- Where the Locals Go
A bodhrán player (and also a maker of the traditional drums), set dancer (a type of Irish folk dance), and bog oak sculptor, Belfast native Eamon Maguire is well versed in Irish culture. He also helps pass on these traditions as an instructor at An Droichead, an Irish language and arts school in the city. Here are a few of Eamon’s favorite things about the capital and creative hub of Northern Ireland.
Belfast Is My City
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is Maddens Bar for traditional music sessions and set dancing.
You can see my city best from “Napoleon’s Nose” on Cave Hill, a half-hour hike from Belfast Castle. On a good day you can see the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. Cave Hill looks like a sleeping giant’s head, and is supposedly where Jonathan Swift got the idea for his book Gulliver’s Travels.
Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and the Saturday craft market at Conway Mill are the places to buy authentic, local souvenirs.
In the past, notable people like singer-songwriter Van Morrison, flute soloist James Galway, and novelist C. S. Lewis have called my city home.
My city’s best museum is the Ulster Museum because of its interesting Irish artifacts and a collection of paintings by John Lavery—one of the best painters in Ireland. Titanic Belfast, the city’s newest museum, opened in 2012 to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The museum’s exhibits describe how the ship was built in Belfast, its sinking, and the discovery of the wreck in 1985.
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, know that it’s easiest from a black taxi. The company also offers excellent tours, the best known of which is a tour of the murals depicting the Troubles. There are also bus tours of West Belfast that explain what happened there during that period (roughly 1968-1998).
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is Belfast Castle. There are lovely walks all around the castle offering great views of the city. After roaming the grounds, break for tea at the Cellar Restaurant.
My city really knows how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Festivities include a parade, céilí dancescéilí dances, and traditional Irish music in all the pubs around town. For a special treat, go to Slemish Mountain, about 25 miles from Belfast, for a hike to the top of the mountain where St. Patrick grew up as a young shepherd. Take along some poitín (traditional Irish home brew) and musical instruments for celebrations once you reach the summit.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they have a Belfast accent, arguably the most difficult accent to understand in all of Ireland.
For a fancy night out, I take my wife to dinner at Ox on Oxford Street overlooking the River Lagan, which was designed by my daughter, Orla, an architect. It won “Best Restaurant” in Ulster in the 2014 Irish Restaurant Awards.
Just outside my city, you can visit the Glens of Antrim along the northern coastline, especially Cushendall and Cushendun, a particularly charming village maintained by the National Trust. There is beautiful scenery with views to Scotland, friendly people, and great food.
My city is known for being a powerhouse of historical divisions and conflict between sectarian groups, but it’s really put the Troubles behind it. These days, there’s a young vibe, a creative bent, and a vision for redevelopment. Plus, people here love to welcome visitors.
The best outdoor market in my city is St. George’s Market, a Victorian-era covered market that sells local produce and artisanal food on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Music performances, craft demonstrations, and art shows add another dimension.
The Barking Dog is the spot for late-night eats, since it’s open until 11 p.m. on the weekends.
To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read The Irish News on Saturday morning, when it comes out with a listing of all the music in the pubs for the coming week.
My city’s biggest sports events involve Gaelic football and hurling. Watch the fast-paced matches at Casement Park.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I go walking in the mountains that, conveniently, ring Belfast—”Napoleon’s Nose” to the east and the Divis mountain to the west. The view from the top is one of the best in Ireland, taking in Belfast, Strangford Lough, the Mourne Mountains, Lough Neagh, Slemish Mountain, and Scotland. There are even good views from the parking lot at the foot of the mountain.
To escape the crowds, I go trout fishing in the hills towards Ballymena.
If my city were a celebrity it’d be the late Frank Carson, a locally born comedian, because he told it like it is and people fell over with laughter. The natives of Belfast love to laugh.
The dish that represents my city best is the Belfast bap, a big, soft roll that you eat with butter and jam at breakfast. Sample it in the form of a bacon and sausage bap at Cafe Conor, an eatery on Stranmillis Road that has won awards for its breakfasts.
Hot whiskey—made with Irish whiskey, hot water, and a little sugar, and topped with a floating lemon slice studded with cloves—is my city’s signature drink. Try it at the Duke of York while enjoying the atmosphere and music, then check out the interesting murals in the alley.
The Ulster Museum is my favorite building in town because it’s like a city hall—white limestone with a classical wing offset by a modernist addition. It’s lovely inside and out.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The most random thing about my city is that it has interesting graveyards. The Milltown Cemetery on the Falls Road includes the graves of Bobby Sands and other Irish Republican Army hunger strikers. Historian and author Tom Hartley conducts tours of both Milltown and Belfast City Cemetery. Spooky Friar’s Bush graveyard is one of the city’s oldest and marks a site where St. Patrick supposedly built a church.
Kelly’s Cellars is the best place to hear traditional (trad) music. For Irish set dancing with lessons and live music, check out Maddens on Wednesday nights.
In the spring you should attend the first of the season’s fleadh cheoils, traditional music festivals that feature competitions. The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival also happens in May.
In the summer you should take a Titanic boat tour and attend a Gaelic football or hurling match. Féile an Phobail, also known as the West Belfast Festival, happens in August, too.
In the fall you should attend Belfast’s Culture Night in September and the Belfast Festival at Queens University in October for a vast offering of music, performances, and art exhibitions.
In the winter you should attend the theater at the Grand Opera House or the Lyric Theatre. There are loads of cozy pubs for traditional music, too.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss W5, a science and discovery center.
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Will Ye Go, Lassie Go” (aka “Wild Mountain Thyme”) by the McPeake family, a notable Irish musical clan featuring several generations of pipers. When they recorded that song in the 1950s, it started a revival of traditional music in Belfast that is still going strong.
The world should heart my city because Belfast has loads of restaurants, plenty of music, good drinking, gorgeous scenery, locals with a sense of humor, and it’s fascinating to see where the Troubles took place.