Sights and Bites: What to Eat While Touring Belfast, Northern Ireland
With a cultural map in one hand and a culinary compass in the other, savor the treasured sights then seek the nearby local delectable bites.
Belfast’s shipbuilders, ropemakers, linen weavers, and shopkeepers helped this bustling port city thrive in the 18th and 19th centuries, but today it’s Belfast’s farmers, fishermen, and chefs who dominate the city’s industry. Start your day with a traditional Ulster fry and end it with a sip of local gin. Belfast is a city on the rise—and its flourishing food scene is rising to the top with it.
With its sharply angled prow slicing through the air above the shipyard where the R.M.S. Titanic was built, the Titanic Belfast museum cuts a dramatic figure overlooking the River Lagan. The six-story building is a tribute to the Belfast shipbuilders who crafted the “unsinkable ship,” a place to experience the sights and sounds of the Titanic, and a memorial to the 1,500 who sank with her on April 15, 1912. Nine interactive galleries, a glass-floor theater, and immersive exhibits tell the tragic tale; the only things you won’t find are artifacts from the wreck itself, which have been left in their final resting place under the Atlantic.
Classic Bites: Fans of the 1997 film hoping to reenact Rose and Jack’s formal meeting on the grand staircase can do so with a Sunday afternoon tea in the Titanic Suite; otherwise, head to the nearby Belfast Baking Company, whose ovens have produced homemade potato bread, soda farls, and other delicious baked goods since before the Titanic set sail on its fateful voyage. Pop in for a quick breakfast bap, or try the Titanic sandwich, with prawns, tomatoes, and—of course—iceberg lettuce.
Trendy Bites: The quirky Lamppost Café—a tribute to the Belfast-born C.S. Lewis’s world of Narnia—offers locally sourced coffee and breakfast and lunch options in a lively, creative, anything-is-possible atmosphere. Stop by on a Thursday for Tapas and Tunes; at £10 for three plates, it’s great value for a unique night out in the Titanic Quarter.
Unexpected Bites: Originally conceived as a pop-up space for community gatherings, the now permanent Dock Café retains a homey, stay-a-while feel that encompasses its locally sourced coffee and tea, homemade soups, and baked goods—and its pay-what-you-will honesty box.
Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens
When the city of Belfast was presented with a suit of samurai armor in 1891—among thousands of other objects from avid collector Canon John Grainger—it needed a suitable place to display its newfound treasures. The Ulster Museum now houses dinosaur fossils, an Egyptian mummy, and more in its collections, with an emphasis on the work of Belfast-born painter Sir John Lavery. If it’s a nice day, walk through the nearby Botanic Gardens, an homage to Victorian-era botanists and a lovely spot for a picnic.
Classic Bites: With the slogan “as Belfast as it gets,” Darcy’s looks to the nearby countryside and the surrounding sea to supply the ingredients for its largely local menu. Don’t let the bistro’s colorful exterior fool you (it was previously bright pink and is now a blue hue); tradition is strong inside this cozy family-run eatery, which has inspired quite a few marriage proposals over the years (to other people, not the bistro, despite its long list of glowing reviews).
Trendy Bites: The long, wooden table in the heart of Town Square’s dining room practically invites you to slide in next to your neighbors to discuss politics, business, or the topic of your choice while sipping artfully crafted coffee—or something stronger. The menu is petite but well curated for any hour of the day. Stop in for the free weekly coffee tasting or a craft beer any time of the week; as the slogan on the wall proclaims, “Now is a good time.”
Unexpected Bites: Set in a converted Victorian stable, Molly’s Yard looks unassuming from the front gate, but don’t be fooled: That homey, rustic vibe is a cover for an inventive menu, a long wine list, and an excellent selection of Hilden Brewing Company beers on tap. And if you’re headed south on Malone Road, pop in to the Barking Dog for the famous shin burger, the secret to which is hidden inside a deliciously juicy and flavorful beef patty.
Crumlin Road Gaol
For 150 years, Crumlin Road Gaol was the setting for heartache, hunger strikes, executions, and riots, yet the 19th-century jail has done a remarkable job of throwing off the trappings of incarceration and transforming into a historical venue for conferences, concerts, and special events. The “Crum” still holds a touch of the macabre: A leftover noose in “the hanging cell” is proof-positive of the unlucky fate of those condemned souls who passed through its heavy doors. If you’re still not sufficiently convinced, book a paranormal tour—if you dare.
Classic Bites: Rumor has it that a couple of Crumlin Road Gaol’s most notorious visiting hangmen, in town for an execution the next day, would stop at Kelly’s Cellars for a feed and a pint. Whether the stories are true or not, it’s still a worthy place to stop for a beer and a bowl of Irish stew in what is supposedly Belfast’s oldest licensed pub. Mourne Seafood Bar just next door is also an excellent choice if you’re seeking fresh, affordable seafood sourced from local ports on a daily basis.
Trendy Bites: Thanks to the Metropolitan Arts Centre, a hip arts venue opened in 2012, the area around St. Anne’s Cathedral has evolved into a thriving cultural destination in Belfast. The trendy 4th Wall Restaurant (named for the imaginary wall actors try to breach between the stage and the audience) serves an excellent pre-theater menu in a sleek setting; just be sure to save room for the sticky toffee pudding.
Unexpected Bites: Not to be confused with the vintage steel bicycles named after Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi, this Italian eatery on St. Anne’s Square serves up inventive, delicious small plates known as cichetti in Venice. You won’t find heavy, cheese-covered Italian cooking at Coppi, but you will find freshly made pasta, Venetian-style pizzetta, and extraordinary salt-aged beef on the menu, just the thing if you’ve spent the day in the saddle with Belfast City Bike Tours—and even if you haven’t.
Tradesmen, shopkeepers, and sailors used to tramp the narrow cobbled streets to the west of the River Lagan; today the area is home to arts festivals, cool galleries, trendy restaurants, and cozy pubs. Named for St. Anne’s Cathedral, the Cathedral Quarter is an excellent destination for an eclectic wander that spans Belfast’s past and future.
Classic Bites: The grand 1850s-era Merchant Hotel (formerly the headquarters of the Ulster Bank) offers an opulent setting for fine dining, and the Great Room Restaurant does its best to lie up to—and exceed—its extraordinary Victorian-style decor. End your evening in Berts Restaurant and Jazz Bar, exuding 1930s-era Art Deco glamour and live jazz from 9 p.m. nightly.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Trendy Bites: Belfast’s dining scene has racked up numerous international accolades over the past few years, with many locals yoking recent successes to OX, a Michelin-starred restaurant on Belfast’s waterfront. Carefully crafted menus burnish the reputation of Northern Ireland’s best meat and produce with inventive flavor combinations and a largely local gin list.
Unexpected Bites: Named for the family foundry that fashioned iron pots and pans on this site in the 18th century, Hadskis still does brisk business in the kitchen trades, though the trendy eatery now deals in delicious modern European cuisine, not sauce pots. While the menu is diverse and the specials change daily, locals pack in for Wine Mondays, a flat-fee food-and-wine pairing that makes the most of the long wine list. (For extra credit, come back in the morning for the full Hadskis breakfast.)
Linen Quarter and St. George’s Market
Like its eastern neighbor, the Linen Quarter’s name pays homage to industries past; in this case, the famous Ulster linen mills. It encompasses several of the city’s best known landmarks, including Belfast’s iconic City Hall, the Grand Opera House, and the Victorian Ulster Hall. For all of its history, the official designation of this area of the city as the Linen Quarter is quite new, with a host of development schemes currently under way. If it’s a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, walk east until you hit St. George’s Market, with fresh fish, produce, and traditional arts and crafts for sale.
Classic Bites: With its surplus of vividly painted and etched glass and its long history as a Victorian gin palace, the Crown Bar Belfast will put you in the mood for an opulent show at the Grand Opera House across the street. Just a few steps south, you’ll find the quirkily unassuming Ginger Bistro, which serves up less drama but is no less featured in the Michelin guide.
Trendy Bites: Lisburn-born chef Michael Deane also receives credit from Belfast locals for galvanizing what is now a flourishing local food scene when he opened his first fine-dining establishment in Belfast in 1997. Michelin-starred Eipic, his seventh, is sophisticated and elegant, churning out delicately prepared seasonal dishes against an understated charcoal gray backdrop.
Unexpected Bites: Originally conceived as a three-month pop-up restaurant in 2011, local foodies begged the folks behind Home to take up more permanent residence. Now firmly moved into a high-ceilinged, industrial-cool space on Wellington Place, Home serves up what it deems “feel-good food” with a distinctly seasonal flair. And while you’ll find venison rump, aged rib eye, and short ribs on the menu, the eatery has plenty of veggie-first meals on offer as well—all served with a rotating gallery of local artists’ work on the side.