A massive resurgence is underway in the Northern Ireland cities of Belfast and Derry~Londonderry that is radically enhancing the visitor experience, the landscape, and the vitality of these popular destinations. Check out some of the new opportunities to experience the culture, food, drink, nightlife, festivals, and history, along with the iconic, can’t-miss things to do while there.
Belfast in the Spotlight
The capital of Northern Ireland has one of the largest waterfront renewals underway in Europe; the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016 (Titanic Belfast); and cultural vibrancy that’s hard to beat.
Look for performing arts events in historic venues such as the Victorian-era Grand Opera House, Northern Ireland’s first listed building due to its opulent interior, and the 1862 Ulster Hall, one of the oldest purpose-built concert halls in Ireland. Belfast Empire Music Hall has a vintage feel with red velvet stage curtains and table seating, while the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Center) Belfast is a modern space. The Lyric Theater, the only repertory theater in Northern Ireland, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018; Liam Neeson got his start here.
The city has a history of outdoor mural painting and there are hundreds on display with various themes. The most artistic murals are in the Cathedral Quarter where renowned street artists from around the world are invited to come and paint murals for Culture Night in September. Learn more about this art form and the murals with Seedhead Arts’ Street Art Walking Tour. Also check out the eight sculptures of the characters from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in C.S. Lewis Square.
Cultural creativity hits a high note in August at Féile an Phobail (The People’s Festival) also known as the West Belfast Festival, the biggest community arts event in Ireland, which is celebrating its 30th year in 2018. Other festivals include BelFeast Food and Drink Festival in March; Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in May; Belfast International Tattoo in September; and the Belfast International Arts Festival in October.
Music buffs can join musician guides for the Belfast Traditional Music Trail in the Cathedral Quarter, or take the self-guided Van Morrison Trail with eight stops mentioned in his songs. Kelly’s Cellars, The John Hewitt, Maddens, McHugh’s, and The Dirty Onion are all excellent places to catch a live music session.
Food & Drink
Artisan food takes center stage at St. George’s Market, the last surviving Victorian covered market in Northern Ireland. The Belfast Food Tour starts there and features tastings across the city. New restaurants include the Curated Kitchen featuring guest menu curators each week, and Root & Branch offering surprising twists on heritage cuisine. Bull & Ram presents Peter Hannan’s Glenarm Shorthorn beef, the World Steak Challenge winner. The Muddlers Club made the Michelin Guide thanks to locavore dining and open kitchen. Ox won its first Michelin Star in 2016; Chef Stephen Toman’s nine-course tasting menu with wine pairing is creatively inspired.
New drink-related experiences include the Belfast Gin Jaunt, Belfast Whiskey Walk, and the Craft Brew Walking Tour. Babel is a new rooftop bar with craft shrub cocktails made with fresh botanical ingredients picked from its green living wall. For historic charm, check out The Duke of York filled with memorabilia, and the Victorian-era Crown Liquor Saloon complete with gas lights and drinking snugs, now owned by the National Trust. Sunflower Public House presents a wide variety of craft beers and the last security cage front door, a relic from 1980s Belfast.
At the Discover Ulster-Scots Center, you can learn about the 1718 Ulster-Scot migration to America, marking its 300th anniversary in 2018. The EastSide Visitor Center celebrates East Belfast events and natives, such as musician Van Morrison, writer C.S. Lewis, and soccer player George Best. Take a Coiste Irish Political Walking Tour or book a Black Taxi Tour to hear the stories behind the murals depicting historic events, and add your name to the Peace Wall along with President Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama. The Crumlin Road Gaol, opened in 1846, was one of the most advanced prisons of its day and was in operation for 150 years. Within its walls murderers, thieves, suffragettes and even children awaited the end of their sentences.
Rising Hotspot: Titanic Quarter
The re-purposing of the shipyards fronting Belfast’s harbor is one of the largest waterfront developments in Europe covering 185 acres. Anchoring the Quarter is Titanic Belfast, voted the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016, which explores the construction of the world’s largest ship at the time, the city that built and launched it, as well as its ill-fated journey. Titanic Hotel Belfast recently opened in the old Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices where the ship was designed. Take the Titanic Harbor Boat Tour with Lagan Boat Company; tour Titanic’s dry dock and pumphouse; and board the SS Nomadic, the Titanic tender. The waterfront also hosts the recently opened HMS Caroline, the last ship afloat from the 1916 WWI Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle in history.
Join a guided Titanic walking tour, or stroll the new Titanic Walkway from the HMS Caroline to City Center along the water’s edge past the Great Light, the 23-foot-high optic that served Mew and Tory Island Lighthouses, and is the largest of its kind ever constructed. The Yardmen Trail heads the other direction to East Belfast following in the footsteps of the men who built the Titanic.
The Derry~Londonderry Renaissance
Derry~Londonderry is strategically located at the spot where the Wild Atlantic Way meets the Causeway Coastal Route, two of Ireland’s most popular and impressive coastal touring routes. A flowering of culture and identity took hold here when the city was named UK City of Culture in 2013 and continues to enhance its future.
A powerful symbol of peace is on display at the city entrance from the Craigavon Bridge – the Hands Across the Divide sculpture portrays two men reaching out to shake hands. City murals feature depictions of peace, as well as historical events and cultural themes. For fine art, don’t miss the Centre for Contemporary Art featuring emerging and Northern Ireland artists, and Void Derry~Londonderry with established and international artists. Artisan-made products like the hand-cut crystal at City of Derry Crystal are featured in the Craft Village.
Look for performing arts events at The Playhouse Theatre and Arts Centre in a renovated historic building, and Waterside Theatre and Arts Centre in a converted 1892 shirt factory. Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin presents Irish cultural events and language workshops, while the Verbal Arts Centre offers storytelling and literary programs. The state-of-the-art Millennium Forum has the largest theatre stage in Ireland and a multi-discipline lineup.
You can hear live, traditional music every night in the popular Peadar O’Donnell’s, the anchor for the pub district on Waterloo Street. Take in a range of live music genres – all for free – at Dungloe Bar opened in 1892, Tracy’s Bar, and others while pub-hopping here.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
For an action-packed agenda, plan your visit around one of the city’s festivals. Derry~Londonderry was named the best Halloween destination in the world – the six-day festival includes Awakening the Walls illuminated supernatural trail, a parade, fireworks, and Zombie Apocalypse. A July stopover of the yachts in the Clipper 2018 Race coincides with the Foyle Maritime Festival highlighted by the parade of sail. February brings the Imbolc International Music Festival with Irish traditional, roots, world, and folk music, while May hosts the City of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival.
Food & Drink
The LegenDerry Food Festival in March and Slow Food Festival in October showcase the city’s best chefs and artisanal producers with a food fair and live cooking demos. The Walled City Brewery in Ebrington Square was named 2017 Best Gastropub in Ireland – it’s the city’s first craft brewery in more than a century.
Primrose Strand Road was only opened two months when it got listed in the 2018 Best 100 Restaurants in Ireland. All is made from scratch at Primrose, which has an in-house bakery, plus a family-owned butchery shop and a bistro, Primrose on the Quay. Browns Bonds Hill led by Chef Ian Orr was also listed in the 2018 Best 100 Restaurants list, as well as the 2018 Michelin Guide along with Browns in Town. Pyke ‘n’ Pommes is a hip, award-winning street food eatery along the River Foyle waterfront overlooking the Peace Bridge. The city’s newest restaurant is Soda & Starch serving traditional Irish comfort food and home baking in the Craft Village.
Derry~Londonderry is the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland, and is one of the finest examples in Europe. The 400th anniversary of the walls will be celebrated with events in 2018/19. The views from the 26-foot-high ramparts are well worth walking the one-mile circuit. Take an in-depth walking tour with local expert Michael Cooper, Derry Blue Badge Guide, who will provide insight and history on city sites and events. The award-winning Tower Museum’s historical exhibits include the story of Derry~Londonderry and artifacts from the 1588 Spanish Armada shipwreck of La Trinidad Valencera off the coast. The city’s history is also showcased in the Siege Museum, the Museum of Free Derry, St. Columb’s Cathedral, and the stained glass windows in the Neo-Gothic Guildhall.
Rising Hotspot: Ebrington
When the architecturally inspired, pedestrian Peace Bridge across the River Foyle opened in 2011, it connected two sides of this once-separated city, and opened up a 26-acre former military barracks to re-development. The Walled City Brewery with onsite restaurant was the first business to open at Ebrington, and features 10 innovative craft brews on tap with tasting flights. Ollie’s Restaurant followed – check out the signature seafood chowder. Outdoor concerts are presented on the Ebrington Square parade grounds. The Quiet Man Distillery with traditional pot stills and visitor center will open in 2019, the first whiskey distillery in the city to open in nearly 200 years. The triple-distilled, aged blends and single malts are already available in local bars. With an international maritime museum and hotel in the planning process, Ebrington is set to become a chic hangout with views of the walled city.