What to Do in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Avoided, underrated or just plain forgotten, Belfast is a city that’s been fighting a bad reputation for half a century. A visit today, however, is an eye-opening experience in the best possible way. Belfast has been coming into its own in the last few years, developing a vibrant restaurant scene, award-winning architecture — the Royal Institute of British Architects gave the MAC, a sleek arts venue, a National Award in 2013 — and a new cosmopolitanism, although fried breakfasts and a heightened awareness of sectarian conflict are still an integral part of most residents’ days. The friendliness of the people is what’s most appealing in this small and very walkable city, from smiling servers to talkative bartenders to helpful strangers on the street. Visit Belfast to soak up good vibes, to eat well and to drink unstintingly. It’s a city that’s at its best when enjoyed from behind a pint glass.
1. Lunch with a view | 1:30 p.m.
Kick off the weekend with lunch at Robinson & Cleaver, a new restaurant housed in what was a 19th-century linen warehouse and department store. The “Taste of Ulster” sharing boards, with selections of smoked salmon, grilled mackerel, Oakwood cheese and wheaten bread, are perfect for sampling locally produced fare. Find a spot on the terrace, which looks directly out onto the ornate Edwardian City Hall. To its right is the imposing Scottish Provident Building, a late-Victorian sandstone edifice that’s currently metamorphosing into a high-end business center. Lunch for two around £30, or $44, at $1.47 to the pound.
2. Botanics and background | 3 p.m.
After lunch, stroll through Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, 28 acres of green lawns and trees near Queens University. Stop at the Palm House, an elegant Victorian greenhouse with a curved iron and glass structure that’s just as gorgeous as the abundance of exotic plants growing inside. Emerge from the gardens at the Ulster Museum (free admission), a well-designed space with exhibits on Northern Irish history, art and natural history, and one that offers a comprehensive background on the country’s heritage.
3. Crown jewel | 5:30 p.m.
The Crown Liquor Saloon is a treasure: a Victorian gin palace that’s been beautifully restored by its owner, the National Trust. Everything from the snugs — semiprivate tables sequestered by mid-height walls — to the red granite bar to the antique bell system for summoning staff looks like it’s straight out of a period movie. Order a pint of Guinness here (£3.90) and it comes with a shamrock traced in the head. The Crown manages to sit on the fence of sectarian feuds: While the name sounds decidedly Loyalist, there’s a mosaic of a crown decorating the ground outside the entryway upon which Republican clientele can happily step. Look up the street to see the Europa Hotel, known for a time as “the most bombed hotel in Europe.” The Europa was hit dozens of times during the Troubles, though it kept its doors open throughout.
4. From the sea | 7:30 p.m.
Though Ireland’s an island, all too often its best seafood is exported and the remainder overpriced at home. The Mourne Seafood Bar, though, has built a reputation over eight years on serving top-quality, locally caught fish and seafood that doesn’t cost the earth. Book ahead for dinner in this city center restaurant and feast on oysters brought straight from nearby Carlingford Lough, along with fresh langoustines, salmon, lobster and more elaborate tidbits like poponcini peppers stuffed with crab mayonnaise and watercress salad. Dinner for two, around £70.
5. Breakfast of champions | 10 a.m.
The debate over where to get the best “Ulster fry” in Belfast is never-ending, but Bright’s is a top contender. This no-frills restaurant serves up the basics (fish and chips, eggs and beans) to locals who crowd in, three generations to a table. Push past the herd of strollers in the entryway and order the “Bright’s fry” (£3.50), a plate packed with eggs, sausages, potato bread, soda bread, bacon and black pudding, along with grilled mushrooms and tomatoes as a (meaningless) gesture toward health consciousness. Pair this with plenty of tea from the ubiquitous workaday steel pots and you’ll be set up for the day, as they say.
6. Taxis and Troubles | 11 a.m.
While the Troubles may seem like a part of Belfast’s past, Troubles tourism is alive and well. Visiting the areas most affected is essential for understanding the city’s fraught history. Ninety-minute “black taxi tours” (around £30 for up to three people, additional fee for more) take passengers through the Falls and Shankill Roads, Catholic and Protestant, respectively, and still strongly sectarian. Drivers also deliver a running commentary on the Troubles, and explain the significance of the numerous political murals that so clearly divide the neighborhoods. The Irish nationalist Bobby Sands is a staple of the Catholic murals while terrifying images of paramilitaries in balaclavas holding machine guns are popular in Loyalist areas. Many companies run black taxi tours; stop by the Visit Belfast Welcome Center on Donegall Square for brochures. The companies are much of a muchness — they all cover the same areas and advertise themselves as impartial, although individual taxi drivers, most of whom were born and bred in one of these neighborhoods, will make their politics quite clear.
7. Cathedrals and craft beer | 1 p.m.
Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is the trendiest neighborhood in town, its cobbled streets now home to bustling restaurants, pubs and arts venues. Begin with a visit to St. Anne’s Cathedral (admission, £5), a turn-of-the century Romanesque building with two quirky features: the 1,000 colorful hassocks hand-embroidered by churchgoing women since 1950; and the Spire of Hope, a 76-meter stainless steel spike that punctures the roof and was added in 2007. Nearby, tucked away on tiny Commercial Court, is Hadskis, which opened in late 2013 with a focus on local ingredients. Sit at the long bar overlooking the open kitchen for a lunch of pheasant, pearl barley and horseradish with a side of champ (an Irish spin on mashed potatoes), washed down with a Headless Dog or Titanic Quarter — both craft beers from the Northern Irish Hilden Brewing Company. Lunch for two, around £50.
8. Architecture and the arts | 4 p.m.
One of the shining examples of the new, more sophisticated Belfast, the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Center), which is free (performances require tickets), is a stunning asymmetrical tower of brick and volcanic stone housing seven stories of high-ceilinged galleries and cleverly designed reading nooks. It’s the ever-changing roster of exhibitions and live performances that’s the real enticement, however. Pop in to see the latest visual art exhibitions or check out the frequent experimental live performances (theater, music and dance). The MAC is well situated in the Cathedral Quarter overlooking St. Anne’s Square, which has emerged as a restaurant hot spot.
9. Drinks at the Duke | 5:30 p.m.
At the other end of Commercial Court from Hadskis is the Duke of York pub, where a young Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, tended bar in the 1960s. Outdoor drinking is a growing trend in Belfast, and the Duke claims a charming stretch of alleyway with brick walls, window boxes and benches. It’s a local haunt, and it’s worth walking across the alley to the parking lot to check out the mural of local celebrities. If the weather’s not conducive to sitting outdoors, take your Guinness (£3.70) inside, where the walls and ceiling are plastered with old-fashioned advertisements for stout and whiskey.
10. Seasonal Menu | 7:30 p.m.
Sitting pretty at the top of the Belfast culinary scene is OX, which opened in March 2013 to great fanfare. The former tile shop has massive plate glass windows that look out onto the River Lagan, and a menu that matches the décor in simplicity and modernity. Friday and Saturday nights are tasting menu only: five courses of seasonal dishes with a vegetable focus, like broad bean and radish leaf soup, and Mourne lamb with spelt, girolles and beetroot. With just 40 seats, it’s best to book in advance. Tasting menu for two, around £110.
11. Tour the Titanic | 11:30 a.m.
Allow several hours for Titanic Belfast (admission, £15.50), which is a 20-minute walk or short taxi ride from the city center in the recently designated Titanic Quarter. The museum’s four wings are designed to look like high-tech ships’ hulls, covered in silver anodized aluminum shards. It opened in 2012 to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the Belfast-built ship (though the locals say, “It was all right when it left here.”). The exhibits are impressively detailed, from the recreated staterooms to the personal histories of builders, waitresses and guests. Don’t miss the compelling beginning exhibits, which describe life in Belfast’s linen mills at the turn of the century. Also essential are the interactive projection of the ship’s plans and the Shipyard Ride, a narrated, amusement park-style ride that’s entertaining and not just for kids.
A former seed warehouse, Malmaison (34-38 Victoria St.) is a boutique hotel with a funky atmosphere and an abundance of cushy couches, plush cushions and deep colors. Amenities include free wifi, king-sized beds and a bar popular with local luminaries.
The Merchant (16 Skipper St.) boasts a chic Victorian-meets-Art Deco aesthetic accented by bespoke furnishings and a gorgeous old-fashioned bar. Situated in the Cathedral Quarter, it’s a good base for exploring the city.