Cardiff, check. Edinburgh, countless times. And, of course, London is home. So how come it took us 35 years to make it to Belfast?! Well, good things come to those who wait – and we loved exploring the city before escaping to the countryside and coastline of County Antrim. Here’s where we hit…
Belfast is booming
Coming into land, we see the skyline is studded with cranes – many of them working on the seven new hotels scheduled to open in coming months to cater for the growing tourist throngs. By next year, the number of beds here are expected to have increased by 29%, while a new 75,000sqm campus for the University of Ulster, part of a multimillion inner city investment, will see an influx of more than 15,000 students.
This focus on growth and renewal comes close on the heels of a vast urban-waterfront regeneration project: the Titanic Quarter, which is home to the Titanic Belfast and, moored a few metres away, the ship’s little sister SS Nomadic, which once transported passengers from Cherbourg Harbour to RMS Titanic.
Sitting on the spot where Olympic class liners were built during the early 20th-century, the museum’s galleries tell the story of the famous ocean liner. And while everyone knows about its ill-fated maiden voyage, this place helps you appreciate the scale of the ship and the back-breaking, and ear drum-bursting, construction work that took place here. A cable car journey through a shipbuilding yard tells of how some men went deaf due to the constant hammering that reverberated through the city.
Shaped like the bows of a ship, Titanic Belfast is a modern contrast to the ornate architectural styles of the city’s older iconic buildings – like the domed City Hall. Completed in 1906 it celebrates Belfast’s city status, which it was awarded in 1888 by Queen Victoria. The stained glass windows in the banqueting hall survived the Second World War having been stashed away during the air raids. Then there’s the sprawling redbrick Queen’s University of Belfast, which opened in 1849 and sits alongside the Botanic Gardens that house the Ulster Museum.
Writing’s on the walls
For more facts and figures – and a few tall stories thrown in for good measure – a Belfast Taxi Tour with Blue Badge guide Billy Scott is the way to go. Foot on the pedal of his black cab and hardly pausing for breath, his route takes us past the Europa Hotel – a one-time target for the IRA – and the mosaic entrance to beautiful old-school boozer The Crown. We make our way past the bars and clubs of the Linen Quarter, which are pretty trendy according to Billy. At least, that’s what we surmise from the description: “The kind of places you go if you don’t wear socks.”
The taxi crawls past the Titanic memorial outside City Hall, takes in the coffee shops and boutiques of fashionable Lisburn Road, and heads for the Republican parts of the city, where the large-scale paintings on the walls talk of The Troubles, remember the leaders of the 1981 hunger strike and celebrate the skills of home-grown footballer George Best.
Driving towards the Cathedral Quarter the political murals give way to street art, and a collection of Ireland’s most famous faces (from Seamus Heaney to Sinead O’Connor via Roy Walker of Catchphrase fame) cover the courtyard next to the Duke of York.
It’s a thoroughly entertaining and interesting afternoon’s drive, and we are dropped back at The Fitzwilliam with our brains buzzing. We encounter another local as we hop in the shower – ok, not quite – but the rooms are stocked with Murdock goodies. Who knew the founder of the male grooming emporium hailed from nearby Newry? Bath products aside, the hotel makes for a great base – super-helpful concierge, spacious modern rooms and a great lounge area where you can plot your next moves. And for culture vultures, it’s next door to the Opera House.
Eating Northern Ireland
We had two amazing meals in two of Belfast’s hottest restaurants – The Muddler’s Club and Howard Street – but more of that later as, sometimes, it’s the really simple places that take your breath away. With its Formica tables, unforgiving strip lights and heavily varnished veneer wall panels, Long’s chippy is home to the kind of old-school styling that East London bars have been relentlessly pursuing for years. The difference is, there’s no pretension here.
The fish and chip supper rules the menu, and vinegar bottles and saltshakers are the only table dressing required. Tabard-wrapped staff will bring out the red sauce and tartare, if requested. The only soundtrack is the sound of the whirring extractor fans and the sizzling fryer.
This is the kind of place where soft drinks are referred to as ‘pop’, although most people opt for a cuppa. It’s a welcome dose of no-nonsense nostalgia. Oh, and it’s delicious. Hand-cut potatoes make for wonderfully uneven chips, and the flaky fresh fish tastes far lighter than its battered body would have you believe.
But don’t worry, if you thought Belfast had escaped the hipster moment, you’ll find beards, denim overalls and exposed lightbulbs aplenty at Established (or ‘ESTd.’ as the cool typography sign on the door reads). This third-wave coffee shop and brunch/lunch spot manages to bring a lot of love to the poured concrete floors and industrial, minimalist decor thanks to its interesting dishes that run far beyond the usual suspect of smashed avocado. We feasted on the following from an all-day menu (till 3pm) of breakfast/brunch and lunch dishes:
Cheesy French toast, braised kale, smoked bacon, dill hollandaise and poached egg
Toastie made with minted falafel, red pepper and walnut romesco, burnt lemon pistou, Toons Bridge mozzarella
Nearby, you can indulge your inner creative at a couple of great galleries: multi-storey and intensely modern The MAC with its bar-restaurant and light-filled exhibition spaces; and the more intimate and installation-filled Golden Thread Gallery. And the contemporary styling continues just round the corner at St. Anne’s Cathedral, where a 40-metre stainless steel spire starts from the just above the choir stalls and soars through the ornate roof towards the sky.
That evening, we stick to the Cathedral Quarter – sipping and slurping our way around a variety of places all within a few minutes’ walk of each other. Rum is the liquor of choice at the pocket-sized bar of The Spaniard, there’s live music and bar paraphernalia from yesteryear at The Harp, some of the greatest gin we’ve ever sampled at The Duke of York (Bertha’s Revenge Irish Milk from Country Cork) and, much, much later, more live music and heaps of good cheer at The Dirty Onion – which shares an outdoor drinking area with Yardbird – in fact the two venues share a building that dates from 1780 – another piece of history brought startlingly up to date. Not least due to the recent edition of a striking piece of street art by Joe Caslin featuring a lesbian couple that travelled from Belfast to America to tie the knot.
As you make your way from place to place, you might just stumble upon The Muddlers Club (1 Warehouse Lane) – look out for a small graffiti sign at the entrance to the lane – where you will be rewarded with great cocktails (we sipped on a Smoked Fashioned and Liberte Martini), and great cooking from head chef and owner Gareth McCaughey, who can be spotted behind the burners in the buzzing open-plan kitchen. Hailing from Michelin-starred Ox, this solo venture has been garnering rave review since it opened just under a year ago.
I am still thinking about the Short rib lasagna. The most delicate and delicious iteration of the Italian classic I have every encountered, this dish featured silky smooth pasta gently folding around an unapologetically rich ragu.
This is followed by more hits, and no misses, in the form of:
Scallops, cauliflower puree, golden raisin and pancetta
Wild halibut, white bean, trompette mushroom and curried mussels – an excellent use of fresh local fish and seafood.
Blackened lamb, romesco, samphire, olive and gnocchi – perfectly pink, the mix of sweet and earthy flavours was the perfect accompaniment to the city’s increasingly autumnal weather, while summer reappeared – albeit fleetingly – with a dessert of Orange, lavender and honey.
Don’t let the simple menu descriptions fool you, there is heaps going on with these plates. The place is still packed at gone 11pm, and the staff are just as happy to keep the party mood going as the diners.
If The Muddler’s Club is a little bit rock star, Howard Street – just around the corner from The Fitzwilliam – assumes a more sedate, but no less self-assured, stance. Not intimidated by its proximity to Deanes Eipic, Howard Street gives the city’s other Michelin-starred establishment a run for its money.
Its wood-panelled interior is the backdrop for Marty Murphy’s menu that’s packed with locally sourced ingredients and the surprise addition of a few Asian-inspired flourishes, which totally work. So much so we are kicking ourselves that we didn’t order the Tom yum soup – bet that would have packed a punch on a gloomy evening.
Instead, we opted for:
Tender strips of Salt and chilli beef with chilli and lime mayonnaise – not an overly chewy morsel in sight, this was one of the greatest Vietnamese dishes we’ve tasted outside of the country!
Queenie Scallop linguine with sun-dried tomato paste and smoked chilli butter – these perfectly cooked little scallops could have been chunks of lobster for all the creamy decadence this dish imparted – it was a generous starter serve, but so light.
Roast Skeaghanore duck breast, garlic potato puree, rainbow chard, honey glazed baby carrot, wild mushrooms and hazelnuts.
Pork belly, crispy champ cake, black pudding, celeriac puree, and apple and cider sauce
For dessert: Peanut butter jelly macaron, banana and bourbon parfait and salted caramel popcorn.
And a journey around the region via a cheese plate: Banagher Bold (washed in local Derry craft beer), Cratloe Hills, Kearney Blue (made on the shores of Strangford Lough), and Humming Bark (a very special cow’s milk cheese aged in spruce bark).
The next day, we couldn’t leave the city without breakfasting at St George’s Market. Built between 1890-6, this long-running Belfast establishment operates Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and sees heaps of traders converge under one roof to sell local ingredients, antiques, arts and crafts.
There are also plenty of street food-style stalls offering Irish beef burgers, Irish sausage sandwiches and more far-flung French crepes and Indian curries. There’s also a huge array of local bread and pastries – perfect for stocking up on if you have a long journey ahead of you.
Talking of long journeys, ours were fuelled by Wee Choco Sea Salted chocolate bars (totally guilt-free as the profits are donated to an autism charity) and Camran Crafts Glorious Gin and Elderflower-infused artisan marshmallows.
County Antrim might be famed for its sparkling coastline, but there are plenty of inland attractions to tick off, too. Not least a place to rest a weary head (and body) at the end of a long day’s exploring – for us, this came in the very welcome form of Galgorm Resort & Spa near the town of Ballymena.
But first, there’s the adorable village of Glenarm – one of nine glens in the area it is home to more than 50 listed buildings – and the Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle, which is sitting pretty just a stone’s throw from the towering Slemish Mountain.
Further north, Glenariff Forest Park and Waterfalls offers a range of different-length walking trails through spruce and pine woods, while the atmospheric Dark Hedges – an avenue of trees planted in the 18th century – has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to its star turn in some little TV show called Game of Thrones – if Daenerys and dragons float your boat, there are heaps of ‘I’ve seen that on-screen’ opportunities throughout the county.
If your priority however is your next feast, then make for Billy Andys in Glenoe near Larne, especially if you happen to be in the area on a Friday – aka steak night.
When we rock up the rugby is drawing a rowdy crowd in the pint-sized back room, while the restaurant sees a constant stream of various cuts of meat on wooden boards emerge from the kitchen. Save room for a selection of miniature desserts.
The rain might have driven us to our accommodation earlier than we would have liked, but then getting drenched at Galgorm is a far more attractive proposition. Splashing from swimming pool to sauna to snail shower to snow room fills many happy hours, and that’s before you’ve hopped into a private riverside hot tub.
And for an extra dose of all things aquatic, the sprawling spa complex – with its treatment rooms, Celtic steam room, relaxing Orangery and Jacuzzi pool – is surrounded by landscaped gardens are hugged by the fast-flowing River Maine.
Having dried off it’s straight downstairs to dinner – where diners have a choice of three venues. Italian eatery Fratelli (there is an outpost in Belfast), Gillies where the grill is fired up and ready to satisfy every carnivore’s dream and the fine-dining, three-AA rosette River Room – where breakfast dishes of baked eggs, Ulster Fry and kedgeree are also served to guests lucky enough to be staying in the spa wing, where rooms come with huge marble bathrooms and walk-in showers, lose-your-wife-in-it king-sized beds and views of the river or surrounding estate.
And then there’s the club that everyone should be talking about. Gin Club. With more than 300 varieties of the botanical-infused spirit – the largest selection of gins in Northern Ireland – this small bar is a big achiever, winning a coveted prize at the Sky Bar of the Year 2016 Awards.
Cruising the coast
The next day we blow away the cobwebs as we tear along Torr Head, a particularly special part of the Causeway Coastal Route. This winding road stretches 120 miles from Belfast Lough to Lough Foyle, linking coastal villages and the Glens of Antrim, and is studded with natural attractions.
And what better way to recover from one too many G&Ts than by testing our nerves at Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. Once used by fisherman to check if they had netted any salmon, today the 20-metre-wide gorge is traversed less by people wielding fishing rods and more by tourists touting selfie sticks – but at least the queues to cross the 30-metre-high gorge give you plenty of time to admire the craggy cliffs and blue-green water.
And then – the star of the show – the Giant’s Causeway. Formed over 60million years ago, and made up of more than 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, the numbers become meaningless as you turn a windy corner and are confronted with this geometric, geographical marvel. Plus, the audio tour adds a flourish of Northern Irish flair to the science and statistics with stories of pet camels and a giant called Finn McCool who dressed up as a baby.
Having worked up an appetite, we scoot over to Harry’s Shack in Portstewart, and – hooray – one of the best local craft beer menus we encounter on the whole trip. Bottle-conditioned Giant’s Organ IPA by Lacada and Donegal brewery Kinnegar’s Scraggy Bay IPA and Black Bucket (a black rye IPA) really tickled the taste buds. But, moreover, it’s the sparkling fresh haul that excited us the most.
Crab salad and Mulroy Bay mussels steamed in Irish cider, leeks and shallots to start, and for mains we opt for whole lemon sole fresh off the local boats with capers, cockles and parsley butter with fluffy roasted potatoes on the side. And, of course, who can look past the fish and chips? Haddock fillet fried in a buttermilk batter with mushy peas and tartare sauce.
Housed in a long wooden shed overlooking the two-mile Portstewart Strand, this place might be on National Trust land, but it’s a far cry from the chintzy cafes so often found at these locations.
On that note, if doilies and scones aren’t your cup of tea, make for very recently opened Bothy on the stretch of road between the rope bridge and the causeway. Sister to the Newtownabbey outlet, this stunningly styled (and very Instagram-able) place is indeed a welcome shelter for all those city clickers desperately seeking a caffeine fix and cinnamon buns. They also serve Maude’s ice cream. Enjoy it here or grab a few scoops at their seafront shop in the cute fishing village of Ballycastle.
Having eaten our fill, it’s time to head home. As our plane ascends we peer out the window and spot yet another crane – except this one’s a little different. The bright yellow structure sits at the entrance to the Titanic Quarter, and bears the letters of the city’s renowned construction company Harland & Wolff – ‘H & W’. We are reminded of our tour guide Billy’s comment – that really – it stands for ‘Hello & Welcome’. We look forward to it greeting us again soon.
The Fitzwilliam (Great Victoria Street, Belfast; www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com)
Galgorm Resort & Spa (136 Fenaghy Road, Ballymena; www.galgorm.com)
The Muddler’s Club (1 Warehouse Lane, Belfast; www.themuddlersclubbelfast.com)