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An insider’s guide to the UK’s most exciting city right now

Published on 25 October 2023

Chic new hotels, quirky museums and a culinary revolution — Belfast is having a moment.

Belfast is having a moment, it really is,” says the hotelier Melanie Harrison with an infectious laugh. We’re sitting in the bohemian bar of her playfully named Harrison Chambers of Distinction hotel, which is one of many new independent businesses to open in the city in the last couple of years.

Located in Belfast’s affluent Queen’s Quarter, it aims to serve the “culturally curious traveller”, as Harrison puts it, and of whom there is no shortage. The once-polarised Northern Irish capital has evolved into a tourist hotspot, with over 1.2 million hotel room nights sold last year alone, up by 200,000 on the previous year.

“It started with the transformation of the Cathedral Quarter into a cultural destination, after the Good Friday agreement in 1998,” says Harrison. “That was followed by the Titanic Quarter, both previously rundown areas you would never have visited. The film industry had a huge amount to do with it, especially Game of Thrones — and then we became a Unesco City Of Music less than two years ago.” The problem for so long, according to Harrison, was a lack of confidence holding the city back but now it’s thriving.

Her boutique hotel — “a celebration of the city” — has an elegant bar and dining area lined with eclectic local artworks, and 16 bedrooms each inspired by a notable individual with Belfast connections, from Van Morrison to CS Lewis, Seamus Heaney and Denise Austin, who saved a baby elephant from the city’s zoo during the Blitz. “I haven’t just put somebody’s name on a door — I actually care about their story,” Harrison says. “I’ve always loved the tales of Belfast past and present.”

The Harrison isn’t the only recent addition. The 175-room Room2 opened this month with restaurant, bar and tea experience room (room-only doubles from £90;, while Marriott’s £27 million 170-room Moxy launches next year in a former tea factory in the Cathedral Quarter, with a further five more hotels scheduled to open in 2024-25.

New attractions and openings lie behind the city’s growing appeal to visitors, but there are plenty of classic tourist sites too. I’ve ticked off the obvious ones on previous visits with my Northern Irish partner, including the Ulster Museum, with its engaging collections of art, history and science, set in the Botanic Gardens (free;; the imposing Queen’s University, with its cutting-edge Naughton Gallery (free;, the Leaning Tower Of Belfast (otherwise known as the Albert Memorial Clock), and the City Hall, whose baroque revival grandeur dazzles as night falls. Titanic Belfast, the £97 million, prow-shaped museum at the heart of the gleaming waterside quarter, was Northern Ireland’s most popular attraction in 2022, with 624,000 visitors, and can be overwhelmingly busy, but its well-trodden tale is still captivating (£24.95;

There’s so much more to see under the surface. On Maritime Mile is the free Glass Of Thrones Walking Trail, six giant stained-glass window installations created in 2021 to celebrate a decade of filming the global hit TV series here. The latest arrival on this strip is Titanic Distillers, which opened in April, where I enjoy a tour of the copper sills — then some generously potent cocktails — and am astonished to learn that it’s Belfast’s first working whiskey distillery to open since 1936 (£25;

On the other side of the River Lagan, the buzzy streets of the revamped Cathedral Quarter ooze culture. The Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC), a self-styled “beacon for the ongoing regeneration of Belfast”, has a striking, sunlit interior with two floors of experimental art and a programme of music, theatre and film (free; Equally eye-catching in this neighbourhood is the street art, including the moving mural dedicated to the journalist Lyra McKee, who was fatally shot during rioting in Londonderry in 2019.

A quirky new opening — and one that almost everyone I speak to recommends — is the “living museum” Banana Block, which opened in a former linen mill at the end of 2021 in the loyalist east, and so-called because in 1911 the mill’s owner Sir Otto Jaffe became one of the first people in the country to grow the fruit, and stored it there. The mill became an unlikely symbol of unity in 1932 after both Catholics and Protestants went on strike to protest working conditions. The only song they could agree to march on? Yes! We Have No Bananas. Yellow wall plaques delight in the yarn, while towering banana plants fill the warehouse space, home toa bagel bar, record shop and plant store (free; If that’s not enough, the city’s hippest pizzeria, Flout, is next door, and sells out by 3pm daily (slices £4;, while opposite is Boundary Brewery’s cavernous new taproom, both of which only opened last year (

It’s not just new openings that set Belfast apart. Its history is unique, and has long been a draw for visitors wanting a stimulating city break. In West Belfast I meet the guide Paul Donnelly, who has run DC Walking Tours for a decade, leading the curious around what was once the epicentre of the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles (£20; In bright sunshine he guides me along the murals — both republican and loyalist — on the Falls Road, Shanklin Road and the International Wall along Divis Street and Northumberland Street. Throughout, his tone is carefully neutral. “It’s about recognising the legitimacy of every group’s experience and ideology, allowing people to take away their own conclusions,” he says. At the Peace Wall, I’m surprised to learn that access points are still locked for 11 and a half hours each evening, creating dead zones between the Catholic and Protestant communities. “These streets are physically scarred,” he says. “You’ve still got barriers between them.”

These West Belfast tours — and there are dozens on offer, many taken from the comfort of a black cab — have escalated in popularity post-Covid. “This year’s been the biggest tourist year ever for us, and I think for the city,” Donnelly says. “Yet we’re still not used to being good at things. When you’ve lived in a city of destruction, creation wasn’t a big thing. It’s taken that long to catch up.”

An area that’s well and truly caught up is the thriving dining scene, once synonymous with stews and the infamous Ulster Fry (a Northern Irish take on the fry-up, with griddled soda bread). Now there’s everything from quality street food — the best is at the boisterous outdoor Trademarket ( and red-brick institution St George’s Market — to Michelin stars (three restaurants have one star; five have Bib Gourmands, awarded to “friendly establishments that serve good food at moderate prices”; a further 11 are listed in the latest guide). Previously, locals tell me, you had to travel a couple of hours to Dublin for that.

“For years Belfast just had loads of average restaurants, but now amazing spots are doing different things, and the city has changed massively in the last decade,” says Ryan Jenkins, the self-taught head chef and owner of Roam, one of the city’s hottest restaurants (mains from £14; It started as pop-up and has just celebrated its first birthday, serving dishes such as Mourne lamb rump with cauliflower and merlot, and Kilkeel scallops with lardo, squash and hazelnut. “It’s really starting to become a foodie destination and people won’t now accept below par.” Jenkins says many of his peers “try and be creative while using the best seasonal and local Irish produce we can — and keeping the menu affordable.” Affordability here is key, with prices lower generally across the city than many other city-break destinations, including Dublin.

Proof of the city’s vibrant midweek dining scene can be found at the hip Spanish tapas joint Edo, which has Bib Gourmand status. “Every day is like Saturday night,” says the head chef, Lottie Noren, as I perch at the counter of her packed dining room devouring outstanding langoustine ceviche, octopus carpaccio and blackened chicken thighs (small plates from £7; Another gamechanger is Waterman (mains from £14.50;, which opened last summer and has already won a Bib Gourmand for what it calls “no-frills” cooking, and yet so skilful is a simple heirloom tomato salad that’s it’s no surprise the owner, Niall McKenna, and head chef, Aaron McNeice, both worked at the longstanding culinary institution James Street (mains from £19;

While perhaps reaching a tipping point this year, the food scene’s godfather is undoubtedly the celebrity chef Michael Deane, who has owned acclaimed restaurants in Belfast for 30 years. Offering good value, especially at lunch, his laidback Deanes At Queens in the University Quarter has small plates such as autumn wild mushroom soup with stout and treacle bread (mains from £10; Other stalwarts include Mourne Seafood for juicy lobster burgers (mains from £17; and Michelin-starred the Ox, which has created well-priced set menus featuring the likes of celeriac, girolles and autumn truffle, followed by halibut with bisque, courgette and basil, for a decade (two-course set menu from £40;

And what of the cosy pub scene in this ever-changing metropolis? Well, happily it’s as alive with trad music as it always has been. To hear some try the Sunflower, and don’t miss the security cage on the front door, a preserved relic from the Troubles (

First-time visitors should tick off the National Trust-owned liquor saloon the Crown Bar (, candlelit White’s, the city’s oldest boozer dating back to 1630 ( and the Duke of York, with its Instagrammable neon umbrellas illuminating the cobbles ( New developments keep things fresh: last year Boundary Brewery took over the John Hewitt, the first social enterprise bar in the city (, while a recent opening that has swiftly become my go-to is the stylish wee bar the Reporter, a shrine to Belfast’s newspaper heritage ( on LGBTQ-friendly Union Street.

Nursing a pint here before my flight home, I remember Harrison’s words earlier that day. “Sometimes people get excited to go somewhere and it doesn’t live up to their dreams. But they come here with an open mind — the music, the craic — and realise people are warm, self-deprecating and friendly. They arrive with low expectations and leave delighted. This city undersells and over delivers.”

Source: The Times