On a late summer evening in July 2007, on the pier in Huntington Beach, California, Tim and I met for the very first time. Eleven years later, and 5,000 miles away, we walked hand in hand on a very different beach, two very different people. Over the past decade Tim and I have weathered many a storm and gone on many an adventure. We’re stronger, happier, better people together and to commemorate that, we decided to get photos done by the amazing photographer, Simon Hodge, on the Northern Coast of Northern Ireland. I had seen his work when he did a shoot with a friend from California while she was on vacation in Northern Ireland and I was thoroughly impressed. When we were blessed with the opportunity to live in the UK, I knew I needed to get his information from her so we could book a similar shoot. [N.B, I took so long to write this post that Simon already got us our photos… but you’ll have to keep reading for a peek. ;)]
That being said, Belfast has never been on my bucket list really. It’s not a city you think of when you think of Ireland. In fact, Northern Ireland isn’t even the country you think of when you think of Ireland. We usually think of the Republic of Ireland, and Dublin and Cork and if you’re like me, the mythical village of Inisfree (ten points if you get the reference). But anyway, I digress. Belfast wasn’t ever really on my radar when it came to places I NEEDED to visit ASAP upon arriving in the UK, but when I contacted Simon, I learned that’s where he was based and thus, a trip to Belfast was booked.
Now, if you know me, you know I’m not really a city person, and Belfast, while a nice little weekend away, wasn’t any exception. I found it very much like an American city in it’s industrial buildings, litter and noise. There’s also the history of the city’s turbulent past including the most recent “Troubles” looming over you around almost every corner, from the giant murals commemorating William of Orange, to memorial gardens to honor those who died in “the Troubles,” to giant bonfires (I’m talking multiple stories high) they were building in preparation for “The Twelfth.”
That being said though, we explored some amazing places in Belfast, met some really great people and ate some AMAZING food. You heard me right. Belfast has the best food we’ve had yet in the U.K. and I’ve listed some delicious dishes to try while you’re there to visit below.
I thought I’d do this blog a little differently since the trip was so long. I don’t want to bore you all with the ins and outs of our 5 day trip but I will share some tips on what to do and where to eat once you get to Belfast. Because, it’s gritty, noisy yet riddled with history and you have to visit. So here’s my (not so short) rundown of things to do, places to eat, and where to stay in Belfast.
What to do:
Learn about Belfast past and present Ulster Musem
We were pleasantly surprised to learn, upon our arrival to our hotel (the Tara Lodge), that this museum was only a 10 minute walk away.
The Ulster Museum is free to enter, but donations are accepted of course to help support the maintenance of running such an expansive museum. The exhibits were top notch and covered an extensive range of local history including in-depth coverage of “the Troubles,” (aka the Northern Ireland Conflict). I didn’t know much about the city’s battles between the Unionists/loyalists and the Nationalists/republicans and found the stories told here fascinating, sad and a little terrifying. It all happened in my parent’s lifetime and ended so recently that I remember the year it officially ended (1998). I won’t lie, learning about the bombings and killings throughout the city put me a little on edge, but I tried not to let to spoil the rest of the museum. There were several other exhibits including natural and cultural history of Northern Ireland, spanning all the way back to when Ireland was not yet an island, but just a part of a larger land mass. I could have spent several more hours at this museum if we didn’t wake up at 4 am to drive to the airport that morning. While our five days seemed to be plenty of time to see Belfast, it didn’t actually provide enough time to return.
See where the infamous ship started at the Titanic Experience
This was the most exciting thing I had planned for Belfast aside from our photo shoot. I planned an entire day to see it all and I’m glad I did because it took all day and even then, I don’t think we saw everything.
The night before we went to the Titanic Belfast museum, we booked our White Star Premium passes online. It was a great deal, getting us access to the actual museum, a tour and passes to board the SS Nomadic, a tender ship to the Titanic and the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world. It also gives you 15% off the gift ship, 15% off food and also one of those snazzy souvenir photos that are usually too expensive to actually buy.
We started our day with the Discovery tour. I think the tour itself was my favorite part of the day and it wasn’t even in the “experience” part of the museum. The Discovery tour went around the outside of the meticulously designed Titanic Belfast building and explained the reasons behind the shape of the buildings, the meanings for the orientation, the aluminum siding, even the size and amount of benches around the perimeter of the location. The tour also took us into the Titanic hotel next door that is now in the buildings that one housed the drawing offices of Harland and Wolfe, the company that built the infamous ship. We walked out to the slip where Titanic was built and stood trying to imagine just how massive the ship was.
I could go on and on about the amazing day we spent at Titanic Belfast and it still wouldn’t do it justice. If you visit the Belfast Titanic experience and decide NOT to book the White Star Line Premium Pass, please take my advice, and DEFINITELY book the Discovery Tour. You’ll learn so much in the hour you’re on the tour, it’s well worth your money.
Catch breathtaking views on The North Coast
This trip is a little harder to do while you visit if you don’t have a car, but you could rent a car for a day, or if you’re lucky, you book a session with your photographer and he takes you there! Now, our trip to the shore was different than a day out because we were dressed up, we had a specific mission, and we were on a timeline, but it was great either way. We headed to Dunluce castle, which, for those of you who are Game of Thrones fans, is where they filmed a ton of scenes for the show. Actually, Belfast in general is a place where they have filmed a lot of the show, so if you are keen on exploring that, that’s a whole other day of adventures right there. I personally don’t watch the show and Tim only read the books, so while I thought it was an interesting fact, I didn’t feel the need to delve further into it.
The drive out to the coast took us about an hour and the drive alone made me ecstatic. The fields lining the motorways were filled with so many sheeps and cows that I was squealing with delight every time we passed them. Simon thought it was hilarious. Tim had to warn him after the first farm that I would be making those noises any time we passed some cute animals. It wasn’t until we were on our way home that Simon admitted he had a friend that could have let us onto his farm to take photos with the baby lambs. Next time, Simon, next time!!!
I can’t share more about the beach and the coast other than it was absolutely gorgeous and a great day trip. It’s worth the drive for the photos alone, even if you’re just taking them yourself.
Peek into Victorian Prison Life at Crumlin Road Gaol
Located a bit outside the city center, the Crumlin Road Gaol is an old Victorian era prison that has been turned into a museum. The prison itself was in operation until 1996, but when it was turned into a museum it was stripped of its modern prison security measures and returned to what it would have looked like when it was a newly built prison. We thought that maybe you couldn’t visit the prison without booking a tour, so that’s what we did. After we got there we realized you can probably tour the facilities for a fee without a tour guide, but I would truly suggest paying the extra money to have a guide. Our guide was funny, knowledgeable and made the experience truly unique. We still had time to peruse certain areas on our own and take as many photos as we liked.
The most interesting thing I learned in the prison, is that when it was first built, in the 1845 it had indoor plumbing for each prisoner in their cell, but years later, when they were afraid of them communicating through the toilets and for other reasons, they removed the plumbing. Prisoners used chamber pots until the prison closed!!
It’s definitely a bit of a morbid and dark tourist attraction, but I feel like a lot of Belfast is that way with the peace walls and the Troubles, etc. I also personally find myself weirdly fascinated and equally terrified of things like that, so we truly enjoyed ourselves.
Take a Black Cab Tour
We learned about the Black Cab Tours while perusing things to do in Belfast. You can take a personal tour from the back of your taxi and get driven all over Belfast, seeing parts of the city you’d probably be better off not walking through with your iPhone out sticking out like the tourist you are.
And while we discussed maybe booking a tour on the Sunday we were there, we actually stumbled upon our taxi tour guide when hailing a cab from the City Hall to Crumlin Road Gaol. Our driver gladly started telling us information about the city as he drove us the few miles to the prison and then apologized for slipping into tour guide mode when he’s just driving. We found Jimmy was full of information and asked if we could book him for a tour later that day after our scheduled tour at the prison. He gave us his card and we promised to call him when we were done.
When he came to get us a few hours later, he drove us right over to the Peace Walls separating unionist Shankill Road from nationalist Falls Road These are large walls topped with metal bars, similar to something you’d see outside of a military base. Erected during the Troubles, these walls were created to separate the predominately Protestant/Loyalist neighborhoods from the predominately Catholic/Nationalist neighborhoods. During the troubles gates in the walls were closed to reduce movement between the two sides.
Today, they are still sometimes closed at night or on Sunday. We drove onto the Falls road side midday Sunday and just made it before they closed the gate and had to exit further down the road via another gate. I was astounded as to how war-like Belfast still was. Some houses that had back yards abutting the walls have huge metal cages around their back yards to prevent anyone from throwing things into their yards, be it something as innocuous as trash or something as terrible as a bomb. I was just gobsmacked that people still live like that in a country that is part of what was once one of the largest empires in the world. But I guess that’s part of the reason for the fighting… and a whole other discussion for another day.
So I’ll leave it here. Take the black taxi tour. In fact, call Jimmy and you’ll get a great tour (07594451487). He was amazing. He told us amazing facts. Let us check out an album of photos of the troubles on his iPad and told us to get out and take photos of the most interesting murals. While he let us know he was Protestant, I definitely didn’t feel like he was only telling one side of the story. He shared the terrible things both sides did during the conflicts and really opened my eyes as to what went on in Belfast.
Shop at Victoria Square
If you’re in need of some retail therapy, or just have a free afternoon, check out Victoria Square. It’s a great little shopping center with several higher end shops and nice restaurants including Wagamama, which is a Japanese/asian noodle chain that I absolutely adore.
In the center of the mall there’s a huge glass dome. You can either climb a ton of spiraling stairs to the top or take an elevator. Once up there, Belfast sprawls our before you in all directions. Text and images etched in the glass guard rails let you know what you’re looking at in the 360 degree view of the city.
Take a tour of City Hall
Located in the heart of Belfast, the City Hall is a gloriously photogenic building, steeped with meaning and tradition. Take a free tour any day of the week to learn about the history of the building and the government that runs the city. If you take the tour, you get to see places not open to the public. I though this was rather interesting and definitely worth the hour of my time. Also in the city hall you can meander through a rather large array of exhibits telling stories of the city hall, the city itself and the history of Belfast.
Where to Eat:
Whatever you do, make time to eat at this restaurant. In our five days in Belfast, we ate here three times, once each for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. Every meal was amazing. We had such delicious food as raspberry and white chocolate pancakes for breakfast, savory paninis for lunch and spicy asian-style chicken wings with garlic aioli dipping sauce for dinner. I’m salivating thinking about all their food and I’m so sad it’s so far from where I live. You’ll likely feel the same if you check it out.
They are also known for their pastries and baked goods, so do yourself a favor and get dessert at least once too.
We ate dinner at Scalini, an Italian restaurant also near our hotel at the suggestion of Jimmy, our black cab tour guide. I was skeptical to see what passed for Italian food in the UK, but it was truly delicious. The risotto I got was full of fresh summer veggies and Tim’s penne and chicken was creamy, spicy and left me wanting more. The portions were also huge compared to what I’ve received in the U.K. I’d venture to say they were nearly American sized portions. I definitely couldn’t eat everything and wished I could’ve taken a doggy bag of my risotto home.
Cuff’s restaurant at Crumlin Road Gaol
We ate here out of pure convenience since we were waiting for Jimmy to come get us for our taxi tour and there is literally NOTHING else to walk to up at the prison. But we were pleasantly surprised. I didn’t get the tongue in cheek name of the restaurant until I saw the handcuffs on the menu and then it made me giggle. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and Tim had fish and chips. While it wasn’t the best meal I’d had on the trip, it was definitely worth it and I was happy we ate there.
I first saw the Crown Saloon when I was buying a postcard to send home. I was intrigued as to why the saloon was so famous that it was featured next to the Titanic Belfast and other landmarks in the city. Upon researching it, we learned the Crown Saloon is a historic gin joint built in the 1880s and owned by the national trust. The decor is mostly still original including some walled off booth areas dating back to when people wanted to drink privately in restaurants.
We got there in the evening and of course it was completely packed, but it worked to our favor because, after ordering a drink, we headed upstairs to the restaurant section of the saloon. We made it in by the skin of our teeth without a reservation and while we ate I noted several people getting turned away because they were already booked. I ordered nachos which were… UK nachos, but not the worst I’ve had. I also ordered the Mac and Cheese with shredded chicken and that was truly scrummy (for those of you who don’t know British slang… that’ means yummy, even though it doesn’t sound like it).
If you’d like to check this place out, do it, but definitely try to make a reservation.
Where to Stay:
We can’t give more than one recommendation for this part of your trip. But I can HIGHLY recommend the Tara Lodge. Down a residential street, the hotel itself doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s nicely located near the Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, the French Village and Scalini restaurants, several other shops and Queen’s University.
After our first hotel in Italy where we walked by the breakfast room and realized we hadn’t booked it in, we always try to make sure breakfast is included when we travel abroad. The Tara Lodge’s breakfast is by far the BEST breakfast I’ve ever had provided with the cost of my room. Eggs, toast, porridge, danishes, coffee, juice, water, nearly anything you can imagine, and it’s all delicious.
On top of the stellar breakfast, the comfortably furnished room, we LOVED the staff at the Tara lodge. Every single person I encountered in the five days there was phenomenal. They were all so kind, accommodating, and welcoming. A small, close knit staff, they’ve won awards for their service and it was easy to see why. They even left us a box of chocolates and a card on the day we went out to take our anniversary photos. What a sweet touch. I couldn’t say enough about how amazing they are. Take our word for it and stay at the Tara lodge. It’s an affordable and lovely experience.
Now I’ve nearly written a novel on a City I wasn’t sure I liked. But the truth is, Belfast is an experience unlike any other and I don’t think I’d trade my time there for any other city. It was an amazing weekend, and I think I would return just to take more photos with Simon, eat at the French Village again and see the spectacular staff at the Tara Lodge.