The North's largest city by some distance, Belfast has a pace and bustle you'll find almost nowhere else in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. For many, however, Belfast will always be remembered as the focus of the Troubles that dominated Northern Ireland's politics for almost three decades from the late 1960s and scarred so many personal lives. Indeed, as the North still continues to come to terms with the aftermath of the peace process, instigated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the city remains in some ways on a knife's edge, always expecting some new predicament to emerge.
Belfast is a place for getting out and about, and has plenty of attractions to experience. A couple of days are enough to get a feel for the city, although it is a good base from which to visit virtually anywhere else in the North. In the city centre, concentrate on the glories resulting from the Industrial Revolution – grandiose architecture and magnificent Victorian pubs – and the rejuvenated area from Ann Street to Donegall Street now known as the Cathedral quarter.
At the center of Belfast is the triumphant Victorian pile of the City Hall , both the focal point of the city and its best orientation point. Around the City Hall is Donegall Square, the very heart of the city, and one of the few green spaces in the centre of Belfast.
The Shopping District
In front of the City Hall lies the main shopping district. This part of the city centre is very compact and can easily be ranged on foot. Donegall Place and Royal Avenue run down from the City Hall, and the shopping area stretches out to Victoria Street in the east, King Street in the west and up to North Street in the north. The glass-roofed Castlecourt shopping centre on Royal Avenue, complete with fountains and cafes, is the largest covered shopping area in the city, and there are a number of other smaller arcades in the surrounding side streets. Best of these is Queen's Arcade , with its vast range of specialist shops.
The little alleyways that run between Ann Street and High Street are known as the Entries. Tucked away here you'll find many an old saloon, such as White's Tavern , which claims to be the oldest pub in Belfast. The Entries adjoin the Cathedral Quarter around St Anne's Cathedral . This district of the city has seen considerable refurbishment in recent years and is now home to many new apartments, cafes and bars. The Cathedral Quarter was designed as Belfast's equivalent to Temple Bar in Dublin, and the development of this arts and entertainment centre in Belfast is one of the most exciting phenomena the city has seen in recent years.
The Golden Mile
To the south of the City Hall is Great Victoria Street, which runs up to the university area and is often referred to as the Golden Mile . This district is home to the city's largest concentration of restaurants, bars and cafes. Along the Golden Mile you'll find the Grand Opera House and the splendid Crown Liquor Saloon, which is owned by the National Trust. Both sumptuously Victorian, they offer significantly different forms of entertainment! Many restaurants and cafes line Great Victoria Street, together with the Europa Hotel , which had for many years the unenvied reputation of being the most bombed hotel in Europe. However it is now shaking off that dubious distinction and has currently expanded into Northern Ireland's largest hotel, a symbol of renewed confidence in the city itself.
The University District
The Golden Mile leads to the neighbourhood of Queen's University , characterised by its plethora of pubs, clubs and places to stay. This is one of the most attractive districts in the city: take an hour to stroll around the well-tended grounds and pleasant red-brick quadrangle of the university. Next door are the Botanic Gardens , which provide a tranquil, peaceful spot for a picnic; the Palm House in the gardens is a relative of the great glasshouses at Kew and the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. The Botanic Gardens are also home to the impressive Ulster Museum (complete with dinosaur exhibits), which is certainly a fine place to while away an afternoon. The Stranmillis Village area is about ten minutes walk away: full of small shops, restaurants and cafes, it is a most pleasant spot for lunch and an excellent refuge from the city within the city.
To the east of the City Hall is the mouth of the Lagan river. This area has seen lavish investment in recent years, and along the waterfront there are many places to enjoy the river. The Waterfront Hall is Belfast's new pride and joy. Even if you don't have time to take in a concert, stop for coffee and have a look at the splendid auditorium. Further along, the Lagan Lookout affords excellent views of the two great cranes—David and Goliath—of the Harland & Wolff shipyards. This is where you can get a feel for the industries upon which modern Belfast was founded. And let's not forget the most recent and biggest addition to the Belfast waterfront skyline, the Odyssey arena, which was opened in 2000 and comprises one of the world's largest entertainment complexes.
West Belfast is where the sectarian divisions of the city are most starkly displayed. The Protestant neighbourhoods are clearly demarcated from the Catholic areas; the main route through the Protestant area is the Shankill Road and the Catholic equivalent is the Falls Road. With moves towards peace, West Belfast is by no means a no-go area, but tact and awareness should be at the forefront of any exploration. Visitors should also remember, however, that there are probably rougher areas in their own cities and that West Belfast, despite sectarianism, is just another inner-city area attempting to rejuvenate itself. Petty crime has been all but unknown in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland through the long years of the "Troubles"—a statistic that says more about the culture of the Province than any newspaper headline.
The Cave Hill dominates the northern backdrop of the city, looking down on it as P.J. O'Rourke described it, "like some kind of Caledonian Sugar Loaf Mountain". Look out for the feature known as Napoleon's Nose, resembling as it does a man lying down with his nose pointing upwards. It is believed that Jonathan Swift was inspired by this sight in his description of Gulliver lying on his back when he first arrives in Lilliput. Belfast Castle nestles on the slopes of the hill, but climb to the top for excellent views over Belfast, the surrounding countryside, the Irish Sea and (on a clear day) Scotland.
Beyond the City: Co. Antrim
North of the city, the impressive Norman citadel of Carrickfergus Castle guards the mouth of Befast Lough. The Antrim coast road runs through some of Ireland's most spectacular scenery. The road leads to the pretty resort town of Ballycastle. Regular ferries ply the route between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island, the only inhabited island off the Northern Irish coast. West of Ballycastle, the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede attracts many lovers of vertigo!
The southern coast of Belfast is gentler, more serene, and contains a wealth of attractions. The seaside resort of Bangor makes for a pleasant day trip when the sun's shinning, and just south of Bangor lie the beaches and green landscapes of the Ards peninsula, home to many fishing villages and fine seafood restaurants. The peninsula shelters the island-studded waters of Strangford Lough, one of the most important wildlife refuges in Ireland. The great National Trust properties of Castle Ward and Mount Stewart can be reached from the peninsula. Also in the region is Downpatrick, the resting place of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
Until just a few years ago, dining out in Belfast meant either sitting down to an Ulster Fry, or having a sirloin steak, well done, served with a mountain of chips. Quantity was everything. Little wonder that Northern Ireland came second only to Scotland in the world league for heart disease. However, the Northern Ireland culinary landscape has now changed. If you come to Belfast you'll find every kind of restaurant you could wish for, many of which have won prestigious awards. This guide is divided into restaurant category and offers a taste of what's available within the city.
Much of the credit for Belfast's culinary change of heart goes to Paul Rankin. Rankin launched his first Roscoff restaurant in 1989 which has since spawned two cafes offering bistro dining—Roscoff Cafe & Express and Paul Rankin Cafe . Rankin completely revamped his restaurant, re-opening as Cayenne . Having discovered the joys of garlic and olive oil over the dubious delights of "a big fry" and chips with everything, the Belfast palate has not looked back.
A fine contemporary restaurant in the city is Deane's Restaurant and Brasserie , where Michelin-star chef Michael Deane (trained by Rankin) wows the local epicures and visiting celebrities alike. If you're feeling very extravagant there's always the restaurant upstairs, but if finances don't stretch that far, the downstairs Brasserie offers world-class cuisine at a slightly more affordable price.
Another thriving restaurant which offers contemporary food–imaginative dishes often featuring a fusion of eastern and western styles—is the Ta Tu Bar and Grill on the Lisburn Road, located beside Queen's Film Theatre in the university district.
One of Belfast's best seafood restaurants is Tedford's Restaurant , close to the Custom House and the Waterfront Hall , a great venue for a pre-performance meal. There's a huge range of fish on the menu, all wonderfully fresh and beautifully prepared in delicious sauces, French-style.
Belfast's ethnic communities have made a vast contribution to the range of food on offer within the city. If you fancy an exclusively Japanese dining experience and don't mind paying the price, the Ginger Tree restaurant is just 30 minutes drive from the city centre and their (truly) Japanese chef will be delighted to oblige. The Suwanna Thai Restaurant on the Golden Mile is also worth a visit.
The city's Chinese population constitutes Belfast's largest single immigrant grouping and there are hundreds of Chinese restaurants and takeaways. The Sun Kee is lauded as being particularly authentic and is popular with Chinese families. The decor isn't much to talk about–utilitarian is the word – but the food is excellent. This restaurant, located in Donegall Pass opposite another good Chinese restaurant, the Manor House , is small and tables are hard to come by so make sure you book well in advance. The Imperial City and Welcome Chinese restaurants are both renowned for their huge choice of dishes. The most recent addition to Belfast's long list of Chinese restaurants is the Red Panda , on Great Victoria Street. This establishment is doing a thriving trade. Expansive and airy, with excellent service and an eclectic menu, Red Panda is a great choice for larger groups. Check out their Sunday banquet and weekday business lunch deals.
Indian cuisine is also well represented in the city. The Moghul on Botanic Avenue is recommended for its good buffet and very friendly service, whilst Little India on Dublin Road remains Belfast's only entirely vegetarian Indian restaurant, offering a delicious evening menu in simple surroundings. They also have the best lunch deal in Belfast in the form of their Thali lunch: two curries, pilau rice and salad for just GBP2.50, served between 12p and 2:30p. The elegant Indie Spice Cafe & Wine Bar in Stranmillis Village specializes in Indian dishes with a slight contemporary twist and would be a good choice if you're planning a romantic meal for two.
You can also expect plenty of Italian restaurants, such as Speranza , Villa Italia and Grafitti Italiano, where pasta, salad and pizza are all served Mediterranean-style. Pizza Hut is with us, of course, a reasonably-priced child-friendly pizzeria, popular with families. For the best Belfast pizza house, try Pizza Express , within five minutes' walk of the Movie House Cinemas complex, making pizza after a film the perfect choice. The pizza here is quite interesting with some unusual flavours, such as raw rocket with tasty shreds of fresh Parmesan cheese, belying the idea that chain-store pizza is always bland and unimaginative.
Belfast is a great drinking town. Many bars do serve food, if you wish to combine your drinking and dining pleasure. McHugh's offers a variety of exciting cooking, including great noodle dishes, as well as being the oldest bar in Belfast, dating from 1711.
Nick's Warehouse , near St Anne's Cathedral , has one of the best wine lists in the city and merges exquisite vintages with great food. A meal upstairs in the evening can be quite expensive but lunch at Nick's is always great value for money.
In the ornate Victorian decor of the Crown Liquor Saloon you can enjoy a plate of oysters or authentic Irish Stew with your pint. This bar is owned by the National Trust and is one of Belfast's most famous institutions. If you want some privacy, bring your drink into one of the many snugs that line the ground floor.
If you've come to these shores to listen to some of Ireland's famous traditional music, step inside a bar to hear it played. Kelly's Cellars is famous for its traditional music sessions and excellent pints of Guinness. The Duke of York and the John Hewitt , practically next door to each other, offer excellent live music, of either the traditional or the jazz varieties. Jammed during the weekends, earlier in the week you can find yourself in these beautiful bars with just a few others, entertained for free with some foot-stomping jigs and reels.
Other bars, such as Morrison's Bar or Katy Daly's , offer you live music of a more contemporary nature to encourage the consumption of liquor. Both these establishments run very popular club nights. At the Fly or Lavery's Gin Palace , one of the city's oldest and most famous drinking institutions, you can simply sit back and enjoy the craic. If you like cocktails and are curious to see some enormous Soviet realist statues, call into the Northern Whig . The weekend trade is always busy in bars, but if visiting Belfast mid-week you'll find bars will often have promotions or quizzes to keep the customers coming in the doors.
Until very recently, the city of Belfast has only evoked images of guns, bombs and misery. Those of us who have lived through the "Troubles" know that the city's charm has often been overlooked by this dominance of gloomy news, while visitors who braved this corner of the country were always surprised at how much there was to see and do. Now, of course, we're in different times and tourists flock to discover Belfast for themselves. Belfast has even been termed "Europe's friendliest regional capital", at once provincial and outward looking. It now offers a sumptuous range of dining and drinking experiences, excellent accommodation and every kind of entertainment possible.
You can easily see the city center on foot and in a day. Kick off your morning at the City Hall , in the heart of the city center. This opulent Victorian pile was built in the last days of the 19th century as a symbol of the city's industrial might, and it remains Belfast's most recognizable landmark. The compact city center surrounds the City Hall. One of the curious side-effects of the Troubles was that the center of Belfast—gated and barred to all traffic for fear of bombs—became by accident a most attractive pedestrian zone, and it remains so today.
The center of Belfast is a hotchpotch of Victorian architecture—the best examples are the carefully preserved facades of the (now sadly defunct) department stores of the city, and the leaning Albert Clock . The gleaming Castlecourt shopping complex is the most potent symbol of the city's new prosperity.
The main cultural institutions are housed in the heart of the city and can easily be taken in during a morning's stroll. From the City Hall, stroll past the Royal Courts of Justice down to the waterfront. Enormous redevelopments are taking place here, from new apartments to a new Hilton Hotel . The pride of the redevelopment goes to the Waterfront Hall , a great circular glass and limestone edifice and home to one of the best auditoriums in the British Isles. This is a most attractive place to stop for a peek about and a coffee.
A few minutes walk away lies the so-called Golden Mile , stretching from the city center to Queen's University and home to Belfast's best nightlife. The Europa Hotel lies on the Mile and is famed as the most-bombed hotel in Europe, but the greatest attractions are the Opera House —19th-century, domed and vaguely mosque-like—and the ornate and lavish Crown Liquor Saloon. Some of the city's best concerts and opera are performed in the one, and the most serious drinking goes on in the other! The Crown is an excellent stop for lunch, and will give you the opportunity to discover the marvelous interior of the bar, which is owned by the National Trust.
The handsome university area is now just a few minutes' walk away. Queen's University lies in leafy south Belfast and the main building is constructed in warm red-brick, around a quiet and very fine quadrangle. The college was founded in the middle of the 19th century and is home to the Belfast Festival , the second-largest arts jamboree in the British Isles. Close to the university stands the Ulster Museum , which holds a fine and extensive collection of art, and the pretty Botanic Gardens . If it's raining, press on at this point to Stranmillis Village which is full of shops and cafes; but if it's not, then linger in the Gardens and take a moment to admire the impressive Palm House, sister to the great glasshouses at Kew.
One of the best ways for the visitor to catch all that the city has to offer is to try a tour. Here are some of the tours currently on offer that aim to capture those aspects of the city worth taking home with you. Politics, of course, is with us still, and if you're interested in seeing the trouble spots of both Protestant and Catholic West Belfast, try a Black Taxi Tour . The murals you'll see painstakingly painted on gable ends are a unique expression of communities in crisis, and it's fascinating to compare the Loyalist Shankhill Road murals with the Republican Falls Road ones—same medium, but very different messages. The Black Taxi Tour will also show you the Peace Line, designed to keep two communities apart, as well as taking you round some of the most famous building in the city center. Intimate and informative, it's a great way to see for yourself the issues and the energies that have shaped the conflict in Belfast since 1969.
If you want to see the city from the vantage point of a luxury bus, the Belfast City Tour run by Citybus will bring you to every major attraction in the greater Belfast area in the space of an afternoon. The tour has been thoroughly thought out, with stops for refreshments included in the price. You'll see the shipyard Harland & Wolff, where you can stand in the shadow of the two largest cranes in the world, Samson and Goliath. (Belfast, we say, builds Big, take for example The Titanic!) The elegant Parliament buildings at Stormont are on the agenda, and you also get taken up to the quiet, wooded slopes of the Cave Hill to Belfast Castle , stately home of the Chichester family who owned practically all of North Belfast. This is the tour of Belfast as the regional capital of Northern Ireland, and you'll see all the state institutions you would expect of a capital in all their pomp and architectural splendor.
Belfast developed as a city around its waterway, the Lagan, and there's a great Lagan Cruise running from the re-vamped, swish Waterfront docklands area up to Stranmillis Weir by Queen's University . There's something very calming about boats and water, and this tour is a great way to learn and relax at the same time. You'll see very different faces of Belfast again, from the yuppie filled expensive new business developments, to the old cottages of Ulster on the banks higher up the river. Your tour guide is friendly and infectiously enthusiastic, and you'll be guided slowly up river in a ship called The James Joyce. What more could you want?
And of course no trip to Belfast would be complete without visiting that worldwide famous institution, the Irish Pub, the very place to dive straight into the proverbial heart of the Irish Welcome. There's a Historical Pub Tour of the city that has already done all the hard work for you—picked out the brightest, best and liveliest of Belfast's bars and strung them together into the most enjoyable tour around. Everything you could want is here, Irish music, endless craic, a chance to get off your feet at regular intervals and of course the inviting prospect of imbibing the local poison. If this tour drags on for longer than it's supposed too, don't blame the organizers.