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.
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! Conor's is famous for a great fry and it's just opposite the Ulster Museum if you're in need of some culture to walk off the grease. If you fancy something a little healthier, 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 Born & Bred, a Belfast institution that stocks the best locally made crafts and goods. This is the ideal place to buy your gifts to bring home with you.
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.
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. 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 rooftop bar at the Bullitt Hotel is a great place to start your night. From there you can make your way to several restaurants that are worthy of booking; The Muddlers Club, Ox, Coppi.
After dinner you don't have to go too far for drinks to finish the night off. The Cathedral Quarter is packed with a few of the best bars in the city; The Spaniard, Muriel's, The National and Duke of York will guarantee you a great night. Live music in the Harp Bar or the Dirty Onion will keep you dancing or, if you want somewhere quiet, Bert's Jazz bar at the Merchant Hotel serves excellent an Old Fashioned.
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 and where the craic is always mighty.