Could Belfast be the perfect UK city for short breaks? Some may think it’s dangerous and a dump, but we’re not living in the 1960s anymore. In the 2010s, it’s safe, clean and exciting and should be your next weekend trip.
Although you can get the ferry to Northern Ireland, you’re more likely to fly. There are two airports, Belfast International (BFS) and George Best Belfast City (BFD).
Your arrival airport will depend on your departure airport and your airline, but if you have a choice, try to land at BFD – it’s only 3km from the city-centre. You can either get the number 600 bus (£2.20 for a single journey), or take a ten-minute taxi-ride for around £10.
Belfast’s pride and joy is the Titanic Quarter, a redevelopment of the docks and shipbuilding yards which features apartments, offices and the Titanic Experience – a museum dedicated to the doomed ship that was built here.
A self-guided tour of the distinctive museum, which looks like a cross between the prow of the Titanic and an iceberg, will set you back £15.50.
There are nine “galleries”, all themed around a different aspect of the Titanic such as its construction (including a ghost train-like ride through a mocked-up shipbuilding yard), its cabins and its victims.
After our educational and emotional visit to the museum, we went for a walk to see what else the Titanic Quarter has to offer. We saw the huge yellow cranes of Harland and Wolff, the company that built the Titanic, with the “H & W” logo.
Next to the water’s edge is Titanic Studios, where HBO’s Game of Thrones is made. Unfortunately Daenerys Targaryen was nowhere to be seen, so we headed back to our hotel.
Belfast is a small and compact city (the population is under 300,000), and it is just a twenty-minute walk to the city-centre over a footbridge across the River Lagan.
Be sure to take a photo of Bigfish, a huge salmon statue covered in blue and white tiles. It’s a symbol of the regeneration of the Lagan – salmon have returned to the river after decades of neglect.
After a day of culture, it’s time to enjoy a night out in the stylish bars of the Cathedral Quarter, the gentrified area around St. Anne’s Cathedral. We didn’t see any chain bars or restaurants here, which is always a good thing.
Start day two by ringing Belfast Tours; 02890 642264 to book a black taxi tour of the political murals left as a legacy of the Troubles. Your driver will pick you up from your hotel, and take you on a tour of the Protestant and Catholic areas of West Belfast.
You’ll get chance to walk around and take photos while your driver stays in the taxi. Don’t worry, despite the rough looking housing estates it’s perfectly safe – these black cab tours are big business now, although I’m not sure how long you’d have survived out there thirty years ago.
You can read more about my experience of the black cab tour here.
Ask your driver to drop you off after the tour in the city-centre to see some of Belfast’s fine Victorian architecture. The domed City Hall on Donegall Square dominates central Belfast and looks gorgeous both in the daytime and at night, when floodlights turn it purple.
Don’t miss the Albert Memorial Clock Tower on Victoria Street. When I saw it the night before, I could have sworn it was wonky, but didn’t say anything to Kat – I just thought I’d had too much Guinness.
Built in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, it really does slant and is Belfast’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
If last night was all about the contemporary bars in the Cathedral Quarter, we’re now going back in time to sample some of Belfast’s traditional pubs.
Every man and his dog recommends visitors should go to the Crown Liquor Saloon, opposite the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street.
Owned by the National Trust, this isn’t just a pub – it’s a work of art and is one of Belfast’s premier tourist attractions. It’s covered in art-deco tiles and has an ornate ceiling. If Gaudi made pubs, he’d definitely have made this.
After waiting an age for a couple to leave one of the pub’s booths, we jumped in for some privacy, but made the mistake of not shutting the closable saloon doors behind us, and a group of four squeezed in.
I’m not sure how many locals actually come here, but when we discovered the group we were sharing our booth with were from Coventry too, it was time to move on.
Our favourite old-style boozer was the Duke of York, which occupies an alleyway all of its own (Commercial Court).
Bigger and less touristy than the Crown, but heaving nonetheless, you might even hear a few Norn Iron accents in here – it seemed popular with office workers having a post-work beer.
The Duke has two claims to fame. Firstly, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams used to be a barman here, and secondly, as the framed photo (below) in the gents toilets shows, it was bombed in the 1970s. I’m not sure if there’s a connection between the two.
We also liked White’s, Belfast’s oldest tavern which dates back to 1630. In the heart of the shopping district, it was packed as shoppers, tourists and couples enjoyed the fireplace and candle-lit ambience.
We really didn’t want to come home when it was time to leave Belfast. There’s just the right amount to see and do for a relaxed, weekend break in this small and extremely friendly city. Look out for bargain flights, and make Belfast your next break.