts and homemade goods on the weekends.
Pub life is very much a thing in Belfast. One of the best places to grab a pint in a classic pub is at the Duke of York, nestled down a cobblestone alley near the Cathedral Quarter. Memorabilia lines the inside and pub-goers spill out to the alley in the nice weather. Crown Bar is often regarded as the most famous pub in Belfast and is impressive with its mahogany booths and membership in the National Trust. The National Garden was our final spot – hip and trendy, with an outdoor patio that was buzzing on a Saturday afternoon and had a great cocktail list. If you are in Belfast on a sunny day, this is the place to be!
What to Do
We arrived in Belfast after a long day in the car touring the Causeway Coast and rolled into the city with a desperate need to stretch our legs. We quickly dropped our bags at the hotel and set off on foot – our favorite thing to do when arriving in a new place. Belfast is a very walkable city – the main downtown area can be covered in 20 minutes. We admired the architecture at the City Hall and got a quick feel for the city that night. The next day was our only full day in the city and we prioritize two things – the Black Taxi Tour and The Titanic Experience. I’ll write more about the Black Taxi Tour in a later post, but it was a fascinating account of the history of “the Troubles” and how the city is still working to overcome political and religious segregation.
The Titanic Experience is much more than a museum. The 9 interactive galleries take you on a journey from the thriving Belfast shipbuilding industry to the building of the Titanic, the excitement surrounding the launch, and eventually the sinking and aftermath. The Shipyard ride stimulates what is was like to work in shipyard and provides more details than ever released before. The Titanic was and still is a source of pride for the city.
If we had more than one full day in the city, we would have visited Crumlin Road Gaol and the Ulster Museum as well, but we will have to catch those on our next visit. After 16 days, it was time for us to head home!
Thanks for the great visit, Belfast! You fascinated us with your dark history and your bright future – we will be back!
Have you ever visited Belfast? Is it somewhere you would like to visit?