The range of shops in Belfast is, square foot for square foot, as good as that in major retail centres like London, Manchester or Birmingham. But what makes women (and men) jet over for a couple of days’ retail therapy is the relaxed nature of the shopping experience here.
As one fashion-mad shopper said, “You can grab some quality make-up at Space NK, head to the goodie bag that’s Victoria Square via Royal Avenue. Then it’s lunch or a drink at The Ivory without the Oxford Street crowds and hassle. And in the afternoon it’s a trip up the Lisburn Road”. She’s right. Anybody heading into the city centre looking for clothes for adults or kids, make-up, designer chocolate, vinyl or a hundred and one other things, including an exotic pet, will find they’re well catered for.
Starting in Royal Avenue, where many visitors do after touring the City Hall, there is a variety of nice shops in which to browse happily, both chains and independents. If you need a new lippy, look no further than top end Space NK beauty boutique, which was founded by Belfast-born businesswoman Nicky Kinnaird, and specialises in on-trend looks, like the new eye shadow palette from Becca with mauve and sludgy browns, and skin treatments that make a difference. The customer service is good here and staff take time to explain new products.
Around the corner in Fountain Street there is a fun bag shop, GDI accessories, where the Radleys cost from £149, plus there are some great children’s toy shops, and an attractive Waterstones with a nice cafe if you want some brain food or to attend a literary event.
One shop you mustn’t miss here is Sawers, Belfast’s famous deli which caters for those with a penchant for outre food. Kopi lupak aka cat poop coffee? They’ve got it covered, and cocoa-dusted amaretti as accompaniment. But they also stock caviar, foie gras and the best ripe Roquefort in town, endless pates and delicacies like Young Buck cheddar from Newtownards, and are so popular they’ve doubled their floor space. You might want to invest in one of their hampers or drink a coffee outside.
You can grab some quality make-up at Space NK, head to the goodie bag that’s Victoria Square via Royal Avenue. Then it’s lunch or a drink at The Ivory without the Oxford Street crowds and hassle
Back in Royal Avenue, there is a sizeable Marks and Spencer with a basement food store, a cafe and a nice homeware department. High street stores in the vicinity range from Next and Zara to a big Boots with a good range of perfumes, River Island and a massive Eason’s for stationery, magazines and papers, and books. They also run a programme of author events. The newest outlet at this end of the street is Spanish-owned Stradivarius, which offers fashion at almost bargain basement prices with a sense of style.
Then you reach what is the jewellery quarter of central Belfast. On your left is the glorious Queen’s Arcade, a must-visit passageway of luxe shops and boutiques dating from 1910 with the Queen’s Bar and Cafe for refreshments after you’ve shopped.
Although 100 years younger than the Burlington Arcade, London, there is some of that atmosphere. Drop into Ernest Jones, which sells jewellery and watches, Lauren May, jewellery again, The Watch Store with Ray-Bans for when you’re on a summer visit, and opposite what you might dub the jewel in this crown, Lunn’s.
This family-run store is a local institution with its portfolio of diamonds, glorious retro pieces and goodies by Cartier and the rest. It’s the kind of shop that immediately opens the bubbly when you’re buying an engagement ring. It’s also worth visiting China Craft to check out one of Northern Ireland’s specialities, Belleek pottery. Turn back, and heading towards Cornmarket, there are more jewellers to suit all pockets, from Beaverbrooks to one of Belfast’s oldest gem merchants, Joseph Rea, that majors in affordable finery.
It’s important to make a detour now to Bedford Street to include Steensons, the independent goldsmiths and designers par excellence who even have a Game of thrones range of bold pieces. As you approach Victoria Square, you might like to investigate United Colors of Benetton, Lush for scented bath goodies and cosmetics, a nearby Dunnes, the Irish version of M&S, not to mention a handy Thornton’s for that sugar lift. Beyond the large modern sculpture where buskers will be entertaining a crowd, and just past Crabtree and Evelyn, you reach the Square itself.
Queen’s Arcade is a must-visit passageway of luxe shops and boutiques dating from 1910 with the Queen’s Bar and Cafe for refreshments after you’ve shopped
Premier shopping mall
This is Belfast’s premier shopping mall representing a £400 million investment and it now houses over 70 stores in a futuristic piece of architecture with its own dome, four levels of retail heaven and an Odeon cinema. If you’re into classic design, there are Hobbs and House of Fraser’s top end lines, if you want high street, there’s a happening Topshop, in between there are Coast and Monsoon, plus for stylish babies there is a Mamas and Papas, and wherever you look, there are clothes and shoes outlets to tempt the happy shopper.
Boux Avenue, for example, sells exquisite lingerie, with bras in a range of fittings plus swimwear and most other romantic things you might fancy. The serious couture outlet Rio & Brazil, one of Belfast’s oldest remaining independents, has just moved into expanded premises here. Featured labels include Claire Campbell (posh frocks and tops with unusual detail, £250-£500) and ‘fun Scandinavian’ designer Eva Kayan and while some items retail for £70, you should probably think of flexing the credit card.
The store includes Rio providing the men in your life with great designer gear. If you can tear yourself away and continue up Royal Avenue, you will find a good branch of Schuh and a lovely retro shop called Vintage. They stock clothes from the 60s onwards (definitely the place for a retro wedding dress) and some restored furniture, including attractive sofas.
In Lombard Street, parallel to Royal Avenue, there is a unique dress shop which specializes in feminine, unique dresses. And round the corner is a truly hippy outfit, Fresh Garbage, with an abundance of cool scarves and vintage gear. Belfast’s original 1980s shopping mall CastleCourt is just down from here. Behind the geometric architecture are over 70 shops, from a flagship Debenhams to Argos, Dorothy Perkins, jewellers Warren James, hairdressers and make-up stores and the only minor hitch, if you’re in a rush, is the spiel from the salespeople promoting everything from smoothies to mobiles.
If you’re into music, family-run McBirneys sells (and plays) all sorts of Irish music to passers by and is situated opposite the back entrance to CastleCourt. Vinyl enthusiasts should head back to Dragon Records in Wellington Place, near the City Hall. Non-chain store shoppers will simply love Co Couture in Chichester Street, suppliers of hand-made gourmet chocolates such as their award-winning Irish Whisky Truffle. There are a couple of tables so you can sup some very chocolatey hot chocolate if you like.
Wherever you look, there are clothes and shoes outlets to tempt the happy shopper
Nearby is the colourful Avoca providing folksy, fashionable home decor, clothes, toys and food. Before leaving the city centre, you should also investigate Una Rodden Couture for seriously glam outfits, often using bespoke materials like silks with characteristic urban Belfast motifs. The Lisburn Road caters well for ladies who lunch, and anybody else who wants to be on-trend. It calls itself the Style Mile, which is pretty accurate, and now boasts an Oliver Bonas so you don’t have to leave London for a golden cocktail trolley or perfect summer dress.
One of the over 30 fashion boutiques worth a visit is Jourdan, run by the indomitable Pat Jourdan who provides evening wear for not a few local celebrities. She stocks labels from Condici to Joseph Ribkoff. If you want girly fashion, go to Harrison, Clotheline and Evelin Brandt stock schmutter for sophisticates, while Hugo Thomas sell top end men’s fashion. For footwear, there is Carl Scarpa and ROJO, and among the classy clothes shops, there is a decent MaxMara, a Gerry Webber and Orchid Lingerie for exclusive undies.
Up the Ormeau Road, there are great charity shops, including new opening Concern International and the NI Hospice Charity Shop, as well as all those cafes for coffee and a bun. Out of town you have some good retail outfits such as the Junction near Ballymena. This is, in effect, a terrific one-stop bargain basement based on the US model where you can buy your favourite named brands, like Clarks, Gap, Nike, Pavers, Austin Reed and a host of others (they have around 70 shops) at big reductions on high street prices. There’s also a playground for the kids.
At Sprucefield in Lisburn, you can lose yourself in a vast Marks and Spencer, the largest of the seven in Northern Ireland which comes complete with a wine shop, food hall and home store plus a 120-seater licensed restaurant. Alongside is a Boots store and nearby Next and Sainsbury’s.
The Lisburn Road, the self-proclaimed ‘Style Mile’, caters well for ladies who lunch, and anybody else who wants to be on-trend
On the market
But for a genuinely retro retail experience, you should definitely visit St George’s Market at the weekend. The architecture dates from Belfast’s Victorian past but beneath the arches and behind the red brick, you’ll find some magnificent food stalls including butchers that sell well-priced lamb (sometimes hard to find here) plus the famous cheese stall, delicious breads at chef Simon Dougan’s impressive Yellow Door stand, and a great fishmongers. You can try the cheese before you buy, which is a bonus. They have other stalls, selling material, costume jewellery and knick knacks, and there is live music on Sunday morning.
But if you simply want a glimpse of old Belfast, you might like to whizz through Smithfield Market, behind CastleCourt. There are junk shops here, a cut price carpet outlet, a vinyl shop, a shop selling gardens in bottles and a watch repairer’s and opposite a magnificent old fashion sweet shop, Old Tyme Favourites.
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