It really was a Belfast blitz. And I would do it again! If you’re on a budget and time poor, Saturday morning flights are often cheaper than Friday evening, and you don’t have to rush from work to get to the airport on time with every other Londoner escaping for the weekend. Another plus if you’re flying from London is that Belfast is part of the UK, so no need to go through passport control!
Saturday – Flight to Belfast, Crown Bar, open top bus tour, Moondance Festival and the Cathedral Quarter
After a VERY early cook up of bacon and eggs (6am), we left the house for a train to Gatwick airport. Our flight with Easyjet was at 10:25am and despite a short delay on the tarmac, we landed in Belfast at the scheduled time of 11:50am. All going to plan so far!
We thought about catching an uber to save some time but there were no cars available. Luckily, the bus was waiting right outside, and a return ticket was £10.50 per person. For a 30 – 40 minute bus journey (from Belfast International Airport to the city), we were sold.
- friendly accents
- sunshine (you mean we packed the umbrella for nothing?!)
- 45p short of the correct change for a bus ticket is ‘close enough’
The bus dropped us off at Europa, a short 5 minute walk to Park Inn by Radisson. The location of the hotel is central, one of our must-haves when booking unless we’re happy to be ‘cut-off’ for a while or travel into the city using public transport. The plus sides of the hotel were the quick check-in process, early check-in option and delicious breakfast. The down sides were the adjoining door between our room and next door and the neighbours talking loudly until the early hours of the morning. So if you’re a deep sleeper, this hotel will suit you just fine. Cost £105 including breakfast for two people.
One of my work buddies in London whose husband grew up in Belfast, gave us a few tips on what we HAD to do during our visit. This included the Crown Bar and the open top bus tour. Bacon and eggs were a long time ago so lunch at the Crown Bar, otherwise known as the Crown Liquor Saloon, was first priority.
The Crown Bar is impressive with its brightly coloured and decorated tiles and has a few levels. Downstairs you can find booth style seating with a saloon door type entry. Perfect for private catch ups with your friends (or strangers!) if there is ever an unoccupied table. We had already checked the menu online so followed the signs upstairs to the restaurant where there were plenty of tables and almost immediately ordered two servings of the Irish stew and a Guinness. Well, Harry tried a Belfast Lager.
As we were eating, I read the sign on the wall that explained that the Italians who were in Belfast to build churches (in the 1800s), helped build the Crown Bar. The bar dates back to 1826 and is now owned by the National Trust. Ironically according to our bus tour guide, they forgot to renew the liquor licence for almost a year. The Irish stew is worth a mention, both of us enjoying it for the 2 minutes it lasted on our plate. Cost £8.75 each.
Next stop: open top bus tour. All tours with the red CitySightseeing Hop On – Hop Off bus depart from High Street. Selfishly, thanks to Belfast being part of the UK, our UK sims work there which meant Google Maps was at our fingertips. On our way to High Street, we spotted a young man in a red CitySightseeing jumper who asked if we were interested in the bus tour. Our answer was of course yes so he led us over to one of their buses to purchase the tickets. For some reason we were only charged £10 each instead of £12.50. Win! High Street was a short walk around the corner and we were soon sitting on the top of the bus in the open air and sunshine, awaiting the 3pm departure.
So what did we see? There are 20 bus stops should you choose to hop off and explore. We kicked our feet up (not literally) and enjoyed the commentary and history lesson from the live tour guide past the following stops before I desperately needed to get off the bus and find a bathroom thanks to the earlier Guinness:
- 1 – Castle Place (Albert Clock)
- 2 – Customs House (and the Big Fish)
- 3 – SSE Arena
- 4- Titanic Belfast (going there tomorrow!)
- 5 – HMS Caroline
- 6 – Parliament Buildings
- 7 – St George’s Market
- 8 – May Street (Belfast City Hall)
- 9 – Victoria Street (Crown Bar, Grand Opera House)
- 10 – Dublin Road
- 11 – Shaftesbury Square (Lavery’s Bar)
What did we learn?
- the Big Fish is covered in tiles on which some have text and images relating to the history of Belfast
- Belfast is home to the tallest building in Ireland (not even that tall!)
- in the past there was a divide between the Catholics and the Protestants
- ‘the troubles’ began in 1969 and lasted for 30 years
- the more recent divide is in relation to whether you are a unionist (support being part of the UK) or a nationalist (support a united Ireland) for which there are representatives for both in parliament
- more to learn between stops 12 and 20…
To me, Lavery’s Bar was a godsend. A massive pub with 4 levels that didn’t care that I was headed straight to the bathroom. So, tip: Lavery’s Bar is a great toilet stop if necessary. But seriously, Lavery’s has an interesting history, claiming to be the oldest family-owned pub in Belfast and affected badly during the troubles. Harry noticed quite quickly that on the level we visited with the pool tables, I was one of only two females there in a sea of men. So, another tip: single ladies this could be the place to be! Or not.
We headed for Filthy McNasty’s, a bar that caught our eye from the bus. This place is GREAT fun! Friendly and patient bartender – check! Interesting decor inside and a Pringles vending machine – check! Secret garden out the back surrounded by a colourful paint job, funky seating and a fireplace – check! Oh and price for 2 pints of beer £7.60 – check!
Okay, onto stops 12 – 20. Stop 10 was closer to Filthy McNasty’s so we hailed the next CitySightseeing bus from there. On our next bus adventure we saw:
- 12 – Queen’s University (and Ulster Museum)
- 13 – Eglantine Avenue (aka nothing to see here)
- 14 – Cafe and Tourist Information (still not worth getting off the bus)
- 15 – Falls Road (Falls Memorial Garden and Bobby Sands Murals)
- 16 – International Wall Murals (and St Peter’s Cathedral)
- 17 – Spectrum Tourist Information Centre
- 18 – Shankill Memorial Garden
Randomly, we learned from our live tour guide (different guide from stops 1 – 11) that air conditioning was invented in Belfast. Jokingly she told us it has never been used since!
Travelling through West Belfast, we learned that in this area they still speak gaelic and there are flags to mark their part of town as they are still very much divided. They are known as nationalists, those who support a united Ireland. In saying that, there were lots more flags in the unionist neighbourhood, displaying union flag bunting in a zig zag fashion above the streets.
On a serious note, the gates along the peace wall that separate these neighbourhoods are locked every night at 7pm, and re-open at 6am. They were built in 1969 following the outbreak of the Northern Ireland riots and ‘the troubles’ and to this day still exist. When we drove past the International Wall Murals on the bus, the gates were still open. After getting off the bus at stop 18, exploring the area and making our way back to stops 15 and 16 for a closer look, the gates were locked shut at 6:50pm. I’ve got to say, I really didn’t expect to find gates that separated sections of Belfast. And the only way through from one neighbourhood to the other once the gates are locked is via the city and back out again. The walls are due to come down in 2023 however in a recent vote, 69% do not want the walls to come down. Wow.
On a lighter note, our bus tour guide told us that an Australian backpacker signed one of the walls which started a trend, and they are painted over every year as part of an annual graffiti competition! Oh and I forgot to mention that before getting to stops 15 and 16 by foot, I desperately needed the bathroom again (don’t have pints of beer during a 90 minute bus tour) so we stopped in at Boyle’s Bar. Right near the dividing wall. I’m not sure this was a good idea, but we managed a bathroom break and (another) pint of beer at the bar before continuing on. And I thought £7.60 was good for 2 pints! Only £6 at Boyle’s Bar. We didn’t have time to see Crumlin Road Jail (though a friend from Belfast recommended it) which was stop 19, but we got the opportunity later on to explore Cathedral Quarter – stop 20.
A quick hashtag Twitter search before our trip to Belfast (as you do) came up with the Moondance Festival on until Saturday 1 October. Perfect! So we headed towards Bank Square to see what was on offer. The music was good but it was quiet. The friendly people at the South African food stand who quickly recognised our Australian accents told us it was the first year. With that in mind we tried to help boost sales and bought a few South African dishes and some handmade chocolates from another very lonely food stand.
Time to explore Cathedral Quarter. This place is absolutely buzzing at night, not sure what it’s like during the day. The Duke of York pub is particularly busy, with a pub on either side of a laneway full of people who have spilled out from the pubs. Harry described the pub as a ‘picker’s gold mine’. It was literally covered from ceiling to floor (okay, not the floor) with Guinness posters and signs, old petrol pump light covers hanging from the ceiling and all sorts. On one side of the laneway through a short pathway covered by yellow umbrellas, there is an outdoor function area with controversial art painted on the walls by a very talented artist or artists. Worth checking out.
Whilst we were blessed with the weather so far, it was a cold old night so we walked home and ordered food from The Duck House and had it delivered by Deliveroo straight to the hotel! I know this is somewhat pathetic but watching Ted the movie whilst eating delicious takeaway in the warmth of our hotel room was pretty blissful after a very early morning start from London.
Sunday – City Hall, St George’s Market and the Titanic
As I mentioned earlier, the breakfast is good at the Park Inn. Harry and I enjoyed bacon and eggs for the second day in a row. We did try to balance this out with a plate of fruit but who are we kidding! After checking out of the Park Inn, we made our way to City Hall. It’s such a beautiful building and there were already lots of people occupying the park benches in the sun, admiring the building before them. So we kept on going towards St George’s Markets which opens at 10am.
Harry and I had bets on what we’d find here. My guesses were a dress, necklace and banana cake. Harry guessed that there would be bread, fish and a Wu-Tang Clan (hip-hop group) t-shirt. Safe to say that I won. No Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts here. Plenty of wee this and wee that t-shirts. You know, as in small.
The most exciting part of the markets for me aside from a tasty and much needed-coffee and a happy Irish band, were the old pennies for sale. I could’ve dug through that box of coins for hours. I almost recruited a small boy to help me find the years I was looking for before his mother whisked him away. Anyway soon we had to leave to get to the Titanic on time for our 1pm afternoon tea booking, something they only do on Sundays. If you happen to be at the markets for lunch, there are lots of different types of food, all of which looked very inviting.
The CitySightseeing bus ticket is valid for 48 hours, so we could have caught the bus to the Titanic. Instead we walked so that Harry could kiss the Big Fish. We got there just in time before a large tour group wanted to kiss the fish too. We continued our journey across the weir bridge and were almost at the Titanic before we were asked by a man if we were holiday makers or locals. He was conducting research for the Tourist Board including questions about changing the name Belfast to Titanic City, and a new concept – the 9 Giants Tour around sights in Belfast and Northern Ireland. We agreed to do the interview and 10 minutes later we were £15 richer.
Walking towards the Titanic Museum, it got bigger and bigger and we were soon standing inside, looking up at the different levels to explore. Allow minimum 90 minutes, ideally 2 hours to take it all in. We exchanged our online booking for tickets inside the entry, showed this to the staff member near the lifts and made our way up to Level 4 for our afternoon tea experience. It’s very fancy. Not usually our thing but it was interesting to see the replica staircase from the Titanic, savour the sandwiches, scones, cakes, tea and prosecco over a few hours and listen to the jazz band. All while pretending to be rich and aboard the Titanic, though gladly not. We also got to meet Geoff, a friendly kiwi who had lived in London for 22 years before moving to Belfast with his now wife.
Feeling extremely full, we made our way around the museum. Our favourite part was the ride where you can experience some of what it was like to work on building the Titanic. They even have heaters in there so you can feel the heat they used to work in. The images on the walls show the workers literally hitting the same rivet over and over. By the end the Titanic weighed 46000 tonnes, was 11 stories high and took 3 years to make. In other rooms, you can experience a virtual tour of the Titanic, read the emergency messages sent from boat to boat at the time the Titanic was sinking and watch the discovery of the sunken Titanic.
Now that we knew the story of the Titanic, we looked at the large yellow Harland and Wolff cranes on the way out with a whole new perspective. Where were they in the Titanic movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet? Speaking of which I’ve now discovered Harry has not seen the Titanic movie (I know right?!) so guess what we’ll be watching as soon as we have a spare 3 hours?
With just less than 2 hours to spare, we aimed for the Dirty Onion, a bar near the Cathedral Quarter that showed promise on our research before the trip. On the way we spotted our favourite street art here so far.
Unfortunately despite a great looking venue the Dirty Onion had a non-traditional Oktoberfest theme, not many people inside and music that stopped and started until the musician left completely in our short time at the bar.
Desperate to finish our trip on a high, we downed the last of our beers and headed towards McHugh’s, a traditional looking pub we’d seen earlier. Along the way, some music caught our attention and we followed it into The Nationalist and Sixty6 beer garden. Great find! In our final 10 minutes of fun before the return journey to London, we met a friendly couple who live in Darwin, Australia. Too bad we didn’t meet them earlier! Anyway it was time to walk back to the hotel, grab our bags and catch the bus back to Belfast International Airport. What an experience! In 30 hours! Definitely our quickest trip to date. What’s yours?