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How to experience Belfast's cultural scene like a local

The Northern Irish capital has blossomed into a true cultural hotspot, replete with bold street art, galleries and a string of hip boutiques.

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 26 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST
Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall
Photograph by Getty Images

Art and soul 

Belfast is best explored on foot, so strike out and get your bearings in the Cathedral Quarter, a rejuvenated trade and warehousing district that today claims the best bars, restaurants and galleries in the city. Among its highlights are Belfast Exposed, a pull-no-punches photography gallery with its roots in the divided city of the 1980s, and the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre), the big fish of the city’s cultural scene, which has run a varied programme of visual art, theatre and dance since it opened in 2012. The permanent work in the MAC’s foyer is worth a nose, too; Irish artist Mark Garry’s piece sees 400 metal wires weave a spectrum of colour through the space.   

If urban art’s your thing, a two-hour tour led by local artists shares the inside track on the city’s street art scene. There’s an ever-changing itinerary, but pieces like Smug’s riveting portrait of a chef on High Street Court, and MTO’s ‘Son of Protagoras’, which portrays a crouching figure bearing a dove pierced by a pair of arrows, already feel iconic. 

Night owl? The first Thursday of every month sees up to 20 galleries welcoming visitors for celebrations of visual art. From 18.00 to 21.00, you can visit galleries like Platform or Artisann Gallery, have a drink and meet some of the artists. Pick your own route or join an organised bus tour; coaches leave from Linen Hall Library.    

Shop ’til you drop

Victoria Square is the city’s best mall, but Belfast is a city that rewards hunter-gatherers. For a ladies’ fashion fix, call in at Envoy of Belfast on Wellington Street, a boutique offering labels like Simone Rocha and Paul Harnden. Men should make a beeline for The Bureau and its stylish independent labels.  

‘If you can’t get it in Sawers, you can’t get it anywhere’, the local saying goes. Swing by Northern Ireland’s oldest deli to stock up on regional nibbles like Abernethy butter or Ewing’s smoked salmon. Cheese fiends shouldn’t miss Mike's Fancy Cheese — its honking Young Buck is one of the best blue cheeses on the island.  

Beyond the centre, the Lisburn Road is dubbed Belfast’s ‘style mile’ — but do your research to prevent the waste of a taxi fare. DeJa Vu, with its designer cast-offs, is a reliable bet. 

Finally, if you need a one-stop shop for local crafts, applied art and design, hit up Space Craft. The College Street hub sells everything from lampwork glass earrings to hand-painted silk scarves and tableware.   

Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC)
Photograph by MAC

The best places to see art in Belfast

As suggested by Adam Turkington, owner/manager of Seedhead Arts, a Belfast-based arts consultancy.

1. The Black Box
I think this is the most important arts organisation in the city. It’s been a petri dish for outsider art, as well as small and interesting events and festivals in Belfast for the past 12 years. 

2. Duel of Belfast, Dance by Candlelight
This mural by Conor Harrington is one of the oldest pieces on our street art tour. It echoes our history and the idea of fighting over things that don’t matter while everything is collapsing around us. 

3. Golden Thread Gallery
This is a really well curated contemporary arts space on Great Patrick Street. You’ll find small experimental stuff — and, well, really big, ambitious, experimental stuff. It’s always on my list. 

4. CS Lewis Square
Celebrating the local author with Narnia-inspired statues, this square has transformed this part of the city along with the EastSide Visitor Centre. It’s a short walk from Boundary Brewing, which I’d consider Ireland’s best brewery. 

5. Sunflower Public House
There’s music every night at this spot on the corner of Kent Street and Union Street. There’s plenty of street art on display in the bar, as well as on the surrounding streets. 

Top tip: Sunday trading rules mean many bigger shops don’t open until 1pm, so Belfast can feel like a ghost town in the mornings. Use the time to see big-hitters like Titanic Belfast (book ahead) or the Ulster Museum.

Follow @poloconghaile

Published in the Jul/Aug 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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