Belfast City Hall
A dynamic city that’s packed with history and a bustling pub culture – that’s Belfast.
But something has happened in the past few years to thrust the ‘Old Smoke’, once an industrial powerhouse, into perpetual and exciting renewal.
Each year brings new attractions, from a public bike hire scheme to the restoration of WWI battle ship HMS Caroline.
Add to this a restaurant boom, with chefs serving up Northern Ireland ingredients in creative new ways, and a string of hipster pubs showcasing the city’s ever-growing selection of craft beers.
It’s an invigorating blend of reflection and reinvention.
1. Get the lowdown
One of the first things you’ll notice upon arriving in the city is how talkative Belfast people are. Use this to your advantage by taking a Black Taxi Tour, and learn about Northern Ireland’s unique history and politics from a local. Take in the sights and get a sense of the cityscape.
2. Belfast City Hall
Marvel at the Baroque Revival architecture of this iconic civic building; Belfast City Hall where there are free tours daily. A fine day will bring the city’s office workers flocking to enjoy the gardens on their lunch break.
3. Lunch on a floating restaurant
A ten-minute walk will take you to Holohan’s, a family-owned restaurant on board the Belfast Barge, moored on the River Lagan. Ask for the Boxty of the Day (£13.50) – a traditional Irish potato and buttermilk pancake which may be filled with anything from duck to ham hock.
4. Titanic afternoon
Stroll down the meandering River Lagan to spend an afternoon exploring the Titanic Quarter, where the world’s most famous ship was designed, built and launched. Hop on the Wee Tram to hear shipyard stories in the shadow of Belfast’s famous yellow cranes Samson and Goliath, on your way to Titanic Belfast, HMS Caroline (pictured above) and SS Nomadic.
5. Dinner at Ox
Book well in advance to enjoy the five-course seasonal tasting menu (£50, plus £30 for wine pairing) at Ox, one of Belfast’s two Michelin-starred restaurants (the other is Deanes Eipic). Allergies will be noted with no hint of what’s to come, so we won’t spoil the surprise for you - but expect top quality ingredients and gratifyingly good food.
6. Gin O’Clock
Swing by Muriel’s, a busy little Bohemian bar, to compare the two locally distilled gins competing for our affections: Shortcross and Jawbox. Watch your head, though, as Muriel has a reputation for leaving her underwear hanging from the ceiling.
7. Wake-up call
Start the day right at the hipster hangout that started Belfast’s coffee revolution, Established. Indulge in the art of a carefully poured coffee and while you wait, learn a few things from expert barista Mark Ashbridge.
8. Brunch and beats
Hop on a Belfast Bike and cycle (6 minutes) to the irresistible St George’s Market for brunch. Speciality stalls range from Northern Ireland staples like soda bread and Belfast baps to Asian and South American-influenced food. Saturdays are buzzing with locals and live music.
9. Explore the East
Drive or take a taxi out of the city centre for the afternoon. Fans of soul sensation Van Morrison, football hero George Best or Narnia novelist C.S. Lewis can embark on cultural trails around East Belfast, where all three local legends were born.
10. Cocktails and cobblestones
Return to the Cathedral Quarter for dinner in the shadow of Belfast Cathedral and its controversial steel spire. Food choices are aplenty here with the casual brasserie Hadski’s, Italian favourite Coppi and the edgy Muddler’s Club all packed out with locals every weekend.
Conveniently, the area is also the heart of Belfast’s nightlife scene and makes for a great bar crawl. If it’s a buzzing beer garden you want, try the trendy National Grande Café or the photogenic Duke of York. Prop yourself up at Bert’s Jazz Bar for exquisite cocktails. Or for boisterous live music, the Dirty Onion or Harp Bar.
11. Arts scene
Belfast’s vibrant theatrical scene is now served by the striking Metropolitan Arts Centre (known as The Mac), adding to the Grand Opera House and Lyric Theatre. Or go leftfield at Black Box, which hosts a diverse variety of cabaret, music, comedy and film events.
12. Stand on top of Belfast
Blow off the cobwebs with a bracing walk up Cave Hill, which dominates the Belfast skyline and is thought to have inspired Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. It’s a challenge, but you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views across the city, from the lough to the Mourne Mountains on a clear day. On the lower slopes of Cave Hill Country Park sits beautiful Belfast Castle, where you can grab a drink in the cellar restaurant.
13. Jailhouse blues
Take a guided tour of Crumlin Road Gaol to hear what life was like for those imprisoned in ‘The Crum’, from political segregation of prisoners to the ‘condemned man’s cell’.
14. Sunday lunch
This is a compact city so it’ll take you just 10-15 minutes to drive from north to south Belfast, where life revolves around the striking Charles Lanyon-designed Queen’s University.
Have Sunday lunch at the cosy, candlelit Barking Dog - or try their signature shin burger. But it might just be the full-flavoured tapas starters that get your tail wagging. Afterwards, take a stroll through Botanic Gardens to visit the glorious Victorian Palm House and meet the famous Egyptian mummy, Takabuti, at the Ulster Museum.