We have spent the most pleasant weekend (actually an extended one, Thursday to Sunday) in the fascinating capital of Northern Ireland. Two whole days of our stay have been dedicated to day-trips outside the city, heading towards natural wonders such as the Giant’s Causeway, some of the wonderful landscapes dotting ‘the Emerald Isle’… and also some of the locations used as settings for Game of Thrones (this was my thirtieth birthday gift!). However, for the rest of our time there, although rather short, we have thoroughly enjoyed this lively and very livable city.
In spite of the notoriously variable Irish weather, Belfast has actually welcomed us with way more sunshine than I was expecting – I had brought a light coat, a scarf, gloves and even a wool beanie despite it only being mid-September… and yet I don’t regret it: the average 50°F have required all of my chill-sensitive equipment!
Then the general atmosphere managed to cast its spell and immediately charmed me, generating that well-known touch of longing when the time to leave came.
Here’s what I would say shouldn’t be missed while in Belfast, if you want to get fully immersed in what the city has to offer and get to see all its most famous attractions, even with just a handful of days available:
1) Visit the City Hall
The palace of the City Hall is an impressive and elegant building that seems to mark the heart of the city both physically and ideally. Completed within the early 1900s, today it is possible to visit the interiors of the building by joining a guided tour or just stroll around its courtyard and surrounding gardens, dotted by many statues such as that of Queen Victoria.
Whether you decide to enter or not, the City Hall can’t help but capturing your attention as you pass by.
2) Stop by St. George’s Market
This covered market (dating back to the late 1800s) reminded me a lot of the one in Greenwich, London, which has been another one where I have loved walking around the stalls filled with local products, treats for both eyes and palate, as well as varied trinkets. I found the same atmosphere at St. George’s Market, much recommended for a relaxing hour or more, that you can spend sampling food and drinks from different stalls while listening to some music and enjoying the overall livelihood of the place. The market is only open during weekends: Fridays from 6am to 3pm, Saturdays from 9am to 3pm, and Sundays from 10am to 4pm.
3) Stroll along the Waterfront
A little laid-back stroll along the river Lagan later in the afternoon is the perfect cool-down activity after a whole day moving around: slowing down, maybe sitting by the Waterfront Hall, then proceeding towards Custom House Square (and the nearby Albert Clock, built in the 1860s to commemorate the then recently passed Prince Consort… which also bears an uncanny resemblance with another famous clock tower that I can think of!). Along the way you will stumble upon the Belfast Barge and the characteristic statue known as Beacon of Hope.
4) Discover the murals
A trip to Belfast wouldn’t be complete without a glance to the troubled past of the city, and few places visually embody this past history as much as the well-known quarter of the murals. Here the street artworks remind of times of political protests and famous events that left a mark on all of Ireland, even the most abstract of images bearing the same powerful meaning one can still find in places such as Berlin’s East Side Gallery. Nowadays the murals are definitely one of the most celebrated attractions of the city and it’s possible to admire new, contemporary additions besides the “historic” ones.
5) Shop in Victoria Square
Victoria Square is hands down the beating heart of Belfast’s shopping district, also being the spot where other roads full of shops, bars and restaurants branch out of… Ideal to empty your pockets, as well as to simply walk among locals while enjoying some street artist’s music in the background. A glass dome overtops the shopping center, allowing an elevated 360° view all around. We decided to chill for a couple of minutes and sip a hot drink right by the Spirit of Belfast, the famous steel sculpture right in the middle of Arthur Square.
6) Visit the Ulster Museum (and relax by the Botanic Gardens)
The area around the Queen’s University was just a few steps away from our hotel, therefore we decided to wait for the last morning of our stay to enjoy a discovery walk around this district, after checking-out and leaving our luggage in the storage room until it was time to head back towards the bus station. The Queen’s University is one of the 10 most ancient ones in the United Kingdom, and we decided to enter to take a look around the central wing of Lanyon Building, charmed by its Neo-gothic facade and even more fascinated upon entering the Black and White Hall, where a statue of Galileo dominates the impressive scene.
Our next stop in the neighborhood were the Botanic Gardens, a peaceful haven within the city. The Ulster Museum (free entrance) is also located within this park, and it offers a wide selection of artistic and historical finds revealing the past of the nation from prehistoric to modern times. Game of Thrones lovers will also appreciate visiting a section of the top floor, that had been just recently opened to the public when we went, where they exhibit an almost 260-foot-long, linen tapestry (certainly longer now) inspired by that of Bayeux, which depicts all the events that took place in the TV series from start to finish. They had just added the seventh season at the time of our visit… I’m expecting the ambitious work to have been completed now that the show has also come to an (although not entirely satisfying) end.
7) Explore the Cathedral Quarter
This is definitely the most culturally vibrant area of the city, also offering a quite particular visual impact thanks to the narrow, cobbled streets and the historical buildings covered by the typical red bricks, plus the many pubs, little restaurants, shops and theaters where to spend a pleasant afternoon or evening. The name of the neighborhood comes from St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast Cathedral, dating back to the early 1900s and towering at the center of the quarter.
8) Have a drink at The Crown
The Crown Liquor Saloon is an historic pub located just around the corner from the bus station where coaches to/from the airport stop (we have indeed set our eyes on it the very second we arrived in the city), and literally only a few steps away from the city center. The atmosphere inside is really characteristic, thanks to the retro style of its booths, the wooden benches and colored glass windows. The pub is also part of the National Trust, therefore a true piece of history! I’d recommend entering to enjoy a glass of liquor (whiskey, perhaps!) or a pint of dark beer, if you prefer something “lighter”.
However, we didn’t stop here for the meals as well, in part due to the prices. Instead, we have decided to move over to next-door Robinsons for dinner, and I would highly recommend it: the bistro on the first floor serves dishes such as fish&chips and steak&Guinness pie that were absolutely fabulous! Our favorite choice has to be the smoked haddock, though: definitely a must-try. I would also suggest to book in advance if you plan on going on a Friday or Saturday evening – although in case there is some waiting to do (as it happened to us) you can still make yourself comfortable in one of the two pubs of the same property, one on the ground floor and the other on the second, and have a beer and some chips (or my beloved garlic bread) while waiting to be called on the pager they will hand you.
P.S.: You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the Titanic Quarter, despite it being often referred to as the main attraction in Belfast. As far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t the first thing I thought about before and during our stay. Should this gut feeling not have been enough, the few comments I could extract from some locals (something along the lines of a brief “oh yes, that too” when we mentioned it as one of the things that people apparently recommend to see, when not a more direct “pfft, overrated”) were the final testament to the fact that I could indeed live without it. For those interested in the story of the ill-fated ocean liner, though, by all means Titanic Belfast represents a must-see… To me the main interest for the area lied in the Titanic Studios, more precisely the colossal Paint Hall inside which the indoor shootings of the already mentioned series Game of Thrones took place (so all the sets such as the top of the Wall or the Throne Room are in there!).
By the way, I was thinking about writing something about our tours around the several locations of the show situated both north and south of Belfast, too… stay tuned! In the meantime, if you trust your Google Translate, here‘s another article of mine (only in Italian) about that same experience, although more focused on the behind-the-scenes trivia we found out about.