After nearly two and a half years of living in Dublin, we finally had the chance to take the train up to Belfast. We had been told that it was a magical city full of cask ale (OK, I confess, that’s a slight exaggeration – we were told we could find some without looking around too hard, and that it would be in good shape) and that there would be some interesting museums. Also: ice hockey, though we aren’t quite there yet, season-wise. But perhaps the most exciting part of the journey itself was that we were promised an actual trolley on the train, with tea and snacks – something sadly still absent from non-border-crossing Iarnród Éireann trains since Covid began. As it turns out, much of this was, indeed, true.
First, though, the train – the Enterprise service between Dublin and Belfast recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, so there were a few nods to that in the Special Waiting Area within Connolly Station. That said, it’s not in any way an especially unique or well-appointed waiting area, and the train itself was not of the latest vintage, though it was nicer than some local trains I have used – no USB charging points, but the standard plug options were working well enough. The reservation displays were broken on our carriage, so our queuing to board turned out to be a good move; it was something of a free-for-all (‘just sit anywhere!’ we were told as we boarded). That hiccup aside, the journey was speedy and pleasant, and the aforementioned trolley did appear; it shouldn’t be so exciting to buy tea and a KitKat on the train, but we felt we had to, since it’s not an option on any other service. Payments were accepted in both Euro and Sterling, although card payments were pounds-only, so it was a useful prompt to swap to a credit card that doesn’t charge for currency conversion.
We got into Belfast around lunchtime, and after dropping off our bags, headed out to find some cask get lunch. We had been recommended The Crown Liquor Saloon for cask and food by many people, and during pre-trip planning, I was excited to update my Nicholson’s Pub app so that we could order from our eventual table (especially handy when you have a hungry child in tow). Although their dining room was closed and it was a bit crowded in the bar area as a result (soooo many people looking for the perfect Instagram shot without even getting a beer), we did manage to score one of the very pleasant snugs and ordered away. There were not a huge number of cask options, but what they did have was very good and the food was an order of magnitude better than anything you’d find in the otherwise-similar Wetherspoon’s app. As an aside, my Grand Unified Theory of Everything is that the world would be a more pleasant place if we could replace all ‘Spoons with Nicholson’s pubs, but maybe I simply haven’t been in enough of the latter to have had a bad experience. At any rate, I had a cask stout from Whitewater Brewing in the form of their Belfast Black, and also got to sip on an always-welcome Timothy Taylor Landlord.
We were recommended The Woodworkers, and after a somewhat sketchy walk – Google Maps is missing a little bit of nuance when it comes to Belfast directions – we ended up there for dinner. It was a fabulous suggestion; in some ways, it was as though a casual Brooklyn or Philadelphia bar had been teleported to Northern Ireland – there was a great selection of local beer, games and puzzles and fantastic food. There were also welcoming, inclusive signs (breastfeeding welcome, unpleasant behaviour very much not) and knowledgeable staff who really knew the beers on tap. Tasting flights and a variety of measures were available, so it was ideal from a visitor’s perspective. We especially enjoyed two beers – Our Brewery’s Modern Love and Bullhouse Brew Co’s Love – Pride, both great pale ales. We also got to sample a number of new-to-us beers from across (mostly) the north of England that we rarely see in Dublin. This was very much the kind of place we would be thrilled to have in our own neighbourhood, and will certainly become a regular place to tick off when we get back for another visit. Very impressive.
We only had time for a flying visit with a quick pint to the Sunflower Pub (but we did get the photo, above, that I am reasonably sure you are required to take when in Belfast – alas, the cask not up and running), but we went back several times to The Deer’s Head. While planning our visit (this is a very loose employment of the term, to be fair), we enjoyed watching Get ‘Er Brewed’s YouTube channel, with a special focus on their own Our Brewery and a wonderfully brewing-geeky walkthrough of the kit at Bell’s Brewery (no, not that one) at The Deer’s Head. Happily, the beers were all fantastic, and the pub and brewery within are beautifully appointed. The one downside is that food was not on for any of our visits (this kept happening to us – we had the same issue at The Sunflower with no pizza, which I assume is down to the currently-usual Covid-related staff shortages), and I’ve heard so many good things about their pie flight (PIE FLIGHT) – so, something for another time. But as far as the beer, I especially loved Capstan, an Australian Pale Ale, and the Berliner Lager. Also very worth your time was the Red Cow Red Ale – quite tasty indeed. They are naming beers after the disappeared pubs, brewers and spirit dealers of the local district from the 19th century, and it’s a fantastic tribute to those vanished businesses – that likely were not nearly as nice!
Outside the pubs, the Ulster Museum was very good (a thylacine! A coelacanth! A Game of Thrones Bayeux Tapestry-thing!), and the smallest member of our party was obsessed with W5, something of a combination science museum and climbing facility aimed squarely at her age group. W5 was also where we found some better tea; I must confess I found the Lyons at our hotel a little lightweight. We found even better tea at The Dock Café, a donation-box affair where you pay what you wish or can – they served Suki Teas, whose Belfast Black (so yes, we had tea and beer with the same name) was delicious. I must confess that the Titanic museum was impressive; nothing like the tacky displays that travel across the US (and, one presumes, other places), but a proper local social history museum, with a surprise dark ride thrown in the middle.
The only thing we missed (well, only thing apart from the PIE FLIGHT) was the chance to catch a Belfast Giants hockey game – something we are keen to rectify next time…along with visiting Boundary in person! And, yes, getting that pie flight…