At the center of Belfast is the triumphant Victorian pile of the
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
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
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
The University District
The Golden Mile leads to the neighbourhood of
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
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.
Beyond the City: Co. Antrim
North of the city, the impressive Norman citadel of
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
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 décor 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 décor 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.
Belfast has long been famous as the site of Europe's longest-running conflict since 1945. Visitors arriving in the city today can avail of plenty of opportunities to witness the scenes and symbols of this conflict first hand. Black taxis and buses ferry tourists round the political murals, the painted kerbstones and the ghastly corrugated iron walls dividing the two communities. These trips are fascinating, if rather macabre, and are recommended. However, there's more to this city than masked men and infamous intolerance: Belfast has undergone a dramatic rejuvenation since the ceasefires in the mid 90s and this vibrant regional capital—and Ireland's second largest city—now plays host to a rich variety of entertainment. From theatre, opera, ballet, classical recitals and art galleries, to traditional music sessions, leisure centres and zoos, there's always plenty to keep you occupied, even on the rather frequent rainy days. This guide is divided into four sections: arts and entertainment, museums and galleries, children and regional attractions; and gives an overview of what's in store for the Belfast visitor.
Arts and Entertainment
The Grand Opera House, which opened in 1894, remains the pinnacle of Belfast theatre. It's a lavish Victorian edifice and the signature building of the Golden Mile. The Opera House is a vibrant arts venue, attracting reputable companies from England touring with ex-West-end productions, musicals, ballet companies from around the world and our own opera companies. A pantomime every Christmas is a highlight of the season.
The Opera House, however, is now outshone by the magnificent Waterfront Hall, Belfast's modern arts emporium. One of the first of several dazzling buildings to spring up around the area of the old Belfast docks, the Waterfront Hall is dazzling at night. Like the Opera House, the Waterfront's splendid auditorium and the smaller NTL Studio host a variety of performances, from classical concerts and Shakespearean drama to ballet, pantomime, art and photographic exhibitions, children's concerts and stand-up comedy.
Belfast is a strong theatre city. The Lyric Theatre hosts our local professional theatre group. Classical, Irish and contemporary drama fills an exciting season. This was the company where Liam Neeson began his career in the late 70s. The Lyric has consistently supported Irish dramatists and its particular strength is the staging of classic Irish drama.
By contrast, the Group Theatre is a showcase for local amateur talent - often humorous - while the Old Museum Arts Centre offers more experimental fare generally aimed at younger audiences than most Lyric productions.
Free classical concerts are hosted by the BBC, normally held in the Waterfront Hall. Belfast's own favorite sons, James Galway and Van-the-Man Morrison, will always fill the Waterfront. Popular music, rock and folk are available every night of the week in the pubs of Belfast. If you're interested in catching some live music, of the pop or folk variety, pick up a free copy of the Big List—available at most coffee shops—an evening-by-evening guide to what's on around the city.
Particular venues to note are the Empire, the Rotterdam, (great traditional Irish music here), and the Limelight, where it is possible to catch acts such as Nils Lofgren, Bert Jansch and other new groups just before they hit the big-time. Oasis were on stage at the Limelight on the night of their first UK number one and it is this venue in particular that continues to attract some of the best up and coming names on the British music scene. Clubs such as Thompson's Garage cater everything from 70s disco to house and hip-hop. In spite of Ian Paisley's "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign, there is a growing gay scene in Belfast centered around such clubs as the Kremlin and the Mynt.
High quality arts festivals are frequently in and around Belfast. Three notable ones are the West Belfast Festival in August, which celebrates Irish and nationalist culture; the Belfast Festival at Queen's, a truly international festival of the arts attracting performers from around the globe and ranking second only to Edinburgh as the largest festival in the United Kingdom; and its younger rival, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, a celebration of all things avant garde, going from strength to strength.
Museums and Galleries
The biggest museum in the city is the Ulster Museum, situated inside the beautiful Botanic Gardens near Queen's University. The building itself is an enormous multi-floored granite structure crammed full of treasures. Exhibitions are put on for all age groups. Highlights are Irish history and a special collection of coins and artifacts salvaged from the wreck of a ship belonging to the Spanish Armada. The top floor consists of significant gallery space: the Ulster Museum has one of the greatest collections of Irish art in the country.
If modern Irish art interests you, there are also plenty of small art galleries dotted around the university district, such as the Fenderesky Gallery and the Bell Gallery, but the most significant modern art gallery is unquestionably the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Converted from an old public baths building, this gallery has attracted exhibitions by such weighty artists as Gilbert and George and Yoko Ono.
Ten minutes out of the city center will bring you to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, home to Ireland's largest transport collection and to a reconstructed rural Ulster townland from the 19th century.
If you've traveled to Belfast with children and the museum trail is driving them crazy, there are plenty of activities around the city that will keeps the kids smiling. The Odyssey Arena is Ireland's largest entertainment complex, and inside you'll find an enormous Imax cinema, one of the biggest in the world. Within the Odyssey there's also an exciting interactive learning center for kids called W5 that will delight them and leave you completely exhausted!
Belfast Zoo is huge, entertaining and lots of fun. If the tigers, lions, elephants and giraffes are leaving your toddler cold, there's a mini-farmyard and an excellent playground, with plenty of ice-cream vendors to keep pace with the fun.
Ice skating is a popular choice with children of all ages and the Dundonald International Ice Bowl in the east of the city is Ireland's largest covered skating rink. If you were thinking more in lines of a simple swim, there are many publicly funded, reasonably-priced leisure centers throughout the city, including the Valley Leisure Centre in the north and Avoniel Leisure Centre in the east. The Valley Leisure Centre has a water slide and a smaller pool for babies and toddlers, and hosts a vast range of activities for children of all ages, from its "Tumble Tots" club to judo.
Continue your journey out of the city limits and there's plenty to see and do around Co. Down. A tour around Strangford, an inland slough home to an abundance of wildlife, will take you to Mount Stewart House, Castle Espie, the Exploris Aquarium and Castle Ward, as well as through some of the lushest countryside in Northern Ireland. A drive round the island-dotted waters of the Ards Penninsula can be staggeringly lovely in summer.
Co. Antrim is more rugged but also boasts a plethora of attractions and a wild coastline. Visit the best preserved Norman structure in Ireland, Carrickfergus Castle. There's an accessible cliff walk further round the coast at Whitehead; follow the coast road and it will take you to Glenariff Forest Park, the pretty National Trust village of Cushendun and eventually the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge - Northern Ireland's scariest visitor attraction!
Since the 1994-1995 ceasefires, investment has greatly transformed the face of Belfast. From just a trickle of the hardiest independent travelers, tourism has grown into a leading industry in Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, hotels have formed a large part of the building boom and an impressive range of hotels, apartments, B&B's, hostels and guesthouses compete for the visitors' custom. What follows is a guide to accommodation in Belfast divided between the city center, the university district, the suburbs and the surrounding countryside, with each section covering a range of pricing options.
The City Center
The most (in)famous hotel in Belfast remains the Europa Hotel, Europe's most frequently bombed building until the onset of the Yugoslav war. Ideally situated close to the City Hall, the Europa is more happily known these days as Bill Clinton's choice of accommodation on one of his three visits to the city. The Europa offers deals all year round and provides a great base from which to explore the heart of the city.
One of the most opulent city center hotels is the Malmaison Hotel, backing on to the spectacular waterfront area with its two new signature buildings, the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Arena. Recently refurbished in sumptuous art nouveau style, each of the rooms in the McCausland Hotel is unique, whilst the building's exterior, restored to its original Victorian splendor, is one of the finest structures in Belfast. The Belfast Hilton, directly beside the Waterfront Hall, was one of the first multinationals to arrive in the city in the tentative period immediately after the ceasefires, and has all of the facilities you would expect from this weightiest of chains.
A cheaper option than all of these in the city center would be the Travelodge, where you pay by room rather than by person–an ideal choice if you're touring as a family. If you've arrived with your rucksack, however, make your way over to the Linen House hostel, situated up a side street off Royal Avenue in a converted linen mill. It's cheap, clean, friendly, international, has no curfew and places you just minutes from the shopping district and the Belfast Welcome Center.
The University District
The area surrounding Queen's University sees Belfast at its most cosmopolitan. As most of the city's restaurants, bars, cafes and cinemas conglomerate here, so too do many of the accommodation establishments. Duke's is one of best university area hotels, located just opposite Queen's Film Theatre. Fine dining is also on offer within the hotel complex itself. The Wellington Park Hotel, Madison's and Benedict's all offer hotel accommodations as well as various nightlife options. Cheaper still would be a night in the Holiday Inn Express. Dealing in no frills family accommodation, this international chain offers you clean, comfortable rooms at a friendly price.
The Malone Road area is home to prestigious guesthouses. The cream of these seems to be the Old Rectory, where guests are served hot Irish whiskey every evening and where you'll be offered a range of about ten gourmet breakfasts in the morning, including organic fruit and venison sausages. The price weighs in at about the same as a two-star hotel, but you'll be treated considerable better in this friendly Victorian home. During summer months, both Queen's University and Stranmillis College open up their halls of residence to roving guests. These are economical options, but unsuitable if you're looking for a double bed to share with your loved one.
There are a number of cheap hostels around the university, and Arnie's Backpackers just about takes the cake for the cheapest bed in the area: £7 and you're housed for the night.
The most prestigious hotel in Belfast suburbia is the Culloden, a five-star turreted castle situated on the main Belfast-Bangor road. Before the arrival of the Hilton, this was Belfast's only five-star establishment, and the Culloden still has the charm of the personalized local touch that chain hotels lack. Be virtuous, and exercise in their state-of-the-art fitness suite, and then undo all your hard work in one of their acclaimed restaurants.
Another hotel of note is the Stormont. This hotel is popular with the journalist fraternity, who have crammed into it on the various occasions when the newly-devolved Northern Irish government, which is seated in Stormont Castle just opposite the hotel, has fallen into crisis.
Bed and breakfasts fill the Belfast suburbs. West Belfast also has its own tourist-board approved bed and breakfast, Ceann Dubhrann. Expect to pay between 18-26 pounds for a single night's stay per person in any of these establishments. Whatever else may be on the breakfast menu, a hearty Ulster fry is common to them all.
The Dunadry Hotel, set in the countryside of Co. Antrim close to Belfast International Airport, dates back hundreds of years, and many of the rooms have their original solid oak beams. There's a fully equipped fitness suite and a fine contemporary restaurant (where you'll pay approximately £18 for a main course). Though only graced with a four-star rating, the Dunadry is an obvious rival to the Culloden.
If you're a golfing enthusiast, arrange a weekend at the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel near Bangor, where all guests get priority booking on the acclaimed Blackwood Golf Course. The hotel is set within extensive acreage, encompassing both landscaped gardens and open countryside. The Clandeboye Lodge Hotel also features a fine restaurant on its premises. There are of course, lots of guesthouses and bed and breakfast establishments scattered liberally throughout the Northern Ireland countryside, but one of the best ways to see the most remote and most beautiful areas is to hire a cottage. This also works out to be an inexpensive option if you're travelling as a group. Many of the cottages, such as the North Irish Lodge near Islandmagee, though thatched and full of old world Irish charm, are fully fitted with modern conveniences.
Rathlin Island is possibly as remote as Northern Ireland gets, and a trip here is well recommended in June: Rathlin is home to the largest group of seabird colonies in the British Isles and June is when you can see the birds nesting at close range. The Manor House Guesthouse on Rathlin, run by the National Trust, is a comfortable guesthouse in which you'll pay 42 pounds for a double room, so if getting away from it all is what you've traveled to Northern Ireland for, make this your call.