JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM SWEENEY FROM BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND!
Tom Sweeney is a long-time professional journalist and award-winning travel writer and blogger who divides his time between Belfast and Dublin. Born in Scotland, he has lived and worked there and in England, Spain and, for the past 25 years, in Ireland. Outside of the Emerald Isle, his favourite and most frequently visited cities are Edinburgh, Krakow and Stockholm. If he ever wins a life-changing lottery jackpot, he’ll blow the lot on travelling – first-class, of course. Read about his globetrotting adventures (and misadventures) at his blog TomSweeneyTravels..
Special thanks to photographer Mr.Torres for providing us amazing pictures of Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom is made up of four countries: Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland. Though Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, its status as a country is not universally accepted.
Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is a vibrant city with a troubled past that has grasped peace with both hands and is making the most of its new status as a much-heralded tourist destination. Its visitor attractions are world-class and its citizens are the salt of the earth – and they’re waiting to greet you with a cheery “What about ye?
When is the best time to visit Belfast?
Belfast extends a genuinely warm welcome to visitors year-round, but it’s best to go in summer when the weather is warm too. At other times, rain is never far away. Spring, autumn and especially winter can be bitterly cold, but don’t let that put you off – as most of the visitor attractions are indoors, there’s little chance of catching a chill. Apart from that, there are plenty or historical and atmospheric pubs (especially the Crown Bar, the Duke of York and Kelly’s Cellars) in which to shelter (you can call it research).
Which is the most convenient and favored transport of Belfast?
Public transport (it’s all buses) is efficient and cheap, but as Belfast is a compact city, visitors tend to walk everywhere, weather permitting. Regular shuttle buses operate from George Best Belfast City airport, named in honour of the late, great Manchester United footballer, and Belfast International airport to the city centre.
What are the top three must visit places in Belfast?
Titanic Belfast is not only the top visitor magnet in Belfast, it was crowned World’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards 2016, beating off stiff competition from global finalists including the Las Vegas Strip and Machu Picchu to win the top accolade. If you want to know the full, fascinating story of the world’s most famous ship, this interactive interpretive centre is a must. It’s three aluminium-clad wings are the shape and actual size of Titanic’s bow, and the £100 million centre is situated on the very spot from which the ill-fated liner was launched on May 31, 1911.
Close by are the giant, yellow painted shipyard cranes Samson and Goliath, which were built decades after Titanic left Belfast so had no part in its construction. Wisecracking pilots bringing planes in to land at the city airport tell passengers that the big black letters “H&W” on each crane stand for “Hello & Welcome”, but they’re actually the initials of Harland & Wolff, the yard that built the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic.
The Ulster Museum is Northern Ireland’s treasure house of art, history and natural sciences, easy to get to but so fascinating it’s hard to leave. Here you’ll travel on a journey through time, from the far distant days of the dinosaurs to the Industrial Revolution and the more recent but gladly gone Troubles era when hardly anyone visited violence-scarred Belfast.
Let’s not forget young (and young at heart) visitors. The inspirational W5 isn’t a museum, it’s an interactive science and discovery centre with more than 250 hands-on experience exhibits where visitors can let their imaginations run wild. It’s a brave parent who would tell their children it’s time to leave after hours of mind-blowing fun in this must see (and do) world of wonders close to Titanic Belfast.
What are the best day trips for nature, culture and history from Belfast?
One day trip beats all others. Eighteenth century author, lexicographer and poet Dr. Samuel Johnson famously noted that the Giant’s Causeway, on the Antrim Coast, was “worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see”. He was talking through his tricorn hat. Visitors to Belfast with time to spare should head north – no excuses – and see this remarkable Unesco World Heritage Sight. The 40,000 interlocking basalt stone columns, created 60 million years ago by volcanic eruptions, constitute one of the natural world’s weirdest wonders. Pedestrian access to the stones, close to Portrush, is free from dawn to dusk.
Nearby, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is great fun, but not for the faint-hearted. Suspended 30 metres above the roaring Atlantic, between the mainland and Carrick-a-Rede island, it was first erected 350 years ago by fearless fishermen with a head for heights.
What is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Belfast?
There are two: St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), which is marked worldwide and celebrates the patron saint of the island of Ireland, and the Twelfth of July Orange Parade. The latter is a celebration of Protestant King William’s victory over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The battle site – a top tourist attraction – is in County Meath, close to Drogheda in the northeast of the Republic of Ireland. Each year, male and female members of Orange lodges carrying commemorative banners and accompanied by flute and bagpipe bands march through Belfast in a colourful and noisy procession beloved of Orangemen and women. Members of the nationalist/Catholic community view it as a sectarian and provocative display of outdated triumphalism. Nevertheless, for overseas visitors it’s a memorable spectacle. On July 11 – known as Eleventh Night – massive bonfires built mainly of wooden pallets in staunchly Protestant neighbourhoods are set alight and can be seen from miles away.
What is the most loved local food, savory and sweet of Belfast? Is it a vegetarian friendly city?
The Ulster Fry, which is served in every hotel, B&B and cafe, is the breakfast of champions and sets you up nicely for a day of exploring. It consists of bacon rashers, sausages, black pudding (blood sausage), white pudding, potato farls (bread), fried bread, scrambled or fried egg, fried tomato and sauteed mushrooms, all washed down with a pot of tea or coffee. Purists will tell you there’s no place in an Ulster fry for baked beans, and I agree.
The people of Belfast have a sweet tooth, which is reflected in the wide choice of cakes, buns, doughnuts and scones available in cafes, shops and small neighbourhood bakeries. If it has sugar or icing on top, it sells, which keeps the citizens satisfied and the dentists busy.
Until only a few years ago, vegetarians were looked on as exotic creatures, but that has changed. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes are widely available. Among the top spots for non-meat eaters are Home, Shed Bistro, Fratelli, Molly’s Yard, Acton and Sons, Coppi and Horatio Todd’s.
Where to head for shopping in Belfast? Are there any popular weekend/night/flea markets which tourists must visit?
Victoria Square is the main mall offering all the big brand names and loads of independent boutiques. The covered St. George’s Market, selling all sorts of fresh and cooked foods, is an experience in itself and is always busy, especially on Friday for fish, and on Saturday when there’s live music.
The No Alibis bookshop attracts lovers of crime fiction, while Keats & Chapman secondhand bookshop is a treasure trove.
Sawers delicatessen sells a huge selection of Irish and continental cheeses and cooked meats and is also the place to stock up on kangaroo and ostrich steaks, the hottest sauces known to mankind and chocolate-covered insects, if that’s what tickles your tastebuds. In December, the grounds of City Hall are transformed into a magical Christmas market.
Which is the local craft or souvenir of your city?
The award-winning Studio Souk was named Top Choice for Arts and Craft shopping by Lonely Planet and was lauded by the New York Times, and rightly so. Here you’ll find local artists at work, creating unique souvenirs of your visit to a city bursting with artistic talent.
Which are the best streets in Belfast worthy of taking a stroll on?
Belfast is a functional rather than a splendid city with a mix of ornate empire and towering, glass-fronted modern architecture, so no single street stands out. However, for a pleasant stroll, head to the lovely Botanic Gardens, only 15 minutes from the centre, and pop in to the Palm House and the Tropical Ravine. Here you can kill two birds with one stone (but be kind to the pigeons) as the Ulster Museum is at the main entrance.
Can you suggest a place from where one can get the best view of the city?
The view of the entire city and Belfast Lough (sea loch) from the top of Cave Hill in Cave Hill Country Park is superb (the hill itself resembles a giant sleeping on his back and inspired Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels).
However, there’s a new vantage point in town – the Grand Central Hotel’s 23rd floor Observatory cocktail bar, which offers spectacular 360-degree vistas. The Observatory is principally for hotel guests, but visitors are welcome, though it’s wise to make a reservation.
Do you suggest any shows on music, culture or art performed by the locals? Where can one spot street art in the city?
The Grand Opera House stages West End and Broadway musicals, while the Waterfront Hall and the SSE Arena are the big-name concert venues. The Limelight and the Empire Music Hall host up-and-coming and established bands.
For a lively Irish traditional music session, you can’t beat an evening in Maddens, Kelly’s Cellars or the John Hewitt (which has a fantastic and very reasonably priced lunch menu). For drama, check out the programme at the Lyric Theatre, where the young Liam Neeson got his start, The Black Box and The MAC.
For street art, go to the Cathedral Quarter and take a stroll down Commercial Court, where Belfast’s history and its famous sons and daughters are celebrated on murals. Check out this guide on street art in Belfast.
Would you recommend any local apps for food, transport or hidden gems in your city?
Visit Belfast has a comprehensive website where visitors can plan their itinerary. For those keen on travelling farther afield while staying a few days in the city, check out DiscoverNorthernIreland.
Do you want to give any suggestion/tip to tourists coming to your city?
Engage in conversation with the locals in pubs – you’ve no choice, really, as the friendly citizens, who look on visitors as honoured guests, will make the first move. They’ll want to know where you’re from, what you do for a living and what you think of the city they proudly call home. A fabulous thing about Belfast is that solo travellers will never feel alone – it’s no use hiding your head in a book, as you’ll very quickly be invited into company. A word of warning, though – the Belfast accent is very thick and the locals speak at 100 miles an hour, which takes some getting used to.
If you have more time in hand then check out these ten top things to do in Belfast that shall keep you engaged.