I'm a local person to Belfast and have lived and worked here all my life. I wanted to write this starter-kit as I’d read a lot of blogs on Travelpod and realised that people’s perceptions of Northern Ireland are mostly negative. I want to squash the myths, the preconceptions and help people visiting so they can open their eyes to what we are doing to fix things and for them to learn how things were in the past. We are not completely over our hard times, but we have improved greatly.Overview
Belfast in Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and currency is in British Pounds. Belfast is fast becoming a popular tourist destination since the devolution of the new power sharing Government on the 8th May 2007. The city is experiencing vast amounts of new developments of apartments, housing and regeneration. A cosmopolitan city with a taste of modern history thrown in, Belfast is a blend of the old and the new.
There is a population of just over 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland, around 600,000 live in the Greater Belfast area.
Belfast is most famously home to C.S. Lewis, George Best, Seamus Heaney, Liam Neeson, Kenneth Branagh and James Nesbitt to name only afew.The Troubles
Northern Ireland has been in civil conflict since around 1969 – the worst of the conflict in the 70’s. During this time fighting between Roman Catholics (republican, nationalists) and Protestants (loyalist, unionist) took place between rivalling paramilitary groups. Bombing, assassination and street violence formed a backdrop to life throughout The Troubles with army patrols and police in full riot gear and land rovers becoming common place.
These groups are still around today but nowhere near as active. Belfast has not seen a total end to sectarian violence but has improved a lot from the darker years gone by. Belfast is trying to regenerate and restore areas of political and historical interest to attract visitors to the area. The ‘Peace Lines’ in West Belfast are a common point of interest for tourists as they stand 42 ft high and separate the 2 communities. The gates are open during the day but are still closed at night. There are over 13 miles of ‘peace lines’ and 40 barriers still today.12th July
Known as ‘the 12th’ to locals this is a public holiday in Northern Ireland. It is a celebration of the victory of William III in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 by the Orangemen. This was a sectarian battle between Irish Catholic rule and British rule which William won for Britain.
The 12th is celebrated by annual marches throughout Belfast and the rest of the province and is currently being named ‘Orangefest’ to make it more accessible to everyone and classed as a day out rather than a flashpoint day of violence and protests.How to get there and transport
Belfast has 2 airports, the George Best City Airport which is only 2 miles from the City Centre and Belfast International which is about 12 miles out of the centre. Both have regular running buses from airport to the City Centre at low cost. At time of writing the bus from International is £1.80. There are plenty of low cost airlines from mainland UK such as:
Aer Lingus www.aerlingus.com
Flying from destinations outside the UK is also easy. Check out the airports route maps:http://www.belfastairport.com/en/http://www.belfastcityairport.com/securitynotice.asp
Belfast is also accessible by ferry and there are several operators like P+O and StenaLine.
Belfast city centre can be crossed on foot in about 15 minutes. Walking out of the centre up Ormeau Road to the Botanical Gardens only takes around 20 – 25 minutes but there are buses discussed in next paragraph.
For internal transport we have a very good rail and bus network. Northern Ireland Rail (NIR), Ulsterbus which is province wide and Belfast City’s Metro bus service. All timetables and prices can be found at www.translink.co.uk.
Taxis are reasonable cost in and around Belfast and fares start at £2.70 per journey depending on mileage. Generally you will get 2 miles of taxi transport for £2.70 - £3. After midnight this will increase slightly and on public holidays it is time and a half.
Another way to explore the city is by bicycle which can be rented from McConvey Bikes on Ormeau Road at a cost starting from £15 per day. The website has full details http://www.mcconveycycles.com/store/content/69/Rent-A-Bike/
.When to come
Northern Ireland isn’t blessed with fantastic weather unfortunately. Our summer months are from June to August but for the last few years our best weather has been from mid-April to mid-June. My suggestion would be to pack layers, that way you can takeoff or put on as needed.
Winter months from November through to February a winter coat is required! A scarf and gloves as well in December time. We have an annual Christmas Market in the grounds of the City Hall which is brilliant for souvenirs and food from all around the world. I think some of my meat eating friends have tried crocodile and springbok burgers here!The People
Belfast is a relaxed place to be. Most places are quite chilled out and don’t require any type of dress code. The people are friendly and you’ll often get chatting to locals if you’re willing to approach them. Even ordering a drink in a bar with a foreign accent can start up a conversation which can last for hours. There is no pretension with the Northern Irish people and they are generally very helpful and welcoming - if you stand in the street with a map someone will ask you if you want help in where you're going!Where to stay
Depending on your budget we have a range of places. Some good hostels are listed below, but others are available if you check websites like Hostel Bookers or Hostel World.
Vagabonds - cost from £13 per night and situated half way between Shaftsbury Square, where the 'Golden Mile' of pubs and clubs are, and Queens University. Price includes breakfast and some nice touches like pool table, basketball and you can hire bikes here.
Global Village - price from £13 per night and located in Queens Quarter. This also includes a breakfast and has pool table and an extensive DVD collection in the common room.
Belfast Palace Hostel – cost from £10 per night and part of the ‘Paddywagon’ local circuit. Off Lisburn Road near Shaftsbury Square is an ideal start off point for attractions.
Hotels are all on the GoToBelfast website (www.gotobelfast.com) Generally most places are in good locations as Belfast Centre isn’t all that big! If you’re over for real indulgence then may I suggest either the Malmaison or Fitzwilliam hotels. Many famous people stay here during their concert tours including Bono, Kylie Minogue and our very own Snow Patrol.Places of Interest
Firstly, I’ll give you a rundown of my ‘must dos’ within Belfast.
Start off going to Belfast Welcome Centre in the city centre on Donegal Place. There you can pick up a What About guide with all the local happenings and festivals, places to eat and drink. They have a website too http://www.gotobelfast.com/
. You can also pick up a lot of souvenirs here.
Red bus tour OR black taxi tour. The black cab tour is an unofficial tourist attraction and you’ll get a very indepth conversation with a local taxi driver about what really went on during the height of The Troubles. They will take you round the Falls and Shankill and you can take in views of the peace lines and murals of both communities. The Red Bus Tour is operated from the corner of Castle Place off Belfast’s main shopping street Royal Avenue. It is similar to the black taxi tour but there is not quite as much eye opening detail about The Troubles. After doing both types of tours several times it's hard for me to guide you on which one is best - the bus is more neutral in it's facts whereas the black taxi can be more personal (but you must realise that with that it can become one sided and biased). The tour should also include the Harland and Wolfe shipyard where the Titanic was built.
Titanic Building - a new edition to the Belfast skyline which opened on 31st March 2012. A fantastic exhibition all about the making of and demise of the Titanic. See the slipway she was launched from and the pump house. Note that the official website says to allow 1.5 hours for the exhibition but in reality I would allow twice this! (Titanic Belfast
Take a trip to Stormont, Northern Ireland’s government building. Stroll the long path from the gates up to the building.
Take a tour of inside the City Hall and visit the memorial gardens in the grounds.
If you’re interested in mountain biking or hill walking a trip to Cave Hill in North Belfast is a must. Even if you’re not interested in these activities the impressive Belfast Castle sits on these grounds and makes for a good view of the area as well.
The Crown Bar on Great Victoria Street is famous for its personal booths (snugs) and Guinness. Worth a look for the decor and a local pint of the black stuff.
Up University Street is Queens University, an impressive building with the Botanic Gardens behind it. Beautiful gardens perfect for a half day or full days walking or picnic. At certain times of the year there are also festivals and markets on in the gardens. Check out the www.gotobelfast.com website for more details.
The Cathedral Quarter can be walked around easily in and contains St Anne’s Cathedral and many other historical buildings.
McHugh’s bar at Custom House Square is the oldest building in Belfast and overlooks the square with views across the Lagan and the Albert Clock (Belfast’s own ‘leaning tower’) leaning 4ft to the left! Just outside McHugh’s down towards the Lagan is the infamous ‘fish’ structure. McHugh’s is an excellent place for drinks at night or during the day and serves good food.
The Golden Mile – walking out of Belfast from Great Victoria Street after taking in the views of the Grand Opera House and Europa Hotel (most bombed hotel in Europe) is a mile of bars and clubs to satisfy anyone for either a quiet drink or a pub crawl.Places of Interest outside Belfast
Antrim Coastal Route - over 80 miles of Northern Irish coastline, well worth the drive forthe scenery. Along this route there are several places of interest to stop. Some are listed below.
Bushmills Distillery - founded in 1608, which is the oldest licensed distillery in the world. The distillery is the only Irish distillery using 100% malted barley in its whiskies.
Glenariff Forest Park - Glenariff is known to be the 'Queen of the Glens' when it comes to the Glens of Antrim and is home to many waterfalls. Plenty of opportunities for scenic photography over the mountains and into the valley.
Giant’s Causeway – situated up the Antrim coast this is well worth a look if you have a day to spare on your trip over. A World Heritage Site it’s famous for it’s polyagonal columns of basalt and the legend behind them of Finn MacCool. Ulsterbus run a service up and down from here and also to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. See www.discovernorthernireland.com for more info. The Causeway Costal Route is also one of the top 10 coastal paths in the world for scenery, nominated by the BBC.
Marble Arch Caves – found afew hours away in County Fermanagh these caves are one of Europes finest with waterfalls, rivers and lofty chambers. Open from end of March to the end of September each year. Car hire recommended for the day for this.
Walled City of Derry – this can be accessed by hire car or train within only 3 hours at most. See the Discover NI website listed above for more information.
St. Patrick – in County Down the place of rest of St. Patrick, Irelands patron saint can be found in Downpatrick. There’s a visitor centre here giving the story behind St Patrick and tours of the grave.
Mountains of Mourne – near Downpatrick further south west is Newcastle. Tollymore Forrest Park and home to the Mourne Mountains. Every level of fitness is catered for from leisurely walks to full on mountaineering and camping. More information found at http://www.mournelive.com/
Silent Valley – near the Mourne Mountains this place has stunning views of the mountains meeting the sea. A must if you’re in the area.Nightlife
Belfast has a vast and varied nightlife to suit all sorts of budgets and traveller. There are more upmarket places and cheaper more student like places up by Queens University. Depending on what you are after you can look in the GoToBelfast guide. Local favourites are:
The Botanic Inn (“The Bot”) – downstairs is slightly older crowd and live sport screens for big football and rugby matches. Upstairs is a nightclub and mainly occupies a younger crowd from 18 to 30.
Shu – Located up the trendy end of Lisburn Road Shu is a longer walk from outside the city centre but does have a good reputation for food and it’s cocktail bar. The food is pricey but well worth it if you have the budget for it!
Ryan’s Bar and Grill – Also up Lisburn Road an excellent place to eat and dance the night away. A more laid back place and less formal than Shu.
The John Hewitt – This bar is well known by the fact its owned by The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre and is located in the Cathedral Quarter. It has been up for many awards including ‘Pub of the year.’
Alley Cat - relatively new bar serving some very unique food and cocktails. Have a look at their site here
- if you go, try the teapot cocktails!
Northern Whig - mixed age, lively cocktail bar.
The Spaniard - intimate little pub with 'mighty craic' and a superb Sunday lunch.
The Apartment – Located in Donegal Square overlooking the City Hall this pub and restaurant is ideal for having a bite to eat and people watching.
There are so many pubs in Belfast I would be here all day listing them so I will stop there!
Insider tip: For variety, the best place to bar hop is definitely the Cathedral Quarter. However, traditionally all the pubs and clubs around Shaftsburys Square are known as the 'golden mile'.Places to Eat
Most of the pubs above serve very good food for entry level prices of £5 - £10. For actual restaurants I will list afew award winning ones which will cost between £10 - £20 for main courses. Depends what type of cuisine you’re after as we have all sorts from Asian to Mexican to Italian. See www.gotobelfast.com for a full list under ‘Things to do.’
Zen – this is a Japanese restaurant and not too pricey for what you get. The spring rolls are excellent! Also has a good cocktail menu and some regional beers on tap. Typical 3 courses will cost around £20 per person.
Dean’s Restaurant and Bar – situated just behind the City Hall this place is a gem. Excellent food and service. A 3 course meal here will cost around £30 – 40 per person.
Cayenne – owned by Paul Rankin this place is a local favourite for it’s varied menu choices. Right in the centre of Shaftsbury Square where the Golden mile of pubs and clubs surround. Ideal starting place before heading out on the town!
For vegetarians there are also afew veggie and vegan restaurants: Archana Balti House on Dublin Road in the city centre and Thai Village also on Dublin Road. I’m a veggie myself but I’ve never been to either as usually there are good choices in other places!
Some other local places which are very popular and can be visited if you're not looking a 2-3 course meal are Boojum (a Mexican burrito bar) and Bubbaque (a meat eaters dream - no veggie/vegan option in sight!)Travel to Republic of Ireland
Travel to the other side of the border is quite easy. There is an Enterprise train which makes several journeys per day between Belfast and Dublin. See www.translink.co.uk for details. You can get a return pass for £10 when they have offers on.
If driving by car then the trip is easily driven in under 3 hours using the motorway. Make sure you have a full tank of petrol before you leave Newry as you would have to leave the motorway early if you need to refuel as there aren’t any petrol stations on the way! The journey is just over 100 miles long. Before leaving Belfast change some money into Euros as there is a toll bridge you must pay for crossing the border.. at the time I write this it is 1.80 Euros. You must have the exact change. I did this round trip acouple of weeks ago and it cost me £30 in petrol. (with petrol being so expensive recently at about £1.18 per litre.) I should point out that you don't need your passport to cross the border, but do be aware of the currency difference.
I hope this gives you all the basics for coming over to Belfast for a visit! Feel free to ask any questions or add your comments about places to eat and things to do!
You can watch a quick 1 minute promo video of Belfast at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL4LMjLaw5A