City guide: Belfast, Northern Ireland
By Nicola Brady
In the space of just a few decades, Belfast has established a reputation as a city of interesting bars, renowned restaurants and world-class attractions. Visitor numbers to Northern Ireland have been steadily increasing in recent years, and with Lonely Planet naming Belfast and the Causeway Coast the number one region to visit last year, numbers continue to rise.
The accolade is more than warranted. In the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast’s charming central hub, each cobbled street seems to lead towards another lure, whether it’s a buzzing restaurant or a cosy little pub. Belfast is a city that does pubs well – think antique carved furniture, dim lights and, of course, a steady stream of Guinness (the Crown Liquor Saloon, with its carved-mahogany snugs and etched-glass, is one of the finest pubs you’ll find anywhere either side of the Irish Sea).
Belfast is fairly small and best explored on foot – ideally with a local guide. Belfast Food Tours will take you around, dipping into the best places to eat. Tours tend to start in the beautifully grand St George’s Market, before heading into various shops and eateries.
For those of an arty persuasion, a street art walking tour with Seedhead Arts is a must in a city swathed with large-scale installations. If you’d rather explore without pounding the pavement, then a Black Cab tour will guide you around Belfast and through its turbulent past. A ride with Touring Around Belfast weaves through the north and west of the city, past monuments such as the Peace Wall and the infamous murals, as the local driver explains The Troubles.
Things are a little more high tech – though just as haunting – at Titanic Belfast. Open since 2012, the attraction has seen year-on-year growth, with more than 4.8 million passing through its doors so far.
The building houses interactive exhibits telling the story of the fabled liner, built on this very spot. Visitors travel on a ride through the “dockyard”, look out to sea from behind a vibrating handrail, and see exact replicas of cabins. As you walk through a dark tunnel, voices of survivors talk about their experiences on that fateful night. The tour finishes with an incredible screening of the wreckage.
Another draw to this district is Titantic Studios, the primary filming studio for Game of Thrones. Although the studios aren’t open for visitors, many of the filming locations used in the series are, and have proved hugely popular with tourists. There are a few companies offering day tours around various spots, but the free Game of Thrones NI Locations app lists all of the sites both in their actual and Westeros incarnations.
Aside from the Game of Thrones link, the Causeway Coast is a stunner in its own right. The Giant’s Causeway, a tangle of hexagonal columns peeking above the ocean, is striking. A drive along the coast takes in some similarly gorgeous spots, such as the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the crumbling Dunluce Castle and the pretty village of Bushmills, home to the oldest working distillery in Ireland where you can learn how the whiskey is made before settling in to a cosy tasting room for a snifter (or two). It’s the perfect way to round off a taste of Northern Ireland.