Grit Meets Glam in Northern Ireland's Artsy Capital City

A classical opera house, a vibrant street art scene and a living museum with connections to the humble banana says it all.

The city of Belfast is a free spirit, kooky and a tad edgy thanks to its tempestuous past. It’s the geographical equivalent of a punk rock girl in a pretty dress—fierce, gritty, a bit troubled, deeply creative, and beautiful, all at the same time. Thanks to the incredible street art scene, its turbulent and painful history is laid bare on the streets. That all lies side by side with a new Belfast that is jammed full of hope, innovation, and refinement. The city and its people have done the ultimate pivot, forging a new legacy that is bright and buoyant—with a party scene to match.

She’s pretty easy on the eyes, too. In fact, in 2021, a mathematical formula known as The Golden Ratio declared Belfast the third most beautiful city in the UK. It’s no real surprise, given the amount of architectural gems scattered throughout the city, from Georgian relics right through to Modernist game-changers, along with its striking location on the banks of the River Lagan. Iconic might be an overused term, but when it comes to describing Belfast, it just fits.

The city has always been a hub for creators. The Titanic was built here in 1909 when Belfast was the shipbuilding capital of the world. This led to an influx of cabinet makers, potters, and weavers. In fact, Belfast was once known as Linenopolis, as it was the headquarters of Ireland's global linen industry. Today, these old warehouses have been transformed into the historic Linen Quarter, complete with swanky international design and tech companies as well as hip cafés, bars, restaurants, hotels, and music venues.

Speaking of music, rock aficionados will get a kick out of knowing that Belfast’s Ulster Hall was where Led Zeppelin first played Stairway to Heaven to a live audience back in 1971. Given that Belfast is a sister city to Nashville, Tennessee, it’s no surprise that live music plays a major role in the city’s DNA, whether that’s toe-tapping traditional Irish tunes, atmospheric smooth jazz, or the unmistakable electricity of an indie gig.

From cutting-edge artistic expression to expertly crafted cheeses and some kickass whiskey, here’s where to find your jam in Northern Ireland’s stunning capital city.

Woman painting mural on wall
Seedhead Arts

Lose yourself in a kaleidoscope of art

The best way to appreciate Belfast’s vibrancy is to get to know the city’s vast artistic side. Seedhead Arts has been at the forefront of local street art for over a decade, organizing walking tours that shine a light on the area’s tense socio-political past. In the historic Cathedral Quarter, leading arts venue Black Box sports an awesome calendar of events covering visual arts, theater, music, literature, and everything in between. And on the other end of the spectrum, the freshly restored Grand Opera House offers a jam-packed program of performances in an impressive, regal setting.

Over in the Linen Quarter, Banana Block dubs itself a “living museum and events space set within a historic linen mill and inspired by the curious connections between Belfast and bananas.” That connection dates back to 1911, when Belfast resident William Richardson became one of the first people to grow bananas in the British Isles. It’s tough to think of any other city in the world where this tenuous connection would be so celebrated, but that kind of thinking is Belfast in a nutshell (or banana peel). The space hosts a collaborative community of artisan producers, entrepreneurs, and vinyl junkies—be sure to check out Banana Block resident Sound Advice for all things vinyl-related plus live DJs on the weekends.

children looking at a museum painting
Ulster Museum, Belfast

Get some culture at a world-class museum

Museums are a fantastic way to get a better sense of the city, its storied past, and its inspiring future. The Ulster Museum is a great place to start, boasting a huge collection of art, history, and natural science on display from modern masterpieces to Egyptian mummies. In Omagh, The Ulster American Folk Park is an open-air venue that explores three centuries of Irish immigration to the US. Bibliophiles should make a beeline to the Linen Hall Library, which has been keeping bookworms enthralled since 1788 and houses the first printing of the American Declaration of Independence outside of the States. Go figure.

Historic site of the Titanic launch
Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast is located on the slipways, where the Titanic itself was constructed over 100 years ago. The experience tells the story of the fabled cruiseliner over six floors of a stunning modernist building, mirroring the height of the great lady herself. And those with even a slight interest in maritime history—or perhaps merely fans of Leo and Kate’s on-screen portrayal—should check out Titanic Quarter. There you’ll find an interactive Titanic museum that guides you through the history of the most famous ship in the world. And for Game of Thrones fans, signing up for the Giant's Causeway and Game of Thrones Location Tour seems like a no-brainer.

Boutique hotel room
The Harrison belfast

Kick back at a chic boutique hotel

In leafy Queens Quarter, hostess-with-the-mostess Melanie Harrison has created a small slice of heaven by way of her utterly Instagramable lodging debut. The cheekily titled Harrison Chambers of Distinction opened its doors just as the pandemic closed them, allowing Harrison the time and space to finesse the finer details of her bijoux townhouse. And what details—all the rooms are named after literary figures and the little touches Harrison has implemented have made this boutique charmer the ultimate home away from home, in the best way possible.

If riverfront stays are your thing, The AC by Marriott is a comfortable, understated yet elegant escape just a 10 minute walk from all the main attractions. And for contemporary cool, Ten Square Hotel is situated in a former linen warehouse from the mid-19th century, just behind City Hall. Location-wise, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Cooked peaches dessert
OX Belfast

Load up on choice food and drink

Belfast’s most famous restaurant is, without a doubt, the Michelin-starred Ox, which manages to provide impeccable service without a hint of stuffiness. Expect some damn fine cheeses, both as its own course and woven into seasonal dishes off the tasting menu, like the Pea Tartlet or Mountain Lamb with white asparagus and lavender. For a more casual experience, the adjacent Ox Cave is a serene wine bar serving up bites like charcuterie boards, salt-cured halibut, and squash and buckwheat bowls to compliment your reds and whites.

Pizza lovers should chase down Flout Pizza for a slice alongside a few beers picked up from Boundary Brewing across the road, or head to Reggies Pizza in the Queens Quarter, where you can bring your own wine for a £3 per bottle corkage fee. Established Coffee is the place to go for coffee, pie, vegan bowls, and decadent milk buns with or without accompanying black pudding. Elsewhere, Mike’s Fancy Cheese is where to score impeccable—you guessed it—locally produced cheeses.

dinner plates
A Peculiar Tea

Keeping to the Queens district, Deane’s at Queens is ideal on a sunny day, stocked with modern European cuisine and a cozy terrace overlooking Methodist College where Jamie Dornan (of Belfast and Fifty Shades fame) went to school. For the non-conformists, afternoon tea at A Peculiar Tea is a deliciously magical experience. Past themes have included Roald Dahl and Cluedo, so you get the drift.

Finally, we can’t forget the whiskey faithful, who shouldn’t sleep on a trip to The Friend at Hand for a private tasting and a look around the onsite whiskey museum. Don’t leave without picking up a coveted bottle from their collection of over 600 top-shelf Irish whiskeys.

Dunluce Castle
Photo courtesy of Discover Northern Ireland

Marvel at fairytale castles

Despite its diminutive size, Belfast and the surrounding counties have more castles than you can count. Probably its most famous, Belfast Castle has been home to various castle configurations since the late 12th century. Built in 1177 by Anglo-Norman Knight John de Courcy, Carrickfergus Castle has the distinction of being quite possibly the largest castle in all of Northern Ireland. Fun fact, according to historical references, it was the site of the last witchcraft trial in 1711.

A little further afield, the ruinous Dunluce Castle is an enchanting excursion, perched on a rocky headland overlooking the choppy sea. It was built by the second Earl of Ulster in the 13th century, and rumour has it that C.S Lewis (also a Belfast native) took inspiration from Dunluce for Cair Paravel castle in The Chronicles of Narnia.

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Ciara McQuillan is a freelance food and travel writer who has been featured in The Irish Times, CN Traveller and The Gloss Magazine among others. She loves cooking but really loves eating. Follow her on Instagram.