There's a great enthusiasm, urgency, vitality and life in Belfast. Not least while talking to Phil Ervine about his great passion — gin. Of course, the fact that the gin boom has reached Belfast is not news, but what the regeneration of this magnificent city has spawned is a number of gin bars where once there were previously empty buildings. However, we start our tour of these in the city's most famous pub, a former gin palace, The Crown Liquor Saloon; owned by the National Trust.
Alongside food trips, Phil's Taste & Tour company runs 'gin jaunts' exploring the traditional and local spirits found across the city. And, as Phil says, the transformation of the food and drink scene in the past seven years has been nothing short of phenomenal.
"There has been an influx of local talent who have travelled and trained across the world, before moving back to Northern Ireland and sharing what they've learnt in their new ventures. We now have so many excellent bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes it can be difficult to choose where to go — a struggle I never would have envisaged when I first returned to Belfast."
Along the way we meet Gerry White, who is part of the vanguard riding this new wave of entrepreneurial spirit in Belfast. With more than 30 years in the bar trade, Gerry launched Jawbox Gin in early 2016 — the first distillery to be granted a licence to distil spirits in Northern Ireland for 130 years — and has already established distribution in major outlets across the UK.
The opening of Titanic Belfast in 2012 marks (but didn't start) the beginning of this recent revival — which was prompted by the Good Friday Agreement in the late 1990s but stalled by the financial crisis.
The city's oft-troubled past has become very much a part of its history, a much wider history that weaves its way through modern Belfast — something the Titanic exhibition so skilfully reveals — in its music, literature, architecture, industry and beyond.
From the CS Lewis and Van Morrison trails in East Belfast and the thriving student population across the city, to the weekly cruise ship arrivals and mesmerising street art now a permanent fixture in the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast has a claim to be one of the most exciting, vibrant cities in the UK.
See & do
Titanic Belfast: One of the UK's best attractions, Titanic is everything a 21st-century visitor experience should be — informative, immersive, entertaining and thoroughly engaging. Charting not just the history of the infamous ship itself, but Belfast's too, it should be the starting point of any city break.
Ulster Museum: Part of the impressive National Museums Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum is home to a rich collection of art, history and natural sciences. Takabuti, the Egyptian mummy, is one of the highlights.
Street art: Not the murals of the Falls and Shankill Roads but the burgeoning face of the city's street art scene. Tours led by Adam Turkington showcase some of the spectacular modern creations that pepper walls around the Cathedral Quarter, with commentary on the local and international artists who have helped transform the area.
Belfast gin jaunt: With several local distilleries, and a swathe of bars specialising in the spirit of the moment, Phil Ervine's 'gin jaunt' capitalises on his knowledge of gin in its many guises. Sample seven drinks in five pubs and bars, learn about different styles, garnishes and cocktails, and generally see the city from a different perspective.
East Belfast bike tour: The opening of the Eastside Visitor Centre — with the help of Belfast City Bike Tours — makes the three famous sons of East Belfast accessible. All grew up within a few miles of each other and the CS Lewis trail, highlights from Van Morrison's early works and George Best House are enlightening in many ways.
Take a tour: Many people opt for a traditional black cab tour of the political murals of West Belfast but for a more bespoke experience, Dee Morgan offers visitors anything and everything from highlights of the city to music, pubs, history and Game of Thrones locations.
Queen's University: One of the top universities in the world, Queen's dates back to the 19th century. Explore the historic buildings and learn about its celebrated former students and academics — don't miss the neighbouring Botanic Gardens.
City Hall: Slap bang in the middle of the centre, Belfast City Hall is a hugely impressive civic space reflecting the city's wealth and importance at the beginning of the 20th century. Popular with locals and visitors alike, it's now augmented with a permanent exhibition detailing the history of Belfast, its people, industries, famous sons and daughters.
Co Couture: Indulge your cocoa passions at this basement boutique. Small batches made using raw ingredients have seen this award-winning producer become one of the country's premier chocolatiers. Look out for ginger and lime brownies, dark chocolate with biscuit and cranberry, and Irish whiskey truffles.
St George's Market: This Victorian insitution has received Lottery funding in recent years to maintain its position as one of the UK's best markets. As well as featuring local produce — fruit, vegetables, meat and fish — there's an array of antiques, books, clothes, arts, crafts and artisan foods over Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Victoria Square: Home to many of the city's top high-street brands, Victoria Square's key attraction is its glass dome overlooking the whole of the city — offering 360-degree views over the likes of Harland and Wolff, Stormont Parliament Buildings and Belfast Castle. Grab the tour guide Gerry Blain for some in-depth knowledge.
Established: Belfast takes its coffee seriously and this is one of the best places — choose your blend from the changing daily menu (El Salvador, Ethiopia, Bolivia) or ask the barista for a recommendation. The inventive food is equally enticing — rarebit waffle with charred leek bechamel, savoy cabbage, fried egg, brown butter hollandaise and dill anyone?
Hadskis: A stylish but casual brasserie, Hadskis offers a simple, modern European menu with Northern Irish produce and bold flavours. There's a buzzy atmosphere and the counter seating overlooking the open kitchen is the best place to sit.
Ox: Michelin-starred Ox has made a serious name for itself without taking itself too seriously. The simplicity of the decor sits in stark contrast to the creative, imaginative tasting menu based on seasonality — which comes in at a bargain evening price of £50 a head, and even cheaper at lunchtime. Or try Ox Cave wine bar next door.
Like a local
Late night arts: More than a dozen galleries open their doors on the first Thursday of the month for an evening celebration of the dynamic visual arts scene — there are talks, performances and drinks along the way. Take the guided tour bus for £10 or make your way on foot.
Plenty of dough: Soda bread, malt bread, wheaten bread, potato farl… there's a special relationship with bread in Northern Ireland. Soda bread in particular — made with baking soda and buttermilk — is a standard part of the traditional Ulster Fry breakfast.
Get high: Set on the slopes of Cave Hill Country Park in the north of the city, Belfast Castle offers stunning views over the whole of Belfast Lough. The original site dates back to the 12th century although the current building was completed in 1870. The grounds — including an adventure park, walking trails and the landmark Napoleon's Nose, a basaltic outcrop — are as much of an attraction in themselves.
Crescent Townhouse: Budget but boutique, Crescent Townhouse is probably one of the best-value stays in Belfast. The 19th-century building in the Queen's Quarter is home to a slick bar and restaurant downstairs while upstairs rooms are smart and stylish.
Bullitt: A Steve McQueen-themed hotel might sound like a bad idea but Bullitt is a discrete, subtle take on the classic 1960s film. Converted from old offices, its exposed air-conditioning, retro fittings and popular bar and restaurant make it a great stay.
Titanic Hotel Belfast: Stay in the former headquarters of Titanic builders Harland & Wolff in the city's newest four-star deluxe hotel. The £28m refurbishment sees original and period features reflecting the legacy of the design and craftsmanship.
Limelight: From Emeli Sande and Public Service Broadcasting to Carl Cox and Skream, Limelight bags the best music names to visit Belfast. Home to four venues, there are regular club nights and live gigs as well as a popular bar and rooftop terrce.
The Black Box: Everything from arts events and stand-up comedy to local bands and cabaret, the Black Box is one of the city's best alternative venues. Throw in one of the finest craft beer selections in Belfast and you've got an important arts hub in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter.
Bert's Jazz Bar: Grab a cocktail in the bar or book a table for dinner and luxuriate in the live jazz and 1930s art deco-styling — mirroring some of the rooms in the Merchant Hotel, which it's a part of.
Getting there & around
George Best Belfast City Airport is just three miles from the city centre and is well served from across the UK by airlines including Aer Lingus, British Airways, Eastern Airways and Flybe. aerlingus.com ba.com easternairways.com flybe.com
Belfast has a compact city centre so is easy to traverse on foot although an integrated public transport system, taxis and bike hire make getting around fairly simple. The Belfast Visitor Pass, available for adults (from £6.50) and children (from £3.75), is a Translink smartcard providing unlimited bus and rail travel for one, two or three consecutive days.
How to do it
Superbreak offers flights from across the UK and two nights in a hotel from £97 per person.
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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