Image via Andrew Hurley
Today’s Belfast City Guide comes to us from Meagan Williamson, blogger at the Row House Nest and current resident in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Meagan moved into a charming Irish row house (the inspiration for her blog) and now shares with us some of the many other charming details of this quaint Northern city. From the classic boutique B&Bs to historical pubs, Meagan paints a wonderful picture of Belfast for us. Thanks Meagan for this helpful guide! —Stephanie
Read more of the city guide after the jump…
Hello Design*Sponge readers! Today I am bringing you the inside scoop on my current home – Belfast, Northern Ireland. Although Belfast is technically classified as a city, it is much more like a bustling town. Like many cities in Ireland, it is relatively small and can be seen in a few days. Belfast has tons of great attractions for pretty much everyone: history buffs, foodies, families, politics junkies, sports fans, nature lovers and so forth.
A few general warnings: everything you have heard about the weather in Ireland is true. It’s unpredictable at best. Prepare yourself for all eventualities, such as rain, sun and wind. You won’t regret packing a good trench coat, rain-friendly shoes and an umbrella for this trip, I promise you. Do not let the weather deter you; do as the locals do and just get on with it.
In the past, Belfast and Northern Ireland in general have been associated with political troubles and turmoil. Thankfully, the city is safe nowadays, although there is still the occasional isolated incident and a few ‘no go’ neighbourhoods-wise (just better to be safe than sorry). Belfast has come a long way since ‘the Troubles’ and has plenty to offer visitors and locals alike. That said, Belfast is fascinating to some for its political history and I have just the thing for those wanting to satisfy their political thirst for information related to the Troubles.
The Black Cab tours are famous for showing visitors the best and the worst of Belfast. These politically focused cab tours give visitors a guided tour of the city geared at providing political, cultural and historical information relevant to different areas of town. Although I have never been on one of the tours myself, I have heard they are fascinating as long as you get a guide who is ‘on the fence’ and provides both sides of the story. Cab Tours NI has a very good reputation and charges a fair rate. Okay, with that out of the way, on with the city guide!
For those of you who are not into official tours and prefer to see the sights at their own pace, I suggest the Belfast iTour. You can go online, check out where each tour takes you and download what you want.
I would highly recommend that you try to see some of the areas surrounding the city for at least a day or two. Unfortunately, public transportation systems in and around Belfast are not fantastic at times, but it can work for you if you do your homework on schedules ahead of time. There are regular bus routes that serve outlying villages and towns. The beauty of a small city like Belfast is that you can escape the hustle and bustle and be in the countryside after a quick drive in any direction really! More rural parts of Northern Ireland are stunning and offer spectacular natural gems like the Strangford Lough, the Mourne Mountains, the Glens of Antrim, the Giant’s Causeway and the Fermanagh Lakelands. I recommend that you try your best to visit at least one of them, if not all.
If you are short on time and don’t have a rental car but would like to see a small County Down village in an afternoon, jump on the #15 Ulsterbus from Europa Bus Station for Saintfield. This small, picturesque village has a lovely main street and is home to the stunning National Trust property, Rowallane Gardens. Head over for a cup of tea and lunch at the Garden Kitchen teahouse and cafe. They serve up delicious treats that are made on the premises. Make sure you also check out the in-house potter, Matt Liddle, while you are Rowallane Gardens for a one-of-a-kind souvenir. After you soak up the beautiful gardens and have a bite to eat, walk into town to check out the antique shops and local businesses.
*A Google Map has been specially created to help you find all the wonderful gems I am sharing with you today.
Where to Sleep
The Merchant Hotel – Formerly a bank, the original building was constructed in 1857 in the heart of Belfast’s mercantile and commercial centre during the industrial boom. Its grand neoclassical features vaulted ceilings, opulent colours and fabrics make it a must-see even if you don’t stay here. The Merchant is also well known for their upscale afternoon tea, good pub food in the Cloth Ear in the evenings and a swinging jazz session in Berts on the weekends.
Maryvale House B & B – A boutique B&B, the Maryvale is a traditional converted Victorian house with modern facilities that also houses a great little tea room and small conference center.
Vagabonds Hostel – If you are looking for the inexpensive, option Vagabounds Hostel is the way to go. Rated one of the top five hostels in the UK/Ireland in 2010 and endorsed by the local Visitors Office, it seems to be a good bet. It is ideally situated in the University Quarter and within walking distance to many of the city’s attractions.
What to Do
Belfast City Hall – Runs free public tours of its facilities Monday through Saturday. The tour is excellent and provides a great introduction to the city’s political history and current political environment.
Linen Hall Library – Located directly across the street from City Hall, this library was is the oldest in Belfast. Their extensive collection contains special interest books in unique Irish and local studies, political collections and the performing arts archive.
Check out the historic Entries, a number of narrow alleyways or corridors that connect city center’s streets. Check them out to find snug pubs, little shops and quick passageways to other streets.
St Ann’s Cathedral/Belfast Cathedral – The cathedral dates back to 1899 and has the largest Celtic cross in Ireland, and mosaics and stained glass on Celtic themes. Open daily 10am-4pm.
The Black Box – A hub for music, theatre and art, the Black Box hosts a variety of different shows and events. Stop in for a quick look at the gallery and see what’s on that night.
Belfast Exposed Art Gallery – Contemporary photography with emphasis on providing exposure for newer artists. For more information about art galleries in Belfast please see the Belfast Galleries directly.
McHugh’s Bar & Restaurant – Have a quick look at McHugh’s, famed for being the oldest building in Belfast, dating back to 1711.
Albert Memorial Clock – A Gothic-style monument erected in 1865 and refurbished in 1996
St George’s Market – This bustling market is open Friday-Sunday and is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. The market was originally constructed between 1890 and 1896. The Saturday Food and Garden market is my favourite, as you can sample lots of local produce, check out local artisans, enjoy the live music and see the locals in full shopping swing.
Ross’s Auction House – Interested in grabbing something special and uniquely Irish during your time in Belfast? Head on over to the weekly furniture and house contents auction at Ross’s on Thursdays, starting at 10am. They also host fine art auctions about once a month.
St Malachy’s Church – A historic Catholic church located in the city. The beautiful interior underwent massive restoration in 2008-2009.
Belfast Waterfront – Take a stroll around the waterfront area and check out the Waterfront Hall, Lagan River and the Fish and Ring of Thanksgiving sculptures. Random fact: the locals call the Ring of Thanksgiving sculpture “Nula with the hula”.
Titanic Walking Tour – An excellent walking tour that explores the grounds where the Titanic was built and launched. The tour lasts approximately two hours and is well worth the money. Tours begin at 11am and 2pm daily from the Premier Inn Hotel, Titanic Quarter. Make sure you check out the Harland and Wolff cranes, a Belfast landmark.
Ormeau Baths Gallery – Formerly a public bath house, this building has been converted into a contemporary art gallery.
Ormeau Park – This municipal park is the oldest park in Belfast, having opened publicly in 1871. It is a great little getaway in the city and offers unique views of the Harland and Wolff cranes in the Titanic Quarter. The main gates are located at Ormeau Road and Baroda Street.
Victoria Square – Lots of higher end retail stores, such as House of Fraser, Top Shop and Pull and Bear. Best of all is the Victoria Square Dome, which contains 360-degree views of the city. It is a great place to snap a few pictures. Admission is free and is accessible by stairs and an elevator in the middle of the shopping center. Around the corner on Arthur Street you will find Okaidi Kids, Avoca and Paperchase.
Belfast has a variety of independent stores that offer unique shopping experiences, such as Still, Crafty, Equinox, Liberty Blue and Stray Jewellery. Interested in unique Northern Irish crafts? The Crafts Council has made this nifty studio map to help you find your way. If you would like to stay inside the city, the Conway Mill off the Falls Road hosts fourteen craft workers in a refurbished building. If you happen to be in the city on a Saturday or Sunday, St. George’s Market has a great variety of local artisans, crafters and specialty shops who set up stalls every week.
Brew Bar Cafe – A brand new coffee shop that is truly making coffee drinking a science.
Avoca Cafe – Foodhall and cafe. Beautiful soups, lovely Italian-style meat platters and delicious freshly baked breads.
Made in Belfast (Two locations) – Serves up seasonal, locally sourced food. Lively atmosphere, delicious cocktails and quirky decor.
Ginger Bistro – Named after it’s red-haired owner, this bistro promises a nice night out.
Mourne Seafood Bar Belfast – Delicious local seafood.
Soul Food – Casual cafe setting that is nice for having a coffee and catching up.
Laugh all you want, but going out for drinks truly is an important part of Belfast culture. Get out and enjoy some of the ‘craic’ in these local watering holes while you are here.
Don’t have much time to get out to lots of different pubs on your own? Why not hop onto one of the Historical Pub Tours of Belfast? It will give you a good taste of all of the major pubs in town, along with a drinking history of the city.
The Errigle Inn – One of Belfast’s most well known and well loved bars. My personal favourite place to grab a pint. Lots of different nooks and crannies to escape to for a quiet pint as well as larger areas that accommodate large groups of people well.
The Morning Star – Great for a good pint of Guinness. A real man’s man bar, it tends to be a magnet for local men seeking a good steak and a cold pint.
Cafe Vaudeville – Self-proclaimed ‘Luxebar’, Cafe Vaudeville is known for great drinks and relaxing life music.
Muriel’s Cafe Bar – A great place to head for a few drinks with a small group of people.
The Spaniard Pub –Known for its delicious rum-based drinks, the Spaniard is always hopping and the drinks are always flowing.
Duke of York – Always busy on the weekends, the Duke of York is a must-visit Belfast institution. Lots of pub paraphernalia and the like decorate the ancient walls.
The Crown Liquor Saloon – So famous and steeped in history, the National Trust acquired the saloon to maintain its historical significance in 1978. Dating back to 1826, the Crown is a true Victorian gem filled with unique colours, designs, inviting snugs and beautifully aged wood. It has been described as “a multi coloured tavern of intoxicant delight”.
QUEENS QUARTER & LISBURN ROAD AREA
What to Do
Queen’s University of Belfast – Founded in 1845, Queen’s opened in 1849 when the first students entered the magnificent new college building designed and built by Charles Lanyon.
Botanic Gardens and Palm House – Located conveniently beside Queen’s is the Botanic Gardens. First established in 1828, the gardens have been a public park since 1895 and contain a wide range of beautiful and exotic plants and flowers.
Ulster Museum, National Museum Northern Ireland – As with many museums across the United Kingdom, the Ulster Museum is free admission and contains an impressive collection of history ranging from early Irish settlers to the Pacific. The modern facilities are open everyday except Monday.
Queens Film Theatre – A university-run cinema that specializes in showcasing independent and classic films.
The Belfast Empire Music Hall – Catch a show here if you can. Amazing venue in a character building.
The Lyric – The home of theatre in Belfast, the Lyric has just been beautifully renovated to merge old with new. Where Liam Neeson got his start in acting.
Cranmore Park – Located across the street from many great little cafes and delis, grab a sandwich and head over there for a quick rest.
The Lisburn Road area has several unique specialty retailers, such as Honey Essential Collection and Jacob Street Boutique (in the basement of Bedeck). Arcadia Delicatessen has a wide selection of Irish and global fine foods including meats, cheeses, fish and olives. Across the street is the Clydesdale and Morrow, a specialist cheese shop.
The Barking Dog – An overall great restaurant with character and good food.
Molly’s Yard – This relatively new Hilden Brewery pub and restaurant is serving up some mean pork belly and delicious brews to boot. Family owned and operated.
Shu Restaurant – French-influenced menu that keeps customers coming back.
Swantons Gourmet Foods – Great for a deli sandwich and a coffee after an afternoon of browsing on Lisburn Road.
Just Outside of the City Center
Clonard Monastery -The Clonard Monastery dates back to 1898 and is a sight to be seen. It is located just off Falls Road so if you are on a tour, ask your guide to take you there. The monastery places host to many choirs and is supposed to be an amazing venue, so if you have the chance, grab tickets.
Crumlin Road Gaol (Jail) – A distinctive landmark steeped in history from the Troubles. Currently closed for renovations but due to re-open in 2012. A must-do, but you are required to pre-book tours.
Stormount Parliament/Northern Irish Assembly – If you have a chance, pop over to Stormont for a dander – and if you have kids, you’re in luck: they have an excellent playground.
Belfast Castle – Located in the Cave Hill area of North Belfast, the Castle was built in 1860s. As it is located on a hill, the castle offers some lovely views of Belfast and the surrounding area.
Belfast Zoo – Located not far from the Belfast Castle, it would be wise to visit both while you are in this area of town. The zoo is relatively small but houses a wide range of exotic animals. One warning: the zoo is built on a hill, so it can be quite a bit colder up there and it makes walking tiring for wee ones. Be prepared!
Ulster Folk & Transport Museum – Sounds a wee bit boring but I promise you will not be disappointed. The museum is split into two ‘parks’ – the folk park showcasing what it was like to live in Northern Ireland over a 100 years ago and the transport park shows off trains, planes, carriages and automobiles through the ages.
Drumbo Dog Races – The Drumbo Greyhound races are open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Having gone myself, the slogan ‘A Great Night Out’ lives up to its name. It was great ‘craic’ and we had a blast. It is out of town but you can arrange for a reasonable cab ride with Value Cabs.
Notable Belfast/Northern Locals
George Best (1946-2005) – Professional footballer legend from East Belfast. There are many tributes to this local hero around the city including the George Best Airport.
Alex Higgins (1949-2010) – Also know as Hurricane Higgins, he was born in Belfast. A former world snooker champion who was crowned king twice and came runner-up twice.
Mary Peters (1939- ) – Athlete and Olympic gold medalist in the pentathlon. She was born in England but raised in Northern Ireland.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) – Famous writer best known for his fictional work The Chronicles of Narnia. Was born in Belfast.
Mary McAleese (1951- ) – Ireland’s second female President. She was raised in North Belfast.
Van Morrison (1945- ) – Singer, songwriter and musician. Has many well-loved songs such as Gloria, Brown Eyed Girl and Dancing in the Moonlight.
David Trimble (1944- ) – Nobel Peace Prize winner and politician from Belfast.
Gerry Adams (1948-) – Republican political leader born in Belfast. He is the president of Sinn Féin.
Bobby Sands (1954-1981) – Irish volunteer with the Provisional Irish Republican Army and member of the United Kingdom Parliament who died on hunger strike while imprisoned in HM Prison Maze.
Thomas Andrews (1813-1885) – Chemist and physicist who did important work on phase transitions between gases and liquids.
John Stewart Bell (1928-1990) – Physicist and the originator of Bell’s Theorem, one of the most important theorems in quantum physics.
Liam Neeson (1952 – ) – Famous actor born in Ballymena, Ireland.
James Nesbitt (1965 -) – Another well-known Northern Irish actor from Ballymena, Northern Ireland. (What is in the water there?)
Seamus Heaney (1939 – ) – Renowned poet, writer and lecturer from Bellaghy, Northern Ireland. He has received the T. S. Eliot Prize (2006) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1995) and two Whitbread prizes (1996 and 1999).
Snow Patrol – Alternative rock band from Bangor, Northern Ireland.
Rory McIlroy (1989 -) – Young professional golfer born in Holywood, Northern Ireland. Won the U.S. Open in June 2011.
Graeme McDowell (1979 – ) – Professional golfer from Portrush, Northern Ireland. Won the U.S. Open in June 2010.