Before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Belfast wasn’t exactly on the map for mainstream tourists. Yet, over the past 20 years, the city has undergone a huge cultural and culinary resurgence and its progressive yet playful spirit is present in every museum, gallery, restaurant and design store.
And design is in Northern Ireland’s DNA: when the RMS Titanic was built at Harland and Wolff in 1909, Belfast was the shipbuilding capital of the world, fostering Europe’s finest cabinet-makers, linen weavers, potteries, engineers and architectural designers in the conception and construction of luxury ocean liners. Today, grand Victorian architecture rubs up against world-class works of street art in a friendly, irreverent and politically engaged city that takes fun seriously.
Where to Stay
When The Harrison opened last summer, Belfast finally got the design-led town house hotel it was waiting for. Owner Melanie Harrison has meticulously restored a 19th-century merchant’s home (with a little help from her builder father) in the university district, filling it with Northern Irish artefacts including ornate cast-iron radiators and Victorian chaise longues. Each of the 16 rooms spotlights an icon with links to Belfast, including poet WB Yeats, the Brontë sisters, CS Lewis and singer Ruby Murray (from £150 per night).
Elsewhere, the Titanic Hotel is located in the former headquarters of Harland and Wolff ship-builders in the regenerated Titanic Quarter (from £120 per night), and the contemporary Bullitt Hotel, moments from the Cathedral Quarter, is an industrial design nest of exposed brick, earthy paintwork and tobacco-hued leather (from £85 per night).
Breakfast & Lunch
The Cathedral Quarter is where many of Belfast’s culinary highlights are concentrated, and a flat white at Established Coffee roastery and café on Hill Street is a rite of passage for caffeine lovers in Belfast. Nearby, the innovative Hill Street Hatch houses a rotating roster of foodie residencies; a recent hit was grilled cheese sandwich pop-up The Toast Office.
A favourite brunch spot is Freight, housed in shipping containers, with a good line in plant-based dishes and excellent coffee. For food lovers, a wander around St George’s Market is a shortcut to the best produce Northern Ireland has to offer, while Hilden Brewery, Ireland’s oldest independent brewery, is ideal for those requiring refreshments.
Wine & Dine
Hadskis is hidden away in one of the Cathedral Quarter’s alleyways and is the most atmospheric of chef Niall McKenna’s two restaurants. Since the 1960s, Belfast has been home to a sizeable Chinese community, so it’s a city that does dim sum well. The best-loved and longest-established Chinese restaurant in Northern Ireland is the Wong family’s The Welcome, a real neighbourhood favourite known for its truly authentic Cantonese cuisine. Michelin-starred OX recently opened OX Cave, its wood-panelled wine library pairing wines by the glass or carafe with sharing boards.
Art & Culture
Visitors are invariably struck by Belfast’s broad spectrum of world-class museums and equally impactful grassroots arts organisations, which are at least partly a legacy of the city’s politically turbulent past. The Ulster Museum in the Botanic Gardens is a great place to start, not least because the exterior – boasting a 1960s Brutalist extension by Francis Pym – is so striking.
However, ask any creative in Belfast where to go and they’ll send you to the Black Box, a pioneering project and performance space for music, art and film, with a great calendar of events. A Belfast Street Art Tour by Seedhead Arts is a brilliant way to get a handle on the city’s recent sociopolitical past; Belfast’s history of sectarian murals has given street art a prominent position in the city and its walls attract artists from all over the globe.
Tucked away in a redbrick former memorial hall off the Lisburn Road is Maven, an independent design and homeware store founded by two sisters. It stocks a smart mix of Irish and Scandinavian brands such as Superfolk, Mourne Textiles, Ferm Living and Skagerak. The recently opened Bound Concept at Smithfield Yard is a must-visit, with a lovely lighting collection among the homeware and accessories.
If Belfast has a cult fashion store, it’s American Madness, which has a huge Instagram following thanks to its vintage French workwear, Nascar T-shirts and 1960s jackets. Its showroom in Belfast’s old ropemaking district only opens on Saturdays, but is a worthy pilgrimage for vintage lovers.
Beyond the city
The utterly magnificent Giant’s Causeway is a 75-minute drive from Belfast, while the five-mile walk east from this rock formation towards the hamlet of Dunseverick is one of the most spectacular stretches of the North Antrim Cliffs.
To the south, CS Lewis fans can explore the landscape that inspired his tales of Narnia with a wander around the seaside town of Warrenpoint, home to a diverse community of sea swimmers. For car-free travellers, the 11th-century Carrickfergus Castle is a 30-minute journey by train and arrives into Northern Ireland’s most picturesque station; sip a coffee upon arrival at NACS (Not Another Coffee Shop) on West Street, which also doubles as a furniture paint store.