“Belfast, you say? Isn’t it always raining there?” No, Mike. Try again.
You know what? I never thought I’d say “ah, Belfast” like that. I didn’t think Belfast was an “ah” sort of place.
Partly because I hadn’t been.
Yes, in that specially idiotic way that even travel writers aren’t immune from, I found myself guilty of having an opinion of a place that was mainly based on the opinions of other people. That’s always, always foolish. There’s only one acceptable way to form a personal opinion of somewhere, and that’s by going yourself.
What follows is based on how I found the city last month, when I was attending Belfast’s International Arts Festival with the help of Discover Northern Ireland and Must Love Festivals. It doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It’s an attempt to catch a flavour. And it’s my opinion.
But I went to Belfast expecting one thing (perhaps an exhausted, rainy, poignant corner of Northern Ireland) and found another (a fascinating, rejuvenated city that’s open for business under blue skies). What follows is subjective – but I can assure you it’s what I found there.
Here are a few things to do in Belfast – but be warned, they might take more than a weekend…
1. Pop Into St George’s Food Market
Before you go exploring, go to St George’s to stuff your pockets full of delicious things. There’s been an indoor market here more over a century (and before that, an open-air market all the way back to the 17th Century). Since getting spruced up in 1997, it’s won a ton of awards for immediately obvious reasons. These days it’s a popular spot for visitors and locals alike (here’s someone with fond memories), and you can see why – it’s like a mini food festival, vast and welcoming with all sorts of tempting smells to follow to their source. If you like fish, get there on Friday (20+ fish counters on offer). Also fun to see: stuff that isn’t food, including a stall selling solar-powered equipment. I wrote a joke in my notebook about this (Northern Ireland gets around 200 days of rain a year) – but then the clouds boiled away and the sky was clear and blue for the next two days…
…, so I scribbled it out. Point made, Belfast.
You’ll find St George’s Market on East Bridge Street, just off from the city centre. People will try to sell you lots of chocolate brownies. Try to be stronger than I was.
2. Head For The Hills
Because I’m a terrible travel writer, I didn’t do enough homework to realise Belfast is surrounded by fantastic walking-country. Sure, I knew a lot of Northern Ireland was mountainous, but – the hills are right there, every time you look up. On a clear day they’re almost impossible to resist. Alas that I was busy in the city until my third day, when the mist rolled in, so when I finally got up there (with Billy’s help – see later)…
…there wasn’t much of a view.
Here’s a better one from a nicer day and a much more experienced photographer.
This is Cavehill, a vast lump of basalt that Jonathan Swift imagined to be a a sleeping giant, which may have been the inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. On a clear day like the one pictured, you can see the Isle of Man and parts of Scotland. And on its lower slopes, you can refuel on tea and biscuits or a spot of lunch at Belfast Castle…
…because by that point if you walked, you’re probably exhausted. It’s 4 miles from the city centre, but you’ll haul yourself up 400 feet along the way. A much more leisurely and informative way to get there is…
3. Book Billy Scott And His Black Cab
This gent knows everything there is to know about Belfast. Everything. I got cramp from writing notes too fast. He took me on a 90-minute tour of every corner of the city, and he had a story for everything – and they were always even-handed. Covering Belfast’s recent history is a tricky job for a storyteller (see: Ulster Museum, later). People still feel very strongly, partly because in some instances it happened on the doorstep, in their own lifetime. So it’s no small thing to be given a balanced view on things that doesn’t shy on details but doesn’t sensationalise them either. Kudos, Billy, you nailed it.
Book a tour with Billy here.
4. Chase The Street Art
Belfast, along with Derry, contain some of the most famous and impressive political street art in Europe. Most of it isn’t designed to entertain the likes of me – it’s there to hammer home a social, religious and/or political argument as impactfully (and sometimes furiously) as possible. You’ll find much of it on the “peace lines,” the walls originally erected to keep Protestants and Catholics from taking a swing at each other, down the Falls and Shankhill roads. Check out this comprehensive tour of them at Untapped Cities. It’s a place with a lot of raw emotion poured into it (you probably don’t want to stick around here after dark) – and it gets half a million visitors a year.
Alternately, head to Commercial Court in the middle of the city to find street art wanting to entertain more than it provokes – although as you can see, it’s still filled with mischief. Note the presence of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody facing the aspiring musician on the right, and in the window next to him, Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, referencing the groundbreaking BBC drama The Fall:
(Note also that the guy slumped against the door isn’t real either – and neither is the door.)
Or, on this wall, you can play Spot The Local Celebrity…
5. Lose Yourself In The Ulster Museum
The Ulster Museum of Belfast attempts to cover absolutely everything.
Seriously. On top of displays local history, it covers the development of the continents of the Earth, the formation of its rocks and minerals, the development of life, and the history of the human race. That’s everything, right? It’s all tackled in an intelligent, beautiful manner with some truly eyepopping exhibits. Take the rocks and minerals: these aren’t pictures. They have case after case after case of actual specimens, some of them huge. There’s a side-section that’s unlit until you walk in and a commentary starts up pointing you towards a cabinet of rather drab-looking chunks of rock – and then the lights change to ultraviolet, and everything lights up like a rainbow because these rocks are radioactive. (Not dangerously, obviously. Please note how I’m not dead as I write this.)
For a geology nerd like me, the Ulster Museum is like a sweet-shop for the eyes. I literally couldn’t cram them in fast enough.
I mentioned it covers everything – and that includes The Troubles, the period of Belfast’s history that it has unfortunately become most famous for. I wish I could tackle it head-on like the Ulster Museum does, and as so admirably even-handedly – but this is a breezy overview and not the place for such things. Wander through this museum’s display on the subject instead. It’s superb, and it tells the human stories that need to be told. Even more powerful: Colin Davidson’s “Silent Testimony,” a series of portraits of people who suffered loss during the city’s most violent decades, with extraordinary, haunting attention paid to the eyes.
But here’s something I will add, though. If you’re thinking about this period of history and asking “Is Belfast safe these days?” – that’s a daft question. Firstly, not to be pessimistic, but nowhere is safe if you’re stupid enough. There are places in every city you don’t want to hang out in after dark (case study). But that’s not what you mean when you ask that question, right? You mean generally. And the answer is – oh come on now. This is a major city with an increasingly healthy tourism industry that’s accepting tons of investment in various business sectors. It has international festivals bringing in tens of thousands of people to the city. Also, here’s a page on TripAdvisor with people unanimously answering that question. Can we move on now? Cool.
6. Board SS Nomadic
You’ll find the Nomadic docked in the city’s Titanic quarter. You can’t miss it – the colossus that is Titanic Belfast is just a minute’s walk away, and well worth your time. (Here’s a quick overview.) But Nomadic is different. It’s not a set of reconstructions. It’s a steamship built to ferry passengers to the Titanic, it’s the last surviving vessel of the White Star Line afloat in the world today – and its journey back to Belfast has been an extraordinary one, involving two worlds wars, thousands of passengers (many of them troops) and a stint as a restaurant while moored under the Eiffel Tower. Titanic Belfast have now taken over operating Nomadic– and they’re doing a great job.
It’d be easy and a little cheap to finish by saying “Ever wanted to stroll over the deck of the Titanic? This is the next best thing!” Yes, there’s a thrill of association there – but Nomadic has its own identity, its own history, and just as much a claim to being one of the most celebrated stories of Belfast’s shipping history as its big sister. (It’s such a great story that I’ll be circling back to it when I cover Belfast in my 74 Cities project.)
Get all the necessary info at Nomadic‘s website here.
7. Go When The International Arts Festival Is On
I was there for Belfast’s International Arts Festival. It’s a really great time to be there – everything in the city is turned up to eleven for a whole month.
Here’s what happened to my brain when I attended the opera.
Note: my time in Belfast was supported by Discover Northern Ireland as part of the Must Love Festivals project. All opinions, rambling asides and admissions of prejudice and ignorance are entirely my responsibility and sadly nobody else’s. I work with what I have.
Images: Mike Sowden, amanderson2, Jessica Spengler and Tourism Northern Ireland.