The Sunflower is one of many options for a great night out in Belfast | Courtesy of Sunflower Public House
Belfast is a great place for a night out – if you know where to go. When it comes to seeking out the coolest bars, no one can recommend a better venue for a drink and a dance than a local musician.
Duke Special is one of Belfast’s most important musicians; over the past two decades, he’s played in every venue and done everything from composing the Sesame Tree (the Irish version of Sesame Street) theme song to producing an album based entirely based on poems by Belfast contemporary poet Michael Longley. He tells Culture Trip what makes Belfast a perfect city for an artist and shares his favourite creative nightlife spaces.
“One of my all-time favourite places is the Empire Music Hall,” says Duke. “This is a fantastic venue to play but also really great to experience gigs.” The converted church on Botanic Avenue is popular among students, and it’s easy to see why. It covers three floors, but the main stage, where you will see the main acts perform, has a retro, music-hall feel. He recommends checking the line-up if you’re looking for a good night out in Belfast. “You’ll often get touring bands from Europe and the US but also some great home-grown talent and resident acts, like Ken Haddock, who’s a fantastic regular.” Head to the intimate downstairs to discover some great new music, enjoy a pint and soak up the atmosphere.
Though a crime-focused bookshop in the University Quarter might not be the most obvious candidate for a great night out in Belfast, Duke says this unassuming place is ideal for creatives seeking a night out with a twist. “It often puts on poetry nights, a mixture of readings but music too, and it has a nice relaxed atmosphere.” Comparing it to a record shop, he explains that “the team at No Alibis are big music fans and will often recommend music, or like to chat”. When there’s an event, the bookshelves are pushed aside, leaving a space big enough for a crowd of about 50 people to squeeze in, sip a glass of wine and appreciate some culture.
Moving away from the University Quarter and into the city centre, the Cathedral Quarter is the best place for a pub crawl. “Part of what makes Belfast such a great place to go out is to do with the size; you can travel from one end to the other. That means you can go to more than one place in an evening,” says Duke. The Duke of York, Dirty Onion and Thirsty Goat are lively, traditional bars that always have happy patrons spilling onto the cobbled streets outside. It’s well worth beginning any evening by simply wandering around and dipping into anywhere that takes your fancy. Most of the bars host local musicians, and all will have something to quench your thirst. With the average night out involving hopping from pub to pub, Duke explains that “another great thing about [Belfast] being so small is that out of necessity, the scene overlaps. You don’t have the same separation you can get in other places.”
Every Belfast resident has a favourite bar in the Cathedral Quarter, and Duke is no exception. “My best place to visit in the [area] is The Black Box.” Rooms here range from a quirky theatre-style bar with cosy armchairs to the main room where you can get down to “every kind of music”. It’s worth looking out for tickets when there is a festival on; as Duke says, “Belfast is a city of festivals”. One not to miss is the Brilliant Corners Jazz Festival, where The Black Box is a key venue.
Another Cathedral Quarter joint is The Spaniard, found slightly away from the main strip on Skipper Street. If you know where you are going, it’s easy to spot by the starry facade, giving the Spaniard a magical feel; it was originally painted as part of Hit the North Street Art Festival when the city becomes a temporary canvas for artists from around the world. It became the unofficial watering hole for the Game of Thrones cast and is the favourite haunt of celebrities visiting Belfast. It’s nearly impossible to get a seat downstairs, so you’ll likely be standing at the bar. However, when the upstairs is open, you can slouch into plush red chairs and enjoy the frequent live music. You can also order food from nearby trendy burger joint Pablos to eat inside and enjoy over 50 kinds of rum from an extensive but affordable cocktail list.
Another essential bar to visit is the Sunflower Public House. “It’s close to the art college and has a lot of folk nights, gypsy jazz, poetry readings and a generally quirky atmosphere. On Wednesdays, John McSherry does piping sessions, which I think are well worth those not local to Belfast going to experience,” says Duke. You can’t get Guinness at the Sunflower, but it has a great range of alternating craft beers. And you won’t go hungry at this venue. Duke points out that “in the smoking area outside, there is a huge pizza oven”, so you don’t have to wander far to find something to fill your stomach after a night out.
The Menagerie, just off Ormeau Road, is easy to miss – this former paint store could easily be mistaken for an old warehouse at first glance. That is until you notice the name spray-painted in white outside, and see the crowds of people entering for one of Belfast’s best nights out. “You go in and down a set of steps, and then it’s like you are in a completely different city. It’s the kind of club you get in Berlin, not really what people think of in Belfast,” says Duke. Head here to experience an unrivalled atmosphere and wall-shaking live music.