A Weekend in the City: Belfast

“Ireland? Cool, so are you gonna go to the Temple Bar?” one of my housemates said,   shortly after I’d mentioned I was heading across the Irish sea for the weekend. “Belfast? Why are you going to Belfast? Isn’t it really dangerous there?” quickly followed after I explained the actual destination of my trip.

The honest reason I was going – I cannot resist a cheap flight. A tenner each way? Sure, drinks on me!

I try to make myself sound vaguely interesting by claiming I’m trying to visit every country in Europe. I’d hardly say visiting a place which conjures images of riot vans and peace walls was top of my bucket list, but like swallowing a painkiller to be rid of a hangover, it had to be done.

Getting There

I flew from Gatwick, which most of the time would be great, but strikes on Southern rail mean the direct trains from my home city to the airport are about as reliable as sunny weather on a bank holiday weekend. This meant a trip via central London. Forking out £35.50 for a return ticket on the ‘Gatwick Express’ was never going to happen. Finding myself in the middle of the capital, I made my way to London Bridge and opted for the much cheaper Thameslink service. For an extra 15 minutes on the train I saved £26. Plus I got to see sunny Croydon as we trundled slowly above its suburbs.

Any budget traveler knows Ryanair is the holy grail when it comes to finding cheap flights. Ireland’s best export (in my mind) has been the precursor to many of my adventures. It flies four times a day to Belfast International and fares are ridiculously cheap. I booked my flights a mere six days before takeoff, costing £9.99 each way.  After an hour of over zealous flight attendants reminding me for the umpteenth time that I could buy Calvin Klein aftershave, Coca Cola lip balms and microwaved lasagne from them, I found myself on the sodden tarmac at Belfast International airport. It’s a rather grand name for such a small place. 20 miles from the city centre and with about a dozen flights a day to destinations outside the UK, it’s a bit like calling your Gran’s house “Chateau Nan” to make it seem a bit posher. But sometimes more is less.

The catch is the airport is closer to Antrim than Belfast and you have to take the bus into the city centre. £10.50 for a return seemed a bit pricey given I’d paid less than that to get there, but it was a case of pay up or thumb my way down M2 in the pouring rain. 45 minutes and a bag of Wotsits later, I found myself at Great Victoria Street transport interchange trying to find my way toward a place to stay for the night.

The Sleeping Part

I thought I’d left the days of sharing a dorm with seven strangers behind me when I turned 24, but it turns out Belfast is pretty expensive place to find a cheap hotel room at short notice.

“If you’re going to go budget, go budget in style” I thought.

There aren’t many places better to do so than Vagabonds Hostel. Set in a well-converted Georgian townhouse near the Botanic gardens and Queens University, the hostel is a great place to meet other people. There’s a good kitchen (no oven though), a really comfy living area where people gather in the evenings to exchange tales from their adventures and plenty of showers, never to be looked down upon. The stuff of hostel bed and butter really. I liked this place. It was handy for the city but handy to get out of the it, and they threw in breakfast too – bread and butter (and jam). It cost £30 for two nights in an 8 bed dorm at Vagabonds.

The Exploring Part

I made a ‘shopping list’ of places I wanted to go in Northern Ireland, sadly it was like doing a Christmas food shop the day before payday. I wanted to do everything and time was totally against me. Unfortunately had a grand total of 41 hours in Northern Ireland and somewhere in that I had to cram in eating, sleeping and attempting to be a functioning sociable adult. Fortunately, Northern Ireland has a reasonably good and reliable transport network, one that puts most places in the country (or state, or province – whatever you want to call it) within a few hours reach of its biggest city. The Translink app was my best friend for the weekend. Imagine a world where buses and trains worked together in harmony; that’s Northern Ireland. More on this in my Giant’s Causeway article (coming soon!)

Peace Lines

Growing up I remember Northern Ireland was always in the headlines. ‘The Troubles’ dominated the front pages of the 90’s, the impact can still be seen across Belfast. The city was divided between Unionists and Republicans, living in close quarters. One of the government’s solutions was build a huge wall between them.

Cupar Way doesn’t have an overwhelmingly friendly feel to it. The Peace Lines built here in 1969 still stand today, towering above terraced houses and families on their way to work and school. At eight meters high, half a mile long and covered with graffiti, it has become one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Conflict tourism is a big market in Belfast; black cabs are happy to give you a tour of the flash points of ‘The Troubles’, I saw a coach of excited tourists unload for selfies and to dab their name in ink on over the wall’s paint. But for people who live either side of the walls it’s a reminder of the past, and the problems facing Northern Ireland today. Turn right and you’ll find yourself in a Republican area, you could be walking The Mall on Coronation day, Union Jacks flying above your head. Surreal.

What makes it all the more surreal is that Cupar Way is within a few minutes walk of the cosmopolitan city centre, yet still a visible reminder of the division in Northern Ireland.

Belfast’s Beautiful Buildings

I loved Belfast for its architecture. It’s a real mix of styles. Queens University is spectacular and reminded me of sunny August days exploring Oxford. On a quiet Saturday morning it was a good place to have a wonder without there being a soul in sight. It’s also right next to the Botanic gardens, which aren’t quite as amazing but do have an ornate greenhouse which I felt was worthy of a photo. I would have gone inside but I’m scared of plants with big leaves so I decided to stay in the park next door. Safety first.

By night I checked out the City Hall. It’s well lit up after dark (and personally I thought it looked better then than it did during daylight.) Bittles Bar is fodder for Instagram addicts, perched between a busy dual carriageway and a modern shopping centre it stands out like a sore thumb. Best part, it cost me nothing to see these things. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Perfect.

The Titanic Quarter

Millions of pounds is being poured into Belfast’s docklands area. The last few years have seen a huge redevelopment, led by the opening of the landmark Titanic museum. Built on the slipway the ill-fated ship was launched from, it’s worth visiting to see the building itself. It costs £17 to get into the museum and during winter it’s only open from 10am to 5pm, so it didn’t fit into my schedule, but I’m glad I went along, if only to see the closed sign and walk along the slipway pretending I was Rose.

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Another cool quirk of the area is “The Big Fish”, which is quite literally what it says on the tin. The 10 metre long sculpture has been crafted from ceramic tiles, each one having a different story about the city printed on them.

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Don’t miss

Crumlin Road gaol was the highlight of my trip. Known as ‘The Crum’ it housed suffragettes, IRA members and murderers. The Victorian prison is a maze of cells, corridors and staircases. It was my first (and hopefully last) visit to a prison, but something I’ve always wanted to do. Hearing the stories of how convicts were kept in solitary confinement, sentenced to hard labour, and for some, hanged, was hard hitting. It costs £9 to get into the prison, it was the only attraction I paid to go in during my time in Belfast but it was worth the money. During our hour and a half tour our guide told us a detailed and fascinating version of the building’s history. I won’t give too much away but it is well worth a visit. Interesting fact: prison doors across the UK are based on a design produced at the ‘The Crum’ in the 1980s to stop break outs. If you ever find yourself at Her Majesty’s pleasure then you’ve got the cell dwellers of Crumlin Road to thank, or berate.

What it cost

I tried to keep the cost of this trip under £80 and that was an easy challenge. Belfast isn’t an expensive city and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect to walk everywhere as it’s so compact. I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything even though I didn’t get to do everything I had planned. The beauty of this place is that its past is so intertwined with its present, every turn you take you’re walking through a place where history has been made. You could easily swap a trip to Giant’s Causeway for one to the Titanic museum and keep the costs and time frames the same.

Flights – Ryanair fly from London Gatwick to Belfast International four times a day. My tickets cost me £9.99 each way. I took hand luggage only and didn’t upgrade my seat.

Airport transfers – It cost £10.50 for a return ticket on the bus to Belfast city centre. I’d recommend the Translink app to plan journeys – it’s free and super effective.

Accommodation – It cost £30 for two nights in an 8 bed dorm at Vagabonds. I booked through Hostelworld.

Attractions – Crumlin Road gaol do tours everyday from 10am. It cost me £9 to get in and its well worth that. You can book on their website and save 50p off the cost of your tour. If the Titanic museum takes your fancy, prices vary depending which day you go on, check their website.  I spent a day at Giant’s Causeway during my trip, you can read about that soon!

Food – Belfast, like every British city, has the line up you’d expect from a major British high street. Cheap food options are plentiful, it’s worth checking out St. George’s Market for cheap food and a good cultural experience.

Look past what you’ve seen in the media. Belfast is a great city. Northern Ireland is a fantastic place. And it’s ripe and welcoming to tourists looking for adventure. Safety wise? I felt as safe there as I would on my own street in the south of England.

All prices and information correct at the time of writing. January 2016.