How To Do Christmas, Belfast Style
Written by Jaillan Yehia
When I booked my flight to Belfast I was looking forward to a pre-Christmas weekend of shopping at the Continental Market and drinking Gluhwein and Guinness in equal measure whilst discovering the Yuletide side of the Northern Irish Capital.
I had no idea that my trip would fall on the most contentious weekend Belfast has seen in years. But despite the city being in the news for all the wrong reasons recently I loved my short break to the bright lights of County Antrim and I’m now well-versed in how to celebrate Christmas, Belfast style…
Belfastians have worked hard in recent years to show the world the best side of their city, so I was disappointed and sad for those trying to promote tourism here when the overriding peaceful nature of Belfast was marred by a bout of political violence last week. It was against this backdrop that I was scheduled to visit on a shopping tour, including the celebrated Christmas market which has been pulling visitors into Belfast since 2004.
The good news is that I saw no evidence of any problems during my stay – on the contrary everyone I met was incredibly friendly and welcoming and the upside of the issues is that the market will now stay open for an extra 3 days as part of a £140,000 drive to tell tourists that it is business as usual in Belfast.
Whether it’s natural disasters, political protests or just plain bad weather I am not put off taking trips easily and once I arrived in Belfast I knew I’d made the right decision to celebrate a slice of Christmas in the city.
Here’s what you can get up to if you want to spend a festive few days in Belfast.
Do Your Christmas Shopping
Belfast has all the shops you could wish for without the crowds or the long distances to cover between retail therapy stops which characterise most European cities. As well as a branch of every international fashion store you’re familiar with on the high street, from Topshop to Urban Outfitters, Jaeger to Gap, there are a few other less recognisable names such as Dunnes Stores and a sprinkling of speciality Irish shops from which to pick up woollen knits, souvenirs and more unusual Christmas gifts.
The main shopping centre Victoria Square is the perfect mix of as it is sheltered from the elements while also being semi-outdoors, so you can stave off that drowsy feeling that comes from being stuck indoors all day. It boasts the only Apple store on the island of Ireland and has its own Christmas grotto.
Hit The Christmas Market
The Christmas market in Belfast is a very continental affair with a huge emphasis on food. All I can say is don’t make the mistake of visiting with anything other than an empty stomach. You’ll find a far superior selection of nibbles and full-on meals than I’ve seen at many other Christmas markets; I spotted everything from mouth-watering Dutch mini-pancakes called Pofitjes and Italian chocolate to selections of olives, cheeses and nougat, plus of course the pre-requisite German Bratwurst. There are two beer tents so you can wash it all down with Bavarian-style beers or choose the more traditional warming gluhwein.
There are also plenty of the usual Christmas stocking fillers on offer from woollens to smellies and an excellent Dutch flower and plant stall which sells the perfect selection of gifts for green-fingered relatives.
Stop For Afternoon Tea, complete with Christmas Cheer
High tea is a big deal in Belfast and there is no better place to treat yourself in the city centre than by entering the warm embrace of Belfast’s grand dame of hotels, The Merchant. Set in a grand Victorian former bank, the plush yet cosy surroundings of the hotel are a great place to enjoy some Christmas decadence. The traditional high tea is served in the newly gilded space aptly called The Great Room, which could give The Ritz a run for its money.
Finger sandwiches including roasted turkey, stuffing and sage, plus warm cinnamon scones and home-baked mini mince pies are accompanied by the tinkling ivories of live festive piano music under the watchful eye of an enormous ornate Christmas tree, and all the while the smell of a real log fire fills the air. Christmas afternoon tea at the weekend also comes with a special Merchant tree decoration for you to take home, although you probably won’t want to go home after sampling the hotel’s knee-deep piled carpets and sterling silver tea service.
Belfast Christmas Shopping
Most shops in Belfast are open until 10pm on weekdays leading up to Christmas including those in Victoria Square.
High Tea at The Merchant
The Merchant Hotel’s afternoon tea is served Daily from 12-4.30pm
Monday to Wednesday – £22.50pp with live piano music
Thursday to Sunday – £29.50pp with seasonal gift for each guest and a live festive band
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