Gone are the days when people travel to Belfast to see a city emerging from a turbulent past.
Impressions of once-abandoned industrial sites have long since been replaced by this vibrant, pulsating, modern metropolis which is clearly packed with visitors from every corner of the world as we walk the streets here.
Belfast will never escape its recent history, of course, nor does it wish to but this is a city embracing all the ingredients that make it what it is, a place rich in heritage, alive with incredible cultural offerings, and bursting with new hip food and drink offerings – and we’re here to drink every bit of it in for 48 hours.
It’s fitting that we’re staying at the beautiful Grand Central Hotel in historic Bedford Street, which is proudly representative of the transformation that has taken place in the city in recent times. It is the tallest commercial building in Ireland and evokes the history of Belfast, while reflecting its future and the investment that is wholly committed to cement its firm place as an international city (it cost a cool £53m to build).
Having taken in the breathtaking Causeway Coastal road trip, we have driven the 90 minutes south to settle in to city life, and we’re ready for it. We pull up outside the Grand Central and concierge Mark is the epitome of charm and warmth. We’ve got a reservation around the corner at Deanes Meat Locker on Howard Street, but there’s just enough time to head to the very top floor of this hotel for a sundowner like no other in Belfast. The Observatory is the most opulent of liquor lounges and offers breathtaking 360-degree panoramic views over the city as you sip your cocktail. We arrive just as the sun is setting over the city. That we spend more time taking photographs than we do drinking tells you everything about this venue. It is certainly worth the trip either as a pre or post dinner drink.
Michael Deane has been at the heart of the foodie revolution in Belfast for more than a decade. We’re on our way to his Meat Locker restaurant, one of five he owns and oversees in the city, one of which carries the coveted Michelin star. From the moment we walk through the door, we’re hit with the atmosphere in the best possible way. There are accents from all over the world and plenty of laughter. This is where you come for the best steak in Belfast. The food is sumptuous, the wine list extensive and the atmosphere is everything you’d hope it would be and more. The 12oz salt-aged delmonico ribeye is a meal I would come back for time and time again. I can still taste it.
We wander into the historic Linen Quarter after dinner, an area which is unquestionably one of the most vibrant areas of the city, with music venues, dozens of bars and restaurants and no shortage of great characters. The Crown Bar is one of Belfast’s most famous pubs, dating back to its days as a Victorian gin palace. It’s one of those places you just have to see to understand what all the fuss is about. The Perch, Rita’s and the Rusty Saddle are all worth dropping into too.
The Linen Quarter is just one of a number of districts which help divide the city up, along historical lines. The Cathedral Quarter, The Queen’s Quarter, the Gaeltacht Quarter and, of course, The Titanic Quarter. More on that to come shortly.
The next morning brought the 35-minute journey to Galgorm Castle for the ISPS Handa World Invitational pro-am, a stellar event that not only raises money for a fantastic cause but which features the likes of Niall Horan and Robbie Keane, as well as top tour players such as Leona Maguire and Daniel Gavins, who we were playing with on the day. Belfast may not appear to be an obvious golf city but throughout our time there it was clear many golfers based themselves in the capital and travel to the likes of Royal County Down, Royal Portrush and Portstewart for the day, and then come back here for dinner and entertainment in evening. And it’s easy to see why after a day or so here.
The next morning we visited Titanic, Belfast – the city’s biggest tourist attraction and a chance to step back in time on the site where the world’s most famous ocean liner was built back in the early 1900s. The entire exhibition is beautifully done, allowing visitors to walk the decks, hear the stories of the passengers and crew and even board a ride which takes you down to the bowels of Titanic to understand how it was built and the conditions the workers faced. It’s an incredibly immersive and compelling attraction, and really should not be missed on any trip to Belfast.
We spent around 90 minutes exploring the museum (ideally you’d allow longer) before walking across the road to the Titanic Hotel for a delicious lunch. The hotel occupies the building that was once home to the men who designed and built Titanic, and you can eat lunch in the same room as the plans for the ship were drawn. The whole Titanic Quarter is worth exploring. Nearby is SS Nomadic, the last White Star Line vessel in existence, which is also worth a look.
Before we knew it, our time in Belfast was drawing to a close, and all too quickly. This is a city bursting with life, culture, history and warmth, and we were blown away by the sheer amount there is to see and do. The beauty of Belfast is that it can be so many different things to different people and travellers – it can be a foodie escape, a romantic retreat, it can be a brilliant base for a golf trip or a historic weekend where you learn about its origins and significance. And on top of all of that, it’s a gateway to the incredible island of Ireland.
Belfast is not a city which can be pigeon-holed or summed up in a slogan or throwaway line, and that speaks volumes about its richness. All we can say is that we’ll be back, yes for the golf, of course, but for so much more besides. It stole a piece of our hearts.
BEST HOTEL IN BELFAST
The Grand Central Hotel: A stunning new hotel in a wonderful location. Don’t miss the rooftop bar and make sure you ask for Mark, the concierge, who could not have been more helpful.
WHERE TO EAT IN BELFAST
The Meat Locker, Michael Deane: Stunning steaks, a wonderful wine list and a fantastic atmosphere. Great fun and right in the thick of the action.
WHAT TO DO IN BELFAST
Titanic, Belfast: a highlight unquestionably but, in truth, Belfast is a living, breathing museum of a city with gems hidden around every corner.
BEST NORTHERN IRELAND GOLF COURSES
One of Northern Ireland’s top tournament venues, Galgorm has hosted the ISPS HANDA World Invitational and the Irish Open in recent years.
The oldest club on the island of Ireland, Royal Belfast dates back to 1881. The parkland layout overlooks the stunning Belfast Lough.
An Open championship venue, of course, and home to the world famous and fearsome Dunluce Links.
Portstewart Golf Club
Home to three courses, The Strand Course has one of the most spectacular front nines in all of golf.
Royal County Down
RCD might just be the greatest links of them all and sits against the magnificent backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne. With views across Dundrum Bay, the links is world famous and not to be missed.
Castlerock Golf Club
A classic links club with two courses, both of which are set among the towering dunes. Situated on the Causeway coast.