Our friend Cathy shares some of the things she likes to do and places she likes to visit when she returns home to Belfast. We never fail to be impressed by Cathy's boundless energy (how does she do it all??) Follow her on instagram (@cathyandjuno) for inspirational ocean porn and the heads up on the coolest little spots from all over the island of Ireland. Take it away Cathy!
‘There’s no place like home’ … and in my case that could not be truer. Despite having moved away from Belfast 15 years ago, I find that I just can’t keep away!
Belfast is a city where the good vibrations run from the Black Mountain through the streets and into the North Channel. It is more than the sum of its parts, the result of a complex history, and a place which today stands proudly, welcoming people from across the world.
Belfast is on the world map for so many reasons, spanning culture and innovation. It’s the birthplace of the life-saving portable defibrillator, and of course history’s most (in)famous ship. It gave the world the original Belfast boy, George Best, and was chosen by the mighty Led Zeppelin for the live debut of ‘Stairway to Heaven’. (All top fodder for the pub quiz!)
With roots in the Iron Age, Belfast is both an ancient city and a truly vibrant modern one. It’s a fascinating place that is constantly evolving, pushing boundaries, and coming out on top – whilst having the best craic along the way.
So, join me on this hometown tour where I share some of my favourite spots to eat, drink, stretch, swim and enjoy the city…
Coffee x Cactus
What goes together better than coffee and bikes? Coffee and plants of course! Nestled in lifestyle store, Maven, just off the Lisburn Road, Coffee x Cactus is the coolest coffee shop in Belfast. The friendliest baristas chat to you as they serve up the best flat white in town. If you can tear yourself away from the wonderful collection of plants and pantry items on sale, you can unwind and relax inside this unique little café, or bag a bench outside. It’s pet friendly too!
Image courtesy of Coffee x Cactus
A recent addition to the city’s coffee scene, Morning Martha is already my favourite Belfast breakfast spot. Located on the Belmont Road, this tiny café is decorated in dreamy shades of pale pink and beech wood, making a lovely calming place to start your day. Try out a delicious acai bowl, and don’t miss the coffee cocktails (if it’s not too early…).
Image courtesy of Morning Martha
Originally in two city locations, the pandemic forced The Pocket to close its Queens University branch and focus on its fantastic city centre café. Housed in the iconic Flat Iron Building, The Pocket is one of my long-time favourite brunch spots in the city, serving up unique dishes such as pineapple and coconut French toast. The coffee is great, and they are dog friendly!
Photo credit: Stephen Johnston
Located in the car park of Cairn Wood, great coffee is served from a cute converted horsebox. Owner, Rachel was furloughed during lockdown and decided to start her own business, turning an old horse trailer into an Instagram-worthy coffee shack. Rachel also bakes the most delicious cakes so once you’ve worked up an appetite in the woods you can have a well-deserved treat.
Image courtesy of Batch
Dilly & Dolly
One of Belfast’s newest additions, Dilly & Dolly has to be the prettiest café in the city. It’s a riot of pink with a floral ceiling making it difficult not to smile as you walk through the door. Owner, Natalie has poured her heart and soul into this café-cum-patisserie and with her crafty sister sidekick (she did all the woodwork!) they’ve created a friendly place where locals chat and your pooch is treated like royalty.
Image courtesy of Dilly and Dolly
COME DINE WITH ME
Fruit Shop is a collective of Belfast-based artists who merge food production with grassroots growing initiatives and local food histories. Located on the Ormeau Road, their cool little café serves the most delicious Okonomiyaki, and their cakes are amazing!
Photo credit: Philip McCrilly
Whether you choose Freight’s sunny terrace on the Lisburn Road or their amazing shipping containers on the Newtownards Road, you will be treated to delicious dishes such as Reuben Pancakes or Fish Tacos. They have a great craft beer selection and a brilliant vegan menu.
Image courtesy of Freight
This pared-back waterside restaurant with whitewashed walls and mid-century furniture lets the food steal the show. Enjoy a relaxed Michelin-star dining experience with a seasonal tasting menu and phenomenal wine list. OX is fine dining at its best. Their menus are designed to showcase local and seasonal products whilst focusing on sustainability. Don’t miss OX Cave, their intimate bar next door, the perfect place for an aperitif or nightcap.
Image courtesy of OX
For the longest time, Belfast has deserved a good street food market. Indoor food halls are the hub of many capital cities, blurring the line between street food and a restaurant experience, creating a space that attracts everyone and anyone, with a buzzing atmosphere built on diversity. Common Market does this for Belfast. Housed in the old Arnott’s fruit warehouse on the edge of the Cathedral Quarter, Common Market is a (dog-friendly!) hot-spot that showcases some of the best of Belfast’s street food vendors.
Photo credit: Cathy McFadden
FANCY A PINT?
This Belfast institution needs no introduction, but simply must be included on any guide to Belfast. Nestled in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter, the John Hewitt is special. Not only is it a great bar where you’re guaranteed a warm welcome, it’s also Belfast’s first and only social enterprise pub! In the mid-90s, the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre – replying on grants to fund their work – thought it would be a great idea to generate their own funds by opening a bar, and what a bar they opened. The pub takes its name from a poet, socialist and freeman of Belfast who officially opened the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre back in the early 1980s. Today, as a bustling live music venue, the John Hewitt is the best place to end a Belfast night out.
Ulster Sports Club
After 92 years, one of Belfast’s oldest members’ clubs underwent a facelift and now welcomes a whole new generation of customers. With its mid-century styled interior and good humour (its “Ulster Says Yeoo” banner was a big hit) it’s no surprise that the relaunched Ulster Sports Club is one of the Cathedral Quarter’s favourite venues.
Image courtesy of Ulster Sports Club
It might be a simple city pub sitting on the corner, but drinking spots don’t come much better than the Sunflower. It’s instantly recognisable by the security cage around the front door, a relic from the Troubles, maintained not from necessity you’ll be glad to hear, but simply to preserve a part of the city’s real social history. The Sunflower is a melting-pot of people known for its great local beers, live music and colourful beer garden (which also serves class pizza).
Image courtesy of The Sunflower
Yes I’m cheating slightly by including the Salty Dog, as it is in nearby Bangor, not Belfast. But if you’re in the city, it’s a mere 20 minutes away, and such a great spot to have a pint by the sea that I’m including it here. A seaside bar and hotel with a lovely front terrace where you can watch the comings and goings of the harbour and enjoy a lovely sunset. It is my favourite place to go for a post-swim drink after a dip in Skipping Stone Beach and a good place to take a break on the Hollywood to Bangor coastal walk. Also, it is very dog friendly (both inside and out).
Skipping Stone Beach, Bangor
Skipping Stone Beach was a popular ladies bathing spot from the 1800s to the early 1900s, but fell out of favour and into disrepair during WWII. Luckily, its ship came in a couple of years ago when the local Dash & Splash group, with the help of Live Here Love Here, brought it back to life and restored the old ladders and railings. A tiny cove just north of Bangor Marina, Skipping Stone is a small beach where you can gently wade into the water, or if you prefer to jump right in, there’s a pier with ladders to access the sea at high tide. With Bangor's sugary candy-coloured houses behind and a spectacular view across Belfast Lough, this is a great spot for a quick dip or a leisurely swim. After you dry off head into Bangor town to warm up at the Salty Sea Dog, Guillemot Café or The Starfish.
Photo credit: Cathy McFadden
Jenny Watt’s Cove, Brompton Road, Bangor
The most spectacular swimming spot on the north Down coast must be Jenny Watt’s Cove. Named after folklore legend, Jenny Watts, a pirate smuggler who became a local hero as she shared the spoils of her activities amongst the poor of the local community. This gorgeous cove named in her honour is home to soft coral and starfish and is a popular spot for local divers and swimmers.
Photo credit: Jenni Quinn
Helen’s Bay, Crawfordsburn Country Park
This sandy beach is so handy to reach from Belfast; accessible by car, train or foot (if walking the coastal path) so you will find yourself in the cool waters of Belfast Lough before you know it. Helen’s Bay is ever changing, at high tide it becomes a waterfilled bay, but at low tide it is transformed into a sandy cove. With spectacular scenery and excellent water quality, Helen's Bay is an ideal bathing spot. If you fancy a flow before your dip, join Connect Yoga at sunrise or sunset for a practice on the beach to get your body and mind ready for the sea.
Further along the North Down coast, you’ll find Portavoe, a little beach practically hidden from the main road. Once you see cars parked in the lay-by, the Goonies style access to the beach becomes clear. Nestled between two beautiful houses, Portavoe offers a haven to swim at low and high tide, with clear views of the Copeland Islands.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
SUP yoga (SUP Hub NI), Bangor
If you fancy testing your balance and having some craic, join the lads at SUP Hub NI in Bangor Harbour. Dock your board to a massive starboard and be guided by Mel from North Down Pilates for a challenging yet fun practice on the water. If yoga isn’t for you, just grab a board and head for a paddle along the stunning North Down coastline.
Photo credit: Anna McNeill
This warm and welcoming studio in the heart of Ballyhackamore has a real neighbourhood vibe. YQ caters for yogis of all levels in their beautiful space with incredible teachers like Cathy Curran.
Image courtesy of Yoga Quarter
With two locations, in downtown Belfast and Holywood, Flow Studio offers a wide variety of yoga classes in the most stylish of studios.
Photo credit: Stephen Johnston