The city of Belfast is enjoying a resurgence of life. Having been gripped by decades of conflict over politics and religion, the Northern Irish capital has been transformed by peace over the past ten years, and now hosts an array of sublime architecture old and new, by renowned architects past and present.
The urban landscape of Belfast, transitioning between industry, culture, arts, commerce, and education, makes the city a worthy destination for architects and designers. Influenced by Irish and British vernacular styles, shaped by the demands of shipbuilding, linen, security, and now post-conflict confidence, the city remains somewhat of a blank canvas for creatives to experiment, reflect, and dream.
What follows is an architectural guide to Belfast, written off the back of the annual Open House Belfast festival, which opens the city’s architectural doors to the general public. From what to know before you go, where to stay, where to eat, and what to do, the buildings and events mentioned here only scratch the surface of what can be appreciated.
Belfast is situated on the north-east coast of the island of Ireland. As the capital of Northern Ireland, the city is part of the United Kingdom, and separate from the Republic of Ireland – a political situation which has been a source of deep conflict for almost 100 years, and forms a major stumbling block to the current attempts by the British government to leave the European Union without creating a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The city is home to 300,000 people and is centered on where the River Lagan meets the Irish Sea. The city owes its name to this coastal condition, with “Belfast” derived from the Irish phrase “Beal Feirste” meaning “Mouth of the Sand.” The city holds a deep affinity with its harbor, which sustained the city’s shipbuilding industry through the nineteenth and twentieth century, giving birth to vessels such as the famed ocean liner Titanic.
Belfast’s climate is typical to Northwestern Europe, with cool summers and mild winters. The city can host four seasons in one day, so rainfall is a possibility at any time of the year. Temperatures range from 0 to 6 degrees Celsius in the depths of winter, and 14 to 20 degrees at the height of summer.
What Not to Miss
Open House Belfast
Open House Belfast, organized by PLACE, is “the biggest celebration of architecture in the city.” The annual, week-long celebration takes place every October with the 2018 edition featuring 50 free events, including many of the buildings listed in this article.
The festival allows visitors to explore buildings young and old, described through tours by architects, planners, and activists, while the doors of many of the city’s firms open to offer the public a glimpse behind the scenes of how the Belfast of tomorrow is being shaped.
The cobblestone-laned Cathedral Quarter is the historic jewel in the crown of Belfast’s art scene, forming the epicenter of the city’s annual Culture Night celebrations. The area’s prevalence as a center for creativity is still hidden in the naming of spaces such as Writer’s Square, and bars such as The John Hewitt and The Northern Wig.
While timing a city visit to coincide with Culture Night is highly-recommended, the area offers a host of year-round activities for any architecture enthusiast. The city’s oldest building, dating back to 1780, now hosts a traditional Irish bar named “The Dirty Onion,” with spectacular exposed timber frame structures sheltering the garden beneath.
The nearby Black Box, meanwhile, offers an impressive lineup of events such as theater, literature readings, poetry, live art, and debates. Impressive architectural landmarks in the area, including the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Center) and St Anne’s Cathedral, are mentioned later in this article.
Where the Cathedral Quarter defines the artistic, creative side of Belfast, the Titanic Quarter embodies the city’s rich industrial past. Named after the doomed ocean liner built in the city’s dockyards, the Titanic Quarter is rapidly opening itself out to the rest of the city, through landmarks such as the Titanic Museum, Titanic Hotel, and Titanic Creative Studios.
The Titanic Quarter also plays host to the most recognizable feature of the Belfast skyline – the soaring Harland and Wolff cranes (nicknamed Samson and Goliath) which mark the spot where the construction of countless ships, including the Titanic, sustained both the city of Belfast, and the British Empire.
While the shipping industry is in decline, the future remains promising for the Titanic Quarter, with former warehouses appropriated into film studios for series such as Game of Thrones, and plans drawn up for a major Henning Larsen-led redevelopment of the waterfront.
Where to Eat and Drink
Breakfast/Lunch at the Merchant Hotel
The five-star Merchant Hotel on Waring Street is one of the most prestigious buildings in Belfast. Built by architect James Hamilton as the headquarters to one of Ireland’s biggest banks in 1857, the Grade A listed building features an Italianate exterior popular in High Victorian architecture. Following extensive renovations in 2010, and a £16.5 million extension, the formidable sandstone building is once again open for business as a boutique hotel.
The hotel is a popular destination for afternoon tea, lunch, and evening drinks, where visitors dine under a grand central dome of the former main banking hall, with sculptures of fruit and foliage interwoven with Corinthian columns featuring science, painting, scripture, and music-inspired carvings.
Dinner at Coppi
When opened in 2012, Coppi was the first cichetti baari and restaurant in Belfast, inspired by those found in Venice. Since then, it has proved extremely popular, with a modern, sleek Italian interior and open kitchen. While also open in the afternoon, booking is all but essential in the evening.
Evening Drinks at the Harp Bar
Located in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter, the Harp Bar forms part of an important phased regeneration initiative along Hill Street, including an art gallery, apartments, bars, cookery workshop, and marketplace. Among the highlights of the boutique interior are the first-floor bar, with wooden paneling salvaged from the RMS Walmer Castle, built at the nearby Harland and Wolff shipyard in 1902.
The light, minimalist top floor of the Harp Bar is soon to become an art gallery, and contains maple flooring and stained glass windows from a once-prominent, but now demolished Co-op department store.
Where to Stay
The Titanic Hotel
The Titanic Hotel sits in the heart of Belfast’s shipbuilding quarter, opposite the Titanic Museum. The architectural jewel of the hotel is undoubtedly the large function room, which was once the Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices. Dating from 1885, the room has witnessed the design of many of the company’s 1700 vessels, including the sister ships Titanic, Britannic, and Olympic.
Grand Central Hotel
Belfast’s newest hotel is also its tallest. The Grand Central Hotel, just south of city hall in the Linen Quarter, has been created from retrofitting a 1960s office building behind a dark metal facade. The hotel’s top-floor bar, named the “Observatory” offers sweeping panoramic views across the city.
Where to Relax
Located in South Belfast, among the city campus of Queen’s University, Botanic Gardens is as known for its architecture as for its landscaping. The 1828-established gardens hold a variety of exotic trees and plants from the southern hemisphere within two noted architectural works.
The Palm House, designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and built in 1840, is one of the earliest examples of curved iron glasshouses in Europe. The building’s iconic dome was added in 1852. Nearby stands the Tropic Ravine, an 1887 building which has just reopened following extensive restoration by Belfast firm Hall Black Douglas. Both buildings are completely free to the public.
Stormont Castle, and its surrounding estate, has been the seat of Northern Ireland’s government since 1932. Its landmark building, the Greek Classical-style Parliament House, was designed by Sir Arnold Thornely. While happenings within the Parliament may be an eternal source of ire, the surrounding woods and parkland offer a network of paths, statues, and activities, including a free, weekly, 5-kilometer run.
The Lyric Theatre stands on a sloping site at a triangular junction between the grid pattern of Belfast’s brick streetscape and the serpentine parkland of the River Lagan. Designed by RIBA Gold Medal winners O’Donnell + Tuomey, the theatre consists of solid volumes interlaced with transparent social spaces, offering sweeping views down the River Lagan.
The result of eight years of briefing, design, fundraising, and construction, the scheme was opened in 2011 and has since become one of the city’s most sought-after theatre and event spaces – and equally as enjoyable for an afternoon coffee.
The Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) was one of Belfast’s flagship regeneration projects when opened to the public in 2012. Situated in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, and designed by local firm Hall McKnight, the scheme is a symphony of brick, glass, and basalt, with a sharp robustness harking back to the 19th-century brick warehouses which once dominated the area.
Since its opening, the venue has received over 1.5 million visitors, attending 3000 live performances, 40 visual art exhibitions, and drinking over 90,000 cups of coffee. The venue’s only permanent artwork, the “Permanent Present” by Mark Garry, consists of 400 metal wires creating a spectrum of color across the main foyer.
Overlooking South Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum is Northern Ireland’s finest example of Brutalist architecture. The original 1929 neoclassical museum has undergone several iterations, most notably the 1964-designed Brutalist extension by Francis Pym, completed in 1972, featuring cubic, cantilevering projections.
In 2006, the museum was closed to the public for three years, undergoing a £17 million refurbishment which was criticized for affecting the scheme’s Brutalist character by removing the spiral sequence of rooms in Pym’s extension. Nevertheless, the scheme remains an iconic component of Belfast’s historic urban fabric.
Queen’s University Belfast
Founded in 1845, Queen’s University has served as a social and architectural anchor for South Belfast for almost 200 years. The university’s centerpiece, the gothic-style Lanyon Building, is named after its architect Sir Charles Lanyon, and dates from 1849.
Among the university’s other 250 buildings (98 of which are protected) include the 150-year-old Graduate School building, designed by W.H Lynn in 1868 as a library, and recently restored by local architects Consarc Conservation.
Ulster University York Street
Northern Ireland’s other prominent college, Ulster University, is expanding its presence within the city’s Cathedral Quarter with an ambitious £263 million redevelopment by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. The first phase of the York Street campus opened in 2015, and is home to the Belfast School of Art, with the completed campus due to bring 15,000 new students and staff into the city.
SARC – Sonic Arts Research Centre
Designed by Hall Black Douglas and completed in 2004, SARC is a highly-recommended venue for music lovers, housing a sonic laboratory, studio spaces, and various teaching spaces. The Sonic Laboratory, described as “a cinema for the ear” contains 48 loudspeakers, some located under an experimental mesh grill flooring to completely surround the audicence.
The Former Bank of Ireland
The five-story Art Deco style Bank of Ireland was designed by Joseph Vincent Downes and built in 1930. Situated at a prominent junction along Royal Avenue, the steel-frame, Portland limestone-clad building chamfers onto North Street to address both street conditions, topped be a tiered clock tower.
Listed since 1990, the building has been sadly left vacant since the bank’s relocation in 2005. The annual Open House Belfast festival is one of few opportunities to tour the building’s interior, including a rare example of a basement level in Belfast due to the maritime city’s ground conditions.
The Former Belfast Telegraph Print Hall
The print hall of one of Belfast’s most prominent newspapers was designed by Henry Seaver in 1886, before numerous extensions throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The red brick and Dumfries red sandstone building has since been converted into a popular multi-purpose venue for live music and world-renowned DJs.
Belfast City Hall
Plans for Belfast City Hall began in 1888, when Queen Victoria awarded Belfast a city status due to its rapidly-expanding linen and shipbuilding industries, and its accolade as the most populous settlement on the island. Designed by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, construction of Belfast City Hall began in 1898, and was completed in 1906.
The Baroque Revival building was constructed mainly of Portland Stone, with towers at each corner and a centerpiece green copper dome. The building and grounds are open to the public, and feature the Titanic Memorial, the annual Christmas Market, and an interior adorned with stained glass windows and Varrara, Pavonazzo, and Brescia marbles.
St Anne’s Cathedral
Belfast’s lively Cathedral Quarter owes its name to St Anne’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Thomas Drew and completed in 1904. The Romanesque building, characterized by semi-circular arches on the interior, is supported by 50-foot-long wooden piles due to soft ground conditions. The unstable ground is also attributed as the reason the cathedral is without a characteristic central tower.
A distinctive contemporary addition to the cathedral is a 40-meter stainless steel spire installed in 2007 named the “Spire of Hope.” Protruding from a glass platform in the roof directly above the choir stalls, the spire is illuminated at night.
Influential Belfast Architecture Firms
About the Author: Niall Patrick Walsh is ArchDaily’s News Editor, and a long-time resident of Belfast, who recently attended the Open House Belfast architecture festival on ArchDaily’s behalf. He wishes to extend his sincere thanks to PLACE for organizing the event, and for their deep-rooted architectural knowledge of the city.