Belfast took its name after the Irish phrase Béal Feirste, loosely meaning the mouth of the river at the sandbanks, and has been the capital of Northern Ireland since the late 1800s.
A leading city back in the Industrial Revolution and in textile manufacturing, as well as a great contributor to science and technology, Belfast graciously remains less tourist-ridden and much more navigable on all fronts than Dublin.
We took a train from Dublin all the way north through Drougheda, Dundalk, and Lisburn into Belfast and immediately hopped the city bus to Saint George’s.
Saint George’s Market
Anyone who has heard me ramble on about Munich and how much I love the Viktualienmarkt (open market) will understand why the very first stop I made in Belfast was here.
The market has been open since the 1600s, although it has only been inside a building since the 1800s. Without fail, vendors provide local produce, essentials, novelties, and other wares to the city each week at varying times. You can do your weekly shopping here, buy home goods and gifts, and handpick your meal items to be cooked and served right in front of you.
I was delighted to find a South African harissa chicken and veggie sandwich for lunch, and my friend opted for gourmet brick oven-fired pizza. We left after minimal purchases of silver rings, gem stones, herbs, palo santo and sage bundles, a half pound of mixed olives and peppers, some fruit, and a wheel of porter cheese.
We stayed with a wonderful host who is sharp on Irish history, has some impressive underground connections, and knows all the best “real Belfast” places to visit. Over a few whiskeys, he recited Irish poems and sang traditional songs for us (#swoon), one of which was “On Raglan Road” by Patrick Kavanagh. Many popular artists have covered it, but I’m quite fond of this version.
On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.
I gave her gifts of the mind, I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May
On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.
Nearby is Alexandra Park, built for Princess Alexandra in the 1880s. Parts of the Peace Wall Murals border the backside of the park, a chilling reminder of the Troubles war, when the city was not so quiet and peaceful. For more information on the Troubles, check out this BBC Documentary.
Lucky us, we were staying just off Antrim, the main road that leads straight to the Cathedral Quarter, Victoria Square, Donegal Place, and other downtown hot spots. A near two mile walk wound right through our list of places we wanted to visit, and we saw loads of cathedrals, university buildings, parks, and street art installations.
Queen Mary’s Gardens
Waterworks Belfast used to host the city’s water supply, but is now a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. Queen Mary’s Gardens is just one entrance and you can walk along the path to see waterfalls, ornate foliage and plants.
Saint Patrick’s Parish
The people of Belfast built Saint Patrick’s Parish possibly as far back as the 1300s and it has a wild history of being demolished and rebuilt. The church has a more in-depth narration on its web site.
Saint Anne’s Cathedral
The most prominent feature of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is Saint Anne’s. It is sometimes closed to the public without notice, however, Saint Anne’s has a video on their site that tells all about the cathedral’s history and current events.
Orange Hall Lodge
Present throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom is the Orange Order, whose members are known as Orangemen. The Order stands with British Unionism and Protestant rights, and has been a constant source of agitation (and often violence) to the historically and traditionally Irish Catholic population. (Disclaimer, many say the situation is unpleasantly reciprocative).
I must also admit here my fascination with the Masons and Freemasonry, et al. Orangemen observe strict Sabbatarianism and keep many beliefs and systemic rituals linked to Masonic Orders, although there are actual Masonic temples/lodges throughout the nation as well.
Donegall Square & the Duke of York
For me, Donegall Place is the quintessential Irish city square full of pubs and cafes, and here the star pub is the famous Duke of York.
Nearby alleys and street art
Do not be suprised to find Ireland’s oldest traditional pub packed with chatty Irish-speaking college crowds, breaking only to sing along to “Hello, Is It Me You’re Looking For?” and other bad slow jams with you.
Castle Street/Fountain Street block
Nearby via Castle Street, there is the Fountain Street Tavern, Voodoo Bar, City Picnic, and some other great places.
Another great and affordable place to eat on this block is the no frills City Picnic, with all types of decadent sandwiches and sides. We were in search of some traditional Irish food but it appears the city is phasing those places out for the changing Irish palette of stirfry, curries, burgers, and chips.
One of the best parts of big cities is that after a full belly and a few rounds of drinks, you can walk it off on the way home while admiring all the lights and colours that come out at night.
Belfast City Hall was built in 1906 and can be seen from all around, as it is stationed right in the middle of surrounding squares.
Belfast has so much life and charm; modest despite its enormous repertoire of architecture and history.