Last weekend, I spent 48 hours in Belfast. It was a whirlwind tour but one that showed me shadows of the city’s complex past and glimpses of its optimistic future.
Belfast is just a short plane ride from Newcastle – 45 minutes in fact. However, that doesn’t mean that you can forgo the long wait in the airport before your flight. Ours was a 7am take off so what else were we to do at 5:30 on a Saturday morning but grab our first alcoholic drink? Cheers.
Where to stay
We stayed in the Clayton Hotel on Ormeau Avenue. It’s around a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport and within walking distance of the city centre. A hearty breakfast was included, and there’s a pool (with spa, steam room and sauna) to enjoy.
We arrived at around 8:30am and were utterly starving after our early start. There’s a cracking cafe near the hotel – Harlem – where you can enjoy a fantastic breakfast (choose from a full Irish, anything on toast or continental fare) while admiring the quirky decor – think low-hanging chandeliers, ornate picture frames and oversized throw cushions.
There’s also a Wetherspoon’s, Nando’s and Pizza Express on the doorstep so you don’t have to go far from the hotel for food and drink.
What to do
You know my love of city walking tours. But, if they’re not available I hop on a bus tour to see the best bits of the city.
City Sightseeing Belfast offers a great romp through the city for just £10. That includes passing through around 16 stops – which features everything from Falls Road and Crumlin Road Gaol to Stormont and St George’s Market. The onboard guide was an absolute hoot and made the journey informative and entertaining.
Our first stop was the Titanic Experience. The nine-stage exhibition outlines the birth of shipbuilding in the city and the construction of its most famous vessel, including a wonderful ride that takes you through the experiences of the men who worked on the ship.
The displays showing the layout of first, second and third class cabins were fascinating, as were the details about the opulence on board. The exhibition became more sombre as the fate of the ship and its passengers unfolded, with first-person accounts and SOS messages bringing the harrowing circumstances to life.
Details about the inquest after the sinking of ship (which I knew very little about) were enthralling, as was the underwater footage of the wreckage. A display of movie memorabilia – from the 1920s to James Cameron’s 1990s blockbuster – proved just how fascinated we still are with the story of this ill-fated maiden voyage.
- The Troubles
My dad served in the army in the late 1970s and was stationed in Belfast for many years. I’ve heard his stories of how The Troubles unfolded – of Irish mammies giving him and other soldiers hot toddies to help them cope with the biting Belfast winter; about the violence and shooting; about the physical and ideological divisions that split a city.
Driving along the Falls Road, an area which saw much of the violence and still sits where the Catholic and Protestant communities merge, was pretty surreal considering my dad was there as a teenage soldier decades earlier. Murals of Bobby Sands, the Queen and soldiers stand side by side on gable ends along the street as illustrations of the segregation of this city.
I want to go back to Belfast with my dad to experience his return with him. The city has changed massively since he was there and I want him to see the positive future it has created for itself.
Belfast has a wonderful high street and great shopping centre, packed with big name brands and independent retailers.
Shops don’t open until 1pm on a Sunday – but that gives you time to recover from the night before.
There is no shortage of nightlife in Belfast.
While Dublin provides an oversupply of stereotypical Irish bars (if you’ve been to Temple Bar you know what I mean), Belfast is trying to set out its stall as a modern, vibrant and trendy city.
Nowhere is this more evident than the Cathedral Quarter. This thriving area is filled with quirky bars and street art, as well as some great beer. Try The Dirty Onion and The Duke of York (which also has some great live music on a Saturday night).
Our adventures; punctuated by beer and poetry…
I definitely didn’t cover everything Belfast has to offer but my 48-hour trip gave me a taste of the best bits of this city. It’s one that doesn’t shy away from its complicated past and looks firmly to the future as a modern, excited city.
I’ll be back, Belfast.