This guide is one that is close to my heart. I grew up in Northern Ireland although moved to London at the age of 18 to study and never returned. Despite living in England now for more of my life than I spent in N.Ireland, I think you always have a special connection with the place you spent your childhood, and I couldn’t be more proud of how my birthplace has faced adversity and emerged the other side stronger than ever. Northern Ireland resident and 91 contributor Alena Walker shares her fondness for the country too, along with her hot tips for where to shop, eat, drink and stay, accompanied by photographs taken by Ruth Kelly.
It often takes leaving a country and returning for you to truly appreciate it. In my case, this is a well-suited sentiment to reflect how I feel about my home country of Northern Ireland. It’s taken several stints of living elsewhere to return with a fondness for recognising what’s unique only to NI. It’s a country full of character and goodwill, that winks under stories of myth and legend, and where war-torn strongholds still exist decades after the Troubles.
Northern Ireland, in many ways, is a diamond in the rough of its own history, but time, as always, is a great healer. Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly less defined by its political backdrop, and in lieu of conflict, the energy and enthusiasm of the country’s entrepreneurs is thriving. Rural towns are regenerated by the efforts of independent businesses who have a passion for craftsmanship, artisanal wares and seasonal offerings. The quality of NI’s produce is exquisite and there’s a palpable synergy between businesses who commit to their community by choosing to support local.
I recommend you set some time aside to enjoy the coastal route of the North Coast, where you can journey on roads which wind perilously over steep cliff drops and past the crumbling ruins of ancient castles. You can travel the country’s length and breadth in under two hours in either direction and this accessibility – to even the most remote corners – is a type of magic that charms its way into your heart, owing entirely to its magnificent landscape.
Here, I detail the very best places to please the eye and soothe the soul.
It’s easy to deny the brisk winds of the North Atlantic when you’re sitting in the comfort of Babushka, peering out over the sandy stretch of the West Strand, where it makes for the perfect post-walk spot. Babushka is a cosy nook – a snug 25-seater – where you can enjoy the company of excellent food and specialty coffee. They serve brunch dishes all day and offer an ever-evolving menu of weekend specials, with recent additions like carrot cake pancakes and slow-braised beef in soy and miso. All dishes are served on locally crafted pottery, making the smallest of touches an experience all of its own. Each season is marked by a calendar of pop-up events, such as BBQ evenings or candlelit dinner nights offering small plates and natural wines.
BTS Concept Store, Coleraine
BTS stands for “beside the sea” and much of this concept store loans its inspiration from the natural textures and tones of the seaside. There’s an air of Nordic cool that permeates the store’s aesthetic and owner, Tracy McAllister, has an exceptional eye for stocking gorgeous design. You can find larger pieces for a statement stand-alone purchase, choosing from lampshades, lockers or rugs, or you can browse for more intimate pieces from a curation of objects and brands which aren’t usually found in NI, including publications like 91 Magazine.
Lost & Found, Coleraine & Portstewart
Lost & Found is an independent eatery and coffee shop located in two locations. Their first shop is directly opposite BTS Concept Store in Coleraine, marked by its sea-green shop front and bay windows. Their second shop is nestled near the water’s edge in the sleepy beach town of Portstewart. Here, you can enjoy a view that overlooks the Strand’s sand-dunes and lapping coastline. Lost & Found’s ethos is “fresh and simple”; simple done well and with ingredients that are keenly sourced from home-grown producers. Enjoy their weekly specials and exceptional espresso in spaces where the light catches just right.
Ursa Minor Bakery, Ballycastle
Ballycastle is located on the coastal tip of the North Coast and is flanked by the rolling hills of the Glens, classed as an Area of Outstanding Beauty. Ursa Minor Bakery, a resident on Ann Street, is where owners, Ciara & Dara O’hArtghaile, offer a vegetarian menu and freshly baked everything. Ursa Minor is both a bakehouse and a coffee shop, and regularly hosts Supper Clubs and sourdough baking classes. The interiors are calming, if not slightly dream-inducing, with walls that are filled with eclectically framed prints and paintings, providing the perfect excuse to soak it up and steal a moment for a little longer.
The Bothy Coffee Shop, White Park Bay & Mallusk
The Bothy has set up shop in two locations, with a roastery based in their Mallusk store. Their White Park Bay shop lends itself well to feeling like a beach shack, which makes for a perfect hideaway from the myriad of unpredictable weather guaranteed to batter the coastline. Enjoy their woodfired pizza, pancake stacks or warming mugs of homemade soup. The Bothy has partnered with a family coffee producer in Nariño, Columbia and buy their coffee beans directly to roast in-house.
Tucked off Belfast’s Lisburn Road, Maven is a purveyor of luxury and craftsmanship, stocking brands which are both conceptually brilliant and captivating by design. Sisters and tastemakers, Catherine and Patricia McGinnis, curate Scandinavian and Irish products that unite at the intersection between practical and beautiful. Choose from handcrafted porcelain cups or stoneware pourers; soy wax candles with cotton-core wicks or natural fabrics like jacquard-woven rugs or plant-dyed Irish linen. To shop at Maven is to savour the small and considered details, as a cheerful reminder that everyday items can be stunning.
Coffee x Cactus, Belfast
Caffeine and cacti lovers rejoice! Coffee x Cactus, situated in Maven, is your one-stop shop for coffee and plants, serving locally roasted coffee and selling just about every type of potted plant a green-fingered fiend can dream of. Enjoy their verdant offering alongside a menu that supports other independent businesses, with cakes & bakes from Grain & Co., sourdough from The Grateful Bread and cheeses from Mike’s Fancy Cheese. Each plant purchased comes with its own ‘how-to-care’ card so your new plant babies can thrive.
Root & Branch, Ormeau Road & Portview Mill, Belfast
You can visit Root & Branch at one of their three locations across Belfast. You can visit their base at Portview Mill where the open plan roastery and coffee bar is an excellent setting to soak up their expertise in coffee chemistry. Their location at Ormeau Baths is situated in an old Victorian Bath house and their main shop on Ormeau Road, housed in 120-year old building, is home to their coffee bar and brunch/lunch menu. Sip on espresso and feast on dishes where seasonal ingredients are imaginatively constructed in unexpected ways. You can buy freshly baked Bara Bakehouse sourdough or your favourite origin of their retail coffee, which is sold in reusable cans.
Refill Quarter, Belfast
From powders and spices, to herbs and coffee, you can bring your own containers to get food and household refills at Refill Quarter, Belfast’s first zero-waste store. Shopping here is an exercise is being more conscious – buying exactly what you need, right down to the last gram, while avoiding single-use and food waste. Refill Quarter offers package-free liquids, including sparkling water, all-purpose cleaner and organic syrups, alongside vegan treats like peanut butter cups and jelly sweet mix. If you bought retail coffee at Root & Branch, you can come here to refill the packaging with a choice of two origins which can be ground for your desired brew method.
f your vibe is vintage, then American Madness is calling your name. Established in 1981, American Madness is the place to go for classic styles, where you can browse their selection of records, books and magazines. You can find 1980’s French work trousers in blue cotton canvas, 1970’s chore jackets, double-knee work trousers, army liner jackets or Dickies carpenter pants. If your style is a little less utilitarian, you can find Levi’s denim, Wrangler shirts, Carhartt trucker jackets, vintage logo tees, old-school band tour t-shirts or settle for all-American university sweatshirts. Their shop is located at 2A Lena Street and it’s open every Saturday from 10am to 5pm, where you can shop products before they list them on their website.
Brent Cove, Strangford Lough
A stay in Northern Ireland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Strangford Lough. Indulge in a getaway stay at Brent Cove, a luxury Airbnb right on the shores, which is proudly LGBTQ friendly. The detached studio is south-facing and surrounded by the open expanse of the countryside, with panoramic views across the loch to the Mourne Mountains. Wake up to the sounds of rumbling waves and soothing calls from nature’s locals, like Brent geese, oystercatchers and curlew. Journey to the water’s hem, coffee or wine in hand, and bath in the stillness of the largest sea lough in the British Isles.
Conceptual spaces are what make ordinary moments, like refuelling your caffeine levels, that little more pleasing to the eye. Haptik is a contemporary coffee shop that houses art, brunch and coffee under one roof. The art on its walls are an eclectic mish-mash of local talent and each piece is available to purchase. Exposed brick and closely spaced tables make for an intimate visit where the food is stunning and their guest roasters, featuring the likes of Girls Who Grind and Friedhats, will excite many a coffee fanatic.
Wild Thing, Donaghadee
It wouldn’t be an Instagram guide without a plethora of beautiful plants to keep our cameras clicking merrily. “Wild your world” in Wild Thing and enjoy a coffee engulfed in a den of foliage. You can amble away the hours browsing what’s on sale, like a 1920’s Shepherd’s hook armchair, velvet cushions or plants of all shapes and sizes. Their delicately designed arrangements are bespoke and their dried flower bar is filled with blooms that are chemical, plastic and air-mile free. You’ll no doubt leave with a monstera or two.
So if you ever needed an excuse to visit the Emerald Isle, there are 13 reasons right there! As you can see the Northern Irish will not let you go short on caffeine or cake! 🙂