In Belfast, Northern Ireland, evidence of the capital city’s history of struggle can be seen on the walls that still separate some of the neighborhoods. Murals depict battles and pay tribute to those who fought or perished in The Troubles—a violent political and nationalistic conflict that the city’s population endured for almost three decades. Belfast celebrates artistic expression beyond those murals, and various organizations prove the city’s commitment to bringing public art to locals and visitors. From historic buildings to contemporary art, beautiful boutiques, coffee shops and Michelin-starred restaurants, Belfast is a city of contradiction, culture and creativity—with surprises at every turn. Exploring here reveals a complicated history, vibrant art and food scenes and resilient residents who love their vibrant city.
The Cocktail Bar at The Merchant Hotel
Built in 1857, the impressive Italianate sandstone building that houses The Merchant Hotel was originally built as the Ulster Bank headquarters, to serve as the center of the financial district. In 2006 the building was transformed into a luxurious five-star hotel that’s close to pubs, cafes and shops. The heart of the hotel, The Cocktail Bar offers a dreamy setting for guests and locals alike. Inside this lavish room, the team shares craft cocktails served from an impressively long menu. Some drinks are achieved by the traditional method of bartenders throwing cocktails; mixing ingredients with spectacular flourish. Standouts include the Tipperary cocktail made with Red Breast whiskey, and four classic champagne cocktails made with Ruinart.
In Cathedral Quarter, Bridgeen Barbour and Mark Ashbridge’s Established Coffee opened in 2013, beginning service with 3FE beans roasted in Dublin. In 2018 Established added roasting to their lineup and now have their own HQ and roastery close to the café. Current coffees include a Gichathaini, the third from Kenya they released this year. Popular with locals, Established is known for their well-crafted coffee and espresso drinks served with homemade baked goods and meals. Pastries include vegan, date caramel slice; bourbon pecan pies and orange and brandy cinnamon swirls. The toasties on the menu are grilled with cheese from local cheesemonger Mike’s Fancy Cheese. Recently they commissioned Acme to make new cups with illustrations by local artist Glenn Kennedy depicting their roaster and cafe.
Envoy of Belfast
Before opening Envoy of Belfast—a boutique on Wellington St—owner Ruth Spence worked as a buyer for menswear store Bureau, but her passion for apparel design can be traced to her time living in Tokyo, where her admiration for Japanese brands was galvanized. It makes sense then that she fills Envoy with contemporary and vintage Japanese pieces, alongside garments from UK-based and international brands. Each piece has been sourced with intention, revealing Spence’s passion for fabric and design. On the racks, pieces by Ichi Antiquities, Girls of Dust, Kapital and Sophie D’Hoore hang next to cashmere dresses by Daniela Gregis and coats by Moncler and Acne Studios. Spence selects items that feel fashion forward but timeless, and that are suited to life in Belfast.
Voted the best restaurant in Northern Ireland 2021 by the National Restaurant Awards of Ireland, OX was also awarded a Michelin star in 2016. Their innovative tasting menus showcase local ingredients and are served in their original dining room as well as their more recently added minimalist, warmly lit wine cave. Belfast-born chef Stephen Toman focuses on local, seasonal ingredients and blends his experience in Parisian and Irish kitchens. Expect dishes like Wild Wicklow venison with fig, Earl Grey tea and salsify; crisp gougere filled with coolattin cheddar, using their own OX Yard Beer in the choux pastry; and ribbons of squid served with ink, chorizo and romanescoa. Small details reveal large flavors and are served with inspired wine pairings in this laidback environment.
Golden Thread Gallery
One of Belfast’s leading contemporary art galleries, Golden Thread Gallery on Great Patrick Street works to develop and support Northern Irish contemporary artists. Recently on view, an exhibition showcased art from the archives of the Rebel Dykes—an LGBTQ social justice and liberation movement known for their DIY video, craft, photography and performances. Currently on view, photographer Donovan Wylie’s Lighthouse Series explores the concept of borders and barriers in relation to Brexit. Golden Thread hosts the yearly Belfast Potter’s Christmas Market, with works by more than 20 potters from Northern Ireland. Also worth a visit nearby, the new Common Market food hall opened with global food, a brewery and live music.
The Muddlers Club
Located in the historic back streets of Cathedral Quarter, inventive tasting menus have earned The Muddlers Club a Michelin star and the admiration of locals and visitors alike. Named for the secret society that met in this building two centuries ago, the Club’s dark and moody dining room sets the tone. Their Smoked Old Fashioned, made with Black Bush by Bushmills, arrives at the table in a glass skull with a layer of smoke lurking inside. In the glow of their open kitchen, chef Gareth McCaughey and The Muddlers Club culinary team transform regional ingredients into modern delicacies like scallops in foam, and artfully plated courses of cod, venison or beef served with local vegetables. Nearby, the Commercial Court alley (leading to the Duke of York pub) has been decorated with historic signs, flower displays and an installation of neon umbrellas by AM Light. Continue along the streets lined with murals to the Sunflower Public House, located behind the Belfast Central Library and identifiable by the green security cage at the entrance, a charming relic from the 1980s.
Hero image courtesy of OX