City slicker: Belfast

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's festival time in the capital of Northern Ireland, a destination that's trying to shake off its troubled past. Tom Adair offers a guide for new and returning visitors

Why visit?

Even when this city was on its knees in the direst days of the 30-year Troubles, it could always fake a swagger. Today it thrives on a rich combination of hospitality and humour.

The giant cranes bestriding the docklands bear the legend H&W, the iconic symbol of Harland and Wolff, in whose shipyard was built the ill-fated Titanic. But barmen and taxi drivers will tell you that H&W is, in fact, Belfast's proclamation of "Hello and Welcome".

This is a city that likes to proclaim; just look at the many murals. They blazon their messages of republican and loyalist propaganda from walls on the Falls and Shankill roads, and in East Belfast. Take The Black Cab Tour (07798 602401), which will navigate you in safety through the enclaves, providing often darkly comic chapter and verse on bombings and shootings, riots and demos as you proceed.

But the scene is changing, one reason to come here in a hurry. A new generation of peacetime murals, featuring non-sectarian heroes such as Van Morrison and George Best, is replacing the old. East Belfast has just unveiled a stunning 20ft addition depicting a collage of significant Titanic scenes by renowned local artist Ross Wilson.

Another reason to visit right now is Belfast's spring-fever addiction to festivals. If the current recession is laying you low, get high on the Festival of Fools (, a street carnival of performers, stand-up comics and theatrical happenings. Comedy, music, theatre, visual arts and literature are also celebrated at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival ( from 29 April to 9 May. The Belfast Film Festival (, from 15 to 30 April, offers indoor respite – Belfast's weather can be fickle – with more than 130 screenings, including local and international premieres.

Don't miss...

City Hall, fronted by a statue of that other great survivor, Queen Victoria. The exterior grandeur of white Portland stone and copper cupolas gives way to Italian marble, sublime stained-glass windows, tracing Belfast's industrial history, a grandiose staircase and city chambers, all of which feature in the hour-long free guided tour (

Belfast's listed Albert Clock, now doubly listed, leaning these days off-vertical by four feet.

A cocktail at the Merchant Hotel to gawp at Belfast's most opulent interior (the former grand hall of the Ulster Bank), and enjoy, in the nouveau-chic atmosphere, the precision of Sean Muldoon, world champion cocktail maker (prices from £7.45 to £750).

Taking a lift to the top of the Victoria Square shopping complex dome for great views of the city.

More great views at the Scots-baronial Belfast Castle on the slopes of Cave Hill (

What's new

The Cathedral Quarter

The blend of historic architectural grandeur and new bohemianism evident in the Cathedral Quarter's proliferation of cafés, bars, new restaurants and artists' galleries makes it Belfast's answer to Dublin's Temple Bar, and the home of "craic-chic". Here, Belfast's sophisticates mix with students from the art college – and not just during festival time – spilling out into Writers' Walk near the towering cathedral, crowding into the cutting-edge Black Box Theatre, or hogging the bar of the John Hewitt pub for a dash of poetry or a session of Belfast's blazing jigs and reels. This once sober quarter of pillared façades has become Belfast's stratosphere of cool.

Oh Yeah

This converted warehouse in cobbled Gordon Street, near High Street, houses the latest, and still developing, hub of music experimentation and entertainment citywide. Music fans browse the exhibition of rock and punk history in Northern Ireland, featuring artefacts belonging to The Undertones, Ash and Snow Patrol, while visitors keen to shimmy can drop in on a gig (often free) showcasing the rising wave of new talent, such as Aaron Shanley or The Jane Bradfords


Ulster Museum

Once the grande dame of Belfast attractions, now bright-eyed and newly reopened, this keeper of treasures is flooded with light, where some old favourites (Takabuti, the first mummy displayed outside Egypt, the Spanish Armada hoard, and an Irish prehistory section par excellence), are augmented by a brand new Troubles installation / exhibition that walks the political tightrope with poise.


Bobbin Café

Newly opened at City Hall, this café boasts the most comfortable seats in the city – and an eye-raising exhibition of things Belfast gave the world. Would you believe air-conditioning, chocolate bars, milk of magnesia, and the ejector seat?



This popular new restaurant mixes fun (an entrance bedecked with a stuffed cloth-elephant and an ibex head), with dark-pillared, low-ceilinged chic. By night the place buzzes with lively chatter, criss-crossed by waiters who glide plates of venison topped with pineapple mango salsa through the mêlée, and in the muted lighting and satirical paintings come into their own.


Insider's secret: Matthew Armstrong, student

"The Duke of York pub in Commercial Court is a tucked-away gem. Belfast works best as a modern city by playing on what it's been good at for centuries. This is tradition with a 21st-century twist – the perfect atmosphere."

Further information

Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau (

Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own