I hadn’t expected much from Belfast. That is, not much in terms of entertainment and nothing beyond conflict history. A tour of the most bombed places, perhaps; maybe a survey of the graffiti on the Peace Wall. Numerous clichés came to mind when I landed in the city that I was visiting solely because I’m interested in places with a wounded past. For most travellers Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is little more than a pit stop on the way to the natural wonders of the Irish coast, but, as my sister said dismissively, “Who really goes to Belfast?” And then she warned me not to go out alone in the night: 1998 wasn’t too long ago. It was the year “the Troubles”—a violent 30-year period of conflict—were officially put in the past with firm signatures on a dotted line. Some may still think Belfast is unsafe but I’m glad I went.
I had always imagined Belfast to be brown and gloomy, struggling to come out of its violent past, so Belfast City Hall’s splendour took me by surprise. It is a beautiful Edwardian building on Donegall Square, bang in the city centre. The soaring green dome might remind you of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, which was reportedly inspired by its Irish cousin. Time slowed down as I walked around the square, taking in its lovely old structures, some of which date back to the 18th century (almost all are now, oddly, banks). One of these is Northern Bank, the site of 2004’s great bank robbery, when over 26 million pounds were stolen. The largest bank robbery in Irish history remains unsolved.
The right place to be is the Cathedral Quarter that is only a couple of blocks away from the city centre. It might take its name from Saint Anne’s Cathedral, but it’s where you go drinking (£5/₹490 for a glass of wine, and £10/₹980 for a main dish). This is Belfast’s edgy, trendy heart, and a walk around the area is a study in all that’s fashionable and cool in the city. Try Dark Horse (Hill Street; +44-28-9023 7807) for soups and sandwiches or The Dirty Onion (Hill Street; +44-28-9024 3712) for meatier food and a great music. The best cafés are here too: The National (High Street; +44-28-9031 1130) and Established Coffee (Hill Street; +44-28-9031 9416) offer artisanal brews for a solitary evening spent people-watching (£3/₹295 a cup). This is also Belfast’s cultural district which houses Metropolitan Arts Centre and Custom House Square, a large outdoor venue for festivals.
Like most capital cities around the world, Belfast too has an exciting food scene. Restaurants crop up all the time, and at the end of my two days in the city, I could have sworn I saw some that were not open when I got in. If you have enough dough to spare, head to Hadskis, a recent addition to designer food menus in the city. I was most impressed by the service and the minimal décor (it’s just a corridor really, with no-frills furnishing). The staff is friendly, chatty, and fun; there’s none of the suffocating chichi air of an expensive restaurant. All the recommendations were tops— don’t miss the grilled lamb with spinach and shallots if it’s still on the menu (hadskis.co.uk; about £50/₹4,900 per person for three courses plus a glass of wine). For an inexpensive adventure in local food, you might want to try the Saturday City Food and Craft Market in the beautiful 19th-century St. George’s Market building on Bridge Street. It was deemed the U.K.’s Best Large Indoor Market for 2014 and the locals swear by it (9 a.m.-3 p.m.; visit-belfast.com).
All is not shiny and new in Belfast and as I drove past Shankill Road, the Troubles didn’t seem too far away. The Shankill area was the flashpoint for some of the most aggressive crimes during that period. To me, it seemed that a pall of gloom still hangs in the air. I shudder at the dreariness of its streets and the grim graffiti depicting gun-toting marching men and unjust killings in Belfast’s underbelly. I move on to the famous Peace Wall, where the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, and hundreds of ordinary citizens have left passionate messages of amity. Along the way I cross several similar walls with more colourful graffiti. The Peace Lines, a series of temporary partitions, were originally built to divide Protestant (unionist) and Catholic (nationalist) neighbourhoods in a bid to avoid clashes between the two groups. More than 45 years after the first ones were erected, there are talks of bringing down the peace walls, because the city has witnessed a few years of relative harmony. It’s still an uncomfortable and touchy topic, so don’t go around airing unsolicited opinions in a bar (and definitely not in Shankill).
If anything is capable of overshadowing Belfast’s bleak past, it is the looming, cutting-edge structure of Titanic Belfast. The monument might be a gleaming representative of the city’s shiny future, but it harks back to the city’s reputation as one of biggest shipyards in the world. As the name suggests, Titanic Belfast is an ode to the ill-fated ship that was built here. It rises from the ground with impressive silver wings (Arms? Bow and stern? I can’t quite figure out modern design) that shimmer under a brilliant sun. Even if you aren’t interested in shipwrecks or the Titanic’s history, you will come out reeling with admiration for its creators. Through the nine galleries that are spread over 14,000 sq. ft., you learn about Belfast’s history, leading on to the construction of RMS Titanic all the way through to the findings of the wreck. The best gallery has to be the Shipyard, where an automated back-to-the-future mini car takes you down to a replica of an actual shipyard. Unless, like me, you have more macabre tastes, in which case you’ll love to see the lists of Indian (or German, or British, it goes on) passengers who sank with the Titanic. Yes, there were Indians aboard! (The museum is open throughout the year, but there are different timings for different months; Oct-Mar 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry adults £15.50/₹1,495, children under 16 £7.25/₹700, family of four £39/₹3,760; titanicbelfast.com).
When I was at Hadskis, I had to order peppermint tea to wash down the heavy meal I had just finished. It was fantastic. I asked the server for the name of the brand and he told me about locally made Suki Tea, available at a food store nearby called Sawers (http://visit-belfast.com/things-to-do/member/sawers). Preoccupied with Belfast’s sights and beers, I was really strapped for time, but I did make a dash to the store. The first thing I asked the manager was where else I could find a Sawers branch. Nowhere. A Belfast-only store, Sawers is like a dreamland for folks interested in food and cooking. Imagine a wall full of marmalade. Another one for herbs and spices. A wall of tea. A bed of cheese. A trunk of fish. A room full of sauces and condiments. It was love at first sight—there were so many beautiful things that I wanted to live there forever. With deep sighs and a bagful of Suki Tea I walked out of Sawers in a state of happy delirium to get to my hotel near Donegall Square. The Europa hotel (+44-28-9032 7800; hastingshotels.com; doubles £100/₹9,800), where I stayed has hosted many heads of state in the past, and is the city’s most bombed building. Oh well, what’s life without a few clichés?
Most expenses will be on stay and eating out (a sandwich and coffee costs about £15/₹1,470). Entry fees for sightseeing range from £10-18/₹985-1,770. Get around on foot or by cheap and efficient public transport.
Appeared in the January 2015 issue as “Boom Time In Belfast”.
This itinerary of Belfast is a good one to follow if you are short on time and want to get an overall idea of the city. Broadly, your time in the city will be divided between Donegall Square, Cathedral Quarter and Titanic Quarter, though the shops and cafés of Lisburn Road in Queen’s Quarter are also worth checking out. For a couple, this short break in Belfast should cost approximately ₹72,000 (without airfare) depending on what accommodation/ activities you choose, but it can be done for less.
Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer and editor based in Delhi. She was executive editor of India Today's travel magazine till end-2013 when she decided to get out of the office routine for a few months to see what having a life feels like. She never went back.