Belfast City Guide

To be honest with you, until last year I didn’t get Belfast. I probably would have gone as far to say I didn’t like it. I had been a couple of times and it just felt so… nondescript. I think like many people I came here expecting to see history with a big H. Instead, I was faced with another city centre with the same high street shops everywhere, the likes of you see pretty much everywhere in the UK.

But then last December I came back to check out the Christmas Market, the biggest in Ireland, and I received some great recommendations through Instagram and suddenly, it clicked. I started falling in love with Belfast. I think the trick is to definitely leave these expectations behind, yes there’s history but it won’t necessarily jump at you, you’ll need to dig a little. But the key is getting a good grasp of Belfast’s geography.
Belfast is the sum of its quarters, each with its own atmosphere and identity. Something that totally escaped me on my previous visits and therefore I ended up stuck in a loop around the City Hall (which is a beautiful building by the way so do make time for it, pictured above).

My favourite Belfast’s quarter on this trip was the Queen’s Quarter which is located in South Belfast. It is named after Queen’s University and I loved the laid-back, student-y vibe of the area!

Each quarter has its own specificity. In the city centre, you’ll find the Cathedral Quarter which feels like the city’s historical centre. Go West and you’ll reach the Gaeltacht Quarter. Look at the streets signs and shop fronts, they are both in English and Gaelic, and here you might hear Irish being spoken.
The Titanic Quarter, the new kid on the block, has emerged with the recent opening of the Titanic museum.
It’s worth planning your trip in advance so you can experience the best of Belfast’s multifaceted areas.

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bittles bar belfast

SEE / DRINK

BITTLES BAR

Bittles Bar is a Belfast attraction in and of itself because of its impressive whisk(e)y collection and selection of beers and ciders. But what drew me in is undoubtedly the incongruous architecture of the building. Reminiscent of New York’s Flat Iron, the red-bricked facade looks certainly most intriguing. This traditional Victorian pub now stands next to the uber modern Victoria Square Shopping Centre, which makes for an interesting contrast.
I climbed to the top of the latter to check out the panoramic view out of the Dome but I found it all a bit underwhelming to be perfectly honest with you.

MUSGRAVE CHANNEL ROAD

Tip from Alex from The Full Shilling blog who kindly messaged me afterwards that the view from the rooftop bar of the Grand Central Hotel is way more impressive. I didn’t get the chance to check it out but I thought I’d pass the info along here!

SEE

COMMERCIAL COURT

Commercial Court is to Belfast what Temple Bar is to Dublin. Lined with traditional pubs and covered in cobbles, this charming alleyway see its fair share of night life and enthusiastic tourists. It certainly catches the eye with its fairy lights and other seasonal decorations. During the festive period, sparkly umbrellas were dangling over us. Come Summer, expect to see colourful pots of flowers adorning the walls. Step in the Duke of York to get a sense of music history as it is here that Snow Patrol played some of their first gigs. With regular live music shows, you might just catch the next big thing on the Northern Irish scene!

SHOP

To be honest with you, when it came to shopping in Belfast I was dead excited about the charity shops. You’ll find this city bountiful if like me you enjoy a bit of treasure hunting. Good areas for thrifting are the city centre, Botanic Avenue, Lisburn Road and Ormeau Road. My personal favourite shops were Oxfam Home on Dublin Road and Action Cancer on Lisburn Road.

EAT

I didn’t do it on purpose but all my food recommendations from my stay in Belfast are vegan. The definite highlight was this fry-up from Maggie Mays, a local greasy spoon chain that pretty much does breakfast all day. It’s the go-to place for hungover students and I can see why. It feels a bit like being at your Mam’s kitchen table. Meals are cheap as chips, filling and delicious, a full menu of topnotch comfort food! I had my first potato farl (or potato bread) and man, where has this slice of heaven been all my life?! I’m obsessed!
If you like Middle Eastern Cuisine, I recommend Falafel Eatery & Coffee House. The falafel had great taste and texture but I would have liked to see a better selection of veggie sides.
I was dying to try 387 Ormeau Road Cafe‘s vegan sausage roll but unfortunately it was so busy that I gave up and went for a Greggs’ one instead. It ended being quite tasty indeed!

SEE

BOTANIC GARDENS

Unsurprisingly, I was extremely excited to visit Belfast’s Botanic Gardens and they for sure didn’t disappoint. The reason is first, well, you know me, I never miss a chance to visit a public garden but secondly it is an important location in The Fall, a series I’m not soon to forget about. The gardens possess a few interesting features such as the Tropical Ravine House which had recently undergone a major renovation. The design is rather unique. Inside a Victorian building is nestled a sunken ravine full of tropical plants such as ferns, cinnamon and banana plants. This subterranean jungle can be admired from the overhanging balcony or you can straight walk through it.
My favourite part of the Botanic Gardens was undoubtedly the Palm House. It is one of the earliest examples of a glasshouse made of curved iron and glass. And if it looks familiar to you, it is because it was the work of Richard Turner, a Dublin iron founder who then went on to build the glasshouses of Dublin Botanic Gardens as well as Kew Gardens in London. Pretty impressive CV, right? The Palm House has a tropical wing and a cool wing. At the time of my visit, the latter was peppered with colourful tulips which was a jolly sight!
Handily, you’ll also find the Ulster Museum inside the Botanic Gardens walls.

COLLEGE PARK, BOTANIC AVENUE
FREE ADMISSION

st george's market belfast soap mystiques enchantments

SHOP / EAT

ST GEORGE’S MARKET

If you ever in Belfast on a weekend, definitely give St George’s Market a visit. This place is poppin’! There are so many great stalls to browse. Expect local produce, fish and meat, bric a brac, lots of different cuisine to sample, flowers, etc… And if it rains, don’t worry as the market is covered. It’s actually the last Victorian covered market left in Belfast. It’s been opened since 1890. I visited it on a Friday at lunch time. I made a beeline for the hot dog stall as I had heard through the grapevine that they had a vegan offering. And indeed they did! Great brioche bread and sausage but unfortunately lacking in the topping department. I didn’t leave the market empty-handed as I bought a divinely-fragrant soap from Mystique Enchantments and a bag of loose organic peppermint tea from Suki Tea.

12-20 EAST BRIDGE STREET

SEE

QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY

Located in South Belfast, Queen’s University gave its name to the quarter known as Queen’s Quarter. You’ll find it next to the Botanic Gardens. The pièce de résistance of the campus is the eye-catching Lanyon building, a tudor-revival quadrangle-shaped building with a magnificent courtyard in its heart. If I may say, I never seen a lawn so pristine-looking on a campus. If it had been my uni, that lawn would have been trampled in less time that it takes to say ‘free pot noodles’. Anyways, I was dead impressed and I can see why it is often said to be one of the most beautiful universities in the UK. You can book for a guided tour or grab a free map at the Welcome Centre to explore at your own pace.

UNIVERSITY ROAD

SEE / DO

BELFAST CASTLE

Belfast Castle is located in North Belfast, a good 30 min bus journey from the city centre. It is set on the Belfast Hills which you can see on the horizon throughout the city.
Rumour has it that they inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as their outline looks like a sleeping giant.
Built in 1870 in the popular Scottish Baronial style, Belfast Castle catches the eye with its turrets, stepped gables, red features and spiral stone-staircase. Unfortunately it is mostly closed to the public as it now serves as a venue for weddings or other events. Nonetheless, a walk in its landscaped garden is a pleasant experience. The view over the city is spectacular. And the gardens are cat-themed which is rather charming. 9 cats are hidden in the design. Will you be able to find them? Cats are intertwined with the castle in an old legend that professes that the residents would only find luck as long as a white cat lives on the premises.
Belfast castle is also the starting point of Cave Hill hiking trails.

ANTRIM ROAD
FREE ADMISSION

STAY

I stayed in the Crescent Townhouse Hotel, located in the Queen’s Quarter. It’s a great base for exploring the area and there are so many food options literally on your doorstep. I could see Maggie Mays from my window! The staff was so accommodating and friendly. The room was cosy, the bathroom even had a claw foot bath! All in all, it was great value for money.
It’s worth noting that the hotel is located in a lively area so it can get noisy, especially on the weekends. If that bothers you, you might want to mention in your booking that you’re looking for a quiet room. With that being said, I stayed on a Thursday night, street side, and it was completely fine.

13 LOWER CRESCENT

It took a few tries but it’s safe to say that Belfast has now my heart. And there’s still so many good reasons to make another trip back soon. Heck I haven’t even touched on the fact that it is Game of Thrones country. Coinciding with the end of the series, an exhibition displaying the show’s props opened this year. It is on until September 1 2019.
The Titanic Museum is also a major attraction I would like to visit one day and for a good dose of history I’d like to see the Peace Wall as well as take part in a Black Cab Tour. Until next time, Belfast!

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A Quick Guide to an Afternoon in Ghent

ghent belgium

On first impression, Ghent might look like a museum. Its medieval architecture has been incredibly well preserved through the ages. But take a closer look and you’ll see a lively university city with a modern attitude. Indeed the Belgian city is tackling head on concerns related with the climate crisis. They reduced their CO2 emissions by making the centre a car-free zone and encourage its residents to use bikes. You could say that Ghent is a cyclist haven, with the largest designated cyclist area in Europe (400 km of paths).
The city also recognises the detrimental effect the meat industry has on the environment and thus, is a self-proclaimed vegetarian capital. On Thursdays, they promote a meat-free day across work and school cafetarias. And you’d never be hard-pressed to find a vegetarian option as the city counts the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
Ghent as a vibrant and exciting city, is rapidly leaving the shadow cast by sister Bruges, which is only a 25 minute train journey away.
With a short afternoon to get acquainted with this charming place, I came back with this very snappy first-timer’s guide on how to spend a few hours in the Flemish city.

1. EXPLORE ST. BAVO’S CATHEDRAL

On Sint-Baafsplein stands bright and tall Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral. Step inside as it’s very much worth a look (and it’s free). First thing that hit me when I came in was the beautiful vaulted ceiling. On the ground, the rococo pulpit made of gilded wood and marble majestically dominates the space. Above is one impressive organ, with 600 pipes it is the biggest in the Benelux.
The cathedral’s ground floor is also the last resting place of all the bishops who officiated here. That makes a lot of people to fit in!
The cathedral was completed in 1559 but it actually stands on the old grounds of a 12th century church which you can still see the remains in the crypt. Down there, there’s also a collection of objects used during masses over the years such as vestments and liturgical bits and bobs.
But undoubtedly the pièce de résistance of the cathedral is ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb‘, a polyptych painted by the Van Eyck Brothers in 1459. Purposed to be the cathedral’s altarpiece, its fate was not as peaceful and it went through a real rollercoaster. As one of the most coveted paintings in the world, it went through 7 thefts and got nearly destroyed in a bombing orchestrated by the Nazis. Today it rests peacefully, albeit with a panel missing (one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in art theft) back where it belongs in this cathedral (you can admire it for a small entrance fee).

2. CLIMB THE BELFRY

Facing St. Bavo’s Cathedral is the Belfry. You can climb (or take a lift) to the top and admire the best views over the city of Ghent. With a height of 91m, it is the tallest belfry in Belgium. The gilded dragon that lives on its roof keeps an eye on the city and its residents. Completed in 1442, it served as a watchtower as well as a bell tower. It is today a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site.

3. CROSS ST. MICHAEL’S BRIDGE

While arguably one of the most photogenic spots in the city, St. Michael’s Bridge certainly offers a unique vantage point for your lens. Indeed it is here, and only here, where you can catch Ghent’s ‘Three Towers’ (St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry and St. Nicholas’ Church) in one shot. It also gives a most idyllic snapshot over the Leie River and the surrounding quays. As you walk along the railing, spot the bronze statue, it is St. Michael, the man himself.

4. LOUNGE ON THE QUAYS

The facing quays, Korenlei and Graslei, are the beating heart of the city. It is a lovely bustling area, a visual reminder that Ghent is also a student city. Here the students and tourists alike come to sit at cafe terraces or simply let their feet dangle off the river banks, watching the boats go by on the Leie. This is one of the oldest sites in Ghent as we can trace it back to the 5th century when it was the heart of Flanders’ wheat trade. The protected row of buildings on Graslei hails back to the Middle Ages. Among them, spot the Spijker, the oldest example of the iconic stepped gable style.

5. SAMPLE A CUBERDON

You’d have a hard time finding this funny-sounding sweet outside Belgium so while in Rome… Indeed it does not export very well as its conservation does not go past a couple of weeks. Some say that the cuberdon was born in Ghent during the 19th century (other argues that it was in Bruges) so you won’t be hard-pressed to spot these little red cones around the city.
Their shell is crusty while their heart goes gooey. Historically made with arabic gum and elderberry juice, nowadays a soapy raspberry flavour is preferred.
And if you want to sink your sweet teeth into history, get your pick’n’mix in Temmerman, the oldest confectionery shop in town. The shop was set up in the 19th century and has been in the same family over 8 generations. They started by selling gingerbread (quite fitting as the building looks like a cute gingerbread house) but their shelves now stock all kinds of traditional confectionary such as our cuberdons (or neuzekes, little noses in Flemish), mokken, knopkes or meulentrekkers.

6. VISIT GRAVENSTEEN CASTLE

Another major landmark in Ghent is Gravensteen, the last remaining medieval castle with a moat in Flanders. It was built at the end of the 12th century and served as a residence for the counts of Flanders. Later it went through several incarnations: a court, a prison, a mint, a cotton factory, … until it fell into disrepair. The people of Ghent wanted to see it destroyed as it had become a symbol of feudal oppression and the inquisition. It was instead restored and transformed into a museum open to the public in 1913.
The castle became then Ghent’s biggest attraction and you can still today visit the museum which houses a collection of medieval weapons and instruments of torture. Needless to say, the tour is not for the faint-hearted!

If you have time to sit down for a cuppa, Uit Steppe en Oase has a beautiful tea garden hidden in a courtyard. Just opposite stands Proof if you’re looking for something with a bit more kick in a seriously cool decor, perfect for people watching.

Should you feel pressed by time and want to have a fun and quick feel of the city, you can go on a horse cart, a tour boat or even rent your own boat to explore the canals at your own leisure. While these means of transport are crazy expensive in Bruges, they have remained affordable in Ghent… so far!

While I didn’t get to explore the Ghent’s restaurant scene, you can believe that I’ll be back to sample some vegetarian goodness. Also on my list, a wander through Patershol and Prinsenhof, two atmospheric quarters beyond the Gravensteen Castle. As you can see, another trip to Ghent needs to happen… and when it only takes a half an hour train journey from Brussels, there’s really no excuse!

Did you enjoy my Ghent guide? You might find my top of the best photo spots in Bruges useful

Quick Guide to Le Puy-en-Velay | France

Le Puy-en-Velay

Here is the second and last part of my trip to Auvergne last Summer. During my stay in Saint-Julien-Chapteuil, my friends and I spent an afternoon in Le Puy-en-Velay. This medieval town is famously known to be one of the starting points of the Camino de Santiago. And what a spot to start a pilgrimage, the city charms with its cobbled stones and its pastel blind-cladded windows. We wandered in its alleyways on that hot afternoon of July, with no real plan but as fate would have it we got to experience some of Le Puy’s greatest features.

Le Puy-en-VelayLe Puy-en-Velay

LE PUY CATHEDRAL

Without a doubt the star of Le Puy-en-Velay, this monument that sits up above the town. Hence, it is a bit of a steep climb to get there, especially the stair part but believe me it will be all worth it. The cathedral offers stunning views over the city’s rooftops and you get to walk in the steps of the Camino de Santiago‘s pilgrims. This is where they start their journey after getting released through the cathedral’s doors and being blessed in the morning.
Other points of interest in the cathedral include the 12th century cloister and the Black Virgin, Our Lady of Le Puy, which is the object of another pilgrimage celebrated every 15th of August (2016 is a big one as it coincides with the jubilee that happens every 11 years).

Le Puy-en-Velay

HOTEL SAINT-VIDAL

Next to the cathedral is the Hotel Saint-Vidal which is the designated reception centre for the pilgrims who are looking for information, accommodation or a place to gather and socialise. It hosts Le Camino, a museum on the pilgrimage history, as well as Le Cafe des Pelerins, which has the most enchanting little courtyard. My friends and I ordered much needed refreshments after the dreary cathedral’s staircase and sat there for a while, enjoying the calm surroundings. Added bonus, the bar staff was super friendly and answered all our questions on their role in welcoming the travelling pilgrims.

Le Puy-en-Velay

THE “RENAISSANCE” MURAL

It’s completely by accident that we stumbled upon Patrick Commecy’s mural. His trompe-l’oeils are pure magic, maybe you’ve seen his work on the Internet before? He paints realistic scenes on boring blank city walls that fit into their surroundings so well. He also likes to incorporate details that evoke the place’s history. Look closely to “Renaissance” and you’ll spot all Le Puy’s specialities: the green lentils, the lace-makers, the verbena liquor Verveine, the pilgrims and “Le Roi de L’Oiseau” (literally the Bird King), the yearly renaissance festival for which occasion the mural has been commissioned.

Le Puy-en-Velay

NOTRE-DAME DE FRANCE

Notre-Dame de France is a giant statue of the Virgin Mary that dominates the city. Its peculiar rusty colour is due to the fact it was made from the cannons brought back from the Crimean War. It is located on the Rocher Corneille, a volcanic formation from which height you can enjoy panoramic views over the city.

Le Puy-en-VelayLe Puy-en-Velay

THE POUZAROT QUARTER

The Pouzarot is the oldest neighbourhood in Le Puy. It goes back to the Middle Age when it was built after the discovery of a water source. This part of town feels like a village inside the city. The facades are adorned with exposed bricks and greenery abound in between the cosy cottages.

Le Puy-en-VelayLe Puy-en-Velay
Le Puy-en-Velay

Le Puy is a lively and culturally rich place, we barely scratched the surface. For instance, I wish we had time to climb to St-Michel d’Aiguilhe, a chapel located on another volcanic rock in the North of the city. But even lacking a plan or a map, this welcoming city opens its arms to the pilgrims and the tourists alike without any resistance.