Sergio Leone's Old West
MY FAVOURITE WORD IN NORTHERN IRISH ENGLISH
As in, when I asked if my passport was required at the Stena Line terminal check-in, the reply was: "You're sound."
As in, when I was late for a meeting and sent a text apologising, the reply was: "Sound."
Sail across the Irish Sea
If, like me, you find the word “voyage” intensely romantic, and you’ll be visiting England before or after your trip to Northern Ireland, consider sailing on the Stena Line ferry between Liverpool and Belfast. The journey takes eight hours and there are generally two sailings daily, both ways. A basic ticket for a foot passenger is £20, which gives you access to all amenities—WiFi and plug points, a cinema, arcade machines, cafe and restaurant seating areas with comfortable chairs and sofas outfitted with TV screens—except the private Stena Plus area and the sleeping cabins, either of which will cost you an additional £20-30. You might want to pack anti-nausea pills too, just in case.
Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but it’s probably best you carry your passport even if you’re only travelling within its borders. The authorities didn’t check my identification when I left Belfast, but they did when I arrived at Liverpool, though rather half-heartedly.
annual art & culture festivals
Out to Lunch Festival
Stay in the Queen's Quarter
If you want to have easy access to arts and culture and good eating and drinking options, base yourself in the Queen’s Quarter, about a 15 to 20-minute walk south from the city centre. At its heart is Queen’s University, so you’ll see students popping out at night in flip-flops to buy snacks from Tesco’s, but the vibe in general is lively rather than rowdy.
You can do a walkabout of the university’s grounds with a free printed guide from the Queen’s Welcome Centre (basically a tourist information office and souvenir shop) in the main Lanyon Building, which was completed in 1849 in the red-bricked, Tudor-Gothic style imagined by the late Charles Lanyon, an architect whose name is also attached to some of Belfast’s most distinguished architecture. Best of all, the university has its own cinema that is also open to the public: Queen’s Film Theatre, an intimate venue with just two screening rooms located in a terrace house near campus, with £4 movies on Mondays.
If you’re a bibliophile like me, you’ll like No Alibis, a specialist crime bookstore that also holds some general fiction and poetry (the owner David Torrans is friendly and happy to dish out recommendations), and Bookfinders, a shabby-chic second-hand bookstore with a snug, dimly lit cafe in the back—both on University Road. For live music and events, check out the Belfast Empire Music Hall on Botanic Avenue, housed in a deconsecrated church dating from the 1870s, with separate shows going on upstairs and downstairs. Of its regular roster, locals recommend comedy with The Empire Laughs Back on Tuesdays, and the blues with Rab McCullough and Band on Thursdays.
For simple pleasures, take a morning walk around the Botanic Gardens, which is also home to the Victorian-era Palm House (also designed by Charles Lanyon). For history, drop by the Ulster Museum, which has permanent exhibitions of Northern Ireland’s natural history and political history. The section on the Troubles (1968-1998) was being updated when I visited in January, but should now be ready for viewing.
As for cafes, restaurants and bars, there are a wealth of options. Right across Queen’s University on University Road is possibly—spot the yellow door!—my favourite tiny cafe in Belfast, The Pocket, with snug window perches overlooking the Lanyon Building opposite. There’s also good coffee—hand-roasted from Copenhagen—at Kaffe O on Botanic Avenue, which has a Nordic vibe and an in-house vinyl collection and is more conducive to working. For food, I’ll pass on the recommendation of a friend and point you to the boxty—a crispy potato pancake, especially yummy served with chicken or seafood in a cream sauce—at the family-run Holohan’s Pantry, right next to Bookfinders on University Road. (They also have another outlet on a barge in the Titanic Quarter.) For cicchetti-style plates in rustic, candlelit surroundings, try The Barking Dog. For something cheap and quick and satisfying, look no further than Boojum's burritos. For all-day breakfasts like the Ulster Fry (a carbo-charged variation on the English Breakfast), try Maggie Mays or Cafe Conor. Two boutique hotels—Crescent Townhouse and the newly opened House Belfast—also have very atmospheric cocktail bars you’d want to linger in.
In terms of budget accommodation, there are a number of guesthouses (Botanic Rest, Pearl Court), Airbnb properties (Melanie’s rooms, Sarah’s rooms), and hostels (Vagabonds has female-only dorms that lock and spacious, cosy common spaces) in the area. Single rooms tend to go for £35-40; hostel dorms for £15-20. Make sure to book your accommodation at least a few days ahead, and even further in advance if you’re headed over during peak season.
BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS
I always pop into bookstores when I’m in a place I’ve never been, just to see what’s being written about it, what stories are being told about it—and I always end up with a healthy (and way too optimistic) list for future reading. I try to buy a book by a local writer too. It beats the usual tourist souvenirs.
A little further up University Road in the Queen's Quarter, there’s No Alibis, a crime bookstore that also carries some general fiction and poetry. David Torrans, who has been running the place for some twenty years, was immediately welcoming. I gave him some examples of writers I enjoy reading—Don Delillo, Anne Enright, John Steinbeck—and asked if he could recommend any books about Northern Ireland by writers from Northern Ireland. “Ok, so something really well-written but which isn’t afraid to be experimental...?” he asked. I guess so. His suggestions: 1) Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson, 2) Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell, 3) Disorder by Gerard Brennan, which David edited and published under No Alibi’s own imprint—its first. I bought Disorder—in part because he said it’s heavy on dialogue in the local lingo and I wanted to get a better idea of how people talk here. He approved: “You’re definitely not going to get that anywhere else!”
TALK TO CAB DRIVERS
One thing that differentiates cab drivers in Belfast from their counterparts in other countries is that many carry with them personal experiences of working during the Troubles. In Belfast Taxi: A Drive Through History, One Fare at a Time, Lee Henry writes: “I was told of instances when drivers had been forced to dive for cover during bombings and shootings as their press corps passengers jostled for position; of hijackings; of drivers who had had their taxis sequestered by paramilitaries and used to transport arms or explosive devices into town. They told me of their colleagues, men they had worked with for years, who were murdered by paramilitaries for no other reason than the fact they were either Catholic or Protestant. […] History happens in their rear-view mirrors, and they rarely forget anything worth retelling.”
You also get cab drivers who were themselves involved in the conflict. A Catholic republican cabbie I met (who doesn’t want to be named) told me, “As part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, the British government had to release all political prisoners, and one of the things they did was to help give them employment. They deregulated the taxi driver’s license, so a lot of former prisoners are driving taxis. So you’ll jump into a taxi here and you won’t know, but your driver might have murdered five or six people or put a bomb somewhere and killed ten people or kidnapped someone or robbed a bank.” This is true, though he was probably laying it on a bit thick. It's also worth noting that the term "political prisoners" is contentious, and some would substitute it for "terrorists" or "criminals" instead.
When I asked if he had taken up armed struggle himself during the conflict, he smiled and laughed and evaded the question. “No comment. That keeps me okay.”
Learn about the Troubles from those who experienced it firsthand
Take a walking tour with the people who lived through the Troubles—former paramilitary men, former British soldiers, and ordinary civilians—and listen to their perspectives of the conflict. With its newfound popularity as a travel destination, Northern Ireland is increasingly associated with attractions like the Titanic and Game of Thrones, but you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to see that the past hasn’t been completely put to bed.
The Troubles claimed over 3,600 lives in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998. It’s worth getting your head around this bloody conflict because the divisions that defined it continue to define Northern Ireland. This can be seen most obviously in the so-called "peace walls" that still divide West Belfast, with the communities on either side sporting rival flags, murals and memorials announcing their political allegiances. On one side: Shankill Road, home mostly to Protestant unionists or loyalists who want to remain in the United Kingdom. On the other: Falls Road, home mostly to Catholic nationalists or republicans who want a free, united Ireland. In Remembering the Troubles, Jim Smyth speaks of the “territorialisation of memory, in which mutually exclusive narratives of the conflict become embedded in Northern Ireland’s tangled sectarian geography”.
I recommend doing the three-hour Conflicting Stories walking tour, during which a republican ex-paramilitary man will guide you through Falls Road before handing you over to a loyalist ex-paramilitary man on the other side who will guide you through Shankill Road. This tour is brokered by a businessman from Dublin between Coiste (I'd recommend Robert McClenaghan in particular as a guide), a republican organisation that looks after the interests of “former political prisoners”, and its loyalist counterpart, the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre (EPIC). You can also opt to do separate three-hour tours with either organisation directly, if you want to focus not just on the Troubles but also, say, the social histories of each community.
I also highly recommend Paul Donnelly’s Dead Centre Tours, which tells you the story of how the Troubles affected life in the city centre, from the perspective of ordinary civilians. In West Belfast and other segregated neighbourhoods, the past is everywhere, but in the city centre, everything has been kept neutral to avoid offence to any community, since many contested legacies from the conflict remain. A former conflict mediator who describes himself as “secular Protestant but very left-wing”, Paul sits somewhere on the centre of the political spectrum and has never found a political party he felt he could belong to. He's articulate and fair, and manages to tell a clear, comprehensive story about a very convoluted conflict, and has a thoughtful answer for any question you might ask him.
Many cab drivers also double up as tour guides. You’ll often hear of Belfast’s famous “black cab tours”, which generally refer to those that take you on a historical tour of the Troubles through the political murals around Falls Road and Shankill Road in West Belfast. There are a lot of outfits offering variations on the same tour (this company claims to be the original), and amid the legitimate ones there are some “bullshit” ones—a local’s words—peddling historical untruths, so it’s worth choosing carefully.
However, unless it’s raining or your feet aren’t up to it, I’d suggest saving your history lesson of the Troubles for the walking tours instead and using a cab tour to get a more general overview of Belfast. Paddy Campbell’s black cab tours and NI Black Taxi Tours are often recommended. Workaday taxi companies like Fona Cab and Value Cabs also have drivers that double as guides.
FOR BREAKFAST OR SUPPER
"Curry ½ n ½" is the shorthand for ordering a half portion of curry chips and a half portion of curry rice. On a cabbie's tip, I tried the pastie bap and curry chips from The Chip Company on Botanic Avenue. Not bad at all.
Take in the Cathedral Quarter's street art scene
Take a walk with a local street artist in the Cathedral Quarter, the closest Belfast has to a city centre and also the hub of Belfast's nightlife, and learn about the stories behind the murals. Unlike the murals in West Belfast that heavily reflect their sectarian divisions, the murals in the city centre hint at a wider range of identities—from Belfast’s milling and shipbuilding heritage, culinary habits, and LGBT+ scene, to its C.S. Lewis connections (the writer was born in Belfast). Tours by Seedhead Arts leave every Sunday at noon outside the Duke of York pub in Commercial Court. I highly recommend doing this!
MORE VARIETY FOR YOUR POUND
To have a little culinary variety while saving some money, try the 5-10-5 menu (£5 for starters, £10 for mains, £5 for dessert)—or other variation of numbers, such as 4-8-4—which is available at many restaurants, or the cicheti-style (small plates) menu. Among those places I’ve not already mentioned, I particularly liked Coppi and Muddlers Club, The National Grande Cafe, and the cafe brunch at Bullitt Hotel—all of which are in the city centre or the Cathedral Quarter.
The original Harp Bar is bound up with Good Vibrations, a punk record shop founded in 1977 by a man called Terri Hooley—Belfast’s “Godfather of Punk”—on Queen Victoria Street, which was the most bombed quarter-mile in Europe at the time of the Troubles. Good Vibrations is also the name of a 2012 film that tells the story of how Terri Hooley encouraged and promoted Belfast’s nascent punk bands during the Troubles and features some of the seminal songs of the time, like “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones, “Just Another Teenage Rebel” by The Outcasts, and “Alternative Ulster” by Stiff Little Fingers. The punk scene was a neutral refuge for young people from both Protestant and Catholic communities, from all classes, who rejected sectarian violence and the call of the paramilitaries. (Pop culture can contribute to a concrete good, people!) In 1980, the BBC DJ John Peel would introduce a punk concert at Ulster Hall like this: “Northern Ireland, for reasons best known to itself, is the last great stronghold of the punk world. Punk music and lifestyle has virtually died everywhere else.” And as Terri Hooley once said, “New York had the bands, London had the fashion, Belfast had the reason.” As in, I presume: this city needed it more than any other.
Go pub-hopping for a bit of craic
Craic, apparently pronounced "crack", means fun. Here are some places to have some:
You've probably never seen anything quite like the Crown Liquor Saloon, so definitely drop in. Standing across the road from Europa Hotel (apparently Europe’s most bombed hotel during the Troubles), its heritage value is such that the UK National Trust actually bought it over in 1978 to better conserve it, so that tells you something. Housed in a three-storey dating from 1895, it was previously a hotel and a gin palace. It's decorated in the Baroque style, with ornate tiling, glasswork and woodwork by Italian craftsmen who came to Belfast in the 1880s to build Catholic churches. It feels like being in a many-splendoured glass cavern, simultaneously grand and intimate. My favourite feature is the perfectly named "snugs": cosy little hatches with doors for patrons who want privacy, and which still sport bronze match strikers and a bell you can ding to summon service.
Another one of my favourite pubs is the Sunflower, in particular for the relic of the Troubles—a metal cage—which still covers its entrance. It was meant to deflect bullets and bombs, but has now been prettied up with hanging baskets of flowers. Along one side of its building you’ll also see a comic sign that reads, NO TOPLESS BATHING / ULSTER HAS SUFFERED ENOUGH, which seems to have drawn its inspiration from old wall graffiti.
I also like Maddens (you have to buzz the door to get in, and its walls seem to be papered in republican sympathies), the Duke of York (where former Sinn Fein leader—and some say, former IRA commander—Gerry Adams used to work as a barman before the Troubles), and John Hewitt (founded by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre in the mid-1990s to generate funds, and which takes its name from a socialist poet).
If you're into punk history, have a pint at The Harp Bar—well, in name only. Housed in an old Bushmills whisky distillery dating back to 1832 and plushly decorated in Victoriana, it's a popular drinking hole—you'll have to join a queue on the weekends—while its original incarnation some metres away on the same Hill Street had a decidedly disreputable air about it, and was the home of Northern Ireland’s punk rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s. A plaque now marks the building where the old Harp Bar used to stand.
DO THE BELFAST TRAD TRAIL
Sit in on an Irish trad session. You can find one at some pub pretty much every day of the week. A session differs from a gig—it’s very casual; musicians just sit around a table. As a cab driver put it, “People just turn up with their instruments and join in.”
If you'd like a guided tour, join Conor Lamb and Deidre Galway on the Belfast Trad Trail, which starts from The Dirty Onion in the Cathedral Quarter. As professional trad musicians themselves (they form part of Music in the Glen), they play the bagpipe, flutes and guitar, and are friendly, easygoing company. They’ll walk you through the ins and outs of Irish trad music and instruments while performing a number of tunes. Listen closely, for you’ll soon be tested on the differences between a jig and a reel. (Somehow, my Grade 8 piano training didn’t fail me!)
Listening to Conor and friends play in a private upstairs room at the Duke of York was a real treat, and I definitely came away with a greater appreciation for the music. While walking from pub to pub, Conor and Deidre also pointed out a few relevant sites of significance to explain a little of the city and the history of trad music. There was also a basic céilí dancing lesson at McHugh’s at the end, which I was shockingly bad at but nonetheless had fun doing!
Gawk at the Merchant Hotel
Drop by the luxurious Merchant Hotel for a meal under the vaulted dome of the Great Room or to clink glasses at the cocktail bar. Take any excuse for the pure pleasure of sitting in its sumptuous Victorian surroundings (all that red velvet!)—assuming that, like me, you can’t afford to stay there. Previously the headquarters of the Ulster Bank, the stately Italianate sandstone dates from 1860, and is topped by a sculpture of the goddess Britannia, flanked by Justice and Commerce. There’s also a champagne lounge, a jazz bar, and a pub on site.
Imagine the Titanic before it sunk
Rediscover the Titanic's tragic history in the Titanic Quarter, where it was designed and built by Harland & Wolff in 1909 before she set sail for New York on April 2, 1912.
In the early twentieth century, Belfast was an industrial powerhouse, known the world over not just for producing ships, but also rope, linen and tobacco. Despite the fate that eventually befell the Titanic on April 14, 1912, Belfast is very proud of its associations with the ship, and on its centenary in 2012, unveiled the Titanic Museum on the grounds of the former shipyard where the luxury liner was born. A cab driver told me that the museum took three years to build—the same length of time it took to build the Titanic itself.
Aside from the standard Titanic Experience, basically a self-guided tour that takes you through the history of Belfast and the Titanic over six floors and nine galleries of the museum, you can also opt for the White Star Premium Pass, which additionally includes entry to the SS Nomadic, a White Star Liner—the last in existence—that shuttled first-class passengers to the Titanic, as well as an hour-long guided tour that also takes you to the drawing offices of Harland &Wolff in what is now the Titanic Hotel opposite the museum.
For a more personalised history of the Titanic, try Susie Millar, a direct descendant of a Titanic deck engineer, who leads tours that include access to the former home of Thomas Andrews—the man who designed Titanic and who was played so empathically in the film by Victor Garber.
Crumlin Road Gaol
Go on a 75-minute guided tour of Crumlin Road Gaol, where 17 men were hanged to death, when the death penalty was still legal in Northern Ireland. It housed some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious murderers, as well as suffragettes, and other “political prisoners”.
Members of the paramilitary groups such as IRA and UVF were held here in remand during the Troubles before serving out their sentences in the infamous H Blocks at the Maze (or Long Kesh) prison, where ten IRA hunger strikers, led by Bobby Sands—famously played by Michael Fassbender in Hunger—died. You can’t visit the Maze prison today; it was partly demolished and there was talk of remaking what remained into a peace centre, but that’s been put on hold due to fears that it may end up glorifying the IRA. No mention is made of the Troubles on the guided tour, I guess because they want to keep it as a neutral ground.
Designed by Charles Lanyon, the Crumlin Road Gaol opened its gates to prisoners from 1846 to 1996, and reopened again to tourists in recent times after a restoration costing 10 million pounds. Across the street is the old Corinthian courthouse, to which prisoners would have been marched along a passage underground to attend trial. It’s a listed building but it’s now in derelict state, bearing the marks of at least two arson attacks. I hear a developer had plans to turn it into a luxury hotel, but that hasn’t panned out.
St George's Market
Soak in the weekend atmosphere at St George’s Market, and try some of Northern Ireland’s most iconic breakfasts, such as the Ulster Fry and Belfast Bap, and a variety of soda bread and potato bread. Built in the 1890s, it’s apparently Ireland’s oldest covered market, offering up food, arts and crafts, as well as live music. Note that it’s only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Get to know people—live
Get to know the local people through TenX9 Belfast, a live personal storytelling night. It’s the founding chapter of a franchise that now extends around the world. Entrance is free where it’s usually held at The Black Box, and you can spend at the bar. Highly, highly recommended. There’s no better way to get a hint of the nuances that govern people’s lives in a particular place.
A quiet place
If you’re looking for a quiet space to read or work while in the city centre, head for the the Linen Hall Library. The building, now about two centuries old, was originally designed by Charles Lanyon as a linen warehouse. On the top floor, there are desks with plug points for the public, as well as little nooks with couches, and you can use the WiFi for free. There’s also a cafe on the floor below, and rotating exhibitions in different sections of the building. For those who are interested, the library also holds an extensive trove of reference books related to Ireland and the Troubles. A bonus while you’re here: you can also pop out for lunch at the Sandwich Cuban Factory. It’s very, very good—and cheap. If you’d rather work at a cafe instead, there’s Establishment Coffee a short walk away.