‘I love Ireland, but I’ve never made it up north’ seems to be the standard response of visitors from all over the world when conversation turns to the Emerald Isle. Tis a damn shame, we say. And so do other, unbiased, folk – Belfast was voted one of the top destinations in the world to visit in 2012, according to National Geographic. Yup, in the world. How so?
It might be because of the size of the city, which is small enough that you can get round it easily yet has dozens and dozens of great bars and restaurants to suit all styles and budgets. It might be the extensive redevelopment since the end of the conflict, bringing in top names and high end businesses from all over the world. The bars, known for their live music – Belfast is said to have one of the best local music scenes in the country? The festivals, including lots of free stuff, clowns and street theatre? Or, as we think, it’s all down to the Ulster Fry – a fryup that has soda bread and tatty (potato) bread as well as the usual suspects, is much meaner than your wimpy English fryup (and has no disgusting black pudding) and which is fondly referred to by locals as a ‘heart attack on a plate’. Yup, that’ll be it.
Fly into Belfast and take a bus or taxi to the city centre and the Europa bus centre, attached to the Europa hotel that once had the dubious distinction of being the most bombed hotel in Europe. (‘Thanks for ****ing telling me,’ said Billy Connolly to the staff who informed him of this fact when he was checking in there in the 80s.) You have two main options for a place to stay in Belfast – the city centre and the area around Queen’s University a couple of miles up the road. Both are so close to each other it mightn’t matter too much, but sadly Belfast’s city centre becomes largely deserted at nights, as all the nightlife lies a bit further south. So our personal F2E recommendation is to go towards Queen’s, where around the Botanic Avenue and Bradbury Place areas there are places to stay to suit all budgets, from top range hotels to B&Bs with heart attack on a plate thrown in, to a few budget hostels.
And as for other recommendations for things to see and do in Belfast – that go past the standard The Crown Bar? (Nice pub and all, but not the only one about.) We have heaps. Yay. Drop your stuff in your Botanic hotel or B&B and take a walk along Botanic Avenue up to Queen’s University and Botanic Gardens – this smallish park has been a main staple of the city since 1828 and is known for its 1840 Palm House, as well as being the spot where throngs of people hang out on sunny days. It can get a bit crammed in the gardens during summer, so if you want a quieter – and bigger – green space to spread your picnic out on, head a mile or so up the road to Ormeau Park*.
Botanic Gardens is right beside the university, and also has the newly refurbished Ulster Museum* – a great place to spend an hour or two before going for a coffee on the Stranmillis Road. Then head back down to Botanic for a bite to eat and a few pints – there are plenty of Asian and local restaurants about, or the Belfast Empire* does pub food, has live music on several nights a week (mostly free) and comedy nights and bands on in the venue upstairs. There’s also Lavery’s Gin Palace, an old bar with several different vibes – the pool hall on the top floor should suit most tastes and has a smoking garden outside.
Once your head has settled the next day and you’ve demolished your fryup, head a mile or so into town to take a look at the several visitor attractions in and around the city. You could take a look at Belfast Castle, get spooked at the Old Crumlin Jail*, go to Belfast Zoo, have a posh cocktail at the Merchant Hotel* (or a quiet pint at the old Duke of York* or White’s Tavern* pubs), wander around St Anne’s Cathedral*, take a tour of Belfast City Hall, or go to see the newly opened in 2012 Titanic Visitor Centre*. For art and theatre, check out the main Belfast theatre the Grand Opera House*, the newly opened MAC*, the swish Waterfront Hall* or the newly refurbished Lyric Theatre*. Or you could take the always popular Belfast Sightseeing Tour on its red open-topped bus (optimistic given the usual weather), where you’ll be treated to a tour of the city and its history, from the old docks and Sailortown, to the Falls and Shankill Roads, then up to Stormont*, Belfast’s parliament.
Had enough yet? You can also use Belfast as a base to explore the rest of Northern Ireland – try the Antrim coast, Giant’s Causeway and Rathlin Island among others. But there’s enough in the city to keep you going for a while. If you’re heading to Belfast for a weekend or longer, and you find a hidden gem, let us know in the forums!