The first time I went to Belfast I was around 7 years old. At 18 years old, in September 2012, I moved to Belfast on a semi-permanant basis to attend Queen’s University and study English with Creative Writing. Since then it has become absolutely one of my favourite places in the entire world. I’ll try to make this post somewhat balanced but I can promise nothing because I am IN LOVE with this city.
Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland, which confusingly enough is a different country to Ireland and politically and economically linked to the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland shares a currency, pound sterling, with the UK making travel between the countries easy. Although if you want to go south of the border to the Republic of Ireland, you will need to change money to Euro. Northern Ireland is made up of the six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. Belfast is located in the county of Antrim and is the biggest city in the country.
Anyone older than 20 years old may still equate Northern Ireland with the “Troubles” that plagued the country all the way up until the late 1990s and that still have an echo in the country today. I don’t want to go into these issues in this post as they are very complicated. All I want to say is DO NOT let these historical events put you off from this wonderful and beautiful country and it’s wonderful and welcoming people. I see the Troubles the same as any historical event in any country, an important cultural influence that should not be forgotten, but not something that should negatively affect traveller’s views of the country in the modern day.
The first thing I will say about Northern Ireland is that its people have a fantastic accent. Almost similarly to the Cumbrian accent mentioned in my last post, occasionally the Northern Irish can be difficult to understand, especially with their unusual dialect words. A quick guide to these: “Craic” (Pronounced: ‘crack’) Means “Have a good time”. “We were having the craic”. “Wee” Means “Small”. “How’s the wee boy?”. “Catch yerself on” Means “Get a hold of yourself” or “Wise Up”. “Grand” Means “Good” or “Great”. “We’ll have a grand time”. A person’s “Da” is their father and a person’s “Ma” is their mother. There are many more, but most are pretty self-explanatory!
Belfast is a wonderfully small city. As a student I live next to the Queen’s campus in South Belfast and from this campus I can walk into the city centre in about 15 minutes. The city centre is also compact and requires no public transport to see almost all Belfast has to offer. (But if you do decide to take public transport it is readily available for cheap fares and even Belfast taxis are definitely value for money. FonaCab fares start at £3.00 and ValueCabs have a starting fare of £2.40, but have a lower minimum distance) I’ll now outline my favourite things to see and do in the city:
Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall is an absolute standout landmark of downtown Belfast. Construction of the hall was completed in 1906 and now daily free tours are available around the building which is the home of Belfast City Council. I went on this tour with my family in 2012 and loved the beautiful architecture and art inside the building. The tour takes you inside the council chamber and even allows you to sit in the mayors chair. One of my favourite parts of the tour was the corridor lined with portraits of each of Belfast’s previous mayors. It’s intriguing to see the personality of each mayor reflected in the way and style they chose their portraits to be painted.
Belfast Christmas Market
Speaking of Belfast City Hall, every December the civic building becomes the heart of the festive spirit of the city by hosting the annual Belfast Christmas Market. Personally I have never been to a Christmas market in Germany, but I can’t imagine it gets much better than it’s Belfast sister. The food at the market is eagerly awaited by meat lovers and sweet tooth fanatics alike due to the Exotic Burger bar that serves the likes of Ostritch and Zebra burgers and the infamous Churro stand that serves THE BEST chocolate waffles this side of Belgium. (Two years later and I’m still waiting for the queue outside the Dutch Pancake stand to die down, I’ve heard very good things about them) In Classic Irish fashion there is a constant queue outside both bar tents and anyone looking to buy Christmas gifts will be pleased by the number of handmade international presents available from the other market vendors.
St George’s Market
Speaking of markets, undoubtedly one of my favourite places in Belfast is St George’s Market. St George’s has been awarded many prestigious titles in the last few years, including the “UK’s Best Large Indoor Market”. The whole market is indoors which is absolutely ideal for a country that is known more for its drizzly days than its heat waves. Similarly to the Christmas market, St George’s offers a mixture of food, crafts, vintage clothes, jewellery and antiques, with something to please everyone in the family. The market is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday but I have always found that Sunday is the best day to go as it has the largest variety of stalls. The market also offers live entertainment in the form of fantastic local bands who perform anything from Beatles covers to Classic Irish trad music. (I absolutely must name-drop Belfalafel as my FAVOURITE stand in the entire market, the food is to die for and I treat myself to it every single week, followed by a Cakery Bakery mars bar cupcake)
Anyone who knows anything about boats, or Leonardo DiCaprio films, knows at least a little something about the Titanic. One of the perhaps less well known facts is that it was built in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff docks and on that site there is now a museum dedicated to the building of the famous ship. I went to the museum back in 2012 and would recommend it to anyone visiting Belfast. The museum has amazing artefacts from the ship and a wonderful interactive way of telling the stories of the passengers. As the site of the ship’s building there is also an amusement-style ride taking visitors through a mockup of the shipyard.
If museums are your thing, (as they are often mine) Belfast also boasts Northern Ireland’s national museum, the Ulster Museum, which is located in the beautiful Botanic Gardens right next to the main Queen’s University building. The museum is free in which is fantastic (and the reason I have gone there at least 5 times) and covers subjects all the way from the Northern Ireland Troubles, to world history, to the natural world, to an accomplished art gallery. There are also ever changing exbhibits to keep the contents fresh so that locals continue to visit and support the museum, along with visitors and tourists.
One of the things that took me until 2014 to finally get around to doing was visiting the Belfast Zoo. I wish so badly that I’d gone sooner! Although located on one of the hills in outer Belfast, and therefore not for the faint hearted or those just after the gym (as I was), it is well worth the steep walks. Belfast Zoo boasts wonderful animals such as giraffes, zebras, Lemurs and impressive habitats such as the Bear’s enclosure which I almost wish I lived in myself! The layout of the zoo keeps the day interesting and allows the school trips to be avoided by those wishing for a slightly more relaxed day watching the animals.
Anyone who knows anything of Jonathon Swift’s literary works will know the story of Gulliver’s Travels. The book, which was recently made into a film starring Jack Black, was actually inspired when Swift, a native of Dublin, visited Belfast in the 1700s. Swifts inspiration for the book is said to be that the mountain just outside of Belfast, Cave Hill, has a similar silhouette to that of a sleeping giant. This hill is a popular walking destination and can be reached by public bus to Belfast Castle, another notable Belfast attraction.
Quick Guide to Nightlife:
I won’t go into too much detail but the island of Ireland is obviously famous for their beer and if you’re looking for a relaxed pint of Guinness, The Crown Bar is absolutely unmissable as a beautiful example of an historical pub. I would also recommend The Empire on Botanic Avenue and The Dirty Onion on Hill Street. For cocktails Madison’s, also on Botanic, has a £3 happy hour from 6-9 everyday but Saturday. For those looking for more of a wild night out, Ollies on Waring St is my absolute favourite night club, but I’m also partial to the new club just around the corner from Ollies, Villa, and infamous music venue Limelight on Ormeau Avenue.
There are so many things to do in this wonderful city, I haven’t even touched on all the things in the country that are within travelling distance of the city and already this post has turned into an essay! I’ve been away from Belfast for almost a year and I already can’t wait to get back and experience even more of what the city has to offer.