One of my last trips of 2015 was a long weekend to Belfast and Northern Ireland, somewhere I had never been and that I was very excited to visit.
I travelled with five London food bloggers as guests of Discover Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland. Over three days we had the chance to taste some of the best food and drinks in Belfast, as well as get a glimpse of the stunning coastal landscapes of Norther Ireland. I fell in love with it! Today I’ll be sharing photos of Belfast and a guide of where to eat and drink in the city.
Our weekend started at Malmaison Hotel, a stylish hotel set in a revamped 1800s warehouse where we spent two nights. The hotel is in a fantastic location close to the city centre and within walking distance to all the places we explored during our tours.
The Tourism Board had organised for a local guide to accompany us throughout our visit: Dee of Dee Tours is an invaluable Belfast guide and also a great ambassador for Northern Ireland. It was a pleasure meeting her and learning about the local culture and traditions through her stories.
We also took part to two city tours organised by Caroline of Belfast Food Tours: one drinking tour of Belfast pubs and bars (on Friday evening), and one eating tour of food markets, food shops, pubs and restaurants (on Saturday morning).
Both tours were excellent and a fantastic way not only to see Belfast, but to learn about the Northern Irish culture. I believe you won’t fully appreciate Belfast until you’ve been out drinking with locals! Their enthusiasm is infectious and so is their love for Belfast and Northern Ireland. Rightly so. After a very dark period in the history of the country it is time to showcase their best sights to the world.
Before I tell you about the tours, I have a confession to make: I was feeling very sick and nauseous that weekend, having just returned from India, so I couldn’t drink at all during the pub tour… :( Despite not having a single drop of alcohol on the whole evening, I still enjoyed the tour very much because of the amazing bars we visited, the people we met and the stories we heard. What’s fascinating about Belfast is that the city has such a rich history that even a visit to a pub can spring up anecdotes and interesting facts.
We started the tour at The Spaniard Bar, where the walls are decorated with crosses and religious paintings and figures. An odd combination for a bar, but executed in a really cool way. My fellow food bloggers said their signature rum cocktail – “Dark and Stormy” – was sweet and delicious.
After that we walked to The Dirty Onion bar, stood outside in the beer garden while listening to live music and tasting Dunville Irish whiskey. Then we moved to The Duke of York a traditional Belfast pub in a cobbled alley of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. The pub is crammed with original mirrors and memorabilia and has the largest selection of Irish whiskeys in Ireland.
The Belfast Pub Tour also included a stop at A.P.O.C. a small cocktail bar with cozy booths and cool barmans. Here we tasted and learnt about Shortcross Gin, a craft gin with aromas of apple, elderberry and wild clover produced in small batches at Rademon Estate Distillery in County Down.
Our tour of the best places to drink in Belfast ended at the Sunflower, an old pub spread over two floors and with an outside courtyard complete with a wood-fired pizza oven. The Sunflower is full of character and was one of our favourite stops of the night, thanks to the traditional Irish music played live by a group of young men sitting at one of the tables. We were all charmed by the casual gig and stood by their table, glass of MacIvors Cider in hand (water for me) listening to the music. This pub still has a security cage on its front door, a reminder of darker times of 1980’s Belfast. The owners decided to keep as a memory of the city’s history. The pub has faced demolition in the past, but I do hope it stays on as it’s a unique place to stop for a pint in Belfast.
The evening continued for our group at OX, a Michelin-starred restaurant considered one of the hottest spots to eat in Western Europe. Sadly for me, while everyone was eating the OX Autumn Tasting Menu of seasonal, local produce (sitting next to the entire cast of Game of Thrones!), I was in bed trying to eat bits of toast… :( I am still incredibly upset about missing the dinner at OX, so I will have to go back to Belfast soon and make up for it. OX has received many awards and accolades, including one Michelin star, which goes to show how much the Belfast culinary scene has got to offer. You can see photos of the tasting menu on Lavender & Lovage‘s blog.
In hindsight it was a sensible decision to skip dinner since a long day of eating awaited me the next morning. After breakfast at Malmaison we joined Caroline on her Belfast Food Tour. Caroline believes that the best way to get to know a city is through its food and I agree! I always enjoy doing food tours in cities I visit and Belfast had a lot to offer. During the tour we sampled over twenty food / drinks from Northern Ireland!
The best place to start your culinary of discovery Belfast is St George’s Market. Built between 1890 and 1896, it is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions.
Caroline took us to the best markets stalls to taste tea, coffee, apple cider, Irish bread, oysters, sausages and more. I loved the spelt and black pudding potato bread and Irish soda farl at Ann’s Pantry.
And the beef and marmalade sausages from Hillstown Farm Shop.
Next stop was The Garrick Bar, for a traditional Irish pub lunch of champ (a dish of mashed potatoes and chopped scallions) and a glass of McGraths Irish Black Stout.
I have taken part to several food tours in London and Europe, but none of them ever included a stop to a speciality coffee shop. Belfast Food Tour did and I was very happy about it! We visited Established, a 2-year old coffee shop in the Cathedral Quarter founded by Mark Ashbridge (2013 Irish AeroPress Champion) and Bridgeen Barbour.
Established is at the forefront of the Third Wave coffee movement in Northern Ireland and certainly the best spot to drink coffee in the city. Their coffee is roasted by 3FE in Dublin, a personal favourite of mine.
It was a pleasure visiting Established, albeit for a short time. I hope to be back someday to taste more coffee and their great-looking brunch menu.
Our Belfast Food Tour finished at Coppi, a restaurant owned by a veteran Belfast chef, Tony O’Neill. The menu sounds Italian (“cicchetti”, “pizzetta”…) but in my opinion the dishes we tasted (selected by Caroline) were more of a showcase of Northern Ireland produce than of Italy’s cuisine. And I am glad for that, as I don’t need to fly to Belfast to eat Italian food. ;)
I enjoyed the lunch, in particular the scallops, duck ravioli and beef.
The Belfast Food Tour lasts around 4 hours, costs £45 per person and operates every Saturday (and some Fridays and Sundays).
Our afternoon was dedicated to the highly recommended Titanic Belfast exhibition, followed by a bit of rest in preparation for dinner. And man, did we need to prepare for the meat feast that was about to take place…
The evening started at the luxurious Merchant Hotel in the art deco-style Great Room Restaurant and Cocktail Bar. Sitting underneath the grand glass dome and sipping their signature cocktail (The Nine Hour Bill) was a gorgeous setting.
And again it was time to eat – and luckily I did not have to skip dinner this time! We had an amazing meal at James Street Bar + Grill, a lively restaurant famous for their steaks cooked on a charcoal grill. Perhaps the chef over-estimated our appetite and the size of our bellies and prepared a set menu of incredible proportions. We were all a bit overwhelmed! We did our best to finish the food, but a few boxes of leftovers had to be taken away by Dee at the end of the evening. My favourite of the night: the starter dish of Hannan Meats sugar pit pork ribs!
So this is pretty much all we ate and drank in Belfast in slightly more than 24 hours…crazy right? And we probably just scratched the surface of what the city has to offer.
This year is Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink to showcase the best of the region and the people behind it. Every month will celebrate a different theme so there will be no shortage of events to keep your mouth watering and your taste buds tingling. What better time than 2016 to book a holiday to Northern Ireland?
I hope my guide will inspire you to visit this beautiful and rich region (if not, maybe the chance of bumping into Game of Thrones actors will!) ;)
The next day we toured the Causeway Coastal Route with visits to Giants Causeway, lunch at Harry’s Shack and overnight stay at the luxurious Galgorm Hotel & Spa. Read my full blog post here.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Discover Northern Ireland. All opinions are my own.