From urban buzz to natural beauty: Belfast in 48 hours
Words by Sara Darling
Belfast is buzzing at any time of year. There are no two ways about it. Split into six quarters (must be an Irish thing!) each has its own identity, scene and nightlife. There is also plenty to do in the daytime, and even though the vivid pink double decker buses are frequently spotted and very eye catching, you can actually get around central Belfast by foot.
Book into the luxury Grand Central Hotel, which is close to all the action on Bedford Street, and enjoy five star treatment, a choice of three restaurants and a rooftop cocktail bar in truly decadent surroundings.
The spacious rooms and suites offer unsurpassed views of the city, with giant beds, crisp white bedding and state of the art finishes with naval inspired design details which remember Belfast’s maritime history, whilst you are only moments away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The hotel’s 23rd floor restaurant and cocktail bar, ‘The Observatory’ is the perfect spot for afternoon tea. Offering panoramic views of the city, you can enjoy finger sandwiches using locally sourced Ewing’s Glenarm smoked salmon and cream cheese with pickled cucumber on Guinness bread along with warm scones and ginger cake and hot pots of tea. Or treat yourself to a cheeky glass of fizz or cocktail.
And what could be more decadent than ending a hard day’s sightseeing than calling in the Hotel’s Own ‘Bath Butler’. A unique service which offers a range of essential oils, prepared by your personal butler and run into a foaming bath; The ‘Sleep Tight Bath’ experience is complimented by a pot of camomile tea and the groundbreaking ‘Interstellar Space Mask’ which self-heats when pressed onto the eyes to help release tension. Finished with a lavender-scented pillow, this is the prelude to the best night’s sleep of your life!
Any break to Belfast will involve lots of walking, so after a refreshing sleep, and hearty breakfast, head out to enjoy the unique landscape of Belfast, which has completely turned around in the past 20 years. A far cry from the hostile city of the 1970s which was most known for The Troubles. The political situation has stabilised, and the city. Money has been pumped into the city, and it is much safer and fresher than ever before.
Victorian buildings have been given a facelift, and new developments including bars, galleries and restaurants are sprouting up at the rate of knots. Check out St James Street restaurant just around the corner from the hotel for local hospitality, great food and delicious cocktails, before heading further afield for more drinks!
The newly developed Titanic Quarter celebrates Belfast’s rich sailing history, and is the home of the award winning Titanic Museum, which was built in the city’s docks. Today, two Harland and Wolff cranes, known as Samson and Goliath, dominate the harbour skyline, and the impressive building which houses the museum and its full- scale reconstructions is well worth a visit if you’re interested in the ship-building industry.
You can explore the ship, through her construction and launch, to her infamous maiden voyage and catastrophic demise. The journey goes beyond the aftermath of the sinking, to the discovery of the wreck and continues into the present day in the Ocean Exploration Centre.
As a finale to your visit, treat yourself to some locally caught fish and chips in the neighbouring Titanic Hotel, which is designed in original ship building premises, and is home to a permanent collection of over 500 artworks, artefacts, travel posters and archive photographs.
Nowadays, Belfast is more celebrated for its natural beauty, which has been immortalised in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’. Super fans can take a tour to see the hotspots of Westeros whilst posing for selfies in the original filming locations.
Since it aired in 2011, Belfast has been drawing fans to soak up the scenery including Tollymore Forest Park which acts as the backdrop to The Haunted Forest, Antrim’s Dark Hedges which appear as the Kings Road, Dunluce Castle is transformed into Greyjoy’s Kingdom of Pyke, and any fan must visit the mysterious Mermaid Cave which is 80 feet below the castle ruins.
In fact, the whole of Northern Ireland could be used as a film set. The geographic history is diverse, dating back to the Ice Age with parts of the country formed by volcanoes, and has resulted in its characteristic rolling hills and mountains. As an island, coastal wear and tear has also led to some of the most spectacular coastal landscapes in Europe, which add to the mystery and romance of the emerald Isle.
A trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and national nature reserve, The Giant’s Causeway is a must for any Northern Ireland first timer, and this will help you appreciate the natural history of the island, and marvel at the 40,000 interlocking columns of volcanic rock which have stood the test of time.
You don’t need a ticket to get to the coastline, but if you do fancy a wander round the Visitor Centre, the ticket price will get headphones for your personal tour. But there is a most welcome pub and hotel, should you need a comfort stop or some food before your return journey.
From stunning landscapes, windswept bays and crumbling castles, Northern Ireland has lots to take your breath away. And one of the most prominent features in the city is Black Mountain, which dominates the view from most parts of West Belfast. The ‘mountain’ (or rather large hill) is a great place for hiking, dog walking or enjoying a picnic with stunning views over the city.
Venture further north into Cavehill Country Park, and visit Belfast Castle, which has a visitors’ centre and coffee shop and exceptional views of the city. Cave Hill is a great hiking trail to see the entire city from above, with a few surprise caves to explore along the way.which is thought to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
If you’re pushed for time, and want to see as much as you can, a Black Cab Tour will take you to all the hotspots, which you might not find by public transport or by foot. Discuss your route before you start, and ask your driver to stop for picture opportunities if anything takes your fancy.
The old town and the political landmarks are a must, where you can get out to see the paintings which remember the war, and put the community’s troubles into perspective. As does the Crumlin Road Gaol and the Crown Bar, which have had many infamous visitors. If you get a chance, daub your name on the International Peace Wall in West Belfast, which is a collection of murals from political movements, activists, and artists who lived and lost during the conflict.
Heading back into the city centre and you will be spoilt for choice for drinking dens. The most popular hotspots are found in the Cathedral quartet which has seen extensive redevelopment. Built around St Anne’s Cathedral and courtyard, this buzzy area is a growing hotspot of arts and culture, and the Duke of York features its own courtyard of public art and umbrella ceiling.
Whether you enjoy a pint of the black stuff, a whistle of whiskey or a more sophisticated champagne, the locals will embrace you and make you feel right at home. From joining in on an impromptu sing along to Irish traditional music- fiddles, harps and concertina, you might be tempted to join in with the Irish jig. Winter is romantic and festive with twinkly lights and Christmas markets, and summer hosts some fab festivals, making it the ideal break at any time of year.
Flights to Belfast fly from London Gatwick with EasyJet six times a day.
RMS Titanic Museum
Game of Thrones Tour
Black Cab Tours
Tourism Northern Island
James St Restaurant
The Grand Central Hotel Belfast*
*Rooms from £190 based on two people sharing a double room on a B&B basis. Afternoon Tea in The Observatory is served daily from 1pm to 5pm at £40 per person.