Belfast is a city that has seen the best of times and the worst of times – you can see its past in the ashes of the shipping industry left in the docklands, in the murals on the walls of the east and west and in the songs of the aul boy in the corner of the pub. Now the city is firmly looking ahead and there are new places popping up every weekend – so many activities!
When I moved to Belfast about a year and a half ago I was starting from scratch and I have loved getting to know it, make it mine – the oases among the concrete, the independent shops, the markets. There are so many hidden gems that many people don’t get the chance to see here so I thought I’d create a little weekend guide so any newcomers can make the most of their visit and see the best of Belfast.
If you’re landing in the evening try and plan ahead by booking a dinner and a show for the night. The Lyric Theatre has some fantastic productions run all year by local theatre companies and it’s a great opportunity to see Irish culture come to life. In August the Lyric is showing God Bless The Child, a play based on the stories of Frank O’Connor – I’m promising myself to book a ticket!
Before you hit the play, grab an early dinner at Molly’s Yard. This small restaurant is found around the corner from Queen’s University and offers some great simple dishes that will fill your bellies up before your show. After dinner, take a walk through the grounds of Queen’s University and on through the Botanic Gardens. This little dander will not only help you walk off the calories you just consumed at Molly’s, it’ll also give you a look at locals going about their daily life. Once you’re through the park you you just have to walk along the river a little further to get to the Lyric – all very handy.
If you’re still feeling a little thirsty after the Lyric, then take the short walk further down the river to Cutters Wharf – a bar that sits in the reeds of the Lagan. In the summer this is the best place to enjoy the long evening sun and watch the rowers from Queen’s University doing their practice runs along the river.
When you’re in Belfast you have to make sure to find a place that does an Ulster Fry – the staple weekend breakfast for most of us here! Maggie May’s or Conor’s, both beside Queen’s University, are great places that see the hangover troops descend. If you fancy something not quite as greasy, then try 5A which is found a little further in to Stranmillis. This place does AMAZING coffee and AMAZING foccacias. Please don’t leave without trying their salted caramel brownie either because it would be absolute sacrilege.
After your brekkie, you have many options. If you feel like doing a bit of shopping (or shappin’ as the locals call it) then you can hit Victoria Square. My favourite shop is Avoca just behind Victoria Square – it takes all my power not to spend my tiny fortune in there. For independent shops, I love the Kiln & Loom found on Ormeau Road. It’s a wee shop that sells fantastic local craft, jewellery, bath products and local magazines like Freckle.
If the sun is out though, first of all count yourself lucky and second of all make the most of it! Cavehill is the spot to climb and get the best views of Belfast. The Antrim Castle lies up in the hills and from up there you can see across to Stormont, down to the docks and across the Belfast lough that carried the Titanic for the first time. Make sure to make the big climb to the top though, through the woods and past the caves, it’s wild but beautiful. A bit like Ireland really.
If you fancy getting up close to where the Titanic was created then there are great tours to enjoy down in the Titanic Quarter. There’s a bus that can take you round the different spots and the Titanic Centre itself. You can see the Harland & Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, up close down here. These huge monuments as they now are, can be spotted across the city and when I spy them flying in to the City airport, I know I’m home.
You’ll be deserving a cold drink after all that activity and the city centre is coming down with places to quench your thirst. For cocktails outside, the Perch Rooftop bar is a great spot that has a long list to keep the picky happy. From around the corner you can fill up on food at James Street South for a fancy option or there’s Coco’s, Deane’s or Stix & Stones that are only an arms throw away.
For the rest of the night you can only choose the Cathedral Quarter. This an area in Belfast that seems to have sprung out of nowhere and there are countless bars to entertain yourself with. There’s the Spaniard for the rum drinkers, Muriel’s for the gin drinkers, the Harp Bar for the beer drinkers and the Dirty Onion for the anything drinkers. If you find yourself not content on going home when the pubs start closing, you can pop your head in Love & Death to dance those little hooves off until the wee hours.
Sunday is a slow day in Belfast – you won’t catch people moving too fast for fear that Monday will come quicker. St. George’s Markets is a sheer delight for the weary Sunday head and the buzz will revive what energy you have left. There is food from all over the world (Cuban sandwiches are not to be missed), local products to be bought, fresh bread, art, books and homemade fudge that you will promise to save but you definitely won’t…
If it’s the first Sunday of the month head to the Sunflower Bar to check out the vintage gear on offer or even just to get the cure if the headache hasn’t desisted yet. This bar is an historical monument in itself, still bearing the security cages featured on most pubs during the Troubles.
What you can’t miss though is a good traditional music session before you go. Fibber Magee’s, The Garrick and The Duke of York all have sessions that start early in the day so you can get to your bed early. Listening to traditional music in the corner of a tiny pub packed with people is the ultimate Irish experience and it doesn’t matter how predictable it might seem, the music can move the hardest of men. Anyway, it’s a good excuse to get the last Guinness in before you go and sure what more could you want?
A weekend in Belfast is a good way to introduce yourself to the city although there is so much to see beyond the things I’ve spoken of. There’s Black Taxi tours of the troubled areas, museums, gigs, or festivals that seem to be on all year. Whatever you do, come prepared to see a city that’s found its feet after years of being dragged down. And a place where the craic is always mighty.