Belfast is a city transformed in many ways in the last 20 years, but none of the changes have matched the pace of the local bar scene.
Once known only for its traditional pubs, a new breed of bar owner has embraced the old warehouses and factories to create a varied scene that is growing every year. The epicentre of this revolution is the ‘Cathedral Quarter’, the redevelopment of which has shifted Belfast’s social scene from Shaftesbury Square and the Dublin Road on the southside, north to the area around St Anne’s Cathedral.
Add to this the craft beer resurgence and what you end up with is a potent mix of good beer, good people, and amazing craic! Local food and drink writer Evan Short picks out 10 of the best bars in Belfast.
You can’t talk about pubs in Belfast without mentioning The Crown. The former coaching house, built to take advantage of the Belfast to Dublin rail commuter’s thirst in the 1820s, has seen little change in its almost 200-year history. So much so that it was purchased by the National Trust – the only working bar they own.
Known for its comfortable mahogany booths where you can shut the world out as you sip a pint of Guinness, don’t be alarmed if friendly locals ask to join you in one of the cosy cubicles. The one guarantee is that if you get a seat in here, you won’t be leaving in a hurry.
The Crown is operated by English chain Nicholson’s (a rarity here), and a full menu of traditional pub grub is served. An extensive range of real ales are available on tap, alongside more familiar favourites.
46 Great Victoria Street, BT2 7BA (02890 243187, www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/thecrownliquorsaloonbelfast/)
Bars of character are something Belfast has no shortage of, and they don’t come any more authentic than Kelly’s Cellars. Located in a square dominated by highrise corporate structures, the whitewashed Kelly’s is as real as it gets. Dating from 1720, it claims to be one of Belfast’s oldest bars, and has lost none of its appeal over the centuries – which keeps the locals coming back.
An oasis in the city centre, come here for the traditional Irish music, great Guinness, and to rub shoulders with the salt of the earth. It doesn’t hurt that it’s right next door to Belfast’s foremost fish restaurant either.
A limited menu of soup, sandwiches and coffee is available.
30-32 Bank Street, BT1 1HL (02890 246058, Facebook)
Just around the corner from Kelly’s Cellars is Madden’s Bar, and if traditional music is your thing, then this location has to be high on your list.
Sessions from some of Ireland’s leading musicians are performed all week long, and for the slightly more adventurous, set dancing classes are held on Wednesday nights – a firm favourite with tourists wanting to get involved in the traditional music scene.
Like the music, the drinks are traditional, but you will never leave here without a smile on your face. This is Belfast’s foremost exponent of the traditional Irish pub. A limited menu of bar snacks is available.
74 Berry St, BT1 1JE (028 90 244114, Facebook)
Duke of York
Once it was just a good bar in a quaint cobbled side street. Now it’s the beating heart of Belfast Cathedral Quarter and the prettiest hostelry within the city limits.
Summertime at the Duke of York is a joy, as you stand outside under the floral baskets with the crowds filling the narrow pedestrianised street. Inside there isn’t an inch of wall space that isn’t covered with a mirror commemorating one of Belfast’s long lost whiskey distilleries. Behind the bar it gets even better, with the owners boasting the island’s largest collection of Irish whiskey alongside a solid range of cold beers.
Music is performed upstairs at weekends, and it’s the bar where a certain band called Snow Patrol played their first ever gig in the 1990s, before going on to conquer the charts. A limited menu of soup and sandwiches is available.
7-11 Commercial Court, BT1 2NB (02890 241 062, www.dukeofyorkbelfast.com)
The Dirty Onion
It may be one of Belfast’s newest bars, located in the centre of the Cathedral Quarter, but the Dirty Onion is now established in an old bonding warehouse that housed whiskey for export – which only adds to an atmosphere that’s attracting the bright young things of the city.
With more beers than you can shake a stick at, the Dirty Onion also boasts Belfast’s only free range rotisserie chicken restaurant within its walls, so if you get peckish you don’t have to wander too far.
During the week Irish music lessons are held, so you may even learn something during your visit!
3 Hill Street, BT1 2LA (028 9024 3712, www.thedirtyonion.com)
In another of Belfast’s back streets, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral Quarter, is one of the funkiest pubs this side of the Irish Sea.
What was an ‘old man’s bar’ has been turned into a thriving love letter to folk music and craft ale, and oh how the drinkers of Belfast have responded.
On the edge of a gay district slowly finding its feet, the Sunflower has character in abundance and a friendly crowd that would make anyone feel welcome. A limited menu is available during the day alongside an impressive range of craft ales.
65 Union Street, BT1 2JG (028 9023 2474, www.sunflowerbelfast.com)
Muriel’s Café Bar
Oh so elegant Muriel’s calls itself a ‘Cafe Bar’, and this cosy, laid back drinking den doesn’t disappoint.
Located in an old milliners, the theme is hat designer on the lash, and it works a treat. Known for good food and an even better selection of drinks – particularly spirits – it is small but perfectly formed over two floors. And if you like your gin, then this is the place to go.
Famous for its Sunday late lunches, platters are also available alongside a full menu that includes curries and seafood.
12 Church Lane, BT1 4QN (028 9033 2445, Facebook)
The Hudson Bar
The Hudson is single-handedly transforming one of Belfast’s least salubrious areas into a must-visit location.
Located on a street once known as the red light district, around a five-minute walk from the Cathedral Quarter, the Hudson is slowly colonising the area. And that is all for the better.
Housed in an old warehouse over three floors, the owners had the brainwave of taking over the under-used pedestrian shopping arcade at the rear for their smoking area. What they have achieved is a welcome addition to Belfast’s expanding pub scene, and with a range of ales, beers and whiskey’s unrivaled in the city, it’s no wonder it’s packed to the rafters every Friday and Saturday night. Food is a mix of classics – and everyone swears by the chicken wings!
10-14 Gresham Street, BT1 IJN (02890 232 322, Facebook)
Aether and Echo
Known throughout its previous life as a sedate bar serving good food, this pub was taken over by a couple of hip young things last year and given a funky makeover with cocktails replacing the traditional beer choice of Guinness and associated tipples.
Aether & Echo’s interior has taken the best of the old bars of Belfast and modernised it where it was most needed, all the while keeping the character intact.
This is now a place where the cool crowd comes for cocktails but the food would stand up to any bar in Belfast, with a lunch and a la carte menu on offer daily.
11 Lower Garfield Street, BT1 1FP (02890 239 163, www.aetherandecho.com)
The smallest bar on this list is known around town for punching above its weight. In the shadow of boutique hotel The Merchant, the Spaniard is a little bit of Havana in the slightly less exotic streets of Belfast.
With a range of 50 rums behind the bar, and a strictly over 25s policy on the door, it’s no wonder it was voted pub of the year in 2011.
Priding itself on the friendliness of its staff, The Spaniard is about as hip as it gets in Belfast. Keep an eye out for the odd Hollywood star who has been known to nip across the road from the hotel for a stiff one after (or before) a day of shooting.
3 Skipper Street, BT1 2DZ (028 9023 2448, Facebook)
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• This article was edited on March 18.