Belfast is a vibrant, creative, cultural city with so much to offer.
Belfast, so often overlooked when considering 'where to go' in the UK, Ireland and indeed Europe. Belfast has really formed its own, very special identity over the years. It's not England, it's not Ireland - It's very much just Northern Ireland. It really is a special place that I feel lucky to have had the chance to get to know so well.
One thing most people will know about Belfast, and Northern Ireland in general, is that its past is quite tumultuous. Not all that long ago it was home to gangs, murders and warfare. This period, known as 'The Troubles', although still fresh in the minds of the locals, has long since passed.
Today, Belfast is far from dangerous, and is home to some of the friendliest people I have come across. However, rather than ignoring its past, the city has embraced its troubled history. With colourful murals adorning the city walls, giving this charming city a unique rawness and depth.
5 REASONS TO VISIT
1) Outstanding Nature on your Doorstep
Something which for me always makes a city infinitely more appealing, is proximity to the great outdoors. Belfast certainly exceeds the average city in terms of its green surroundings. In an hours drive you can find yourself exploring locations which have inspired legendary fantasy worlds such as Narnia and Game of Thrones. Take a road trip to the infamous Giant's Causeway, a hike through the dream-like Mourne Mountains or admire Belfast's cityscape from above on Cave Hill. There are plenty of reasons to make your stay in Belfast more than a quick city break.
For the Great Outdoors: My Favourite Places..
Hiking: Cave Hill - a great hike within the city of Belfast, excellent views of the city.
Road trip: There's opportunity for many-an epic road trip around Northern Ireland. Combine a road-trip with a trip to the Giant's Causeway by taking the infamous Causeway Coastal Route, or explore the Mourne Mountains and Ring of Gullion.
Narnia: The Mourne Mountains (these mountains were actually C.S Lewis' inspiration for Narnia!)
Game of Thrones: Ballintoy Harbour, one of many Game of Throne's locations around Northern Ireland. A picturesque harbour which is just a stones throw from the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-rede rope bridge.
Activity: For the thrill seekers! Try your hand at some Coasteering.
2) The Bars
While Northern Ireland may officially be a part of the UK, the pub culture there is 100% Irish! The city centre is littered with many a bar, where the Guinness flows and the service comes as friendly as the city dwellers. From cosy hideaways to multi-roomed taverns, there really is something for everyone. As I mentioned before, the selection of beer gardens is incredible.
For Bars: My Favourite Places..
Rooftop: What city is complete without a rooftop bar? I love The Tree House above Cafe Boheme, just a stones throw from City Hall. A relaxed, spacious roof garden with charming hints of Baroque decor. Also, The Perch is a great spot - Just above Rita's, conveniently enough!
Taverns: I always think of these as the 'Irish' style of bar. These labyrinth's are all encompassing, boasting massive beer gardens with multiple rooms - usually consisting of some chilled out bar spaces, gig rooms, a cocktail bar and a club room. All complete with that wonderful Belfast charm.
Traditional Irish Bar: Duke of York
3) The History
Taking a black taxi tour is an excellent way to begin your journey into the city's history. Most taxi drivers in Belfast will be more than happy to take you to the main points of interest, including the ever-changing Peace Wall and the notorious Shankill Road. They all seem to be incredibly knowledgable, we just jumped in a black cab in the city centre and away we went, no pre-booking necessary. While 'The Troubles' have perhaps left the most notable mark on the city, there is plenty to discover regarding the city's linen trade and maritime roots, to which Belfast owes its prosperity. Historian or not, you are bound to find intrigue in the rich tapestry that is Belfast's history.
For History: My Favourite Places..
The Troubles: Shankill Road, Falls Road, The Peace Wall, Milltown Cemetery (where many of the republican hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands, are buried).
Bars: Bittles Bar - one of the oldest in Belfast. A quirky little place with plenty of murals to keep yourself interested over a pint.
Museums: The Ulster Museum is a good one. They have a real life mummy and everything! Take a stroll through the Botanic Gardens while you're in the area.
The Titanic Museum - an unmissable attraction for any Titanic fans or maritime lovers. Don't miss the opportunity to have Afternoon Tea (Sunday's only) in a fabulous replica of the Titanic Suite - grand staircase and live jazz band included!
For tales of murders, politics and plenty of spooks don't miss the Crumlin Road Gaol.
4) The Independents
Belfast is bursting with local pride, meaning that it is a place where local business thrive. Sure, you will certainly find all of the chains you expect to see in a city, however they are well matched by innovative and creative independent businesses. Get to the heart of Belfast with one of these gems.
For Independents: My Favourite Places..
Coffee Shop: Common Grounds - for great coffee and brunch. A business with a warm, charitable heart!
Cinema: Queens Film and Theatre (commonly referred to as the QFT) for the discerning movie goer. Regularly showing a mix of blockbusters and independent movies from across the globe.
FOOD: Lots of great foodie independents in Belfast. Some of my favourites here..
Opera. Amazing stone-baked pizzas. Head there on Tuesday, it's 241.. BYOB everyday. (There's a £2600 pizza on the menu, if you're feeling lavish. Don't worry, everything else is very reasonably priced)
Boojum. Everyone in Belfast knows all about Boojum, a much loved Burrito bar.
Cuban Sandwich Factory: These sandwiches are incredible. Born in Cuba, bread in Belfast. If you're lucky you might catch a spontaneous Cuban dance show from the owner.
L'Etoile - A rustic French bistro where the food is good, the ambience is homely and you can bring your own wine (or beer).
There's no website for L'Etoile, find them at 407 Ormeau Rd, Belfast BT7 3GP.
Bars: Too many to count, see my bar selection above.
5) Art and Architecture
Belfast has a creative heart, which is reflected throughout the city.
City Hall - feel yourself transported to mainland Europe as you marvel at Belfast's City Hall, an exceptional example of Baroque Revival architecture.
The Merchant - the only 5* hotel in Belfast. Even if you don't stay here, take a walk around this magnificent Art Deco building during your stay in Belfast, situated in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter.
The MAC - a cosy gallery with an interesting mix of local and international art work. Entry is free.
Studio Souk - a creative haven, home to a fascinating array of craft work by local designers.
Queen's University - a stunning university campus with beautifully kept grounds.
Belfast Exposed - a dedicated photographic gallery where you will find the latest in Northern Ireland's photography projects.
Catalysts Art Gallery - a contemporary exhibition space where you will find a variety of experimental projects and events.
Fact: Back in 1983, when the prospect of the British handover of Hong Kong to China was looming, government officials raised the idea of resettling the entire population of Hong Kong (which at the time stood at 5.5 million people) to Northern Ireland. At the height of 'The Troubles', no less. The reasoning behind it? "The colony's population would have no political future after the territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997."
So there you have it, Belfast and some of my favourite places in it.
Thinking of teaching English abroad? Tantalised by asian culture? Hong Kong is a pretty amazing place to live and teaching English is a great way to experience the city. If you're considering TEFL in Hong Kong, here are a few things to consider when making your choice.
1. The Wages. As far as TEFL jobs go, Hong Kong is certainly one of the highest paid countries in Asia. A wage between HK$21,000-26,000 (£1,800-£2,400) per month is around average. (If you have a formal teaching qualification it will be a little higher). Don't forget, tax in Hong Kong is really low. (I paid less than £400 in tax for my entire three years in Hong Kong and I was earning a little above the average TEFL pay for the best part of this).
If you get onto the government ran NET scheme you are looking at a wage between $25,000 - $50,000 (about £2000 - £4500) per month as well as $19,500 (£1,700) monthly housing allowance (which even in Hong Kong will get you a very decent place) and if you complete a two year contract you get 15% of your accumulated wage as a bonus. There is also a high demand for private tutors, the average pay is around HKD$300-500/hour (about £25-45), doing this a couple of times a week will quickly boost your earnings.
2. The Lifestyle. Earning a good wage, nearly all the comforts of home available (sometimes just at a higher cost) and you can jet off to exotic destinations during the school holidays. Weekends can be filled with tropical beaches, hiking, Hong Kong infamous 'junk boat' parties and brunches. It really is hard to find fault.
3. For Travelling. If you want to travel around Asia, Hong Kong really is one of the best locations to be centred. Perfect for exploring South East Asia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, China and India in the school holidays.
4. The Food. With tiny kitchens and ovens being a rarity in the standard household, eating out is a huge part of Hong Kong culture. So long as you're eating asian food, it costs little more to eat out than to eat in. Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Taiwanese and Indian are all very popular cuisines.
5. The Transportation System. The MTR system is very efficient, trains run every couple of minutes and there are very rarely delays. It's super cheap too. If the MTR doesn't get you to your destination then there will surely be a bus that will, an individual journey rarely costs more than $10 (80p). Look out for the red minibuses, if you find one going to your destination then you will have the time of your journey halved (not for the faint hearted).
6. East meets West Culture. Hong Kong is heavily influenced by the western world, yet still has strong roots in Chinese tradition.
7. It's not all big city. Live the big city lifestyle but thanks to the wonderful transportation system, you can be hiking through the wilderness, swimming in waterfalls or chilling on tropical beaches in less than an hour from the heart of the city.
8. It's very safe. Hong Kong has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Despite the fact it's definitely one of the most crazy busy places I've ever been, I always feel very safe. I have on more than one occasion had people stop me to tell me my bag has come open.
9. No major language barrier. The level of English in Hong Kong is very high, most locals will at least have a basic grasp. The only times i've had difficulties are with taxi drivers.
10. Diversity. Hong Kong is one of the most diverse cities I've ever been to. You can do something different every weekend and never run out of things to do. From shopping in the city to hiking in the wilderness. Trying out all the different asian dishes or splashing out on champagne brunches. Weekend trips can include crossing the border to Shenzhen for cheap shopping and spa weekends. Or hop on the ferry to Macau and catch a show or gamble in some of the biggest casinos in the world. If your feeling adventurous you can even do the highest bungee jump in the world. The list is seemingly endless. You can never be bored in Hong Kong.
Of course, every place comes with its up and downs, if you are considering moving to Hong Kong be prepared for the following;
- Saturday is a working day. Hong Kong is a very hard working city. The working hours are long and most jobs (especially teaching jobs) will expect you to be available to work on Saturday mornings (yes, after a full Monday-Friday week).
- Pollution. Hong Kong suffers with a high air pollution index, although it's not as bad as Beijing and the big cities in mainland China. You may find respiratory problems aggravated.
- Learning the language is difficult. If you are looking to TEFL somewhere where you can pick up the language in a year, Hong Kong is not the easiest place to do so. This is a downside of English been so widely spoken, plus Cantonese is particularly difficult to learn. Saying that it certainly isn't impossible and is a great challenge if you are determined to learn Cantonese.
- It's busy. Hong Kong is probably the busiest place I've ever been, if you're not into crowds the city is going to be pretty stressful for you. However, peace and quiet is attainable, you could consider living out in the New Territories or on one of the islands (Lamma or Lantau) if you can find a teaching job out there or are willing to commute into the city. Although I do find that the big crowds in Hong Kong don't feel quite as chaotic as places like London, people are much less rushed here.
- Chicken feet.. ..and other strange parts of animals may find their way onto your dinner plate at school or in Chinese restaurants. Sometimes it's best not to ask.
- Music. Compared to Europe the music scene in Hong Kong is still lagging. There are music events going on and a couple of festivals, the underground music scene is also beginning to thrive. But still it has a long way to go to catch up with Europe in the music stakes.
- Small living spaces. Hong Kong is home to the most expensive accommodation rate per square metre in the world. You get a lot less apartment for your money here then at home. The kitchen and bathroom space in particular are usually sacrificed.
HOW TO DO IT
HKEDU is the company I got my first job in Hong Kong with. You will be placed in a Kindergarten, which means you get all the school holidays. Downside, you have to work a 5.5day week most weeks. Very social and great for meeting fellow English teachers.
Monkey Tree is the other big agency that most get their first English Teaching job through. Plus side, you get a five day week (although few get two days in a row off). Great for the social side. Downside - not so much holiday time.
tefl.com is great for finding TEFL jobs across the world. Just type 'Hong Kong' into the search bar.
Once you've got a year's experience teaching with agencies such as these, you can apply directly with a school which will usually means more money for less hours. The agencies are a great starting point though. Many people use the great networking opportunities available in HK to embark upon a different career path, if you wish to continue living in Hong Kong but do something different work-wise.
Despite the long commuting times and a number of horrendous journey's on the (k)night bus, I'm glad I had the chance to experience living in Yuen Long. A more chilled out, local vibe than places closer to central, less air pollution and the best food I have had in Hong Kong. I would recommend anyone visiting the Fragrant Harbour to make a trip to Yuen Long, even if just for one evening, there are some great spots for eating and drinking at excellent prices.
5 Yuen Long restaurants not to be missed
Eggplant - Thai Restaurant.
The first of these five that I was introduced to not long after arriving. Hands down the best Thai food i've had, ever. I haven't been to Thailand (yet!) but I've eaten in a lot of Thai restaurants since being in Hong Kong. They offer an extensive menu, outrageously big portions, the food is always very well presented and very colourful. I can't recommend this place enough, the Red Thai Curry is probably my favourite. So much flavour! Best enjoyed with a big group, all pick one dish, put them all in the middle to mix and match. My bill has never been much over $130, (£11 approx). Don't forget to wash it down with a delicious Chang beer.
Address: Shop 10, G/F, Ho Shun King Building, Fung Yau Street South, Yuen Long
Telephone: 2442 3399
Shaffi's - Indian Restaurant
Not only do I have my favourite Thai restaurant on my doorstep, only a few street corners away is my all time favourite curry house. The first time I went I ordered the Chicken Makhani with kashmiri naan, it was both a blessing and a curse because it's so good I've only strayed once or twice from that choice. I've not completely neglected the rest of the menu though, my boyfriend and I usually share, so I can confirm that the other curries are also fantastic. The kashmiri naan is just insane, you have to try it for yourself to understand. You can also get the classic Indian drink - fruit lassi to accompany your curry, great to help neutralise the spice. Shaffi's is particularly renowned for their mangoes, people come from all over to get the freshly squeezed mango juice (or lassi), you can even buy a box of Pakistani mangoes for yourself - $80 (£6.70) for 7 very large Pakistani mangoes. The house wine is also the cheapest by glass that I've found in Hong Kong at $25 (£2.10) a glass. Similar in price to Eggplant, the bill is never much over $130 (£11) usually with a beer, fruit juice or 1-2 glasses of wine. Shaffi himself (originally a chef in the British Army) is often around checking everyone is happy with their food.
We made a fantastic discovery a few weeks back, they do a lunchtime offer - $60 (£5.10) for a curry (choice of meat) rice, plain naan and a soft drink. Lunchtime Shaffi's trips have since become a regular occurrence at the weekends!
Address: 14 Fau Tsoi Street, Yuen Long
Telephone: 2476 7885
Tams Yunnan Noodles
This noodle bar is one of my favourites, (along with Ajisen Ramen, and the Taiwanese Noodle place in Yuen Long, see below) however it's not just a Yuen Long specialty, there are several branches around Hong Kong. Personalise your own noodle dish. Always a very generous portion of Yunnan Noodles served, you choose what you want with the noodles (I normally go for pork, fish ball and dried bean curd) then what level of spice you want your soup (my choice is spicy, level 2 or 3, depending on how brave I feel) they are some real spicy noodles! Non-spicy options are available. Bill is usually around $40 (£3.40) per person. Ask for the English Menu...
Address: Sai Ching Street, Yuen long
This cosy little spot doesn't have an English menu, however my boyfriend was recommended a dish a while back, and we know which one to point at to get it. It's a stone pot with beef and aubergine, i'm not sure what it is that it's marinated in but it's soooo good. The dish is $65 (£5.40) - it's the most expensive thing on the menu, which is how we remember what to point at. The bill with rice and drink is around $80 (£6.70). If you can read Chinese it looks like they've got a great selection of dishes on offer. No English menu.
Address: Shop No.14, G/F, Ho Shun King Building, 3 Fung Yau Street South,Yuen LongTelephone: 2466 8860
Taiwanese Noodles (There isn't an English name as far as i'm aware..)
On the same street as Tam's noodles, which compared to the other three restaurants is a much longer walk from where I live, so we're always faced with a big decision when we decide to go for noodles. We normally get the classic Taiwanese beef noodle dish with fried chicken to share. The beef is very tender and the soup is tasty. There's a really good selection of iced teas which I always get excited over. The strawberry is my favourite so far! Bill is usually around $60 (£5.10) each for a bowl of noodles, drink and fried chicken to share. Ask for English menu.
Address: G/F, 9 Sai Ching Street, Yuen LongTelephone: 2477 9775