Travel is one part ritual and one part adventure. For social media nomads like Kait VanHoff, the sweet spot—read: that perfect photo opp, the memorable exchange, or an unexpected souvenir—lies somewhere between the two.
For VanHoff’s latest advenure—a trip to Belfast, a bustling city in Northern Ireland—she invited ELLE.com along for the ride.
Seasoned travelers suggest looking beyond where to go when planning your itinerary, and instead, honing in on what you want to do when you get there. It’s how travel pros like VanHoff get to know a new city, and switching up how you look at your next trip will help you find richer experiences, discover local gems, and engage with people who call that area home. Belfast has all of that in spades, with an arresting mix of city and country and beyond-friendly locals.
Here, how VanHoff’s top travel recommendations play out in Belfast.
Immerse yourself in Belfast’s city center by staying at a boutique hotel.
The Bullitt Hotel is a trendy boutique hotel that offers yoga amongst its many offerings (in a rooftop space with a gorgeous view of the city to boot). And while exercise may be the last thing you’re thinking about while on vacation, VanHoff’s reason for incorporating it into her Belfast trip is pretty convincing.
“I’m a huge believer in adventure and travel, but I also love balance, and I try to still have a morning routine,” VanHoff says. She looks for local studios or books a hotel, like the Bullitt, where it’s on the menu.
“It’s a great way to meet people and jump into the culture,” she adds. “It just makes you feel more like a local than a traveler passing through.”
Explore Belfast’s city streets by foot or bike to get the lay of the land.
“Being able to see Belfast by foot or bike is an experience in and of itself,” VanHoff says. Taking the long route allowed her to stumble into alleys, squares, and little gems you’d miss if you were only traveling by the major thoroughfares. Luckily, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is packed with all sorts of charming areas to discover (including an impressive array of street art).
“It’s two separate experiences and a really easy way to dive into the culture. Put your feet onto the ground and immerse yourself.”
After you’ve discovered the Cathedral Quarter, there’s lots more to explore: Belfast has seven quarters in all, each with unique sights and energies.
Shop and eat locally at places like Belfast’s St. George’s Market.
If you’ve been to one souvenir shop, you may as well have been to them all—magnets, tees, and some form of a coffee-drinking vessel abound. Instead, consider shopping the studios of local artisans or hitting up a farmer’s market (a bonus for travelers like VanHoff who try to eat healthy, even on the road) for a literal flavor of the city you’re in.
On her trip to Belfast, VanHoff got a primer on local cheeses and butters at the famous St. George’s Market and an interesting take on the city’s pop culture scene by visiting vintage shop Octupus’s Garden.
“There was everything from clothes to shoes to records and everything in between. It was cool to see the style that’s being recycled there,” she says. Find out what a region is known for and ask locals for recommendations to discover gems that travel guides might not have hit on yet (and leave extra room in your luggage for souvenirs).
Get lofty views for a sense of the city layout by hiking Cave Hill.
Cave Hill is a do-able drive from Belfast and an easy enough walk (AKA you don’t need to lug hiking boots in your luggage to make it work). It’s an appealing way to get up into the air and fully grasp Belfast’s sprawl. “I love the active aspect of it,” VanHoff says. If you have extra days to play with, consider exploring the Causeway Coastal Route. Starting in Belfast, it’s 120 miles of scenic driving that shows off more of the countryside.
If you prefer taking in the view with a drink in hand, find a spot with a pretty rooftop perch like the Bullitt’s top-floor space. It’s another option for visually mapping out the flow of the city.
Ask Belfast locals for nightlife suggestions.
It’s hard to say you’ve truly taken the pulse of a city until you’ve experienced it both day and night. In Belfast, street art and farmer’s market shopping give way to a vibrant live music scene that VanHoff knew she’d wanted to check out before even touching down. Similarly, small theater productions and pubs are a prime opportunity to meet locals and plot out the next leg of your trip. No matter what, be flexible.
“I [always know] specific things that I’d like to see, but I try not to be strict with an itinerary. Once I’m talking to a local and they suggest a place, I always want to check that out or go with the flow on some things.” A suggestion after she’d already arrived is how VanHoff ended up seeing Deaf Havana at Limelight.
Photographer: Jay Kolsch; 1st Assistant / Digi Tech: Luke Hall; Video Producer / Director: Josh K. Brede; Production Manager: Colin Olsen; Associate Producer: Carrie Tate; Cinematographer: Joe Gherardi; 1st Assistant Camera: Josh Reyes: Wardrobe Stylist: Elizabeth Fonseca; Hair / Makeup: Lisa McConville; Audio: Chris Woodcock; Key Production Assistant: Niamh O’Sullivan; Production Assistant: Adam McMahon; Production Assistant: Ray Grennan