DUBAI: Welcome to one of Europe’s most underrated cities. Since the turbulent days of ‘The Troubles,’ Belfast has transformed itself into an exciting holiday destination, full of character, with the kind of raw, vibrant energy not experienced in regular tourist traps. There’s plenty to see and do, particularly if you’re a fan of “Game of Thrones.”
The city is just over an hour’s flight from London, with tickets costing as little as $50 on low-cost carriers. So, it’s a great extra destination for you to explore whilst in the UK.
Upon landing, we made our to the swanky Malmaison Belfast on Victoria Street. The luxury four-star property, converted from a Victorian warehouse, fuses external period features with modern boutique style on the inside. It’s handy for many landmarks, as well as city’s shopping center and plenty of food, drink and nightlife options.
The best way to explore Belfast is via one of the hop-on, hop-off bus tours. They’re great value for money, and a friendly guide is on hand to run through the history of the city and its various landmarks.
Our first stop was the Titanic Belfast, a must-see museum that tells the tragic story of the world’s most famous ship, which was built here. Nine interactive galleries spread over six floors (so allow some time) take you through the history of the ship and the 3,000 men who built it. Outside, you’ll spot the SS Nomadic, the Titanic’s sister ship and the last remaining White Star Line vessel.
For a quick refreshment, we visited a quaint little café called The Dock, which bills itself as a “pop-up honesty-box coffee bar.” The Dock — which is run by volunteers — serves coffee, a huge variety of teas and delicious bakes. You decide what you pay into any of the honesty boxes dotted around the venue.
Back on the bus, our next stop was the Stormont Parliament buildings, home to the recently reinstated Northern Ireland Assembly. While the marble buildings are impressive, we’re more interested in the greenery surrounding them — it’s a great spot for a walk.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was learning about the areas of the city most affected by the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, which ended in 1998, and seeing the political murals and ‘peace’ wall.
The tour’s final stop was the famous ‘Big Fish’ sculpture, also known as the ‘Salmon of Knowledge.’ Legend has it that if you kiss this structure made of printed ceramic tiles, you’ll gain all of its knowledge. We did not get that close.
Speaking of fish, we struck gold for dinner at Fish City Belfast — where we had the most delicious fish and chips we have ever experienced. All the cod and haddock comes from sustainable sources, too. Leave room for dessert though, as you’ll want to try the glorious ‘Beside the Seaside’ — a spectacular combination of vanilla ice cream, raspberry sauce, chocolate flakes, candy floss, and doughnuts.
On our second day, we headed out of the city center to explore Northern Ireland’s beautiful nature. Belfast is one of the filming locations for the wildly popular HBO show “Game of Thrones,” and the city attracts fans from all over the world. Naturally then, the “Game of Thrones” tour is a hot ticket.
There are two excursions to choose from: the “Iron Islands and Rope Bridge Adventure,” which focuses on locations north of Belfast, and the “Winterfell Locations Trek,” which to the south. The Winterfell tour focuses on the Stark family home of Winterfell, Robb’s camp in the Riverlands, Walder Frey’s Twins, and the forest in which the direwolf pups were found.
Keen to visit the Giant’s Causeway (not a “Game of Thrones” location, despite the name), however, we opt for the day-long Iron Islands tour, which includes a visit to the cave where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow baby. The tour is fantastic. Our personal highlights included the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge that links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. It’s stunning, but be warned, there’s a bit of a hike involved.
And of course there was the main attraction — the magical Giant’s Causeway. This UNESCO World Heritage site is made up of 40,000 black basalt columns — said to have been created by volcanic activity some 50–60 million years ago — sticking out of the sea. You’ll need a few hours to truly explore the area’s beauty. Good walking shoes are recommended.
All in all, we’d thoroughly recommend making time to discover the hidden gem that is Belfast. You won’t regret it.