Secret City: Belfast

Stormont ©VisitBritain / Britain on View

20 June, 2014

The capital of Northern Ireland, visited by 1.5 million tourists every year, with 3,000 acres of parks, the world’s largest dry dock, and overlooked by ‘Napoleon’s Nose’ (a mountain, in case you were wondering).

But what’s the insider’s view of Belfast? We tracked down two international students studying there to find out...

Belfast: Key Facts

Location: County Antrim and County Down, eastern Northern Ireland
Population: 286,000 (2011 census, NISRA)
Famous for: Docks and shipbuilding (including the Titanic), linen, the Good Friday Agreement, Stormont (the Northern Irish parliament), Titanic Studios (where Game of Thrones is filmed!).
Famous Belfast people: George Best (footballer), John Stewart Bell (physicist), Van Morrison (singer), St John Ervine, CS Lewis (author), Kenneth Branagh (actor), the members of Snow Patrol, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins (two-time world snooker champion), John Boyd Dunlop (inventor and tyre manufacturer), Mary McAleese (former President of the Republic of Ireland), Gerry Adams (politician), Sammy McIlroy (football player and manager)
Belfast sports: Soccer/football (Irish Premiership teams include Cliftonville, Glentoran, Linfield and Crusaders), Gaelic football (more than 20 clubs are based in the city!), rugby, ice hockey (the Belfast Giants).
Belfast slang: ‘Is that you?’ (Have you finished what you’re doing?); ‘Catch yourself on!’ (Wise up!); ‘Away in the head’ (stupid); ‘Wet the tea’ (make tea); ‘Bake’/’Gub’ (mouth); ‘Craic’ (fun – pronounced like ‘crack’).
Closest airports: George Best Belfast Airport, Belfast International Airport
Flight to London takes: Approx. 1 hour 15 minutes
Flight to Edinburgh takes: Approx. 50 minutes

Meet the insiders

Saricha Thomsanit

 

Name: Saricha Thomsanit 
From: Thailand
Age: 30
Studying: BSc Fashion Management at Belfast Metropolitan College
Favourite Belfast expression: ‘You’re a wee pet’ – meaning ‘you’re a lovely person’.


 

Armelle Anderson


Name: Armelle Anderson
From: Norway
Age: 26
Studied: BA Hons Liberal Arts with History at St Mary's University College, Belfast (Erasmus placement, graduated 2011)
Favourite Belfast expression: ‘I'm grand’ because 'Everyone is grand, they are all grand, no matter how they feel or what the weather is like. Any Irish person you ask will say that they are grand.'

Where’s the coolest place to hang out in Belfast?

Saricha: The Cathedral Quarter – it has shops, restaurants, art galleries, dance and music studios, cultural performances and hosts all sorts of events including open-air ones.

Armelle: Filthy McNastys on the Dublin Road – a very cosy boutique pub with amazing cocktails. It gets packed quickly, though, so make sure you arrive early.

Visit Britain / Britain on View
Get around: A mural welcomes visitors to a hub of cultural activity (Picture: VisitBritain / Britain on View)

How do you find out ‘what’s the craic’ (what fun stuff is going on)?

Saricha: There is a great monthly newsletter called About Belfast that has maps and lists all the events that are happening in Northern Ireland for that month. It's free and available at the reception of my college, so I just pick one up every month.

Armelle: Keep your eyes on social media and ask your Student Union reps, especially the entertainment officer. Websites www.livingsocial.com and www.groupon.co.uk also have good deals on food and entertainment.

What’s the best way to spend a sunny day in Belfast?

Saricha: When I was new to the country, I liked taking the Belfast City Sightseeing bus to see the touristy sights, but now that I have been here for seven years (did I mention Belfast is a great place to study?!), I think the best way to spend a sunny day is to be in the gardens of the Belfast City Hall. There are widescreen TVs and half the world seems to be lazing around there enjoying the sun… and watching other half of the world walking by.

Armelle: Go to St George's Market, where they have fresh produce from local farms for sale. Come with an empty stomach – it’s the perfect place for brunch no matter what you fancy.

Belfast City Hall Visit Britain Britain on View
Civic pride: Queen Victoria's statue stands at the front of Belfast City Hall (Picture: Visit Britain / Britain on View)

What’s the best way to spend a rainy day in Belfast?

Saricha: The Belfast Botanic Gardens - the Palm House (built in 1839) and the Tropical Ravine (built in 1889, with some of the oldest seed plants around today) are really fab. The Ravine is just like a tropical jungle! And like the whole of the Belfast Botanic Gardens, entry to both is free.

Ulster Museum is just beside the Botanic Gardens – a great place to visit and again, it has free admission.

Of course, there’s always the option of staying at home and out of the rain… and eating scones, potato farls, wheaten bread… Irish food is so nice!

Belfast Botanic Gardens Visit Britain
Jungle fun: Outside or in, Belfast Botanic Gardens are a haven for nature (Picture: Visit Britain / Britain on View)

Armelle: Belfast Castle is beautiful and worth a visit, as is Belfast Zoo nearby - I wouldn't recommend trying to fit both into one day, though, as you’ll want to take time to walk around and see the views across the Belfast Lough.  

Related:

There’s always the cinema too – don’t forget to bring your student card for discounts.

Belfast Castle Visit Britain Britain on View
Towers and turrets: Belfast Castle overlooks the city (Picture: Visit Britain / Britain on View)

How would you spend a cultural evening in Belfast?

Saricha: For high-brow culture, head for the Ulster Hall. It is a lovely old building and hosts concerts and classical recitals. For bands and gigs, the Odyssey Arena is the place to be: a modern building where lots of famous stars perform.

Armelle: West Belfast Festival in August will give you a taste of traditional Irish folk music, as well as top bands such as Boyzone and Kaiser Chiefs. 

The Duke of York pub, where Snow Patrol had their debut, is a lovely bar with fantastic atmosphere, and going on a Belfast Historical Pub Tour is very good way to meet new people and to discover the pub life in Belfast.

Check out the Grand Opera House for stage shows and operas, and the annual Belfast International Arts Festival at Queen's. There is also a horror cinema marathon close to Halloween at the Queen's Film Theatre, which is quite an experience…

Duke of York Snow Patrol Visit Britain / Britain on View
Birth of legends: The Duke of York pub proudly proclaims its musical heritage

What’s the best way to travel around the city?

Saricha: Buy an all-day bus ticket so you can make as many journeys as you need to in the city – the bus drivers are really helpful and friendly too.

Armelle: Walking is good, but if you’re feeling a bit lazy or it’s really rainy you can always flag down a black taxi cab – and knock on the window when you want to get out.

Black cab Belfast NITB
Travel in style: A black cab wings its way past Belfast City Hall (Picture: NITB)

What’s your number one pub in Belfast?

Saricha: White’s Tavern – it is the oldest pub in Belfast (it was granted its licence in 1630 when Belfast was just a village) and it serves great food as well.

Armelle: Kelly Cellars for good traditional live music, or the Botanic Inn for a proper student night out.

Customers inside the Crown Bar, Great Victoria Street, Belfast. Formerly known as the Crown Liquor Saloon, the pub building date Picture Visit Britain / Britain on View
Cheers! A proper night out in the pub (and a Guinness if you fancy!) is part of the Belfast experience (Picture: Visit Britain / Britain on View)

Where’s your top café or restaurant in Belfast?

Saricha: Wetherspoon's pubs are good if you’re on a budget – I love the deal where you get cheap fish and chips with a Coke, and they list on the menu how many calories there are in each dish so you’re not as tempted to overdo it!

For a more upmarket choice, I like Havana Bank Square. They offer free tapas and have live flamenco guitar music on Thursdays and Fridays.

Armelle: Culturlann on Falls Road is really good. It is very reasonably priced and has a great atmosphere – try the soup of the day or their curry.

If you prefer to stay in city centre, I’d say go to Avoca Café. It has amazing salads and a cheese and tomato scone like you have never seen before.

Scones VisitBritain / Natalie Pecht
Naughty but nice: A sweet or savoury scone - the taste of the UK (Picture: VisitBritain / Natalie Pecht)

Where’s the best place to go shopping?

Saricha: Victoria Square is the place to be seen but still not break the student budget. I also like Castlecourt in the city centre, as it has many different shops in it. Ann Street and Royal Avenue nearby are also great places to shop, especially as they have three Poundshops where everything costs just a pound each!

Armelle: I really like vintage shopping in charity and second-hand shops, because you can get loads of good clothes and the money all goes to a good cause. Then again, TK Maxx is unreal if you want brands at good prices.

For food, you’ve got your major supermarkets –  Asda, Tesco, Lidl, Sainsbury’s – all of which have various special offers.

Victoria Square Belfast NITB
Shopaholic: The retail delights of Victoria Square can take up rather a lot of time if you're not careful! (Picture: NITB)

Where’s the best place to play or watch sport?

Saricha:  Since coming to Belfast, I’ve become a real rugby fan, so I’d have to choose Ravenhill Stadium - the home of Ulster Rugby.

Armelle: The Northern Ireland football team play on Donegal Road and you could also head over to a good pub that shows rugby or football to watch with friends.

Gaelic football NITB
Team of tradition: Check out a game of Gaelic football (above) or rugby (Picture: NITB)

Where do you go when you want to study in peace?

Saricha: Definitely the Central Library in Royal Avenue in the city centre. It is a Victorian library established in 1888 and the atmosphere feels almost like a church! Despite that, it’s very well equipped and the facilities are modern.

Armelle: The library in Queen’s University Belfast is a nice place to study – or if you’d rather do some work in a café, try Campbell’s on Arthur St. It’s a family-run café and they do good food for a reasonable price.

Queen's University Belfast Visit Britain / Tony Pleavin
Study splendour: Queen's University, Belfast (Visit Britain / Tony Pleavin)

What’s your number one Belfast bargain?

Saricha:  As food is my main expense, my best secret tip is to go to the big supermarkets after 7pm on weekdays and the food that is about to pass its expiry date will be massively reduced.

There’s also a chain of supermarkets called Iceland that has ready meals and pizzas from £1 to £3, which is really good value if you can’t cook or don’t have the time.

Armelle: I guess you can’t beat the Eglantine Inn (also known as The Eg) and their deals on drinks! 

What’s the number one item of clothing you’d advise international students bring with them?

Saricha: You’ll need two waterproof jackets – a thin one for the summer and a thick one for winter – so you never have to worry about dripping umbrellas to carry around! But the jackets are easily available here and sometimes it is cheaper to buy in the UK, so don’t bother carrying one all the way from home.

Armelle: If you’re female? A good pair of heels – and a comfier pair of flat shoes that you can fit in your bag – so you’re completely prepared for a ‘grand’ Belfast night out.

Belfast Masquerade Ball taxi Picture: NITB
Nights out: Friends head off for a masked ball in Belfast (Picture: NITB)

What’s the number one experience you’ve had during your time in Belfast – the one you’d tell your grandchildren about?

Saricha: Giro d’Italia - the international cycling event and the whole of Belfast was pink! Even the trees were wrapped in pink ribbons!

Tourists from all over the world came to watch it and the crowds were huge, but I just looked out of the window of my classroom because Belfast Metropolitan College is situated in the Titanic Quarter and that was part of the cycle route. I felt more than a bit smug!

Giro d'Italia Race - Titanic Belfast (cyclists) NITB
Pink pedals: The Giro d'Italia whizzes past the Belfast Titanic (Picture: NITB)

Armelle: I met my (now) husband in Belfast and we are now married and settled in Ireland. I call him my wee Irish souvenir.

We met in McCracken’s pub, where I put on a French accent to impress him. It worked… although we will probably tell our grandchildren we met at the library and I wanted to borrow a book or something.

Briege and husband
Love of the Irish: Armelle and her husband David on their wedding day (Picture: Armelle Anderson)

For more information about events and attractions in Belfast, go to Visit-Belfast.com or check out Discover Northern Ireland.

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