The Belfast Children's Festival should be high up on your travel bucket list – and here's why
The perfect family weekend.
I have always loved to travel – be it months-long backpacking-across South-East Asia adventures or city mini breaks much closer to home – visiting new places and exploring sights and streets I haven't seen before.
I did a lot of it –travelling – in my early 20s. Often barely arriving home from one adventure before planning the next. And I remember worrying about it, when I first had children – would this mean my travelling days had come to an end? Would things be very different now, travelling with young children in tow? And if this is you, right now, wondering about whether or not you should travel with your kids when they are young, whether it is more hassle than it's worth – let me assure you of this: Just do it.
Take your kids and go. You will discover travel and holidays in a whole new way. You will see everthing differently. You will make family memories you'll treasure forever. And even if your kids are still so young you are not even sure they will remember the trip in years to come, know this: You are building family bonds. You are opening up their minds and hearts. You are (hopefully) passing your love of travel on to them. So go on – book that trip, catch that flight, jump on that train, pack up the car and head off. You are about to have an amazing adventure.
As luck would have it, I now (to an extent anyway) get to make a living from writing about (among other things) travelling. I have previously written about how amazing a city Belfast is for a city break (seriously – if you haven't been yet, what are you waiting for?!), and recently, I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Belfast Children's Festival – meaning I got to visit with my family in tow and explore the capital of Northern Ireland and this festival through the eyes of my excited kids – and it turned into a weekend I know none of us will forget in a hurry.
The best thing? Belfast is literally on our doorstep – a mere couple of hours away, and you don't even have to endure any stressful airports at all to get there. As for us, we just jumped on the Enterprise train (who wants to drive when you can sink back into a train seat with a latte and stack of magazines?) and voila – in just two short hours, we were there, ready to start our weekend.
The Belfast Children's Festival, of you haven't experienced it for yourself yet, consists of a packed programme of theatre, visual art, music, dance, literature, workshops and talks, guaranteed to inspire joy, creativity and curiosity. The festival is currently in its 21st year, and is a popular outing for families in Northern Ireland – and visitors from the Republic and elsewhere too. And it's easy to see why.
Having checked into our hotel we were ready to take in both the city and the festival, which was already in full swing with a variety of events happening across the city.
We made our way over to the MAC, Belfast's home of international art exhibitions, the best live theatre, top shows and events, where we grabbed a quick lunch before checking out Acoustic Picnic at the Oh Yeah Music Centre (where my little boy decided he wants to be in a band when he grows up...) and the Baby Rave which took place in the magnificent St. Anne's Cathedral. My very arty and creative 8-year-old had to be bribed in the end to get her away from the many arts- and craft stations, where she helped write parts of The Longest Story Ever Told, made a fairy garden and constructed an entire bouquet of paper flowers – to mention a few.
Back the the MAC, we took our seats in the Downstairs Theatre for Oorlog, a show by Theatre Artemis, a Dutch threatre group. Having been to the cinema on many (many) occasions, I think my children have only ever been to the threatre a handful of times before – and so it is needless to say that they found this incredibly exciting. The show itself was brilliant, and kept us on the edge of our seats. Once the show was finished, we swung by yet another Belfast Children's Festival happening – an amazing exhibition called 'Home' – where children from eight different primary schools had been let explore what the meaning of the word 'home' really is.
Tip: If it has been a while since your last visit to Belfast, don't miss the Cathedral Quarter when you go, be it for the festival or any other time.
Trying to see as much of the festival program as possible, our schedule for our weekend trip was pretty packed, but when you travel with children, maybe one of the most important lessons you'll learn is that sometimes things don't go exactly to plan – and that you need to schedule in some slow time too. We did just that after our busy morning, indulging in a lovely hour of chilled-out pool time before heading out for dinner – because to kids, staying in a hotel with a pool, well, that means you have to get in the pool, doesn't it..?
The next morning, we headed to one of my very favourite Belfast spots, the Ulster Museum. And parents – if your kids are in any way interested in dinosaurs, which mine absolutely are, you need to make this place happen for them – because they will love it. Because of the festival, the lobby at the Ulster Museum had been converted into a gigantic art- and crafts centre, where children were busy taking part in Da Vinci themed workshops- making dragon masks, flying machines, exploring anatomy and much more based on the works of the great master of Italian art.
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Having made some masks to take home (and spent ages exploring the cool gift shop!) we did the museum's impressive dinosaur trail, exploring our way through the museum looking for bones, fossils and dinos, ticking them off on our sheet as we went, in true scavenger hunt fashion. This, I will argue, is a bit of a must experience if you happen to be visiting Belfast with children in tow.
Right beside the Ulster Museum lies the stunning Botanic Gardens, Palm House and Tropical Ravine, which we also paid a visit too – but that due to the snow(!) starting to fall we didn't quite get to explore as much as we wanted to. But hey – that's just another reason to come back to Belfast, as far as I'm concerned.
I don't know about you, but one of my favourite things to do when travelling or visiting new cities, is to explore markets and food halls, so there wasn't a chance I was going to be in Belfast without paying a visit to the gorgeous St George’s Market, one of the city's oldest attractions. St George’s Market was built between 1890 and 1896 and is known as one of the best markets in all of the UK and Ireland. And not only that, St George’s Market has been voted for numerous local and national titles and awards for its fresh, local produce and great atmosphere. It holds a weekly Friday Variety Market, the City Food and Craft Market on Saturdays and the Sunday Market.
Having dragged my children through the market and oohh-ed and aahh-ed at all the lovely things (as you do), we dashed across town (luckily, Belfast city centre is compact and so easy to get around) to catch another Belfast Children's Festival event, the play Milo's Hat Trick at the Lyric Theatre. Again, I had feared about my 5-year-old's ability to sit still for any length of time like that, and again, I needen't have worried – he was enthralled from start to finish.
Getting back on the train to Dublin that evening, I was once again reminded of just how lovely and important it is to travel with your kids. Full of impressions and awe and joy from our trip, our conversation on the way back was a whole lot of "remember this" and "wasn't it funny when..." and "my favourite was..." – and I love it. I love sharing journeys with them, trips, travels. New places and cities and counries – and I hope they will keep loving sharing these things with me.
Belfast: Eat and stay
To make it even easier for you if you fancy heading up to Belfast any time soon, here are a check-list of places we visited, ate and stayed at – all of which were truly great and memorable:
The MAC café bar is open daily from 8.30am until late, serving quality coffee, delicious breakfast, lunch menu and full bar.
Oozing rustic Italian charm with a contemporary edge, Fratelli Ristorante, Pizzeria and Bar serves traditional Italian dishes in a family friendly setting in the heart of the city. Fratelli Belfast is the latest offering by the company behind Northern Ireland’s award- winning Galgorm Resort and Spa.
The Barking Dog
Elegant, modern restaurant offering innovative gastropub-style menu and tapas, plus a set menu deal.
We stayed at the 4* Clayton Hotel Belfast, perfectly located within the Linen Quarter of Belfast city centre, ideal for visiting the Titanic Exhibition, a night out at the Cathedral Quarter or shopping at Victoria Square. The hotel also has a leisure club and swimming pool.
For more information and tips about Belfast and Northern Ireland, visit DiscoverNorthernIreland.com