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Belfast Is A Must-Visit In The UK For Music Lovers

When Lonely Planet declared Belfast the best place in the world to visit in 2018 it led to a few raised eyebrows, but as someone who’d visited and loved the city I greeted the news with a smile. A smile that was even wider as I headed back for another visit this year.

Over the past ten years the capital of Northern Ireland has reinvented itself, leaving the Troubles behind and becoming a city known for great food, top attractions including Titanic Belfast, and being the home of Game of Thrones.

It’s also a cracker of a city to visit if you’re into music. Of almost any kind.

Belfast has a history of music

 

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Northern Ireland’s music history ranges from 17th century harpists to ’70s punk bands, and acts that are appearing on stages around the world this year including Van Morrison, Ash, Snow Patrol and the Divine Comedy.

Belfast’s electronic music scene is also wickedly strong, and celebrated with a festival that mixes some of the world’s best DJs with emerging artists.

And when it comes to venues, boy do they have some stories to tell.

Take Ulster Hall. Built in 1862, this is the very spot where Led Zeppelin first performed ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in 1971. And while some other venues may share the Ulster Hall’s claim of having had The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Pink Floyd perform under their roof, you’re unlikely to find one that also had Charles Dickens reading A Christmas Carol on stage, as the great novelist did here in 1869.

This year the bands playing at Ulster Hall range from the Pixies to The Proclaimers, so you never know who’ll be playing when you’re in town.

A night on Belfast’s town

 

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The centre of Belfast nightlife, the Cathedral Quarter is where top restaurants, bars and pubs including The Dirty Onion and Duke of York are found down cobblestoned streets and alleyways covered in street art.

At more than 300 years old, The Dirty Onion is Belfast’s oldest building and they’ve not only managed to keep some of the original features, they’ve turned it into one of the city’s biggest beer gardens complete with a toasty peat fire.

Home to some of the best traditional Irish music in town, every night is free and includes harp music on Wednesdays, bluegrass sessions on Thursdays, and trad sessions by the fire on Saturdays and Sundays.

While sitting back and listening to the music with new friends and a pint of Guinness was more my speed, at The Dirty Onion you can also try your hand at playing traditional Irish instruments, with the pub offering free bodhrán (the original Irish drum) lessons, every Tuesday from 8 to 10pm.

Just across the road and down an alleyway dotted with flowerpots, The Duke of York manages to be bright and cosy at the same time, with its mix of original mirrors, memorabilia and old tiles.

As the plaque outside the door points out, this is where Snow Patrol played their first gig in 1998, and the pub still shares a mix of live traditional, acoustic and rock music from Thursdays to Sundays.

The Duke of York’s policies include leaving football shirts at the door and “don’t be asking for alcopops”. Good advice when you’re standing in the bar with the biggest selection of Irish whiskeys in the country.

Other stand out venues in the Cathedral Quarter include The Black Box where the 240 capacity main room hosts live music, theatre, circus, comedy, cabaret, and more, and Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre, better known as The MAC.

And it’s at The MAC that I settle in to listen to dance music legend Kevin Saunderson give the opening keynote at this year’s AVA Conference and Festival.

A festival of sound

 

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Celebrating its fifth birthday this year, Belfast’s Audio Visual Arts Festival attracts top international DJs as well as nurturing young talent, and is the only UK dance festival to combine a conference with two days of music.

The conference is open to all ages and free to attend, and along with Saunderson of Inner City and Detroit techno and acid house fame, there are talks from Horse Meat Disco and The Black Madonna, as well as panels with agents, labels and innovators discussing the future of live production, how to get paid for your creativity and other hot industry topics.

Then there’s the festival side. The party side. Where house, disco, and techno DJs take over four stages in an old warehouse building, and the crowd is mad for it.

From first to final release, AVA Festival weekend tickets range from £55 ($A100) to £85 ($A155) with single day options going for £49.50 ($A90).

For that price festival goers in 2019 got to hear the likes of Avalon Emerson, Ben UFO, Mall Grab, The Black Madonna, Horse Meat Disco and Honey Dijon who was named the best DJ in North America by DJ Mag just a few days before the festival.

And sure, the main event is done with for another year, but AVA returns in September for a one-night event called the Castle Party on Saturday September 14 (tickets starting at £22.40 / AU$40 for second-release tickets). The event promises “the full AVA production, alongside street food and bespoke chill zone”, so there’s still a chance to get a taste of the AVA festival in Belfast.