You could say Belfast wears its art and culture on its sleeve. The city’s cultural life is apparent and available as soon as you hit town. Take the wonderful mix of festivals that crop up virtually all year round. As well as the grandaddy of them all, the Belfast International Arts Festival, that has passed its half century and showcased everyone including Jimi Hendrix, there are at least a dozen others.
They range from the Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival in February/March, where big names such as Paul Brady and indeed Donovan have headlined, to the mainly sub-continental fusion that is the Mela in August, the Belfast Film Festival (April), Young at Art children’s arts festival (March), the Belly Laughs Festival in late autumn plus the Cathedral Quarter Festival in May.
There’s also its wonderful baby brother, the Out to Lunch Festival, where at the start of the year you can balance a dish of Irish stew or veggie lasagne in the Black Box while Fairport Convention defines folk-rock or three Irish stand-ups who were all in Father Ted perform as, inevitably, Further Ted.
Other highlights include the Festival of Fools in late spring, when clowns take over the town, Outburst, Belfast’s Queer Arts Festival in November, the Belfast Books Festival and the Feile an Phobail, the West Belfast festival founded in the 1980s and now celebrating 30 years of sometimes controversial existence.
Running in August, it highlights that community’s creative spirit and nowadays big names like UB40 and ex-Frankie goes to Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson top the bill as well as star opinion makers from Jeremy Corbyn to local politicians at the inimitable West Belfast Talks Back event.
You can balance a dish of Irish stew in the Black Box while Fairport Convention defines folk-rock or three Irish stand-ups who were all in Father Ted perform as, inevitably, Further Ted
The newer Eastside Belfast Arts Festival does the same for its community each September, and local boy Van Morrison celebrated receiving the freedom of the city with a free concert. Dip into the International Festival in October if you can as it regularly offers music by top-class performers like Jose Carreras, radical plays (recently a meditation on Europe, Africa and immigration) contemporary dance work, an impressive talks programme and less mainstream offerings like the 24-Decade History of Popular Music by American political singer and drag artist Taylor Mac.
And if you like rock, you mustn’t miss the great Belsonic Festival in August which fills its new Ormeau Park venue with the sounds of classy bands like Green Day and world class acts like Chic and Fatboy Slim. Plus there’s theatre. Belfast has always punched above its weight here, and recently granted the freedom of the city to local boy made very good Sir Kenneth Branagh.
At the Grand Opera House, a gorgeously OTT Italian Gothic building, you’ll be entertained by a varied programme, including a revival of brilliant but broad political comedy in the Give My Head Peace live show with Tim McGarry et al, and touring shows by The National Theatre. The Opera House also shows musicals such as Beautiful – the Carole King Story, ballet by English National Ballet, and London shows.
At the Lyric Theatre, whose award-winning architecture overlooks the River Lagan, you’ll find productions of Irish classics as well as new plays exploring Northern Irish identity, versions of European classics like Marie Jones’ take on Tartuffe, music by the likes of talented local performer Duke Special and Lyric productions of Shakespeare. But the richness of the arts scene in Belfast doesn’t end there.
The MAC building, a kind of arts factory that opened in 2012, provides cutting-edge music, visual art and theatre. They’ve shown acclaimed productions of shows like Ring, which the audience experienced via headphones and in total darkness, plus art work made about the Troubles’ legacy. There’s often a topicality about the shows and the theatrical version of Trainspotting was shown soon after the appearance of Danny Boyle’s second Glaswegian outing.
At the Grand Opera House, a gorgeously OTT Italian Gothic building, you’ll be entertained by a varied programme
The art is world class and has ranged from a glitzy Warhol exhibition to work by Slovenian conceptual artist Jasmina Cibic (winner of the MAC’s inaugural arts prize) and a truly massive Gilbert and George show, SCAPEGOATING PICTURES for Belfast.
You have to investigate the ground floor foyer, reminiscent of buildings on London’s South Bank, as the concrete walls with an imprint of tree bark are unusual enough to attract ‘concrete heads’ from across the province. Apart from the festivals and drama, Belfast is on the touring circuit for most top musicians with venues like the big stadium SSE Arena and the smaller scale Waterfront attracting significant talent.
Picking at random from recent gems, the city has played air guitar to The Who, raved about bands and stars like Little Mix and Neil Diamond and Robbie Williams, not forgetting local talent such as Andrea Begley from The Voice.
If film is your thing, you’re in luck as Belfast boasts an impressive indie movie theatre in the Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT), set in a Georgian terrace near the University. Northern Ireland is having a bit of a movie renaissance and Terry George’s Oscar-winning film, The Shore, was premiered here.
Belfast is on the touring circuit for most top musicians with venues like the big stadium SSE Arena and the smaller scale Waterfront
The wide-ranging QFT programme includes foreign films like Glory and The Shape of Water, the best home-grown independent titles and work from the quirky mainstream. This is also the place to enjoy the National Theatre Live productions from London. Visual art isn’t neglected, either. At the Ulster Museum you can see classic works by James Arthur O’Connor and Frank O’Meara and exhibitions like Goya’s disturbing work, Disasters of War.
The Weeping Window World War One ceramic poppy installation was shown here, but all round you there is also fantastic new public art demanding attention. Dan George’s The Spirit of Belfast outside Victoria Square, a kind of steel puzzle with intersecting circles that cost £200,000, has, like most local art, been given a nickname and is known as the onion rings.
The joyous large metal girl with a hoop near the Albert Bridge, actually Andy Scott’s Ring of Thanksgiving, is affectionately known as the ‘Nuala with a hula’ (hoop). Some of the new pieces reflect Belfast’s heritage, like the nautical copper-clad memorials to long-gone ships including, of course, the Titanic, running up the beginning of Royal Avenue next to Marks and Spencer. Lit up at night, this work inserts a jagged piece of the city’s boat-building background into the city centre.
And in St Patrick’s Church, worth a visit anyway as one of the finest Victorian Romanesque churches in Belfast, you will find a beautiful portrait by society painter Sir John Lavery of the Madonna and child, based on his wife Hazel and stepdaughter, flanked by St Brigit and St Patrick, which shimmers with Celtic Christianity. Terry Bradley is one of Belfast’s most commercially successful artists, specialising in caricature portraits of painted ladies and East Belfast dockers, and his work is on show at the Eakin Gallery in the Lisburn Road, the gallery sector of Belfast. One of the newer galleries, Hallows Gallery in the Ormeau Road, specializes in traditional Irish landscapes.
At the Ulster Museum you can see classic works by James Arthur O’Connor and Frank O’Meara and exhibitions like Goya’s disturbing work, Disasters of War
Lovers of classical music will want to catch a concert by the brilliant Ulster Orchestra, regulars on BBC Radio 3, whose home is the historic city centre Ulster Hall. They put on a programme of evening and lunchtime concerts here under dynamic chief conductor Rafael Payare among others.
Coincidentally, this is where Led Zeppelin first performed Stairway to Heaven. Opera NI present thought-provoking productions of the canon but new director Walter Sutcliffe, who began with his version of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, looks set to shake things up. With the death of Seamus Heaney, interest has focused on the group of Belfast poets who came to prominence in the 1960s, which included Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson and Derek Mahon.
Belfast also announced its first poet laureate recently, the multi award-winning Sinead Morrissey. There is a vibrant open mic and poetry slam scene centring on regular events in the Crescent Arts Centre and other venues.
Everything you need to know about Belfast
Where to eat in Belfast
The best things to do in Belfast
The best shopping in Belfast
The best nightlife in Belfast