The capital of Northern Ireland offers fine food and drink, unbeatable craic and a new quarter that celebrates its past as an industrial powerhouse. It is also a perfect base to explore the ancient scenery and castles made famous by Game of Thrones, Nicola Brady discovers
When it comes to transformations, Belfast is unparalleled. In the space of a few decades, it has emerged from its past and established a reputation as a city of interesting bars, renowned restaurants and world-class attractions. Visitor numbers to Northern Ireland have been steadily increasing over the past few years, with the first nine months of 2017 seeing tourist revenue increase by 16 per cent to £747 million. And with Lonely Planet naming Belfast and the Causeway Coast as the number one region to visit in 2018, those figures are set to climb even higher.
The accolade is more than warranted. In the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast’s charming central hub, each cobbled street seems to lead towards another lure, whether it’s a buzzing restaurant or a cosy little pub. Belfast is a city that does pubs well – think antique carved furniture, dim lights and, of course, a steady stream of Guinness (the Crown Liquor Saloon, with its carved-mahogany snugs and etched-glass, is one of the finest pubs you’ll find anywhere either side of the Irish Sea).
It’s a fairly small city to navigate, so exploring is best done on foot. But it’s even better when a local is leading you around. Belfast Food Tours (tasteandtour.co.uk) will take you around the city, dipping into the best places to eat.
Tours tend to start in the beautifully grand St George’s Market, before heading into various shops, restaurants and pubs. They also offer a Belfast Gin Jaunt as well as a Whiskey Walk, with tastings at different spots around the city.
For those of an arty persuasion, a street art walking tour with Seedhead Arts (seedheadarts.com) is a must. The city is swathed with large-scale installations, and walking around with an artist gives a valuable insight to the work (as well as the best ways to find them all). If you’d rather explore without pounding the pavement, then a Black Cab tour will guide you around Belfast and through its turbulent past. A ride with Touring Around Belfast (touringaroundbelfast.com) weaves through the north and west of the city, past monuments such as the Peace Wall and the infamous murals, as the local driver explains The Troubles.
Things are a little more high tech – though just as haunting – at Titanic Belfast (titanicbelfast.com). It’s only been open since 2012, but the attraction has seen year-on-year growth, with more than 4.8 million passing through its doors so far.
The building itself, designed to mirror the bows of ships, houses interactive exhibits telling the story of the fabled liner, which was built on this very spot.
It’s a mightily impressive space – visitors travel on a ride through the “dockyard” as coals glow, you can look out at the sea from behind a vibrating handrail, and see exact replicas of cabins. As you walk through a dark tunnel, illuminated with stars, the voices of survivors talk about their experiences on that fateful night. The tour finishes with an incredible screening of the wreckage, with footage playing below the glass floor underneath your feet.
A fantasy destination
The evolution of Titanic Belfast has seen a regeneration of a district, now home to brand new hotels and other
attractions, like the SS Nomadic. But there’s another facet to the Titanic Quarter, one which isn’t accessible to visitors but draws rather a lot of attention.
The Titanic Studios have been the primary filming studio and headquarters for Game of Thrones since the series began. While the studios aren’t open for visitors, many of the filming locations used in the series are and have proved hugely popular with tourists. Drive out of the city and there are numerous spots where you can immerse yourself in the fantasy. Castle Ward in County Down was used for nine locations in all, with a 16th century castle doubling up as Winterfell. One of the most popular sights is the interwoven trees of the Dark Hedges, which became the King’s Road in the show.
There are a few companies offering day tours around various spots, but the free Game of Thrones NI Locations app lists all of the sites both in their actual and Westeros incarnations.
Aside from the Game of Thrones connection, the Causeway Coast is a stunner in its own right. The Giant’s Causeway, a tangle of hexagonal columns peeking above the ocean, is one of the most striking sights you could ask for. A drive along the coast takes in some similarly gorgeous spots, like the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the crumbling Dunluce Castle and the pretty village of Bushmills, home to the oldest working distillery in Ireland (bushmills.com).
Here, you can tour the home of this famous whiskey, learning all about how
it’s made, before settling in to a cosy tasting room for a snifter (or two) of the good stuff. It’s the perfect way to round off a taste of Northern Ireland.