Brilliant Belfast: history, culture and great bars of course!

Belfast wasn’t the original destination when we planned the 2021 return of our annual girls weekend. But with continued uncertainty around where we could travel and what Covid tests we’d need, we decided to move Krakow on another year and opt for a UK destination instead. Belfast turned out to be a brilliant alternative with plenty of history and culture, along with some great bars and restaurants.

The Bullitt Hotel was pretty great too and the perfect place to stay being right in the centre of Belfast. It has great decor, a nice courtyard restaurant and Babel, one of the city’s best rooftop bars. We knew we’d like the hotel as soon as we saw the excellent artwork on the wall of the entrance!

Bullit Hotel, BelfastThere are lots of places to eat near the hotel, so after checking in we headed for lunch at The National, a former bank that’s now a high ceilinged bar serving up great brunch and lunch dishes. The sourdough sandwiches were delicious and then just as we were finishing our meal we were randomly asked if we would have our photo taken. It turned out to be for local publication Belfast Live and to our surprise, it appeared on the website a couple of days later. Who knew drinking in Belfast was newsworthy? I guess that’s Covid for you!

The National, BelfastThe National, BelfastThat was the first meal of many, as is always the case with our weekends away, and later that evening we had a fab dinner at Deanes Love Fish in Howard Street. The restaurant has a cool white interior and some really good menu choices. There are several Deanes restaurants in Belfast and two of them are on either side of Love Fish. I think Deanes Meat Locker speaks for itself menu wise, while Eipic is the flagship Michelin starred offering from Michael Deane, one of Belfast’s leading restaurateurs.

Deanes, BelfastAfter dinner, we headed for the Tipsy Bird bar and were asked if we were there for the wrap party. We’d already had our photo taken for the media earlier and now we were heading into a wrap party?! It turned out to be in the downstairs bar below our table and was for a TV drama based on Sally Rooney’s book Conversations with Friends. We later found out that while we drank our cocktails upstairs, Taylor Swift was downstairs partying with boyfriend Joe Alwyn, one of the stars of the show. It was definitely all happening in Belfast that weekend!

Tipsy Bird, BelfastThe next morning we headed out to explore the city using Lonely Planet’s pocket Belfast guide. It’s ideal for a long weekend as it’s small but packed with useful information and walking tours, including one of Victorian Belfast. One of the first stops was the yellow and white Jaffe Memorial Fountain, just along the street from the hotel. Behind it is Bittles Bar, a traditional Irish bar in a gorgeous triangular shaped red brick building.

Jaffe Memorial Fountain, BelfastThe tour also suggests going into the nearby Victoria Square Mall, not to look at the shops but to head up to the dome viewing gallery. Unfortunately, the Covid restrictions meant the gallery wasn’t open, but it looked like a great place to get a panoramic view of the city.

Instead, we walked on up to St George’s Market. There’s been a market on the same site since the 17th century, but the current red-brick building dates back to 1896. It’s pretty impressive inside with cast-iron columns holding up the glass roof and there are plenty of stalls selling food and crafts to browse around.

St George's Market, BelfastSt George's Market, BelfastOther highlights of the Victorian Belfast walking tour include the lovely Grand Opera House and City Hall with its green dome, which we seemed to walk past at least three or four times a day as Belfast really isn’t a very big city. In fact, we’d already seen City Hall on route to dinner the evening before, looking very pretty with its night lights switched on.

Belfast Opera HouseOur second walking tour that day was very different as it explored the West Belfast Murals. We’d all grown up hearing and reading about the Troubles. As teenagers, some of us had even read the series of books by Joan Lingard about a young couple from opposite sides of the conflict. So we were really interested to visit the area and get a feel for what it must have been like to live there.

It’s possible to do a taxi tour of West Belfast, but it’s quite expensive and we were happy to do it on foot as it wasn’t far to walk there. Heading out of the centre on Divis Street you soon see the first sign that you’ve entered West Belfast on a huge mural that’s in the shadow of the striking Divis Tower apartment building.

Divis Tower, West BelfastThen you reach the corner of Northumberland Street where you can’t miss the start of the Solidarity Wall. This huge collection of murals express sympathies with a range of other Republican causes including the Palestinians, Kurds and Fidel Castro.

Solidarity Wall, West BelfastSolidarity Wall, West BelfastJust after this Divis Street becomes the Falls Road where there’s a small memorial garden for Catholics who lost their lives in the Troubles. Then a little further on is where you’ll find the Sinn Fein Headquarters with its mural of Bobby Sands, the famous hunger striker who was elected as MP for West Belfast just before he died.

Garden of Remembrance, Falls Road, West BelfastBobby Sands mural, West BelfastIf you go back down Falls Road there’s a turn on the left for North Howard Street. This is where the reality really sets in as it’s home to the Peace Line, the wall which separated the warring communities. Even all these years later it’s unnerving to see the high fencing topping the wall and the enormous gates that divided the Catholics of the Falls Road area from the Protestants living in and around Shankill Road.

West BelfastPeace Line, West BelfastTurn right up Conway Street towards Shankill Road and it soon feels very different with Union Jacks flying proudly from many of the homes. On Shankill Road itself is the Rex Bar with its courtyard of displays celebrating the signing of the Ulster Covenant against Irish self-governance in 1912.

Rex Bar, West BelfastWest BelfastNext turn left into Shankill Parade to walk through an estate that has huge murals on the gable ends of houses. This whole area is really quite an extraordinary sight, particularly all the red, white and blue flags and bunting. In England that only comes out for special events, but here it’s an everyday way of demonstrating that this community is part of the UK.

West Belfast muralIn amongst the murals, a metal sculpture stands out that says Remember, Respect, Resolution. It was commissioned by the Lower Shankill Community Association to represent their willingness to embrace the future of Northern Ireland while remembering the past and respecting others’ beliefs and traditions. It replaced a mural depicting Oliver Cromwell and the expulsion of Catholics from Ireland.

At the end of Shankill Parade is Crumlin Road and right opposite is Belfast’s notorious Crumlin Road Gaol. It dates back to Victorian times but housed many political prisoners during the Troubles. The prison closed in the mid-1990s but is open for tours. The prospect of seeing the cramped cells and execution chamber didn’t hold much appeal, so we jumped on a bus back to the city centre instead.

Crumlin Road Gaol, BelfastAfter a very nice lunch back in the courtyard of the Bullitt Hotel, we headed back out to meander around the Cathedral Quarter starting at the Albert Memorial Clock Tower. It was erected to honour Queen Victoria’s husband and if it looks a bit wonky don’t worry it’s not your eyes, it’s Belfast’s version of Pisa’s famous leaning tower!

Albert Memorial Clock Tower, BelfastCathedral Quarter is a bit of a cultural hotspot with lively bars and street art in amongst the cobbled lanes. Commercial Court is particularly worth a visit with its canopy of colourful umbrellas. If you go into the Duke of York pub along here you can get to a courtyard that’s covered in brilliant murals depicting Belfast life. We spotted them through the windows and walked around the area trying to find the murals until we realised the only way to reach them is to walk through the pub!

Commercial Court, BelfastDuke of York courtyard murals, BelfastDuke of York courtyard, BelfastNot far from here in Donegall Street is St Anne’s Cathedral which had limited opening hours, so as we couldn’t go inside we headed back to the High Street to explore the entries. These are narrow alleyways that run between Belfast’s High Street and Ann Street and were originally bustling thoroughfares of homes and businesses. Now they mostly seem to be the home of bars, so we took a literal pew outside Henry’s in Joy’s Entry to finish our busy day of seeing Belfast’s sights with a well-deserved cocktail!

Henry's in Joy's Entry, BelfastLater that evening dinner was at Home, which started out as a pop-up before moving to permanent premises in Wellington Place. It’s another great restaurant with cool decor and some really good vegetarian options.

Home, BelfastHome, BelfastAfter dinner, we tried to get into quirky Muriel’s Cafe Bar for drinks but with social distancing and no bar service, it was already full. Luckily being residents at the Bullitt Hotel meant we went to the front of the queue for Babel Rooftop Bar, which definitely seemed to be one of Belfast’s liveliest spots on a Saturday night.

Babel Rooftop Bar, BelfastBabel rooftop bar, BelfastBeing in Belfast for three nights meant that the next day we had time to get out of the city and see some of the scenic Causeway Coast. We considered hiring a car but it was expensive for one day, so we booked onto a coach tour with Allen’s Tours. I got the tickets for £18 each on Trip Advisor which would have been great value even if all we’d seen were some lovely views of the County Antrim coast and Scotland’s islands in the distance.

Antrim coastAntrim coastBut the highlight of the tour was a visit to Giant’s Causeway, a stunning rock formation that is a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s really unlike anywhere I’ve been before with its hexagonal stone columns clustered along the edge of the sea.

Giants CausewayAccording to myth the causeway was built by a giant Finn McCool so he could cross the sea to fight a Scottish giant. That giant followed Finn back but then retreated and ran back ripping up the causeway as he went, so only the ends were left. There’s a similar rock formation on the Scottish island of Staffa. Of course, there’s a scientific explanation for the causeway too, but I like the giant story better. Although some of the massive stones he built were a bit tricky for my short legs to clamber around!

Giants CausewayGiants CausewayThere’s a Visitor Centre with more information about Giants Causeway though it’s a bit expensive to go in if you’re not a National Trust member. I don’t think it had a cafe either, but we’d stopped for lunch on route at nearby Giants Barn, which was a perfect self-service pitstop.

The final visit of the tour was Dark Hedges, an avenue of beech trees that form an atmospheric tunnel and have been used as a location in Game of Thrones. Never having seen the show that didn’t mean much to me, but the trees were worth seeing nonetheless!

Dark HedgesThat evening we completed our Victorian walking tour by going to the Crown Liquor Saloon for dinner. It was once a Victorian gin palace and has retained lots of its original features. The inside is covered in ornate tiles and it has a row of ten snugs, essentially wooden boxes with a door where people could drink without being seen. We booked one for the novelty value which included ringing the bell to get service, though it wasn’t always particularly quick coming!

Crown Liquor Saloon, BelfastCrown Liquor Saloon, BelfastCrown Liquor Saloon, BelfastOn Monday morning we were excited to end our trip with a visit to a different part of Belfast, the Titanic Quarter. The east side of the River Lagan is where you’ll find the city’s former shipbuilding yards and the birthplace of the RMS Titanic. We walked over a footbridge next to the ceramic Bigfish sculpture which has pictures and text about Belfast’s history. Up ahead we could see the iconic yellow Harland and Wolff cranes, known as Samson and Goliath.

Bigfish scuplture, BelfastH&W cranes, BelfastTitanic Belfast is a stunning building featuring a multimedia experience that charts the history of the city’s rise to being an industrial superpower. It recreates what it was like to walk down a Belfast street in 1911 and through the gates of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. There’s even a ride that takes you down into the shipyard with all the noise, smells and chatter of the workers that built the fateful ship.

Titanic BelfastTitanic BelfastThe exhibits cover every aspect of Titanic’s construction and fit-out. There’s an immersive fly-through that might make some feel a bit queasy but I really liked it. The displays then change to document the ship’s maiden voyage including letters that were sent before it got into trouble. Then finally it’s the sinking and the eery sound of the Morse code messages that were sent to nearby ships.

Titanic BelfastThe whole building is fab inside with multiple levels and windows that are shaped like the bow of a ship. One overlooks the slipway behind the building where the Titanic was moored. It also has a really nice gift shop and places to eat, so all round a great experience with friends, or with family as there’s plenty to keep kids entertained too.

Titanic BelfastNot far from the museum is the SS Nomadic, the last remaining vessel of White Star Line, the company that commissioned Titanic. The small steamship was also built in Belfast and was used to ferry passengers between Cherbourg Harbour and the ocean liners that were too big to dock in the port. On 10 April 1912, it delivered 172 passengers to the Titanic, not knowing the fate that awaited them.

SS Nomadic, BelfastAfter the visit to Titanic Quarter, we headed back to the city centre on the tram to find that most restaurants and pubs had already stopped serving food. Luckily we found a Frankie and Benny’s open in Victoria Square Mall, but I’d recommend planning to have lunch before 2pm if you’re there on a Monday!

Then it was time to grab our bags from the Bullitt and head back to the airport to reflect on another brilliant girls weekend away to a great destination which was just a short flight from home.

Antrim coastClick on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and check the UK section of my blog for more staycation ideas.

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