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You can start the weekend by joining the cheering crowds at Ravenhill to watch the Ulster Rugby team. The White Knights, as they’re affectionately known by their fans, compete in the Heineken Cup, Europe’s premier rugby competition. To enjoy the experience to the fullest, it’s worth going for a pint of the black stuff in the bars near the ground so you can soak up the atmosphere and get in the mood.
We love our sport here in Belfast – if rugby isn’t your thing you can catch a Gaelic football or hurling match at Casement Park, cheer on the Northern Ireland soccer team at Windsor Park, or even get behind The Belfast Giants ice-hockey team at The Odyssey Arena!
If you’re more of a culture-vulture, there’s plenty on offer for some cerebral stimulation. The Grand Opera House is right in the heart of the city, and offers a mixed programme of West End musicals, pantomime, dramas and opera. The Lyric Theatre is Northern Ireland’s only full-time producing theatre and has more of an emphasis on local talent, both on and off the stage. You’ll find the newly refurbished Lyric in the Stranmillis area of Belfast, almost on the bank of the river Lagan itself, which makes for a very pleasant view over a drink during the intermission.
The Ormeau Baths Gallery is a wonderful spot too, and one of Belfast’s leading contemporary galleries. The Victorian building, a converted public baths and swimming pool, is based in The Linen Quarter and exhibits local and international work from established and emerging artists. Best of all, it’s free.
In recent years, the shopping in Belfast has undergone a complete transformation, with designer stores and chic boutiques opening across the city.
When the Victoria Square complex opened its doors in 2008, it increased Belfast’s shopping opportunity by a third, and it still dominates the shopping experience and skyline of Belfast today. The House of Fraser, the first store to open in the centre, is the largest store that the retailer has opened in the UK. It’s just one of the big-name retailers that have opened there in recent years.
The Merchant Hotel has also attracted some big designer names since it opened in 2006, and is Northern Ireland’s only stockist of Valentino, Celine and Christian Louboutin of Paris, and Harper.
Although it might have had a slow start, Belfast has a growing and thriving restaurant scene. At James Street South, you can really eat like royalty. Owned by Niall and Joanne McKenna, the restaurant serves French-inspired cuisine, and uses fantastic locally-sourced produce. Niall won the Northern Ireland heat of The Great British Menu 2010, with his dessert being served in a banquet hosted by HRH The Prince of Wales.
It seems that Deane’s Restaurant, and owner Michael Deane, has been synonymous with fine-dining in Belfast for an age. Opened in 1997, the restaurant has held countless awards, from AA rosettes to a Michelin star. Most recently they’ve been awarded Food & Wine’s Ulster Restaurant of the Year 2010. It’s still the place to be seen.
They might be the new kid on the block, having opened their doors in 2006, but The Merchant Hotel instantly became the jewel in Belfast’s hospitality crown. Right at the heart of the trendy Cathedral Quarter, you’ll be spoiled for choice between the grandeur of the Art Deco decor and Executive Chef Tony O’Neill’s delicious food. The cuisine is based on Irish, British and French influences, with fantastic local produce playing a big part.
It isn’t all pressed white table-cloths and gleaming cutlery, though. Long’s has been an Belfast institution for almost a century, and serves some of the best fish and chips we’ve ever tasted. Served with mushy peas, buttered bread and a mug of tea, it’ll put hairs on your chest, as they say in Belfast!
If eating on the go is more your style, you should get down to St. George’s Market. There’s a weekly variety market on Fridays and a City Food and Garden Market on Saturday – everything from fishmongers and rare-breed butchers to home-made cake and bread stalls – and everything in between.
The Lagan Towpath is perfect for a more relaxing stroll, surrounded by local flora and fauna. Starting in Stranmillis, the walk can take you through the Lagan Valley Regional park and out to Lisburn, if you’re so inclined. For us, a more leisurely amble to Shaw’s Bridge and back, a walk of around 2 ½ miles, is more than enough, followed by a restorative pint in the Cutter’s Wharf bar, where you started.
If there’s one thing that Belfast does better than most, it’s good bars. Down cobbled alleyways and hidden down side-streets, you’d be forgiven for thinking they didn’t want you to find them. When you do though, you’re in for a treat. It mightn’t be a bar we’d drink in regularly, but The Crown Bar is a “must-see” for any first-time imbiber in our city. The bar is owned by the National Trust and worth a visit, as much for the splendour of the Victorian Architecture and decor as the beer. Whites Tavern is the oldest bar in Belfast, dating back to the 17th century, and the first of our hard-to-find bars. Located in Winecellar Entry, you’ll definitely need to ask a passer-by to find it. The atmosphere is very easy-going and friendly, with a traditional peat fire in the hearth and local memorabilia on display. There’s a really mixed entertainments programme at nights, varying between traditional Irish music and house and rock.
The Duke of York is also hard to find, but worth it. Down a cobbled entry in Commercial Court, the bar sports old-fashioned adverts for whiskey and Guinness, along with lots of local sporting memorabilia inside. It gets incredibly busy at the weekends, when the punters spill out onto the cobbled entry-way, weather permitting. It’s also in the city’s trendy The Cathedral Quarter area.
These days, it seems like there’s always one concert or another to go to, with Custom House Square being the venue of choice. The Belsonic festival is now an annual event, with headlining acts like Primal Scream, Elbow, Plan B and The Specials wowing the crowds.
If a seat and a pint in a proper pint glass is more your style, then The Empire on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue should be on your itinerary. Whether it’s a cover band (The Rolling Clones and Kings of Lyon are two of the best names we’ve seen) or original music, The Empire is a great venue. If you do go, try and catch Rab McCullough and his band or Ken Haddock – they’re two of the best acts in Belfast.
Black Box in The Cathedral Quarter is a bit of a wild card, but well worth checking out. It’s a cultural space, so there’s a real mixed bag of entertainment: folk music, jazz, rock, you name it.
If you’re in the mood to spoil yourself, then the five star Merchant Hotel is definitely the place to stay. Right in the heart of The Cathedral Quarter, the Merchant is a Grade A listed building with sumptuous decor and modern amenities to match, including a spa, and rooftop gymnasium. It’s the place to stay for visiting celebrities, and you can do some star-spotting in the wonderfully decadent cocktail bar over a cosmopolitan or two.
The Fitzwilliam Hotel can be found on Great Victoria Street, right beside The Grand Opera House, and adds a touch of sophistication to Belfast. The Deluxe rooms have fantastic views over Great Victoria Street.
The North Antrim Coast, and the Glens of Antrim in particular, is a short drive out of Belfast but seems a world away from the office blocks and paved streets.
The landscape is truly breathtaking, with glacial valleys, waterfalls, wooded glens, and sandy beaches. The Glens of Antrim themselves have been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
You’ll also find The Giants Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede on the scenic route along the coast, two of the best-known landmarks in Northern Ireland.
Depending on your point of view, The Giant’s Causeway is either a natural phenomenon or part of Ireland’s magical folklore. What is in no doubt is that the basalt columns are a UNESCO world heritage site. We’ll leave it up to you to decide whether they were formed by an ancient volcanic eruption or built by the hero Finn McCool so he could get to grips with a fiery Scottish giant. You can round off your visit to the North Antrim Coast by stopping in any of the coastal villages to try some Yellowman and some Dulse, both specialties of the area. The Yellowman is a sticky, sweet honeycomb – not too good for your teeth, but you’ll find yourself eating the lot – while Dulse is a dried seaweed, pulled from the rocks along the coast and, if the locals are right, will keep you healthy and strong. It says a lot about our outlook on live, but we know which one we prefer.
Belfast doesn’t do Sundays. Really. The vast majority of shops and amenities just don’t open for business. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and it gives you the perfect excuse to get out and about.