On my third trip to the capital of Northern Ireland, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to see and do. On my first and second visits to Belfast, I had done all of the “normal” tourist activities, visited the key sights and attractions and gotten to know this lovely and compact city pretty well. Or, at least as much as a two-time visitor can. So, in this post, you won’t see any of that. Nope, no Titanic, no Black Cab tour and only a passing reference to a pub. Instead, I want to share three aspects of my third and most recent trip that I not only enjoyed, but which greatly enhanced my own appreciation for this incredible city.
Belfast Food Tour
One of my favorite things to do in any city is to join a great food tour. There’s no better way to learn about a new place than through the food locals enjoy, and food tours always offer insights into history and culture in addition to the menu items. In Belfast, that meant joining Belfast Food Tours for a comprehensive walk around the city center, enjoying a lot of great food and making new friends in the process. They have several different options, but I joined their classic tour that starts in the historic St George’s Market. Built in the late 19th century, it’s the last surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast and the perfect place to start our wanderings, not only thanks to the rich food offerings but for the importance the market has played in city life over the years. From cakes and sweets to ciders and pasta, the tour covered the full gamut of culinary life in Belfast highlighting not just the traditional, but the up and coming as well. From my experience, it’s rare in a food tour to cover such a wide range of foods, but it helped me not only learn more about Belfast, but appreciate it as well.
Professional Tour of the Cathedral Quarter
While I’ve spent plenty of time wandering around Belfast’s famed Cathedral Quarter before, I’ve never had a professional show me around which is why on my last trip I was thrilled for a tour led by Belfast Tour Guides. More than just a simple historical tour, their cultural tour also covers street art, recent history and cultural trends. In short, it’s one of the best ways to better understand Belfast through the lens of cultural shifts and changes in attitudes. Met by my guide Aidan, we spent a wonderful couple of hours meandering along the historic lanes and streets as he pointed out historical quirks hidden in plain sight and shared personal stories that were intense and heartfelt. I learned more during that brief time than I had in two prior visits and, just like the food tour, it only enhanced my own love of the city. I’m a firm believer in spending time with travel professionals when I visit new cities, not only to better understand the city but to better enjoy my own time there as well.
Where to Stay
I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in a few Belfast hotels, each one very different from one another and while I’ve never had a bad experience, the Grand Central Hotel may be my favorite. The original Grand Central opened its doors in 1893 and immediately became one of the trendiest spots in town to see and be seen. Through wars and depressions, the hotel maintained its legendary level of luxury, but it ultimately shuttered its doors during the worst of the Troubles. Now that Belfast has been reborn, so has the hotel and in 2018 it reopened and while its location may be different, that same dedication to service and luxury is the same. I had actually heard of the hotel before staying there thanks to its legendary top floor restaurant and bar that offers the best views of the city from 23 floors up in the air. The tallest bar in Ireland, the views are well worth a visit. But what always impresses me the most are the rooms and service, both of which were beyond reproach during my stay. It was the ideal home base in Belfast thanks to this service as well as location and I think I may have found my new go-to hotel in the city.
Belfast can be deceiving. With a compact center city, you may think that one brief visit is more than enough time to properly enjoy the capital, but it’s not. No, thanks to its rich and complex history Belfast demands a lot more time and attention, each trip revealing new layers to this deeply complex but incredibly interesting city.