When a good friend moved to Belfast in the early 1980s, her family and friends up the road in Bucksport were like, “Belfast?” These days it’s, “Belfast! Cool! Up for a visit?” My husband’s relatives in Maine also have become increasingly taken with the town we’ve called home for nearly 20 years.
Belfast’s poultry industry earned it the nickname “Broiler Capital of the World” during its 20th-century blue-collar heyday, but as manufacturing and food-processing facilities shuttered, the town began to decline. A renaissance, however, began in the 1980s after artists and back-to-the-landers settled in the Waldo County shire town on Penobscot Bay.
Now, the small midcoast city is earning recognition as a travel destination and has marked its spot on the visitors’ map. Downtown storefronts are filled with year-round shops, galleries and restaurants. There are new trails and a plethora of festivals and events. Residents boast that Belfast remains more laid-back and less touristy than Camden, south of here on Route 1.
Trails and train rides
Often bustling with strollers on warm days, the Harbor Walk stretches along the waterfront for more than a half-mile, linking the business district, small parks that host festivals and concerts, a lighted footbridge over Passagassawakeag River (aka “the Passy”) and the new 2.2-mile riverside Belfast Rail Trail. Completed a few years ago, the Harbor Walk even runs through the ever-expanding Front Street Shipyard, opened in 2011. Locals and visitors alike love gawking at the large yachts, sailboats and commercial craft in the yard. Towering waterside boat lifts and tidy green buildings also command attention. Belfast, meanwhile, has captured the fancy of shipyard clients.
A hit with bikers, too, the rail-trail promises quite an autumnal show, with hardwoods overhanging much of the wide path and brightening views on the opposite shore. Coastal Mountains Land Trust helped create the city-owned trail and has three preserves nearby. The path ends at Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad’s City Point Station, where scenic train rides depart through late October. Across the road is a trailhead for the 47-mile Hills to Sea Trail, which winds from Belfast to Unity and fully opened last year. My favorite Belfast trail is on the opposite side of town near Northport: the 4-mile Little River Community Trail, which has a picnic area near its trailhead at Belfast Water District headquarters on Route 1.
History and architecture
Settled in the late 1700s, Belfast became a prosperous maritime and ship-building center in the 1800s, as the architecture of its mostly brick, Victorian-era downtown and many stately homes (Greek Revival, Federal, Italianate, Queen Anne) attests. Visitors can learn about local history at Belfast Historical Society & Museum on Market Street (free, open Friday and Saturday through Oct. 7 and by appointment year-round). The outdoor Museum in the Streets features 30 historical placards and two large maps. Self-guided Belfast History and Architecture Walking Tours – one in the downtown and on the waterfront, another in nearby neighborhoods – are available at the museum and the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce visitor center at the foot of Main Street, as are Museum in the Streets pamphlets.
Markets and shops, restaurants and lodgings
Belfast’s dining options have swelled since we moved here. Nautilus Seafood & Grill on the waterfront has a deck and bar, Delvino’s Grill and Pasta House is a popular Main Street dining spot, and long-timer Darby’s Restaurant & Pub is on High Street near Colonial Theatre. Families frequent Rollie’s Bar & Grill during the dinner hour. On Oct. 14, Three Tides bar and restaurant and Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. – neighboring sister businesses along the Harbor Walk – host their annual Beer and Pemaquid Mussel Festival. Belfast’s lodging options include B&Bs, a downtown boutique hotel and motels along Route 1.
Shoppers love downtown, with its gift, specialty food, antique and vintage clothing shops; classic shoe, candy and hardware stores; a food co-op started in the ’70s and several bookstores. New this spring, the indoor United Farmers Market of Maine on Spring Street, open Saturdays year-round, has stands operated by farmers, artisanal food makers, craftspeople and eateries. In the dining area overlooking the harbor, enjoy muffins or lunch fare bought at the market. The more traditional Belfast Farmers’ Market is on Fridays, setting up outdoors at Waterfall Arts on High Street through October and indoors at Aubuchon Hardware on Northport Avenue during the cold season.
In addition to the chamber’s website, visitor information is available at the city’s website, cityofbelfast.org.