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Wednesday, 8 May 2019

City Guide: Belfast

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Having just got back from Belfast, I wanted to share my tips, tricks and places to eat, drink and general things to do. We were visiting for a wedding so in reality this guide is a 48 window, a snippet of the city if you will. The truths, the recommendations and hopefully an interesting read for you...


Getting there 

We flew from Manchester to Belfast City airport, which if you're staying in the city centre, I highly recommend. It was cheaper in our case to go to Belfast International but it would have been much longer in a taxi, and as were only there for a few days, it made sense to fly closer. The city airport is tiny but so calm and efficient and I would happily fly there again as it was so stress-free. Not an ad for Belfast airport I promise... 

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Getting around 

Belfast city centre isn't big, so walking it is the best and most fun way to explore. The Irish are super friendly, we all know that, and even the bouncers were lovely, which I'm not used to in my city. There's plenty of taxi firms you can use and sightseeing buses. Belfast also acts as a great point to explore other parts of Ireland through tours which I'll get onto later. The city's split into 'quarters' so if you want to be extra efficient, visit a quarter at a time. 



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Where we stayed

I'm a big fan of staying in independent hotels to an area, so when I came across The Flint and read the back story, and saw how amazing the place looked, I was hooked. It was reasonably priced and slap bang in the city centre, which acted as an ideal base to explore, and be able to walk home after a few drinks. I'm going to be honest as I always am, in my opinion of the hotel. It is gorgeous - the finishes on the building and the room are second to none. There were just a couple of things that let our stay down slightly - the wi-fi wasn't reliable enough to use, we weren't aware of the £200 deposit required and the staff weren't the friendliest. I fed back of the surprise deposit and they said it was down to the third party site we booked through not disclosing it, so just be wary of that! We heard more of an explanation behind the deposit when another couple checked in, and I completely get why they do it, based on the stories we heard, but would just be better to have that information online! Other than that, the bed was incredible, shower fab and the room had blackout curtains making for an amazing night's sleep. And you get a cute fruit bag in the morning for breakfast included in the price. So niggly bits aside, I'd recommend it, and if I had to give it a score out of ten, I'd say a seven.


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What to see

Belfast City Hall 
Arguably one of the city's prettiest buildings - the grand dome architecture is a sight even if you don't go on one of its guided tours. It marks a central point of Belfast and we were lucky enough to be staying a few minute's walk from it.



The Dome
Speaking of domes, Belfast's Victoria Square shopping centre is home to a free vantage point overlooking the city. There's other better views of the city, but hey, if you're in the centre and have some free time, it's worth popping up to check it out.


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The MAC
Home to art exhibitions, theatre and events - this quirky space in the centre has lots going on and even better, the art gallery is free.



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Where to eat

The National
A converted Victorian meets industrial space serving up a wide menu of food. We visited here for brunch and were spoiled for choice, finally deciding on savoury pancakes with maple syrup and eggs Benedict. Whilst the Benedict didn't come with much hollandaise sauce, the ingredients were delicious and the eggs were cooked perfectly. The service and staff here were great, and I loved the airy interior. It was a great chilled vibe and a nice way to start the weekend. You can't make a reservation here, so I'd recommend an earlier sitting to make sure you get a table!


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Cafe Parisien  
An intimate venue with floods of light thanks to the floor to ceiling windows, so perfect for people watching if you're on the ground floor like we were. The upstairs terrace/dining area doesn't open until midday, which I'll come onto further down the post, but we also came here for breakfast/brunch. Their menu is limited but it's also good value for money. For just under a tenner, you've the option of a full english amongst others, plus a tea or a coffee. Not the biggest of portions but perfect if you don't want to be overly full, plus it was presented really nicely.  



Sweet Afton 
We booked dinner, or tea depending on where you're from, at Sweet Afton, part of Linen House. There are so many options to dine in Belfast that I was racking my brains on where to pick - as we only were in the city centre for one evening during the trip. Others I was recommended included AMPM and Harlem - AMPM has a rooftop tree house area, which looked fab. I picked Sweet Afton as it looked chilled and reminded me of Manchester's Northern Quarter with its red brick and laidback decor. I also picked because of how close it was to our hotel and we could go for  a drink or two in the same building prior to eating.


It was rammed when we walked in, making me thankful I'd made a reservation. We happily stumbled upon live music during our table sitting - what more could you want? And it made me wish we had more of that in Manchester. The staff were rushed off their feet but were super friendly and efficient given the crowds. It was a menu where everyone could find something - I wanted a simple burger and carbs after a busy day walking around the coast/countryside and it didn't disappoint. Prices were reasonable and the live entertainment really made it special. I also ended up having a really fun chat with some locals!  



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Where to drink

The Perch Rooftop Bar
Part of the same branch of Sweet Afton is The Perch Rooftop Bar and Tutti Frutti - which is a pizzeria with live entertainment. We chose The Perch for a few drinks after doing some research on Belfast's rooftops and outside drinking areas - which it seems to have many. Set in the roof structure of the building, it's garden-esque with colourful chairs, great vibes and cocktails. Take the lift if you're not into stair climbing as it's a fair few floors up. 



Babel
Another rooftop I'd researched but was surprised at the size of when we arrived. Babel is close to the river and offers cute panoramic views across the city. It's a glossy bar with 'Instagrammable moments' and the vibe very much gets you in the mood for a night out with buzzing live music that you can't help but tap and sing along to. Drinks weren't exactly cheap so I would probably only stay for one - a round cost us almost £18 for two drinks - a wine and a G&T, more than I'm used to paying in Manchester, so that did surprise me!  



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Cafe Parisien 
Back to Cafe Parisien, and yes I returned for this view, which for me, is arguably one of the best bar views in Belfast. I'd heard about the Observatory at the Grand Central Hotel, which from what I'd read is the tallest bar in Belfast but instead opted for here given we had the balcony pretty much to ourselves. The patio heaters don't work but a nice employee asked if we wanted blankets, so if you're visiting on a chillier day, like we were, ask for one of those. We had a really nice wine here, reasonably priced for the view too.


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The Duke Of York  
An old, traditional pub/bar in Commerical Court. Its walls are adorned with frames, mirrors and old prints and if you want a proper Irish night out, head here. 


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The Dirty Onion
We didn't get chance to head in here as we ran out of time, but this was on the list of so many recommendations I had, so wanted to share. They have live entertainment seven days a week, all for free including acoustic nights and traditional Irish music around a fire pit. They're also one of the biggest beer gardens in Belfast, so if it's sunny outside, it's one to put on the visit list. 


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Where to wander 

The Spaniard
There's pretty points dotted around the city, and the exterior of The Spaniard is one. The tiles, the paintwork and the lights make for one mystical finish. Nestled in the Cathedral Quarter, it serves up lots of rums and old school charm.


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Commercial Street / Joys Entry
Lots of beautiful, hidden cut throughs and archways are in the city centre, and these are two we stumbled on by accident at a very quiet point of the day. Shops don't open in the city on a Sunday until 1pm, so we got a fair few snaps of empty, calm streets before they got busy. 


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Lagan Weir Bridge
Head to the river at the Lagan Weir Bridge to take in both sides of the city. At this point you'll also come across The Big Fish, or The Salmon of Knowledge which has historical tiles all over. It was commissioned in 1999 and some locals say if you give it a kiss, you'll inherit its knowledge. I'll keep an eye on the lad to see if he gets any wiser after this... 



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The Street Art
Belfast is bursting with street art, and you can either stumble across it like we did, google the locations of your favourites to snap, or there are street art tours you can book on if that's your thing.

Where to explore outside of the city


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Giants Causeway
An hour's drive out of the city takes you to The Giants Causeway, a National Trust site on the coast. There's sooooo many tours that offers this for a really reasonable price of less than £30 PP and you get a full day of other activities too, however we opted to hire a car. Mainly because we didn't know if we'd miss a tour if our flight into Ireland was delayed and we wanted the flexibility of deciding as and when we set off, and where we wanted to go.


Hiring a car was pretty straightforward and you can grab one from about £50/70 for the day. There's a whole lot of debate about the National Trust fee at the landmark, but what I know for sure - you don't have to pay to go and visit it. You have to pay for the visitor centre with all the information and to my knowledge, you have to pay to park (£12.50) - which we did. There's other places to park that could be cheaper and I read if you eat at the hotel and retain your receipt, you don't have to pay to park. So do your research!


The Causeway itself is legendary and is a world heritage site. It has around 40,000 huge rock columns formed next to the sea which date back 60 million years ago to the volcanic age. You can read more about its background in the centre and online but some top tips would be the obvious really - come weather ready dressed. Comfy flat shoes with grips if you're planning on climbing around and warm coats as it can get breezy by the water. It's not a far walk from the car park and you'll hopefully bump into friendly fellow tourists willing to take some photos for you. Just be careful on your footing on the rocks and don't head too close to the water as you'll get whistled at by the staff as we witnessed a few groups do so.


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Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
Another National Trust site and only six miles away from The Giants Causeway, so two you can tick off in one day. The route between the two sites is gorgeous as you take in stunning coastal roads and views out over the water. Parking here is free (yay) and there's a cute little cafe for snacks and soup. You can walk the coastal path for no charge, however if you wish to cross the rope bridge, that costs £9. I was adamant before we flew to Ireland I was crossing, but my boyfriend wasn't convinced. As you can see, he did do it, and I would definitely recommend it. I would save buying tickets until on the day in person, as the bridge can be shut if it's windy so worth waiting and seeing. You get given a time slot to cross and you're not meant to dawdle on the bridge, so if you want a great snap, make sure you do bursts and then select 'the' picture at the end.


The bridge can sway so be very careful when getting pictures as you don't want to danger yourself or lose your phone. Out of the two sites, my boyfriend preferred this - and it's definitely worth doing if you're driving all the way up there. Some people had brought picnics which on a nice day is a good idea as there's plenty of pretty spots to set up camp. We managed to visit both in about six or seven hours including driving and stopping off for some food and drink - so it's easily doable in a day.




Other things to note
Belfast's weather can be quite chilly so always have a back-up knit. Or if you forget to pack one, head to Primark and keep yourself warm. There's so much live music in the city, so really soak that up. Get chatting to the locals as they're super friendly and you'll have a laugh. Food and drink really make the city centre what it is. You're SO spoiled for choice, so really read up about the types of food you like and make sure to book! Like any major city, it's popular with tourists and locals alike, so don't be caught wandering the streets hungry! If you can, try and learn local dancing - at the wedding we were at we learnt Ceilidh dancing. We didn't know what to expect and we had an absolute blast at it. You don't need any experience as they give you all the guidance you need. One of the highlights of the trip for us.


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