Belfast is a city of stories. People have been living at its location along the banks of the Lagan for well more than a thousand years. It has long been a crossroads of travel, as it is today. There are Victorian era buildings you will see all around. There’s the Titanic story — it was built in Belfast, as were many other ships over the years. There are stories of the Troubles, the murals, their legacy both in politics and in day to day life. There are also, at this writing, all the stories and uncertainties around Brexit.
Belfast is indeed a city of stories. Many such stories are told in its pubs. Here are several ideas of pubs to explore for food, drink, stories, and history on your next visit to Belfast.
The building where you will find McHugh’s dates back to 1711, which certainly adds to the history of the place. So too do the open fires in The Old Bar and the weekend folk music performances and sessions. The smaller Basement Bar at times plays host to name bands of varied musical styles. In addition to drinks service there’s a good food menu, including such dishes as black and white pudding salad, Dundrum mussels, pan roasted chicken, house made fish pie, and vegetarian boxty — from which you will deduce that the menu is as local as the atmosphere. They offer a selection of steaks, deserts, and non-alcoholic drinks too.
The John Hewitt is named for one of Northern Ireland’s top poets. He was of a generation before more widely known writers including Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, and he made his name as much by his social activism as by his poetry. So it seemed only right that a pub named after him should be owned by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre. In fact, in the 1990s the Centre’s managers decided that going into business could be a way to support their work, and hit on the idea of a pub. It has worked, as part of the pub’s profits still go to help the Centre’s work. At The John Hewitt you will find Guinness and Harp on tap, as well as a selection of other beers on draft and a rather extensive gin list. There is live music from local musicians most nights and an afternoon session on Saturdays. The food (mostly served during lunch hours) is quite good too, with choices including spicy tomato and basil pesto, smoked haddock and leek fishcakes, beer battered fish and chips, with fudge cake or a cheese board to conclude your meal.
The Duke of York describes itself as “an institution round here” and takes pride in being a traditional pub, a place for Guinness, craic (good conversation), and music. The Duke’s varied history includes being bombed (perhaps by accident) during the Troubles in the 1970s. At a another time in the 1970s future Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams pulled pints behind the bar while at university, and more recently the Shamrock Tenors filmed a music video at the Duke of York.
The Morning Star has quite a varied history, too. How it got its name: one story holds that coachmen in the early 1800s called it that as the tavern, which offered food and lodging as well as drink, was the first place they were able to see the early morning after a long night of travel, guided there by moon and stars. The current building has been carefully restored to that early nineteenth century look. Its carvings are admired examples of that period’s decorative work. This is a lion — said to be the winged lion of Saint Mark — which stands above the door.
The Morning Star’s menu comes in for admiration too. They take pride in dealing with local and regional suppliers, growing a kitchen garden, and preparing these foods in ways which allow their character to shine. From ciders to ales to tea and coffee they offer a selection of locally sourced drink as well. You might try their homemade breads or house made chowder for starters. For mains you could choose from a range of steaks, beef and Guinness pie, the Green Machine vegetarian burger, pan seared bream, bangers and mash, fish and chips…and the craic is as good as the menu, with a caring and award winning staff on hand.
The Crown Bar is renown for both history and design. A bit younger than The Morning Star, The Crown dates back to 1826 and in its Victorian heyday (it was refurbished in 1885) was one of the most well known bars in Belfast, if not the world — and it still is. The building, which is near the Europa Hotel and the Grand Opera House, is in fact owned by the National Trust and is, the folk at Visit Belfast are known to point out, known to millions the world over. That includes Prince Harry and Ms Megan Markle (update: since their marriage, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex), who visited recently.
Though it is celebrated for design and history, it is also a working pub, a good stop for a drink or a meal — though you may find it a bit crowded at times, and some in that crowd may be tourists. It is run by Nicholson’s. who offer a wide range of gins, an extensive list of mainly Scottish whisky, a varied wine list, and many cask ales, ciders, and beers from around the world. Irish stew, fish and chips, sausage and champ, grilled salmon, and lentil cottage pie are among the choices on the food menu.
Each of these pubs is in the city center of Belfast. You might plan a walking tour among them if you wish. There are many other pubs in Belfast to explore, as well.
What else could you do in Belfast? One thing you might do is visit the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich (An Chultúrlann) on the Falls Road, where you can check out their schedule of art exhibits, concerts, and talks, and visit the bookstore for material in English and in Irish. I will have several ideas on other places to explore in Belfast to share with you in future, too, including, of course, the Titanic history.
You may be wondering: Is it safe to travel in Belfast? That is a question I am often asked. A while back, I wrote a story with advice on travel in Northern Ireland, including several songs to help you understand the situation. That advice still holds, especially with the emotions stirred by Brexit and the proposals about the border. If you’d like to understand the a bit of background to the ever unfolding (at this writing in May of 2018) Brexit situation and the island of Ireland, you may want to read this explanation of some of the issues around Brexit and the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from The Guardian.
Photographs of Crown exterior by Joseph Mischyshyn, Prince Harry and Ms. Markle at the Crown by The Northern ireland Office, and of The Morning Star and Duke of York by Albert Bridge. Thank you for respecting copyright.
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