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Belfast: The UK’s Most Surprising City

Belfast hadn’t been on my radar as a favored travel destination until I learned that Van Morrison was planning to do a 70th birthday concert on Cypress Avenue, the idyllic residential street he made famous in the song of the same name on his legendary 1968 album Astral Weeks. I managed to finagle a pair of the 1,400 tickets available for the first of his two August 31st shows. While that 90-minute immersion in Van the Man’s mystic soulfulness was the highlight of a trip that included forays into Dublin, London, and Galway, it was also a metaphorical door through the wardrobe (C.S. Lewis was from Belfast, too) into wonders I’d never expected in the once-“troubled” capital of Northern Ireland.

Young Buck blue from Mike's Fancy Cheese
I’d experienced the burgeoning Good Food movement in the Republic of Ireland on a visit to Cork a few years ago, but Belfast’s abundance of fine restaurants and artisanal products caught me pleasantly by surprise. On an abbreviated version of one of Caroline Wilson’s Belfast Food Tours, we strolled through St. George’s Market, stopping at stalls to sample locally blended teas, fresh roasted coffee, spicy sausages, and remarkable breads, pastries, and cheeses. Of this last, Northern Ireland’s first raw-milk blue cheese, Mike’s Fancy Cheese’s Young Buck, was the highlight.

Deirdre McCanny at Co Couture
Around the corner from the sprawling indoor market, at Co Couture, we tasted the reason why chocolatier Deirdre McCanny won a silver medal at the 2014 International Chocolate Awards.

Our guide described the success of the seasonal and organic Love Local food movement and explained that meat merchant Peter Hannan’s Himalayan-salt aged beef was the favorite of UK gourmets, a claim I better understood after having one of his rib-eye steaks at The Bar + Grill at James Street South the next night.

Four days of lunches and dinners—at The Terrace at Robinson & Cleaver, Howard Street, Deane’s Meat Locker, and The Barking Dog in East Belfast—barely scratched the surface of the ongoing culinary renaissance. And we didn’t even make it to the most talked-out restaurant in town, Alain Kerloc’h and chef Stephen Toman’s OX, overlooking the Lagan River.

The Barking Dog

I expected great pubs in Belfast, none more legendary than Kelly’s Cellars, built in 1720. But only on this visit did I learn that a New York City bar that has twice been named best in the world, The Dead Rabbit, is rooted in Belfast’s drinking culture: It’s the brainchild of Northern Ireland natives Jack McGarry, from the Merchant Hotel, and Sean Muldoon, from the Duke of York.

Lynn Corken and the Cathedral Quarter murals
You can’t visit Belfast without spending at least a few hours experiencing the enthralling Titanic Belfast, the iconic interactive museum that opened in 2012 and immediately boosted tourism, or without taking in the murals and the “Peace Wall” that lingers between Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist neighborhoods. We did. But I was here for the music, and tour guide Lynn Corken, who knows the political landmarks like the back of her hand, is also one of the self-proclaimed “Vanatics” who travel to Van Morrison concerts. She plunged a small group of us deep into the city’s pop music history, documented in the music murals in the Cathedral Quarter entertainment district, the café that once housed Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations record store and label, home to Belfast punk avatars The Undertones, and the plaque on the modest, brick house at 125 Hyndford St., where Van Morrison grew up.

Van Morisson's family home at 125 Hyndford St.

In 1995, Van sang his song “Days Like This”—the anthem of the peace movement in Northern Ireland—to a crowd of more than 60,000 when President Bill Clinton visited Belfast. Twenty years later he brought it full circle as one of the 17 songs he performed on Cypress Avenue.

Van the Man at his 70th birthday concert.

Visit the AFAR Media Spotify page for a Van Morrison playlist based on his Cypress Avenue concert sets.