Belfast has a thriving student community well-versed in engaging with the most creative and culturally diverse parts of the city without splashing a lot of cash. Here, they share their best tips on how to enjoy Northern Ireland’s capital on a budget.
A city break in Belfast can be a wallet-friendly option if you know where to go and what to do. Queen’s University students share their best money-saving recommendations for bars, restaurants and unusual attractions with Culture Trip to create a comprehensive guide to the city on a budget.
Belfast is well known for its great bar scene, but you don’t need to break the bank to have a brilliant night out. Rory Smith, a politics student from England, says that one of his favourite places to hang out after a long day is at Belfast’s oldest family-run pub and one of the city’s mega-bars, Lavery’s on Bradbury Place. You’ll often find owner Bernard Lavery at the bar sharing a drink and the craic with the regulars. “Then you go upstairs, and it’s a huge pool hall filled with students under a disco ball,” says Smith. “Go through another door, and it’s a sort of outdoor tree house. Down some stairs, and you’re in The Woodworkers, one of Belfast’s best craft beer places.”
Smith explains that he spent a good portion of his degree here (after classes, of course) working on his pool and drinking craft beer. “[Lavery’s] changes the menu regularly, so ask for some tasters if you aren’t sure what you want, but a good Northern Irish brewery is Randalstown.”
The evening often ends at The Filthy Quarter – one of Belfast’s mega-bars – which has quirky decor that defies the name. Hop between Filthy McNastys, Filthy Chic and The Gypsy Lounge, or chill in the colourful two-storey beer garden. Another favourite for those looking to step out of the traditional clubs is Cuckoo on Lisburn Road; this quirky arcade bar offers cheap deals on drinks and fun events, such as Rockaoke on Tuesdays.
Like many pubs in Ireland, Belfast’s bars often host jamming sessions. Amy Murray, a music student, recommends Sunflower Public House; it has an area specifically designated for musicians to come and play together, creating ad-hoc concerts for those eager to explore the city’s musical heritage.
Visitors who want to give it a go themselves, she says, are in luck. “Belfast can be very open to musicians at all levels,” Murray says, making it the perfect place to learn an instrument. On Tuesday nights, visitors can drop into The Dirty Onion for a free bodhràn (Irish drum) lesson from 8pm, taught by Rohan Young. “You just go to the back of the pub and sit in a circle playing; he guides you based on the level you are working at,” she says. “By the end of the night, you are performing to the whole pub! I even bought my own bodhràn drum to practice at home – and I’m actually pretty good at it!” If you aren’t musically gifted, it’s still well worth a pub crawl to watch the musical improvisations.
If there’s one thing hungry students know how to do, it’s to find delicious food on a budget. Culture Trip finds biomedical student Alan Clarke standing in the Saturday morning queue for Maggy Mays on Malone Road. “You have to try the Ulster Fry at least once; it’s a student right of passage,” he says. It’s not hard to see why. The hearty breakfast includes hash browns, pancakes, soda bread, sausages, bacon and no less than two eggs. It may be “a heart attack on a plate”, but at an affordable £7, it’s a beloved hangover cure for students to munch on while reminiscing about the night before. However, the quality and affordability of the food draw in a non-student clientele as well, so you won’t feel out of place even if your university days are long behind you. You can’t pay with a card in Maggy Mays, so make sure you bring cash.
Botanic Avenue is a well-trodden street for those looking for cheap eats. Umi Falafel is a firm favourite; the trendy but casual diner has open-plan tables for groups or communal dining. “The lunch deal with batata harra [a Lebanese potato dish] is a great portion and more than enough for lunch,” says law student Carum Basra. He also recommends indulging in the halloumi fries, which are paired with a mango dip for what he calls a “delicious mix of salty and sweet”. In the area, diners can also discover Belfast’s favourite burrito joint Boojum and the graffiti-plastered interior of Tribal Burger, which both have large portions, big flavours and loyal followings.
While studying drama in Belfast, Becky Hughes started her blog The Nifty Thrifter when she became increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of fast fashion; she now hosts clothes swaps at the Lyric Theatre and participates in panels on sustainable fashion. Belfast is a great place to pick up some second-hand gems, she says. “If you’re into vintage, Octopus’s Gardens and Red Cross Vintage and Retro are both affordable and stock the coolest garms!” There’s also a whole host of charity shops lining Botanic Avenue and Lisburn Road. Hughes recommends visitors looking for a souvenir with a difference to “take a good couple of hours out of your day to thrift, so you’re able to completely focus on what you’re looking for.”
Though Belfast may not be as ethnically diverse as some other capital cities, international students and visitors can still find a taste of home if they know where to look. For excellent dim sum and tea, Chinese student Xeujing Wang recommends the Hong Kong dim sum at Lee Garden. At midday, the restaurant is packed with people enjoying authentic but very affordable dishes, with prices starting at just £3 for pork dumplings. For international students in the city, Wang says, ”It makes you feel more at home.”
Nearby Donegall Pass is the best place for international treats and grocery shopping. Vrinda Bhardwaj recommends stopping at Spicy World; “a small Indian grocery store, exactly the kind of thing you get in Delhi,” and Kam Yuan serves up Belfast’s best sweet buns.
The weather in Belfast isn’t great, and where better to escape the rain than the cinema? The city has a wealth of internationally renowned filmmakers and film festivals. The Beanbag Cinema, in the Cathedral Quarter, is a key venue for the Belfast Film Festival; here, visitors lounge on beanbags to watch the latest films before mainstream release.
Recent film graduate Elsa Hunter Weston, who is now producing documentaries for BBC Arts, shares one of her favourite cinemas in the city – the Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT), which shows indie films all year, with prices starting at £4. She recommends film enthusiasts check out QFT’s programme, especially for its monthly event called SCREEN/PRINT, hosted in conjunction with the Naughton Gallery and local illustrators. “Everyone that attends the screening of the artists’ favourite film gets a hand-illustrated poster,” Weston says, showing off her collection. “I like it because the only people in the world that have that poster were those who watched the film on that day.”
To soak up some rare sun, head to Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. Situated next to the library, it’s a highlight for many Belfast students, as media student Alison Totten explains. “I walk through the gardens every day, for a couple of seconds of peace and beauty, before I’m stuck inside.” Take a few hours to wander through the picturesque Palm House and the Tropical Ravine. There are free tours of both places at 2pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11am on Wednesdays, 10.30am on Saturdays and 1.30pm on Sundays.
To continue your culture kick on a budget, the Ulster Museum is a nearby favourite that offers free entry and is a must-visit for visitors looking to understand Belfast’s sometimes-fraught history. “The ground level gives you an insight into the more recent cultural history of Northern Ireland and the Troubles that I think anyone studying at Queen’s would benefit from, but especially those not from here,” history student Charlotte Newman says. Her other highlights of the museum include the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in 1976 for the Peace People, but she also notes that, “the Game of Thrones tapestry is very popular!”