You feel the warmth immediately. And before you ask, no, it’s not the weather. “Belfast is like a village – everyone knows everyone,” says Dee, my guide. And that sense of community is evident from the moment you set foot in the city. Locals greet each other on the street, help visitors with directions without a grumble and strike up conversation with strangers at the pub. An intimacy runs through the city’s cobbled streets that Dublin, with its cosmopolitan atmosphere, lacks. Here, there’s always a story to be told: you’ll spot tales splashed across building walls or hear them muttered in the corner of a bar. And there’s a watering hole on almost every street. In fact, there are so many to choose from you could spend a week here and not have time to drink in each one. Let the craic begin!
Belfast is still, to this day, a city feeling the effects of its complex past, and there’s no better way to delve into its chronicles than on a Black Cab Political Tour. Learn about the city’s landmarks and history of sectarian violence as you zigzag through the northern and western suburbs. Some of the stories behind the sights are incredible, but it’s the murals that will leave you floored. Unable to speak on camera, activists in the 1970s and 80s created protest art, painting their feelings about the violence and oppression in murals on the city’s walls, many of which remain today. The largest is the Peace Wall on Cupar Way, which separates the Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods, and is splashed with vibrant images and thousands of messages of hope from both locals and visitors. When booking your tour, ask for Billy Scott. His depth of knowledge is nothing short of extraordinary and it’s delivered with a wicked sense of humour.
Touring Around Belfast
After your lesson in Northern Ireland’s history you’ll be parched, so ask Billy to drop you off at Crown Liquor Saloon. A Belfast institution, this pub has been around for almost 200 years and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Once a famed Victorian gin palace, its ornate interior is the handiwork of Italian craftsmen who had been brought to Ireland to adorn the many new churches being built at the time. Patrick Fanigan, then-owner of the saloon, convinced these artisans to work on the property’s interior after hours. As the sun sinks, stained-glass windows colour the interior with rainbow swirls along the mosaic-tiled floors, and the mahogany snugs make for a cosy spot to sip a cool glass of gin from the pub’s heritage selection.
Crown Liquor Saloon
46 Great Victoria Street
Before you consider filling up on Guinness, you should know Irish cuisine has come a long way since the humble potato. If you’re after a true gastronomic experience, book a table at Meat Locker by chef and restaurateur Michael Deane. Credited with revolutionising Belfast’s foodie scene – and a champion of fresh, local and seasonal produce – Deane has a restaurant portfolio spanning seven unique establishments. He also previously held a Michelin star for 14 consecutive years (the longest in Northern Ireland) so it’s safe to say you’re in for a treat. Here, the speciality is in the moniker, so sink your teeth into one of his lip-smacking steaks. Each prime cut is matured in a Himalayan salt chamber before it’s cooked to perfection on the restaurant’s Asador grill and served with beef-dripping chips. Not into red meat? Head next door to one of Deane’s two other restaurants: Love Fish, serving fresh seafood; or Eipic for fine dining.
36–40 Howard Street
It’s the quasi-religious experience you didn’t ask for, but have always secretly wanted. Ascend to the second floor of the Spaniard and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a holy shrine. Religious paraphernalia decorates every wall – large golden chalices, ornate framed images of the Virgin Mary and figurines of Jesus Christ gleam in the soft light – and sweeping red velvet sheets adorn the ceiling. Before you confess your sins, you should know the atmosphere in this tiny bar is anything but holy – dance beats bounce off the walls and with over 50 types of rum to choose from, the cocktails err on the wicked side of delicious. It seems fitting that this debauched venue is a popular spot with the Game of Thrones cast (including Sean Bean and Emilia Clarke), who have been seen imbibing here between filming. A bar blessed by the Mother of Dragons? Amen to that.
3 Skipper Street
Watering holes the world over have tried to recreate the craic found in Ireland’s pubs, and the Duke of York is just the type of joint they aim to emulate. Located on one of Belfast’s oldest laneways, this bar pays homage to both the city’s industrial past and its residents’ love of whiskey (it boasts the largest selection in Ireland). Downstairs, walls glitter with antique mirrors advertising hard liquor, while every other surface is covered with memorabilia from a bygone era. It fills up fast so get there early to claim a table. Then squeeze through the crowds and climb up a narrow staircase to the band room where Snow Patrol got their start in the 90s. Spin and sway to live bands playing cover songs before fading to traditional Irish folk from Thursday to Sunday nights. When the place is fit to burst the crowds don’t disperse in defeat; they spill out onto the cobbled alleyway festooned with blossoming red flowers and continue the craic under the stars.
The Duke of York
7–11 Commercial Court
Ireland has an impressive music pedigree, so it’s not surprising that everything from traditional Irish folk to rock’n’roll filters out onto the streets. But did you know there’s also a thriving jazz scene? Tucked behind the Merchant Hotel is Bert’s Jazz Bar, the only venue in the city dedicated to this music genre. Decked out in Art Deco glamour reminiscent of 1930s New York, its plush red-velvet furnishings and polished brass surfaces exude intimacy in the soft lighting. Wander in any night of the week from 9pm to hear musicians from across the country play. The cocktails also possess legendary status: the drinks list resembles a novella and the inventive concoctions – crafted slowly, but with flawless precision – are well worth the wait. Pull up a bar stool and watch the mixologists whip up liquid magic, or ease into one of the booths, dig into a board of camembert and cured meats from the French-bistro-inspired menu and allow yourself to be bewitched by dulcet guitar licks and soulful sax.
Bert’s Jazz Bar
16 Skipper Street
By day it’s a cafe serving coffee and scrambled eggs; by night it’s home to the largest beer garden in the Cathedral Quarter. At the National Grande Café, you won’t want for anything. This Victorian-period establishment has been stripped back to its innards, showcasing exposed brick and steel beams that ooze industrial chic. In the beer garden, the soft glow of lanterns and fairy lights adorn the open-air space, and in cooler months punters huddle close to heaters in the Winter Tent. Plonk yourself on a bench and fuel up on a turkey burger from one of their regular barbecue feasts, then make your way upstairs to Sixty6. Spanning three levels, the venue features a cocktail lounge, rooftop bar and a nightclub hosting some of Northern Ireland’s best DJs. The best part? When your head’s pounding from your inevitable hangover the next morning, you can pop back in downstairs for a full Ulster fry-up.
The National Grande Café
62 High Street
Now that you’ve experienced a slice of the Cathedral Quarter, wander to its fringes and return to the roots of Irish tradition. Slick new hipster bars have begun popping up around the city, but little has changed in the 200 years since Kelly’s Cellars – the oldest pub in Belfast – was built. The whitewashed walls, low archways and rough concrete floors will feel like home, as warmth blazes from fireplaces and light glimmers on the bronze pots and pans that hang from wooden beams along the ceiling. Here, not only should you expect a stranger to strike up a conversation with you (or pull you onto the dance floor) but you should also be ready to quaff a thick, hearty pint of Guinness. There’s an array of live bands performing throughout the week and on Sunday nights, when every other bar is closed, Kelly’s Cellars is still rocking out until midnight.
30–32 Bank Street
When the pubs and clubs have closed and your booze-soaked molecules ignite with pangs of hunger, jump in a cab and head back towards the Crown Liquor Saloon. By this time it’ll be closed, but just around the corner you’ll find Little Italy, hailed as “Belfast’s best pizza”. Don’t be fooled by the shop’s plain exterior – the accolade is no exaggeration. Efficient service coupled with freshly made dough ensures this pizzeria garners queues of tipsy customers. Watch plumes of flour dance in the air as pizzaiolos pound dough into spheres and haphazardly spread each one with a generous selection of toppings before posting them into the oven. Choose from nine-, 10- and 12-inch servings, all perfect sizes to take away and hoover down at your digs – because, let’s face it, one bite of this hot doughy goodness will ensure you won’t want to hang around to share.
13 Amelia Street
Fly to London (or other European centres) and catch a connecting flight to Belfast from there.
There are 62 rooms and suites at the swanky Malmaison, which, for its size, still feels cosy and intimate. It’s located around the corner from the Cathedral Quarter, as well as other sights including Titanic Belfast and City Hall. Each room features a safe, tea- and coffee-making facilities, flat-screen TV, minibar, free wi-fi and 24-hour room service. Standard doubles start from about US$125 a night.
For more ideas on what to see and do during your stay in Belfast, check out the tourism board website.