Belfast is a city filled with music, laughter, stories, good food, great drink and a distinctive buzz.
However, it was known more for its darkness than its light for a long time.
I grew up in the Republic of Ireland learning about Belfast post the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The city was trying to find its feet, and for a long time, while it attempted to put harmony in place, Belfast was sadly never at the top of travel lists.
At 27, I had never crossed the border from the south and even writing this sounds foolish. There was no reason for the exclusion other than the opportunity never presented itself over the years.
So when a glistening chance to travel came along, I welcomed it with open arms.
Things were different now, and Belfast was different too.
My weekend home was the infamous Europa Hotel as it celebrated its 50th birthday. Once known as the most bombed hotel in Europe and the world, you can’t help but feel you are stepping inside a history book when walking through its doors. It was targeted 33 times during the Troubles, but after each attempt, it emerged stronger and more determined than before – just like the city itself.
The hotel doesn’t shy away from its past; instead, it embraces it with humour and steel. Inside the front doors is a unique installation that depicts the hotel’s history and references all the stars it has welcomed over the years, from Lady Gaga to Bill Clinton.
The Europa has also completed the first phase of an extensive renovation programme of its guest bedrooms.
All are now individually air-conditioned, have automated window blinds, new bathrooms and refreshed interiors in hues of green with marble and gold accents.
Each also holds the best pillows you will find on the island of Ireland.
Location wise, the hotel is located in the heart of the city. There is nothing more disappointing on a city break than the feeling that you are separated from the buzz, but here you are in the thick of it.
It goes without saying that the city is filled with history, but sometimes it’s easy to forget just how much.
The Titanic Experience is a must-see. The ill-fated passenger liner was built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and the dock area is a reminder of both its majesty and sorrow. The experience allows guests to embark on guided and self-guided tours that cover nine interactive galleries.
The area around the shipyard is also soon to host its own Titanic distiller with the green light given for the conversion of the historic Pump-House building into a new whiskey distillery and tourist attraction.
Belfast is a hidden gem of cuisine and roaring refreshments for the foodies. Walking food and drink doors have become increasingly popular in the Northern Irish capital, and I had the pleasure of joining Taste and Tour for a flavour journey.
Taking you to the best local restaurants, bars, cafes and the famous Victorian St. George’s market, the tour allows visitors to try everything from hot chocolate to cheese with some gimlets and beer thrown in for good measure. Headed by Caroline Wilson and her team, it’s also a fantastic way to tour and see the city.
Yet, to really experience Belfast, you must view it from every angle. While a bustling hub, the city is a tale of two cultures and identities moving into the future as one. Enlisting the knowledge of a Blue Badge tour guide is one of the best ways to understand this, and guide Dee Morgan is an expert.
From the homes of C.S Lewis to Van Morrison and to the walls that stand between the Falls Road and Shankill Road, it opens your eyes to Belfast’s past, present and future. The murals littered across the city express this most intensely. The artworks used to represent communities and a chance to express their beliefs.
One-stop on tour included a visit to east Belfast’s Banana Block, a new living museum, bar, food and events space. Located at Portview Trade Centre, the building is unique in local history.
The ‘banana’ connection of the museum dates back to 1911, when east Belfast resident, William Richardson, became one of the first people to cultivate bananas in the British Isles.
Meanwhile, during the Mill strikes of 1932, workers from both sides of the divided community marched together, but the only neutral, non-sectarian song they knew was Louis Prima’s ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas.’
Banana’s Block founders say the concept has been inspired by these movements and continued social change in the area.
The block is now an achingly hip and vibrant spot and holds mushroom growers, record collectors, cheese markers and more.
As for nightlife, Belfast city is filled with it. Some great bars, including the Crown Liquor Saloon and Robinson’s, are a stone’s throw away from the Europa hotel. While the best pint of Guinness in the city is said to lie in The Garrick.
For an authentic dining experience, book a table at James St where the ambience is excellent, and the food is even better.
Belfast is truly a booming city, with its own personality and a constant desire for growth and change. All of this makes it an ideal spot for a weekend getaway.
And with its own award-winning film hitting cinema screens thanks to Kenneth Branagh, things can only get better.
It may have been my first time crossing the border, but it certainly won’t be my last.
To find out more about Belfast and all it has to offer click here.
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