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.