Beyond the Troubles: an insider’s guide to Belfast

Hi Frugalistas!  The latest Insider Guide visits a misunderstood and forgotten part of Ireland – Belfast. Situated in the less touristy Northern Ireland, Belfast is proudly throwing off its troubled past. Resident Els Mahieu is our host.

An Insider's guide to Belfast

Most people’s knowledge of Belfast is limited to The Troubles and the accompanying violence. How do you describe modern Belfast to readers around the world?

Belfast is really trying hard to move on. If you were to visit the city center without knowing anything about its history, you could probably not even tell that this place was at a state of war 35 year ago! Nowadays, it looks like any other modern European city with its fair share of restaurants, pubs and shopping streets.

The Cathedral Quarter is the arty district of Belfast.  This is the oldest area of the city with quaint little alleys and historic pubs. It’s also the area where new pubs and bars are opening every month and the numerous art galleries give the area a trendy feel. Belfast might not be a “hip and trendy” destination just yet, but I predict that in probably not even 10 years time it might become ” the new Berlin”!

An insider's guide to Belfast

What is your favorite place to take out of town visitors, and what makes it so special?

I love taking them to Cafe Wah, a quirky coffee place with the “Good Vibrations” record shop attached to it. That shop is legendary in the sense that its owner was responsible for launching Belfast’s punk scene in the middle of the Troubles.  As you can imagine a very big achievement in those difficult times. I like taking people there because it symbolizes that, no matter how much Belfast suffered, people still tried to live a normal life in those days.

I prefer visitors to leave the city with a positive image, rather than mainly remembering the sectarian murals.

Tell me about your favorite place that I wouldn’t find in any guidebook.

I love hiking up Cave Hill. It is a hill on the outskirts of Belfast that is 365m high (1200 feet) and offers great views over the city and Belfast Lough. On a clear day, you might even be able to spot Scotland in the distance! You don’t have to go far out of the city to be in the middle of nature!

An insider's guide to Belfast

What is your perfect day out and about in Belfast and why?

When I have a day off, I like to start with an “Ulster Fry”, the typical Northern Irish breakfast, consisting of sausage, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, soda bread and potato bread, all fried. It is nicknamed “a heart attack on a plate” which says it all I guess 🙂

Then a visit to the St Georges Market on a Saturday which has a fusion of tempting speciality foods from around the world as well as handmade crafts, flowers, plants and local photography. Around noon there are live music sessions amidst the market stalls.

An insider's guide to Belfast

In the afternoon, I go for a stroll in the city center while listening to some live music in the streets: this being Northern Ireland, there are always quite a few buskers around. Weather permiting I go for a drink at “Cutters Wharf”, a pub offering great views of the Lagan river. The evening is spent with some friends and a few beers in one of Belfast’s historic pubs.

An insider's guide to Belfast

Northern Ireland is relatively unknown as a tourist destination. Could you share some of your favorite day trip or short break destinations?

Yes, when people visit Ireland, they tend to stick to the Republic, but Northern Ireland has a lot to offer as well! It is a fantastic destination for outdoor lovers! Only 45 minutes away are the Mourne Mountains, which offer fabulous hiking opportunities! The highest mountain, Slieve Donard, is 850m high (2787 feet) and offers fantastic views over the surroundings! There are of course less strenuous walks as well. If you feel more like driving, then the Causeway Coastal Route is the best option: you pass along pristine white beaches and get to see the famous Giant’s Causeway!

What is the best way to find out about concerts, exhibitions and other special events?

The Big List is a monthly paper that lists all the events, concerts, pub quizzes, … going on in Northern Ireland. It is distributed for free in a lot of pubs. There’s also the Internet version:

Some quick fire questions now:

Favorite garden(s)/outdoor spaces/beach: Botanic Gardens: lots of green and palm houses with tropical plants

Favorite window shopping street: Donegall Place has all the famous UK Highstreet brands, but I prefer Arthur Street, it has some quirky shops great for original gift shopping and a brilliant coffee-shop/store: Avoca.

Favorite market(s): St George’s market for the live music amidst the market stalls

Favorite spot for tea or coffee: Jenz Coffee Company, a coffee place and milkshake bar all-in-one. I love its comic-book decor.

Favorite value for money restaurant(s): Molly’s Yard for its excellent veggie menu!

About Els:

PIcture of Els Mahieu

I’m a thirty-something travel-addict, born in Belgium and living in Northern Ireland for over a year. I’ve travelled to about 30 countries and spend my free time browsing through travel guides and magazines, looking for ideas for my next trip. I love independent travelling : riding local buses, eating local cuisine, meeting people… I am convinced that every country has something to show or teach us, therefore there is not a single place I wouldn’t want to visit!


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2 Comments on “Beyond the Troubles: an insider’s guide to Belfast”

  1. jpilkington09 23/06/2014 at 5:05 am #

    A great guide – have wanted to get over to Belfast for a while now and this post sounds like the ideal introduction!

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