Belfast is a strong, resilient city. It’s only been 18 years since “The Troubles”, the unrest which shook Northern Ireland to its core. But today, Belfast is bouncing back. The city has discovered a new, cosmopolitan side to itself and tourists are finding out just how alluring the Northern Irish capital really is. This is a small city but hiring a car in Belfast with easyCar opens up the rest of Northern Ireland and the spectacular coast, just an hour’s drive from the city centre.
Eat an “Ulster Fry” for breakfast
Northern Ireland is technically part of the UK but its desire to carve out a unique identity, separate from the mainland, seeps into every aspect of life – from its place names to its breakfasts. An Ulster fry prides itself on being different from a traditional English breakfast. Alongside the usual sausage, bacon and tomato, the ulster fry includes two fried eggs, lightly browned potato, soda bread and black and white pudding.
Where to get the best “Ulster fry” in Belfast is a contentious issues but Bright’s – a no frills restaurant on the high street – is a firm favourite with locals and tourists. Order a “Bright’s fry” for under £4.00. Just don’t expect to do anything too active for a few hours afterwards.
Dip into the city’s troubled past
Controversially Belfast has started to capitalise on its turbulent modern history and in recent years, an entire tourist trade based on “The Troubles” has been born. See the scars of the recent conflict between nationalists and unionists all over the city in the form of murals or the “peace walls” that separate Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.
The popular Black Taxi Tours offer an intimate glimpse into the city’s history. The drivers are people who have lived through the conflict and are happy to tell you personal stories as well as an overarching narrative of what happened where. They usually last a few hours and can take you beyond the city centre if you like, as far as the coast. Former political prisoners from the republican community offer political walking tours with the company Coiste. And if you’re still curious, visit the Ulster Museum’s section on “The Troubles” which has an array of captivating photographs and film. Red Barn Gallery also offers photographs from the era which are for sale.
Take a drive to the Giant’s Causeway
Escape Belfast for the day and drive for just over an hour to the coast. The Giant’s Causeway is section of coastline made up of around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, formed as a result of an ancient volcano eruption.
According to legend, the columns are a result of an ongoing feud between the Irish giant, Finn and the Scottish giant, Benandonner. One version of the story says that Finn was frightened of the fight, realising how small he was compared to the Scottish giant. So Finn’s wife disguised him as a baby in a cradle. Benandonner, seeing such a giant baby, was terrified. ‘The father must be enormous’, he thought. So he fled back to Scotland across the sea, destroying the causeway behind him so Finn could not follow.
There’s plenty to explore at the Giant’s Causeway and with so many stories here, it’s particularly entrancing for children. From Port Noffer take the small path leading towards the sea to find the Giant’s Boot, the huge stone shaped like a shoe or find the wishing chair, formed from the columns. Find Finn’s famous camel, also formed of stone and the 167 steep steps which descend from the Red Trail which traces the cliff top.
Have dinner in an old linen warehouse
Belfast used to be Ireland’s linen capital and restaurant Robinson & Cleaver acts as a reminder of the city’s more industrial days. Set in a 19th century linen warehouse and department store, the restaurant offers highly acclaimed food alongside a charming Irish atmosphere. The staff are young and enthusiastic. Order the “Taste of Ulster” sharing board and enjoy smoked salmon, grilled mackerel, Oakwood cheese and wheaten bread. The terrace, particularly in the summer, is buzzing with energy as diners soak up the view of Belfast’s City Hall and the hills north of the city.
Uncover Belfast’s artistic streak in the cathedral quarter
Belfast’s Cathedral quarter is the most dramatic sign of the city’s shift – from war zone to cultural hotspot. Once the old trade and warehousing district, the area surrounding St Anne’s Cathedral is a magnet for the city’s artists and musicians. An array of carefully cultivated outdoor spaces gives it a European feel.
The Oh Yeah Music Centre celebrates Northern Ireland’s musical legacy –from Dana to Snow Patrol. Writer’s Square celebrates literary achievements with quotations from famous local writers carved into the stone floor. The MAC is a multi-arts venue home to galleries and performance spaces. The building welcomes curious visitors. Soak up the arty-atmosphere while you have lunch or coffee inside.