A perfect winter break in Belfast

Winter casts its magical spell on Belfast, the vibrant capital of Northern Ireland—and a city of wonders—where that infectious, quintessentially Irish charm is on ample display!

Europe, they say, was made for summer. Glorious June afternoons spent picnicking at the park, sunny August mornings foraging for wild strawberries along the lavender-strewn meadow paths—all montages of a sun-worshipper’s dream come true. But I have amassed more than enough evidence from my recent winter trip to Ireland to debunk the claim that summer is the only season [and reason!] to see this continent shine at its brightest. And Belfast, the tiny and compact capital city of Northern Ireland seems to have provided me with plenty of examples…

Now, almost every big city the world over lays claim to having at least one Irish pub. Places where the levels of bonhomie and raucous revelry reach a frenzied pitch as the night progresses on with plenty of music and dancing thrown in for good measure. Places where the empty pint glasses of beer lined up in front of a patron begin to outnumber the hours in a day. But nothing prepares you for an Irish pub experience in Ireland. A ritual that is a great orientation to a land that typifies the clichéd truism—‘live for the day!’

And so, like most other travellers to the Emerald Isle of Northern Ireland, where exaggerated drunken tales of leprechauns and other mysterious creatures of lore are exchanged over a pint of Guinness Beer, I began my tryst with all things Irish at one of Belfast’s most popular pubs one crisp Friday evening in late November. The Duke of York Pub, nestled along a narrow cobbled alleyway in the historic Half Bap area, is one veritable institution. Here, locals roll up their sleeves after a hard week’s work and settle down on a bar stool as they nurse their drinks, often catching glimpses of themselves in the many weather-beaten mirrors that line the walls of this historic pub while basking in the warmth of the fireplace. Settling for a shot of Jameson whiskey-laced Irish Coffee, I started to understand why Ireland truly is one of the world’s friendliest of places, where strangers turn friends the minute they clink glasses with you saying “Sláinte”—the Irish word for cheers, as they urge you to join them on the dance floor, while the local folk band belts out one lilting Celtic ditty after another.

The next day, thanks to a slight drizzle that had cast its gloomy web all over the city, my first morning in Belfast was spent indoors—at the wonderfully futuristic-looking glass-n-steel Titanic Belfast museum in the city’s historic Titanic Quarter. Housed in the erstwhile Harland & Wolff shipyard, where the ill-fated RMS Titanic was constructed, the year-and-a-half old Titanic Belfast contains more than 130,000 sq ft of floor space, with a very interesting rollercoaster-like ride taking guests throughout the building stages of the aquatic leviathan. Also in the museum complex is the fully restored SS Nomadic—the tender ship not just to Titanic, but also its sister ship, the RMS Olympic—that today sits in a dry dock; inviting visitors like me to come and be a part of history.

Another place that gives you a blast from the past is the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum located in Cultra, just 15 minutes out of Belfast’s city centre by car. The folk museum is a collection of old restored cottages, farms, schools and shops manned by guides dressed in period costumes who give you lessons in the way of life from 100 years ago as you step back in time. But being an avid transportation fan, I couldn’t get enough of the Transport Museum where visitors are encouraged to climb on and off majestic steam locomotives or ogle at the electric trams, motorbikes, fire-engines and vintage cars, including the DeLorean sports car that was made in Belfast and then went on to ‘star’ in the Back To The Future films franchise.

Back in the now-sunny city centre, a pre-lunch walk around the Cathedral Quarter helped build up an appetite for the cocktail-lubricated lunch my local Belfastian friends had promised to treat me to, at the trendy Berts Jazz Bar. But more on that later… Surrounding Belfast’s magnificent St. Anne’s Cathedral, the Cathedral Quarter has experienced two decades of regeneration and growth to emerge as a dynamic cultural hub in the city centre. This quarter is home to the Custom House Square [Belfast’s largest outdoor venue] Cotton Court, Writer’s Square, Cathedral Gardens and the recently launched Saint Anne’s Square that is home to the brand new MAC [Metropolitan Arts Centre] that opened its doors in the Cathedral Quarter in 2012.

Being a Saturday, the weekend Victorian St. George’s Market on May Street was next on my agenda to partake in all its foodie glory. With over 150 stalls, selling everything from traditional Northern Irish fare like Soda Bread, Belfast Bap and Ulster Fries to Indian curries and cheese from local dairies, this market is THE place to get a bit of culinary culture into your trip. It also has a section selling jewellery, paintings and other touristy tat at quite affordable prices.

With hunger pangs kicking in with the might of a Manchester United striker on a rampage, I trotted off to the Merchant Hotel whose Berts Jazz Bar is known for its awesome nosh and tipples. To the strains of a one-man band I indulged on a perfectly medium rare Sirloin Steak served with Potato Bread and Irish Blood Sausage [that wasn’t as bad at all as it sounds!] along with endless rounds of Bloody Marys and Moscow Mules and an Irish Cream Crème Brûlée to top it all off with. Ah pure, undiluted bliss that!

By the time we were done with lunch, a light powder coating of snow had begun to embellish everything in sight, turning them into almost edible seeming confections. One such snow-blanketed wonder was the glass dome of the Palm House at the Botanic Gardens in the south end of the city. Spread over 28 acres, the gardens were designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and completed in 1840. Serving as a quiet sanctuary and an apt place to commune with nature, the Botanical Gardens channels ‘winter wonderland’ to the hilt with its orchids and other flowers covered in sparkly frost!

Equally worthy of the sobriquet of ‘winter wonderland’ is Belfast’s stunning City Hall on Donegall Square that is decked out in all its ‘Christmasy’ finery all through winter with fairy lights, buntings and other glittering baubles. The Christmas market that it hosts every year spread over its grounds is a true treat for all the senses with its stalls dispensing a diverse range of festive goodies like spicy mulled wine, fudge, roasted chestnuts and even reindeer sausages and elk burgers for the more adventurous eaters like yours truly.

And that’s just where and how I ended my winter weekend in Belfast—a city where the party never ends. Come rain or sunshine… err, I mean snowfall!

How to Get There?

As there are no direct flights to Northern Ireland from India, one needs to fly in to Belfast via London. There are a number of daily direct flights to London from all major Indian cities on airlines like Air India, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Jet Airways. Visas need to be taken in advance at the British High Commission in India and take around 15 working days to process. For travel within Belfast, there are plenty of buses and taxis that ply between neighbourhoods. But the best way to discover this compact city is on foot with most attractions near each other.

When to Visit?

Although the months from May to September are the best time to visit Belfast to enjoy the glorious summer season, winters [November to February] here are equally magical and snowy with the streets all decked up in their festive best.

What to Buy?

  • Claddagh Rings, which are traditional Irish rings worn to represent love,
    loyalty, and friendship.
  • CDs of Belfast-born music legend Van Morrison and local Irish Celtic folk music.
  • Farm fresh cheese, particularly the Ballybrie and the Dunbarra varieties.
Photo credits
  • The Christmas Market at Belfast’s City Hall : Raul Dias
  • Take a sneak-peek at history in the gigantic glass-and-steel Titanic Belfast museum.: Jason Conlon
  • Rest all photos : Tourism Ireland and Northern Ireland Tourist Board

A version of this was first published in the December 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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