Why You Should Go to Belfast Right Now

Why Belfast is the most exciting places to go right nowThere’s a second-floor lounge across the street from Belfast’s ornate city hall. It looks like a lot of cosmopolitan lounges in any capital city on the planet: colored backlighting, sleek banquettes, and electonica seeping from the speakers. But Apartment, as it’s called, is kind of radical. Why? Because of the floor-to-ceiling front windows.

To understand why these windows are so revolutionary, let’s go back ten years. Apartment opened in 2000 when the center of town was still desolate and citizens were still wary of car bombs. “People thought we were mad when we first opened,” said Apartment’s manager, Morgan Watson, when I sat down with him for a drink, amid the club’s thumping DJ beats and crammed cocktail-quaffing crowd. “After the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, we thought it was time to take back the city center. And the floor-to-ceiling windows which look out at city hall are symbolic of this—it’s our way of saying let’s look at the future.” Since then a dozens pubs and clubs have popped up, all evoking more SoHo chic than the sectarian sensibilities of the past.

Which is why Belfast is one of the most exciting places to go right now. This city of 275,000 people was once a city with reputation for having the world’s best knee and skull reconstruction specialists in the world. And for good reason. There was a demand for them. But, as evidenced by the continued (peaceful) existence of Apartment’s front windows, all that is changing.

Titanic-sized portions of foreign investment have transformed the city’s Victorian streets–many of which still boast ’50s and ’60s–era butcher shops and pharmacies-into a cosmopolitan 21st-century city; and where an infectious spirit of optimism has emerged, one akin to Eastern Europe a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Sure, there have been a few hiccups in the peace process, but going to Belfast now is no longer a dare in the way it used to be. When I spent a few days there, I couldn’t help but feel I was watching the city’s rebirth happen in front of my eyes.

But, you’re probably recalling right now, weren’t there some flair-ups of the Troubles in Belfast just this last July? There were, but that was because of the usually incendiary Orange Order parade, a Protestant procession that occurs annually in mid July. Just avoid Belfast and Northern Ireland’s six counties around then, and you’ll be fine. And even if you do find yourself in Northern Ireland during the procession, have no fear. If there is violence, it’s not aimed at tourists.

“We’ve been trying to put Belfast on the nightlife map,” Watson told me, regarding both Apartment and the city’s next generation. “People are starting to realize that there’s more to Belfast than just bombs and bullets.”

That said, one of the most intriguing aspects of the city is taking in the graffiti along the walls that still separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

The next morning, accompanied by Hugh, a friend of a friend, I left the center of town and headed for Shankill Road and Falls Road, two infamous Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, respectively. Seeing these parts of the city–knowing that this reality still exists–Hugh explained, is an integral part of the Belfast experience.

As our BMW freely glided from religiously segregated neighborhood to religiously segregated neighborhood, barbed wire-topped “peace” walls separating them and flags marking each area’s allegiance, Belfast seemed to go from optimistic to ominous. Though British troops are gone and neighborhood checkpoints have disappeared, the out-of-the-center neighborhoods are a sober reminder of the recently ended Troubles. Hugh steered my attention to various points of past thuggery: a bomb blew up a pub here, stray bullets killed innocent people there. Now, I thought, was as good a time as ever to ask an important question: how can you tell who’s who?

“Spell my name,” he said, as if he’d been expecting the question.

“H-U-G-H”

“Right,” said Hugh, as he swung the car around slower traffic. “That’s how it would sound if I spelled it also. But a Protestant would spell it like this: H-U-G-H. Hear the difference?”

I didn’t. To my non-Catholic, non-Protestant, non-Irish ears, it all sounded the same.

“It doesn’t really matter to us either,” Hugh said. “Though we’re not fully integrated, we’re also not worried about these differences now.”

Just then, Hugh stopped the car. We idled in the shadow of a towering, gray wall. “People come from all over the world and leave their messages here,” he said, and then pointed to some squiggly red lines painted on the wall. “See what some Berliners did–they painted those red lines on the wall to symbolize cracks in it.” A nearby spray painted slogan read, “The biggest wall in Belfast is the one in people’s minds.”

That night, as I ate at Cayenne, a restaurant from one-time Michelin-starred chef Paul Rankin, who has received accolades the world over for serving elevated Irish fare, I realized there was a big picture window in the front of the restaurant. I think I’ll never think of windows the same again.