If you’ve seen “Game Of Thrones” you will have seen some of the spectacular landscape that surrounds Northern Ireland’s capital, yet Belfast itself, so long divided and defined by a troubled history, remains relatively undiscovered as a destination for tourists and weekend breakers. Indeed, Belfast can feel a foreboding place if your only encounter with it is from news bulletins. As is often the way, the reputation tells only part of the story. Because the Belfast that bursts out to visitors is another Belfast altogether: vibrant, buzzy and refreshingly free of the kind of cynicism you get in more established tourist hotspots.
A frontier city on the northwestern edge of Europe, in the 19th century and for much of the 20th, Belfast was known for its linen and its ships. It was here, at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, that construction of the infamous RMS Titanic began in 1908, and the state-of-the-art Titanic Belfast museum that opened in 2012 as part of the rejuvenated Belfast Harbour area, is both a crowd pleaser and a symbol of the city’s reinvention. But the energy and optimism of post-Troubles Belfast runs deeper than showstopper visitor attractions or the arrival of a slew of hip eateries and stylish hotels. The fault lines of the past are still visible, yet they have been softened and absorbed into a modern and outward-looking dynamism, an achievement both of municipal spirit and decades of careful and energetic regeneration.
One of the most visible signs of the changing face of Belfast is the new wave of restaurants, brunch spots and coffee shops that have sprung up. You’ll find them all along Upper Newtownards Road and around the Cathedral Quarter. Yes, you can get flatbread and a decent flat white (Check out Established Coffee or Pocket Flat Iron), but more significantly Belfast is rediscovering its own culinary traditions, with a strong move towards local produce and seasonal menus.
From high-end restaurants such as OX to chilled brunch spots like General Merchants, chefs and diners are embracing the eclecticism of modern European cuisine (with its many global influences) while championing the best local suppliers. The upshot is Irish stews and seafood chowder sitting alongside braised pig’s cheek, fancy burgers, middle eastern flavours and vegan taster menus. Need a little pick-me-up? Head to the Juice Jar on Botanic Avenue or try some scones from Bread and Banjo bakery (go early in the morning to avoid disappointment). This is what gentrification is supposed to be like.
Case in point is Coppi, run by husband-and-wife team Tony and Andrea O’neil, which promises authentic Italian cooking showcasing the best local ingredients. Your steak, for instance, comes from Peter Hannan, who ages beef from shorthorns fed on clover, in a chiller room walled in Himalayan salt. Out of these regional elements, which includes locally caught fish and shellfish, they create Cicchetti—tapas-style dishes traditionally served in Venice’s bacari bars as well as pizza and pasta dishes.
WIth at least 18 different Game Of Thrones tours available, it’s easy to spot Belfast’s latest big tourist pull. Try to get one that takes you out to the truly jaw-dropping Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site formed from 44,000 hexagonal basalt stones. You won’t be able to avoid Titanic Belfast and you shouldn’t either. Over the course of nine interactive galleries, it vividly tells the story of the world’s most famous ship, from its conception through to its ill-fated maiden voyage and its subsequent place in history. Make sure you book in advance because it’s a popular one.
But whatever else you do in Belfast, make sure you do a tour of the Peace Walls. As a visitor to the city you’ll feel the history, yet it is only when you go into West Belfast and see the murals, memorial gardens and Peace Walls in the Falls and Shankill districts that you’ll appreciate the transformation that has taken place over the last few decades. Multiple tour operators offer tours by bus, taxi or on foot.
After that you may well be in need of some refreshment. The Sunflower Public House behind Belfast Central Library and close to the offices of The Belfast Telegraph is a self-declared “simple corner pub…free of gimmicks or themes.” Don’t be alarmed by the security cage at the front door, though it is a reminder of Belfast’s not-so-distant history. Once inside, you’ll instantly see why it is such a firm favourite with the locals, with craic in the air, craft beers and ciders on tap, and live music sessions every night from 9pm.
The Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC) has an international reputation for contemporary art, theatre, live music and experimental works, while the Ulster Museum, near the Botanic Gardens, has permanent as well as superb seasonal exhibitions. The former Crumlin Road Gaol has also been turned into a museum, offering a fascinating, if grisly, trip into the darker recesses of the city’s history.
Inspired by a classic Steve McQueen film, this centrally located hotel offers “everything you need for a comfy hotel stay without any of the nonsense.” So, out with the minibars and trouser presses, in with the king size beds and rain showers. It is owned by the same people who own the nearby Merchant Hotel—Belfast’s Art Deco five-star hotel-for-the-stars—and Bullitt is almost as hip and a lot more affordable. Doubles are around £120 including breakfast, which is served downstairs in the rather groovy lobby and courtyard. The rooftop bar and garden—Babel—has panoramic views of the city, cocktails, sourdough pizzas and DJs at the weekend.
Another stylish yet affordable option is. Just steps from city hall, it boasts a top location, as well as a beautiful Instagram feed. And with doubles starting at just £48 per night (room only), it is considerably cheaper than the minimalist modern furniture, industrial decor and original parquet floors might suggest.
And that is one of the things about Belfast. While you can of course push the boat out, it is surprisingly easy to go there on a budget, eat amazing food, stay in designer hotels, learn some history, and get a real taste of a city that is steadily finding its verve without losing its edge.