Why Belfast Is the Emerging Capital of Cool

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Mar 03, 2017

by STEVE MCKENNA, Writer

Having emerged from a dark past with its stout spirit intact, Belfast is now one of Europe’s coolest alternative destinations – thanks, in part, to Game of Thrones.

Once upon a time – okay, a few decades ago – Belfast was not the kind of place you’d really consider for a city break. It was mired in The Troubles, an era of bombs, bullets and sectarian strife that blighted Northern Ireland in the late 20th century, putting it in a bundle with other war-torn spots to avoid, such as Baghdad and Bosnia. Now, almost 20 years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – a peace deal to end The Troubles – Belfast ranks alongside Berlin and Budapest as one of Europe’s coolest alternative destinations. And while the city of Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, might disagree, Northern Ireland’s vibrant capital is arguably the most intriguing city in the Emerald Isle – especially if you’re a Game of Thrones fan. The world’s most talked-about TV show is filmed in studios in Belfast and on location in the bewitchingly beautiful countryside that surrounds it.

A great place to soak up Belfast’s renaissance is in its hip and happening Cathedral Quarter. Fanning out from St Anne’s Cathedral with its Spire of Hope (a towering, needle-like sculpture regarded as a symbol of peace and reconciliation), this district is tucked away in north-central Belfast. A 10-minute walk from the magnificent Neoclassical City Hall, it oozes an arty, industrial-chic vibe.

Ambling down its cobblestoned alleys, you’ll find a string of converted Victorian properties and warehouses that are now home to artists’ studios, gig venues and friendly, ambient joints in which you can dine, drink and mingle with Belfast folk from across the generations. 

While it’s absorbing by day, the area really sparks to life in the evenings, buoyed by a youthful after-work crowd. “During The Troubles, there was no night-time economy to speak of in central Belfast. People would finish work, get in their cars and go home. It was quite scary back then but things have changed dramatically,” says Willie Jack, who runs a handful of buzzing Cathedral Quarter establishments, including my favourite, the Duke of York.

Not just gorgeously furnished – the walls and ceilings are covered in antique mirrors advertising old Irish whiskey brands, as well as photographs and artefacts of bygone Belfast – this pub has, as they say here, good craic (a Gaelic word ostensibly meaning “lively chat and a good time”). Over a chorus of high-rising Belfast accents – male and female – I order a Jameson Redbreast 12 Year Old, one of 147 varieties of Irish whiskey served here. The Duke of York is also renowned for its creamy stouts and live music. Before finding fame, Belfast band Snow Patrol played here in front of a crowd of about 30. 

After the whiskey’s sweet, spicy kick hits home, I mosey around the corner to The Black Box, an acclaimed arts hub that draws a diverse crowd. Tonight, there’s a local band strumming contemporary Irish folk tunes but on other nights you’ll find stand-up comics, cabaret or theatre. Recently, the poems of Seamus Heaney, Northern Ireland’s late revered poet, were brought to life with live drawing, audio and drama. 

Beer and cider aficionados will appreciate the rotating selection of tap and bottled craft tipples in The Black Box’s Green Room café-bar. For something really local, ask for a porter or ale from Boundary Brewing, a Belfast cooperative brewery. 

You needn’t drink on an empty stomach in the Cathedral Quarter. Some of Belfast’s best restaurants are hidden in these alleys, including The Muddlers Club, a sleek bar-bistro. Named after a secret society that met here 200 years ago, it’s run by Gareth McCaughey, former head chef at Ox, one of the city’s two Michelin-starred eateries.

Like most of Belfast’s top chefs, McCaughey is big on seasonal homegrown produce and inventive, artfully presented dishes with cosmopolitan flavours. Though I’m tempted by the pigeon with foie gras and the lamb loin with red cabbage, squash and pumpkin seeds, I plump for pumpkin raviolo with ricotta and chestnut, followed by hake with parsley and brandade (a spread of salt cod and olive oil) then malty ice-cream with maple and peanut butter.

While Belfast’s culinary scene may not yet have a global reputation, its street murals definitely do. The most notorious – featuring gun-toting, masked paramilitaries and partisan banners – stud still-segregated West Belfast, which witnessed some of the worst violence of The Troubles, a conflict that killed more than 3600 people and left thousands more injured.

Popular black-taxi tours crawl along Shankill Road (strewn with Union Jacks, it’s home mostly to Protestant descendants of British settlers who want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom) and neighbouring Falls Road (bedecked with the Irish tricolour and Gaelic road signs, it’s home mostly to Catholics who’ve traditionally favoured a united Ireland).

The murals are fascinating, occasionally disturbing and not to be missed but I prefer the quirky, witty art that decorates walls and shop shutters in and around the Cathedral Quarter. Seeking it out yourself can be fun but, for a helping hand and titbits on what inspired these prolific artists (who hail from Northern Ireland and beyond), do the Street Art Walking Tour.

Run every Sunday, the tour is led by Adam Turkington, one of the city’s cultural figureheads, who also directs September’s annual Culture Night Belfast, when the streets throng with more than 250 free arts events. “The majority of people who come on my tours are from Belfast,” says Turkington. “They’ve grown up with a certain type of mural [serious, militaristic and partisan] so it’s great for them to see the very different kind of art [dark-humoured, surreal and mostly apolitical] that’s flourishing here.”

Highly Instagrammable are the murals in the courtyard of the Dark Horse (+44 28 9023 7807), an ornate European-style coffee house across from the Duke of York. There’s a tongue-in-cheek ode to all things Northern Ireland, showcasing, among others, George Best (the legendary Belfast-born footballer), a bondage-clad Gillian Anderson (star of The Fall, the BBC psychological thriller set in Belfast) and Samson and Goliath (the giant yellow gantry cranes that loom over the city’s historic shipyard where the Titanic was built).

I particularly love Nan with the Pearl Earring, a wrinkly twist on Vermeer’s classic portrait. It’s opposite the Sunflower, a trendy but down-to-earth corner pub that’s famed for having central Belfast’s last remaining Troubles-era security cage at its entrance. Adorned with flowers, the cage is now purely ornamental but serves as a reminder of the days when publicans, wary of security incidents, had to “buzz” punters in. “My staff are in their twenties and thirties so today’s Belfast is normal for them,” says Sunflower landlord Pedro Donald. “For me – I’m 52 – the difference between then and now is like chalk and cheese.”

The Sunflower – and most of Belfast’s compact core – is within walking distance of my base, the Bullitt Hotel. Named after the Steve McQueen movie, it’s a cool new 43-room boutique hotel, bar and restaurant with smile-raising features. The voice in the lift, for example, says, “Doors open, so they are” with an “upspeaky” Belfast twang.

Close by, in an opulent Victorian-era bank, is The Merchant, a decadent hotel and spa where affluent tourists and Belfast’s well-heeled enjoy fine dining, afternoon tea, cocktails, Champagne and music (Berts Jazz Bar has nightly live music).

Whatever you do, don’t leave without visiting Titanic Belfast. Set in a dazzling, aluminium-draped waterfront building shaped like four ships’ hulls (or icebergs, say some), this six-storey exhibition space has received numerous awards since opening on the centenary of the vessel’s 1912 maiden voyage. In December, it was named World’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards. 

The Titanic story is superbly told, with immersive, interactive galleries charting its construction, sailing, sinking, aftermath and rediscovery. My inner child especially enjoys the Shipyard Ride, a fairground-like foray through a replica of Titanic’s hull under construction. Infused with the sights and sounds of riveters at work, it evokes the boomtown days of Belfast when shipbuilding – along with the linen, rope-making and tobacco processing trades – drove the economy.

In today’s post-industrial, post-Troubles Belfast, two of the biggest earners are tourism, and TV and movie production. An anchor’s throw from Titanic Belfast is Titanic Studios, where Game of Thrones is shot. When they’re not filming this HBO hit, the show’s stars are often spotted around Belfast. For some visitors, a selfie with, say, Kit Harington (who plays Jon Snow), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) is the perfect souvenir.

Me? I’m taking home a tray of Irish whiskey truffles. It’s not much of a keepsake – chances are I’ll polish them off on the flight back – but that’s okay. With its marvellous pubs, murals and accents, Belfast is a city that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. 

On The Game of Thrones Trail

Many operators run set-jetting tours from Belfast. Some visit key Game of Thrones (GoT) locations with guests dressed in cloaks, wielding toy swords and shields (gameofthronestours.com). Alternatively, plot your own self-drive route or do a one-on-one tour with a knowledgeable chauffeur-guide such as Dee Morgan. Here are the must-sees.

For Winterfell: Visit Castle Ward. Located in emerald-green countryside south of Belfast, this 18th-century estate doubled as the home of House Stark in GoT’s first season. Donning replica costumes, you can fire live arrows from the very same spot where Jon Snow and Robb and Bran Stark honed their archery skills.

For the Kingsroad: Visit the Dark Hedges. Ancient beech trees form a tunnel-like arch over the road along which Arya Stark escaped from King’s Landing disguised as a boy. Retrace her footsteps then go to Gracehill House, a snug hotel that faces the Kingsroad. Inside is a wooden GoT -themed door crafted from two Dark Hedges trees that came down in a storm last year.

For the Iron Islands: Go to the Causeway Coast. Precipitous cliffs and other-worldly rock formations characterise this dramatic coastline north of Belfast, where many scenes for the Iron Islands (the realm of the Greyjoys) were shot. Another pit stop for GoT fans is the wave-lashed Cushendun Caves, where the sorceress Melisandre gave birth to Stannis Baratheon’s shadow creature. 

For the Dothraki Grasslands: Visit Binevenagh Mountain. Remember season five’s finale, when Daenerys Targaryen was dropped off in hostile Dothraki territory by her exhausted dragon, Drogon? That was filmed by Binevenagh, a rugged peak that sprouts from moody boglands and pastures.

For GoT souvenirs: Visit Steensons Workshop & Gallery. HBO commissioned this family-run goldsmith in Glenarm, a Causeway Coast village, to design jewellery for the show. Watch artisans at work, admire King Joffrey’s wedding crown and Margaery Tyrell’s tiara, and purchase GoT -inspired keepsakes such as direwolf-embossed cufflinks.

SEE ALSO: The Spectacular Filming Locations of Game of Thrones