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Perfect Weekend: Top choices of ST’s foreign correspondents

Perfect Weekend: Belfast's blast from the past

Northern Ireland's capital has shed its bloody history and is now a cool city, but tourists can still glimpse bits of its past while chilling out at the hip restaurants and pubs

Once assigned to pariah status thanks to decades of bombings, assassinations and political violence between the republicans and loyalists, Northern Ireland's capital has shed its bloody history and transformed itself into a cool, cosmopolitan city with an exciting culinary scene, hip hotels and some of the best pubs in the country. 

The remarkable rejuvenation of Belfast is evident everywhere, from the evocative Victorian streets and alleyways of the old Cathedral Quarter to the gleaming waterfront that led to its fame as a shipbuilding city.

The iconic murals in the inner city that depict the deep political divide have not been whitewashed and the "peace walls" segregating the nationalists and unionists still stand.

But Belfast is not about to look back. It is too busy making up for lost time.

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• This is the ninth of a 10-part series. Next week, South Korea Correspondent Chang May Choon dines on chewy kimchi and paraglides over crystal-clear waters in Yeosu.


Saturday


The Crumlin Road Gaol, which first opened its gates to prisoners in 1846 and is now open for tours. ST PHOTO: TAN DAWN WEI

  • GETTING THERE

  • Singapore Airlines flies direct to London and Manchester. From either of these cities, there are plenty of options that will take you to Belfast in 11/2 hours. Budget airlines such as Ryanair depart from London's Gatwick Airport. British Airways and Aer Lingus fly from Heathrow airport.

  • WHERE TO STAY

  • The Bullitt Hotel: Chic, contemporary and oozing a cool vibe from every corner, The Bullitt (40A Church Lane, BT1 4QN; go to bullitthotel.com) is a design devotee's sanctuary located in the heart of Belfast's city centre. It is a short stroll from the cobblestone streets of the Cathedral Quarter, where the city's best collection of restaurants and bars are. Room rates start at £110 a night.

    Ten Square Hotel: Another boutique hotel with just 22 rooms, Ten Square (10 Donegall Square South, BT1 5JD; go to tensquare.co.uk) sits behind City Hall in an attractive Victorian building with plush sleeping quarters and a popular steakhouse. The hotel's central location is its selling point, as it is within easy reach of an abundance of dining and shopping options in the city. Room rates start at £149 a night.

  • TRAVEL TIPS

  • • Be ready to have more than a few pints than you are used to. Belfast boasts some of the best pubs in the country and it is a shame not to savour what the city has to offer.

    • Take a rain jacket or an umbrella. Northern Ireland has a temperate climate, so it gets plenty of rainfall.

1 GREASY SPOON

There is no better introduction to Belfast than a hearty, artery- clogging fry-up of sausages, eggs, hash brown, bacon and black pudding, also known as Ulster Fry, Ulster being the name of a traditional province of Ireland.

I will walk it all off the rest of the day, I reason to myself as I sink into one of the leather booths in Bright's, something of an institution along the high street. The piece de resistance, at just £5.95 (S$10.70), is comfort food at its best and which sets you up for the day. Where: Bright's Restaurant, 23-25 High Street, BT1 2AA Info: Call 028-9024-5688 or go to brightsrestaurantbelfast.co.uk

2 TO MARKET, TO MARKET

Belfast is a compact, walkable city that is perfect for a weekend trip. You can take in most of what it has to offer in two, if not three, days and taxi rides are affordable.

St George's Market is a pleasant 10-minute stroll from Bright's. The weekend market sprawls across a cavernous 1800s building and is packed with traders peddling local arts and crafts, spices, cheeses, fresh meats and seafood.

The nicest way to enjoy it is to do a few rounds of the market, then grab a freshly brewed cup of coffee and park yourself on a bench while the two-man band strikes up. Where: 12-20 East Bridge Street, BT1 3NQ; open: Fridays to Sundays

3 BULLETS AND BOMBS

Before you even set foot on Irish soil, book a black cab tour of the city's famous murals because that will almost surely be the highlight of your perfect Belfast weekend.

I am lucky to have Pat, an infectiously friendly guide, who takes me into the heart of the Troubles - inner-city Belfast where Catholic and Protestant ghettos are still partitioned by corrugated iron fences and brick walls.

For the next 90 minutes, he regales me with tales of how the bloody sectarian conflict erupted on the streets of these neighbourhoods, leading to three decades of terror and hundreds of political murals that help tell the story of this complex, fascinating history. Info: Paddy Campbell Taxi Tours (call 079-9095-5227 or go to www.belfastblackcabtours.co.uk)

4 MICHELIN-STAR BITES

A week before I arrive in Belfast, I try booking a table at OX, the city's most celebrated restaurant, for dinner.

No luck there. These prized weekend slots are booked out at least a month ahead. 

I did manage to score a spot at lunch, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For £20 for two courses or £25 for three courses, it is a steal for foodies on a budget hankering for a Michelin- star experience (that is, me).

Local boy and head chef Stephan Toman performs culinary magic with seasonal ingredients in non-stuffy, stripped-down surroundings that put the focus squarely on the food. Where: OX, 1 Oxford Street, BT1 3LA; open: noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 9.30pm (Tuesdays to Fridays); 1 to 2.30pm, 6 to 9.30pm (Saturdays) Info: Call 028-9031-4121 or go to oxbelfast.com

5 CRIME AND VINTAGE

About a 10-minute ride from Belfast city centre is Queen's Quarter, a leafy village that is home to the historic Queen's University, the Botanic Gardens and Ulster Museum, as well as a clutch of independent shops, cafes, galleries and bars, many catering to the university crowd.

A stroll through the park to the Palm House, a Victorian era curvilinear cast-iron conservatory, is a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

After that, browse the shops on the high street and pick out vintage finds.

Crime-fiction fans will be satiated at No Alibis, a bookshop specialising in British, Irish and American crime novels. Where: Botanic Gardens, College Park, Botanic Avenue, BT7 1LP; open: 7.30am to 9pm daily Admission: Free Where: No Alibis, 83 Botanic Avenue, BT7 1JL; open: 9am to 5.30pm daily except Sundays Info: Call 028-9031-9601 or go to noalibis.com

6 MALT AND MUSIC

On Saturday nights, The John Hewitt bar holds its biggest traditional Irish music session from 5.30pm, so sample old-school local culture over a pint of Guinness. It is good fun and free. Where: The John Hewitt, 51 Donegall Street, BT1 2FH; open: 11.30 to 1am (Mondays to Fridays), noon to 1am (Saturdays); 7pm to midnight (Sundays) Info: Go to www.thejohnhewitt.com

7 OLD FOUNDRY FETE

You will do well to book ahead for a table at Hadskis, a busy but relaxed brasserie in the old Cathedral Quarter converted from a 1760s iron foundry. Menu highlights include crispy squid with pork belly and ceviche, oxtail, pan roast scallops and mushy peas, as well as rabbit, chicken and pork belly kebabs. Where: Hadskis, Commercial Court, 33 Donegall Street, BT1 2NB; open: noon to 9.30pm (Mondays to Wednesdays), noon to 10pm (Thursdays and Fridays), 11am to 10pm (Saturdays), 11am to 9.30pm (Sundays) Info: Call 028-9032-5444 or go to hadskis.co.uk 


Sunday

8 GET ARTY

Opened in 2012, the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) has won acclaim for its architecture. Think exposed concrete, red brickwork, basalt stone cladding and glass, all assembled into a challenging trapezium-shaped space. Browse the galleries where there is a changing line-up of art exhibitions. Admission to them is free, but performances are ticketed. Where: MAC, 10 Exchange Street, BT1 2LS; open: 10am to 7pm daily Info: Go to themaclive.com.

9 SHIP AHOY

If weather permits, stroll along the waterfront from the MAC to the Titanic Quarter, an ambitious regeneration project that includes the site where the RMS Titanic was built. The museum Titanic Belfast, opened in 2012 to mark the centenary of the ship's maiden voyage, does a better job of retelling the ill-fated history of the Titanic than actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Where: Titanic Belfast, 1 Olympic Way, Queens Road, Titanic Quarter, BT3 9EP; open: 9am to 6pm Admission: £18 an adult; £8 a child aged five to 16 Info: Call 028-9076-6386 or go to titanicbelfast.com

10 GOOD OLD SUNDAY ROAST

Gastropub The Barking Dog in the Queen's Quarter has both bark and bite when it comes to dishing out a proper traditional Sunday roast.

The Herefordshire sirloin or free-range chicken comes with tasty roast vegetables topped with a giant Yorkshire pudding. My kind of comfort food. Where: The Barking Dog, 33-35 Malone Road, BT9 6RU; open: noon to 4pm (Sundays) Info: Call 028-9066-1885 or go to barkingdogbelfast.com

 11 PRISON BREAK

As fascinating as the political murals tour is a visit to Crumlin Road Gaol, which opened its gates to prisoners in 1846.

It was a fully functioning jail for 150 years, locking up murderers, political prisoners and suffragettes.

The 70-minute guided tour takes you into its belly, including the execution chamber, if you have the stomach for it. Where: 53-55 Crumlin Road, BT14 6ST; open: first tour is at 10am, last tour is at 4.30pm Admission: £9 an adult; £6.50 a child aged five to 15 Info: Call 028-9074-1500 or go to crumlinroadgaol.com

12 SEAFOOD SUPPER


Enjoy fresh seafood such as oysters. ST PHOTO: TAN DAWN WEI

It would seem almost odd to come to an island and not have seafood. The place to go is Mourne Seafood Bar, a local favourite in shabby-chic surrounds dishing out amazingly fresh oysters, lobsters and fish in myriad ways that will not max out your credit card. Prices range from £8 for a salt-and-chilli squid starter to £19 for a fillet of monkfish. Do not miss the oysters, done au naturel or with shredded cucumber, pickled ginger and spiced soya sauce. Where: Mourne Seafood Bar, 34-36 Bank Street, BT1 1HL; open: noon to 9.30pm (Mondays to Thursdays), noon to 4pm and 5 to 10pm (Fridays and Saturdays), 1 to 9pm (Sundays) Info: Call 028-9024-8544 or go to mourneseafood.com

13 CELEBRATE WITH DRINKS


End the weekend in one of the many pubs with a pint of Guinness. ST PHOTO: TAN DAWN WEI

The perfect way to end your weekend in Belfast is to have a final toast at Kelly's Cellars, Belfast's oldest traditional pub with a bar well worn by elbows. Friendly, lively and full of character, it opened its doors in 1720 and little has changed since. As I sit back with a Guinness in hand, I ponder over how this was the place where revolutionary republicans plotted the 1798 rebellion against English rule. I am not sure if it was the influence of the black pint, but I could definitely discern a rebellious streak in this little cellar. Where: Kelly's Cellars, 30-32 Bank St, BT1 1HL; open: 11.30am to 1am (Mondays to Saturdays); 1pm to midnight (Sundays) Info: Call 028-9024-6058 or go to kellyscellars.com

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'Belfast's blast from the past'. Print Edition | Subscribe