I grew up on the outskirts of Belfast and I go back all the time; one of my sisters is still there, and my late father lived there for most of his life. The city has grown so much: every time I get back, someone says, “Oh, there’s a new place doing this!” And everything is half an hour away – everything. If you want massive mountains, woodland areas, the city, the beach, it’s all so accessible. It’s why they shoot things like Game of Thrones there. If you can live with the rain, which is pretty constant, it’s a great place to be.
I’ve filmed a few things myself here: my new film Belfast, and before that The Fall. Back then, I stayed in the dockyards area where the main tourist attraction is the Titanic Belfast museum, because it’s where the liner was built. It’s a beautiful building that mirrors the bow of the boat from certain angles; inside you can do a virtual tour of the old shipyards. Just don’t mention that it sank! For some reason, we’re very proud of it nonetheless.
For a great view of the city, head up to Cave Hill, which gives you a full panorama. But once you’re in the centre, I’d say first get a hot chocolate at Clements: when I was growing up, it was a real event. Back then, I thought they basically invented putting marshmallows in hot chocolate. They make great coffee too. But my big thing is sandwiches. I think that London, where I live now, has the worst sandwiches in the world – they’re always really sparing – but in Belfast, we just ram them full so that you can’t get your mouth around them. Doorsteps has long been an institution (the clue is in the name) – it used to keep me and my mates alive. Now there’s a great new place called Stormont Mugs. As with everywhere in Belfast, you get the nicest, friendliest service. After years of people not wanting to come – for obvious reasons – tourism is huge, and people have really upped their game.
Most of the great places to dine and drink are now in the Cathedral Quarter, which is all small, winding cobbled streets. The two best pints of Guinness are to be found at The Spaniard and The Cloth Ear. The Spaniard is a tiny bar with a big Caribbean influence: a chalkboard lists an insane number of rum cocktails. My secret is to go midweek when it’s quieter. The Cloth Ear is 30 yards away – it will do you both a great pint and a really good dirty martini, and it’s part of Belfast’s highest-rated hotel, The Merchant, which has a brilliant cocktail bar too (the guys who launched Dead Rabbit in New York first worked there). And I should mention Kelly’s Cellars, an old-school Irish bar where guys and girls play covers or traditional Irish songs six nights a week. It’s like stepping back in time. I’ve taken Hollywood agents there, all sorts, and everyone’s said it was incredible.
We have three Michelin-starred restaurants now: Ox does really good fine dining, but I’m more of a fan of The Muddlers Club which is a bit more relaxed. If you can find it, you’re already onto a winner. It’s right beside The Spaniard, The Cloth Ear and The Merchant, but I struggle to locate it and I’ve been about three times. Recently I also went to Deanes Meat Locker, one of Michael Deane’s seven restaurants, which gets its Glenarm beef from top local provider Peter Hannan. I’m a big steak man and it’s a must.
The last time I came back, I actually went straight down to the beach by Holywood. I used to sail competitively there when I was younger – nowadays it’s my sister who goes swimming at Helen’s Bay. She goes in whatever the weather – it’s so cool. It’s also quite lovely walking or jogging the towpath along the River Lagan, which runs through Belfast. And I’m obsessed with golf, so I should point out that Northern Ireland has some of the best golf clubs in the world, and often you can pay to go play, even if you’re not a member. There’s Portrush and Royal County Down around an hour’s drive away, and the Royal Belfast, which I’ve been a member of since I was 10 – I used to go and play with my dad.
Another thing he used to do was take part in Féile an Phobail, West Belfast’s arts festival which hosts walks, talks, screenings, workshops – he spoke there as a professor of medicine. The festival is on every summer, and is just getting bigger and bigger. But if you come in winter, the essential thing to do is to go see Ulster Rugby play on a Friday night at Kingspan stadium. The team have had their home matches on Fridays since I was a teenager – it was a real rite of passage to go to “the Fortress”. You’ll be standing there on a cold winter’s night, spilling half your pint because you’re shaking, but the place is packed and the atmosphere is unbelievable. Get a ticket – you won’t regret it.