Vicki Notaro whizzed up the M1 to check out the Christmas market.
Until I was 33 years old, I’d never set foot in Belfast. I swung by the Titanic museum on the way back from a blissful mini break in Galgorm last January, and it left me wanting to return. However, I didn’t get a chance until the lovely people at Discover Northern Ireland invited me up to check out one of my favourite things in the whole world – the Christmas market!
I’ve been to Christmas markets in Copenhagen and Munich, and I’m just about to head off to Budapest. But I thought a quick visit to a homegrown version would be just the ticket to kick off the festive season, and I was right! My husband Joe and I hit the road on Saturday morning at the end of November, and drove the two hours to Belfast’s city centre. We noticed it was busy from the get go; traffic was slow, and car parks full. But eventually we checked in to the Europa, one of the city’s most famous hotels because it just so happens to be the most bombed in Europe. Yep, it was blown up no less than 33 times during the Troubles, and has also hosted President Bill Clinton twice while he was in office.
It’s just a lovely hotel; warm and convivial staff, bars over two floors that were absolutely hopping on a Saturday afternoon, well-appointed and comfy rooms and lovely food. Prices start at €95 a night in December, and if you visit, make sure you swing by the Causerie for their curry chicken burger!
Ostensibly though, we were there to visit the markets, so we strolled the quick ten minutes to City Hall. We were told to go hungry, so we did, and strolled around munching marshmallows on a stick (self-toasted), deliciously authentic Canadian poutine and Bavarian currywurst. I sampled the mulled wine, and we had a pint in the German beer tent. Now, it gets busy. Prepare yourself for that, particularly on a Saturday night. The market isn’t perhaps as roomy as its continental counterparts, meaning there isn’t a lot of space to just stand around and eat or take in the atmosphere. However if you go at a quieter time, it’s, well, quieter!
One of the best things we saw but didn’t eat (because we quite simply weren’t hungover enough) was the Hog Roast stand. You can get an entire roast dinner (potatoes, meat, stuffing and gravy) stuffed in a gigantic Yorkshire pudding. It was quite simply enchanting looking, but I couldn’t justify it on the day! We made two trips to the market over the 24 hours, and another to the famous St George’s Market, a little further away. It’s there year round and open at the weekends, famous for its fresh fish, meat and vegetables, Belfast breakfast baps, good coffee and artisans selling their handmade wares. Definitely worth an hour or two of your time, and again, go hungry.
On Sunday afternoon, we did the famous Black Cab Tour (touringaroundbelfast.com) with the brilliant Billy, who perhaps missed his calling on the stage. He took us on a private jaunt around the city where we saw the wealthy Queens University area, the Titanic Quarter, the hip Lisburn Road area, the buzzing Cathedral Quarter, and of course the areas made famous by the Troubles and still somewhat divided today by religious and political loyalties. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the violence that occurred there now, and to say we learned a lot from Billy is an understatement. It’s an absolutely brilliant tour, and well worth three hours. The tour we did costs £100 for two people and is totally comprehensive.
The biggest thing I took from our night in Belfast is how quickly I want to return! The city is buzzing with an energy that’s actually quite rare, and the night life is first rate. From the Victorian Crown pub with snugs and bells you ring for service, to the Duke Of York that inspired the so-called best pub in the world, The Dead Rabbit in New York, to a raucous gay culture and even some super clubs, there’s lots to do when the sun goes down. There’s world class shopping at Victoria Square centre too, but beware, nothing opens there on a Sunday until 1pm. Joe and I will be heading back up with some pals ASAP, pretty much to go on the lash! I’ve a list of unmissable restaurants and bars, but there’s also the cosy familiarity of places like Boojum, Bunsen and Umi up there if I was craving something from home. Next time we’ll be taking the train, hopefully staying in the uber-hip Bullit Hotel and seeing even more of the city in the north.
With thanks to Discover Northern Ireland for hosting us