A little bit of Britain, a little bit of Ireland and little bit of something completely individual is how residents describe the capital of Northern Ireland.
Emerging from last century’s political turmoil – the period between the 1960s and 1998 commonly known as “The Troubles” – Belfast seems to have finally found its own stride, drawing more visitors than ever before.
No one has noticed this change more than the locals.
“Fifteen years ago, tourists were a rare commodity,” said Davy Sims, who lives in Holywood, five miles east of Belfast. “Now, many thousands make day visits coming off the hundreds of cruise liners that dock here during the season.”
The influx has meant a more vibrant food scene, too.
“There are two Michelin-starred restaurants [OX and Deanes Restaurant], and plenty of places creating local, seasonal menus,” said Northern Ireland native Darren McLoughlin. “There is a new emphasis on good food that simply didn't exist 15 years ago.”
Where do you want to live?
With just 300,000 residents, Belfast may be small, but it has a number of unique neighbourhoods.
“Locals call it the city of seven quarters,” Sims said. “The liveliest for restaurants, clubs and the arts is Cathedral Quarter near St Anne's Cathedral.”
Lisburn Road, two miles southwest of the city centre, also stays lively, with its stretch of high-end boutiques and nearby red-bricked, Edwardian and Victorian terraces.
Just two miles east of the centre, the Titanic Quarter – where the eponymous star-crossed ship was originally constructed – best represents the city's long shipbuilding history, and has lately been more developed with many apartments popping up. But the area “is quite dead in the evenings,” McLoughlin cautioned.
The Gaeltacht Quarter on Falls Road, two miles west of the city centre, attracts Irish language speakers, as the area strongly promotes the preservation of traditional Irish culture. A mile south of the city centre is Queen's University, where thousands of students come to study from countries around the world. The area is beloved by the international community, with many ethnic supermarkets lining nearby Ormeau Road.
Where can you travel?
Belfast has quickly become the jumping off point for Game of Thrones fans eager to see the many Northern Ireland filming locations.
“I was actually married in the ‘Iron Islands’,” said Belfast native Sable de Oliveira, who writes about her travels at Reconnaissance Europe. Located 60 miles north of Belfast on the Ballintoy Harbour in County Antrim (20 miles northwest of Belfast), she promised, “it’s not that grim in real life by any means!”
Other Game of Thrones filming locations along the northern coast include the volcanic stepping stones of Giant’s Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the medieval Dunluce Castle (Castle Greyjoy for fans of the show).
With unique tree varieties and Gothic architecture, Tollymore Forest Park, 40 miles south of Belfast in County Down, also stars in the show as the Haunted Forest that houses the White Walkers. Both County Down and County Antrim are popular day trips in their own right for locals looking for a scenic retreat.
Is it affordable?
Belfast is among the UK’s most affordable cities, and is significantly cheaper than Dublin – especially in terms of rent.
According to Expatistan.com, the average rent in Belfast is 34% lower than a similarly sized place in Dublin and 53% lower than in London.
The city was also named as the most affordable place in the UK for students, by the Student Living Index in 2015.
The job market is a bit constrained, however, especially since shipbuilding ceased in the early 2000s.
“When Harland and Wolff (H&W) closed its doors for shipbuilding, it was the end of an era,” de Oliveira said. “Many of us still feel a deep attachment to the shipyard, passed down within families. My granny was a typist for the Chief Engineer at H&W, and I too kept on the tradition by going off to work in the shipyards on the Clyde when I had finished my doctorate in engineering.”
That said, the relatively new sectors of financial services and IT are opening up new opportunities. A recent report showed the city to have one of the highest “digital densities” (the proportion of tech businesses as a percentage of all businesses) across the UK, with a 14.8% growth in the salaries of digital technology jobs compared to other fields, making life in Belfast especially enticing for tech employees.
Nowhere is that more apparent than at companies like BrewBot, a Kickstarter-funded company that produces beer-making appliances that can be controlled with a smartphone. Even non-techies can enjoy a pint at the Brewbot/Belfast, two miles south of the city centre, where BrewBot-brewed beer can be enjoyed on tap along with other craft choices.
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