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.
At the end of this post, you’ll find an interactive map including all the places mentioned here as well as a free downloadable PDF file for this guide.
SEE / DRINK
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!
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!
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.
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!
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
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
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.
SEE / DO
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.
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!
Click the button below to download the PDF version of this guide for free.