You could say the travel bug runs in the family. I live for holidays and if I don’t go on 2 or 3 trips a year I just can’t cope. Then you’ve got our kid (brother, for those outside Liverpool) who packed his bags and headed off to the Caribbean a few years ago. He took a job as a croupier on a cruise ship and he claimed that seeing as he took money off people in international waters he was basically a pirate of the Caribbean – not a bad one to add to the CV. After a tour or two on the cruise ships he met a girl from Belfast and after a whirlwind romance they both quit the ships and settled down in her home country. I say settled, he’s extremely homesick for Liverpool – who wouldn’t be? They’re moving over here in a couple of months so I thought now is as good a time as any to visit him and experience a new place in the process.
I booked an apartment with Citybase apartments who I used when I went to London. Once again they did not disappoint. We stayed in a massive Victorian building off Lisburn Road (full of bars and restaurants and about a 15 minute walk into the city centre) and were pleasantly surprised to find we’d been upgraded to a 2-bedroom apartment, which took up basically the whole ground floor of the building. It was bigger than my actual house. The highlight was definitely the shower with 8 different showerheads facing in every direction imaginable, a radio and sauna all controlled with the push of a button. We arrived in Belfast extremely early (up at 3.30am to catch the flight) and although hotel check in wasn’t until 2pm they allowed us to check in early which was hugely appreciated as I needed a nap and I needed a nap HARD. The beds were extremely comfy and they even left us teabags and milk so overall massive thumbs up from me!
Isabeals – Located right in the heart of the city centre, we visited here for Irelands answer to the full English breakfast – the Irish Fry. It’s almost exactly the same except swerve the beans and toast and add in soda bread and potato cakes. It hit the spot but I definitely missed the moisture of the beans – it reminded me of that Peter Kay sketch, “Has tha nowt moist?” Breakfast and drinks for 4 came in at a reasonable £21.50.
Café Vaudeville – I wanted to try here because everyone raves about it. It certainly looks the part when you go in; amazing chandeliers and décor synonymous with fine dining. The service left a lot to be desired though; very slow. The food and cocktails were okay, nothing special and at £160 for a meal for 4 not exactly the cheapest place to scran.
Bia (Culturlann) – This was a little café on Falls Road (the Catholic side of town) in the Irish culture centre and it was by far the best place we ate. The food was delicious and it wasn’t at all expensive. My brother and his girlfriend had never heard of it before but they said they’d deffo go back.
Four Star Pizza – My brother claimed this takeaway was nice than Dominos and he wasn’t wrong. £25 for 2 16” pizzas means it was much cheaper than Dominos too. Side note – the Dominos there claims to deliver until 5am, puts our 3am to shame.
The Dock (Honesty box café) – This is literally right next to the Titanic museum and it was my favourite find of the trip. You can bring your own food and drink to sit in or you can help yourself to tea, coffee, cakes etc. and just make a donation to the running of the café. You’re then free to sit in the eccentric surroundings complete with access to free Wi-Fi and while the day away. For the musically gifted they also have guitars, which you’re free to strum away on, and a pretty well stocked library if you just fancy a read. It’s such a good idea and a quick glance down into the ‘honesty box’ tells me they make more money than a normal café for sure.
We stuck to the Irish bars (obv – when in Rome) and despite being warned several times that Belfast was extremely expensive, I can’t say I noticed a massive difference. Saying that, I don’t drink pints of beer and that seems to be where it’s most noticeable; around £3.30 for a pint. We checked out McCracken’s, Kelly’s (a really, really old pub), The Cuckoo (great for live music) and Lavery’s (where there are plenty of pool tables). There may have been more but Bushmills the local whisky also may have overcome me.
WHAT TO DO/SEE
Black Taxi Tour – You can do the traditional hop on-hop off bus tours that you get in every city OR unique to Belfast, you can have your own private black cab tour with personal tour guide. We had a driver called Rab and despite occasionally not being able to understand his thick Northern Irish accent it was one of the most interesting tours I’ve ever been on. I’ll admit I was almost completely ignorant of the history of Northern Ireland and Belfast and the troubles which have plagued it for many years but Rab gave us the full run down. The fact that the tensions over there are still very much current means the tour felt like you were experiencing history as it actually happened. There are two very distinct sides of the divide; Falls Road – the Catholic/Nationalist side and Shankhill Road – the Protestant/Loyalist side and the two are separated by 23km of huge “peace walls”. This is what I found to be the most shocking thing that even now a city has to be literally separated to avoid conflict as the feelings run so high on both sides. The “peace walls” – I have to put that in quotes as although they keep the peace I just find it too ironic to call them that – have gaps at certain points which are double gated and locked after 7pm Mon-Fri and after 3pm on Saturday. Lots of houses in The Falls & Shankhill areas are covered in murals (The famous Belfast Murals) depicting various points in the struggles and Rab gave us the back story to each one. One depicted a man with the nickname “Top gun” – so called because he had killed the most Catholics, he died aged 30. Another showed ‘Bobby Sands’; the first to die in the hunger strikes (against Margaret Thatcher’s policies) in the early 80’s. He actually ran as an MP while in jail. It all sounds like serious stuff and it is, but we felt completely safe the whole time and it’s really important to be aware of what goes on in the world around us. Especially one so close to home. The tour takes around 90 minutes. http://belfastblackcabtours.co.uk/
Leaning clock tower – Who needs Pisa when you have the leaning clock tower of Belfast?
Victoria shopping centre – There’s a big glass dome on top of the shopping centre with a lift that goes up to the top, from where you can get a great view over the city.
The Big Fish – Not far from the leaning clock tower on the rivers edge is ‘The Big Fish’; a blue ceramic work of art containing a time capsule with local poetry etc.
Titanic Museum – We walked all the way down there but ended up just sitting in the honesty box café watching skateboarders, in our defence we were very hungover. But yeh, it’s there. I did have to laugh at the slogan for the Titanic boat tour though – “Titanic – she was alright when she left here!”
Lovelocks – On the footbridge over Lagan Weir you’ll find Belfast’s own lovelock bridge where hundreds of couples have declared their love for one another. Some of them are proper cute.
All in all it’s one of the quietest cities I’ve visited, with maybe the least to do. It’s definitely somewhere I’d recommend visiting (especially as it takes 50 minutes on the plane from Liverpool airport) but it doesn’t really warrant a second visit. You can fit everything in during a long weekend.