Belfast has shaken off it’s troubled past to emerge as a cosmopolitan city worthy of any trip to Europe. In the latest in our You’ve Been Where series, guest writer Corrina Langelaan takes us on a tour of the gritty, vibrant and very colourful city of Belfast. And now we’re adding this to our ‘must see’ list…
Who are you and what do you do for a living?
I work in communications and marketing for a university
Where is home?
Home is North Melbourne. I love it, as it is just outside the CBD, but still has a real community feel.
Where have you been? When did you go?
I lived in Europe for 10 years and it really changed my life. In 2017, I had an – ahem – significant birthday and decided to return to some of my old haunts. One of these was Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Who did you travel with?
Me, myself and I! I cheated though. Having lived in the city previously, I still have local friends who were keen to show me how Belfast had changed.
What were the highlights of your trip?
Travel guides often refer to Belfast as gritty and colourful. They’re not wrong; the city has a troubled history that still influences its people and society (I strongly recommend avoiding conversations about local politics or religion). However, what I really noticed this trip is that Belfast seems more vibrant, prosperous and…more cosmopolitan. It’s like the city is finally comfortable with its reputation as an up and coming European destination. And, interestingly, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit.
Particular highlights include the Titanic Museum. It’s a museum, but not like any I’ve experienced before. It’s almost completely interactive and showcases, not just how the Titanic was built, but how the city of Belfast grew with it. Even if you have no interest in ships, and I freely include myself in that category, it’s an amazing way to spend a few hours.
Part of the rich tradition of Belfast is reflected in its murals. Once upon a time, they were a clear reflection of a troubled past. Now the next generation of artists are reclaiming the walls and new, ever changing murals are all over the city. A friend took me for a two-hour wander through the city centre and even she was surprised at the new works that were popping up.
If you’re a first-time visitor, the black taxi tours are also an interesting way to learn more about the Troubles, a period of history that still influences Northern Ireland today. The taxi drivers come from both sides of the community and can be hard to understand at times (it’s a thick brogue) so don’t be afraid to ask them to slow down!
What did you least like about your trip?
Belfast can be tricky on the weather front. Given its northern location, it’s always a few degrees colder than the Republic of Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom. Even if you’re going in Spring or Summer, I’d pack a light jumper.
Public transport remains an issue. Taxi’s aren’t very expensive and Uber has entered the market, but you need to be organised about your day trips, as trains and buses aren’t as frequent as a traveller would like. My advice is to have city centre accommodation if you can.
What were the locals like?
As anyone will tell you, people in Northern Ireland will ‘give you the shirts off their back…’ and I’ve been on a few nights out in Belfast where that has literally happened. But that’s a story for another day.
People in Belfast are generous, warm and have a real pride in their city. If you show the slightest bit of interest, they will share stories and give you loads of tourist recommendations, which you should follow if you have the time.
As a single woman, I was chatted up a few times on this trip. When I lived there, the men of Belfast waited until they’d had a few – or many – before approaching the female species.
This time was different. I don’t know if it was the perfume I was wearing, but a number of Belfast’s most charming made an approach when I was out and about, and not always with numerous pints under their belts! And for those of you from my neck of the woods, they love Aussies.
What was the food like?
Wow, Belfast, you’ve become hipster in my absence! Among the culinary wins is decent coffee, which really made my trip. Step up Established Coffee near St Anne’s Square and Kaffe O (branches in Ormeau Road, Botanic and Donegall Square North). The coffee was Melbourne worthy, which is no mean feat.
St Anne’s Square and the Cathedral Quarter are where many new eating places are. Friends took me for Mexican at La Taqueria. It’s amazing, but hidden behind a shopping street, so look it up first. For fine dining, go to Ox. You won’t regret it and apparently it has an affordable lunch menu. I never go past Mourne Seafood, as its menu is amazing and the seafood incredibly fresh.
My friends tell me that Northern Ireland is unique for both the high number of teetotallers and those who enjoy a pint…or 10. It seems the latter are winning, as a number of new pubs and bars have sprung up over the past five years.
I did visit some of the newer efforts, but found myself back at my old favourites; the Duke of York (where you’ll always find locals), The Spaniard, Muriel’s and The John Hewitt, which is a social enterprise, so you know your pint is going to a good place! They’re all within spitting distance of each other, so you can have yourself a decent pub crawl.
One thing to note is that Belfast is trying its hand at beer gardens, which it frankly doesn’t have the weather for. If it’s really warm though, it might be worth visiting The Dirty Onion…and yes, it really is called that.
St George’s Market in the city centre is open every weekend and I highly recommend it. You can get cool little gifts; the food and coffee are great and well-priced. It feels like all of Belfast is there as it can get pretty crowded, but it’s fun and the buskers are generally entertaining. It’s in an old hall and always cold, so wrap up before you go.
If fiddle dee dee music is your thing, the Garrick just off Donegall Square, does a Sunday afternoon session. It also has all the ye olde wood panelling and traditional pub grub that you want from a proper Irish pub.
Did you learn anything about yourself or the world on this trip?
I wonder if it’s the fact that I’m older now, but to me, the city seems happy and more prosperous. Don’t get me wrong, my friends are still a cynical lot (and if you know anything about the local political scene, they have every right) but there is an air of vibrancy that’s pretty infectious.
Would you recommend others travel here?
Yes, yes, yes! When I went back, I remembered all the reasons I loved living in Belfast. It’s easy to get around, the people are warm and friendly. It has a rich history, great food and is well priced for the budget traveller. You won’t be bored. Make it one of your European stops.
Do you have any tips for people thinking of travelling here?
While a place I really love, there is no denying there is still underlying tension in Northern Ireland. July is a real no go zone. The 12th July is a ‘celebration’ of the Battle of the Boyne, where the Protestant King William of Orange once defeated the deposed Catholic King James II. There are parades to mark the occasion and it can get really nasty. Plus, many people in Northern Ireland use it as an excuse to go on their summer holidays, meaning that restaurants, bars and tourist destinations are closed, or really quiet.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Half the population are happy with this state of affairs, half are not. Its fraught with difficulties and be really, really careful if you choose it as a conversational topic.
As an aside, Northern Irish pounds are legal tender throughout the UK, but other parts of the country can get funny when you try to use them. My tip is to spend all your pounds, or make sure you swap your local pounds for English versions before you leave. The banks will generally do this for you.
Belfast is also referred to in Quarters – the Cathedral Quarter, the Titanic Quarter, Queen’s Quarter and Gaeltacht Quarter. Most people will send you to the Cathedral Quarter (as this is where most cultural events take place and it has many bars and restaurants) and the Titanic Quarter, which houses the museum.
Queen’s Quarter is South Belfast and refers to the University section of the city. Gaeltacht is to the west and where the Irish language is particularly promoted.
Oh and, don’t forget, the Titanic was a major feat in engineering and perfectly sound when she left the Belfast shipyard. ‘Twas the iceberg and English captain what did her in!
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