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Belfast has a number of festivals running throughout the year. The grandaddy of them all is the Belfast Festival at Queen's which has been running right through the years of conflict, providing a shining beacon of arts activities in the University area. It usually runs late October to early November and details are available on their website http://www.belfastfestival.com/ and tends towards more established art forms - opera, theatre, an occasional pop concert, although it does attract some big-name comedians as well. And there is a good cinema section run at Queen's University's beloved Film Theatre ( www.qub.ac.uk/qft). This year's big attraction is likely to be the multi-Tony winning History Boys.
The most successful newcomer is the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival which runs April/May every year. This festival tends towards the eclectic and leftwing - Mark Thomas, Jeremy Hardy etc. Last year featured Chuck Palahniuck and Dara O'Briain. It also has a street element so you find people dancing, performing and juggling in the streets at odd times.
The Belfast Film Festival runs from March-April every year. In these days of DVDs some might question the purpose of a film festival, but it does provide a very welcome opportunity to see classic and new film on big screens at different venues across the city. It also provides a focus for local film making and film makers. Worth looking up if you happen to be in town.
There are also a number of community festivals the largest of which is the Feile an Phobail which takes place on the Falls Road in West Belfast in August each year www.feilebelfast.com/august/. It has a real community atmosphere and gives a chance to see the real West Belfast. Don't be put off by the fact that this is largely a Catholic Nationalist area, the crack is great and the atmosphere is family friendly and inviting. The Festival opening parade is great fun. There's also a clear intellectual strand with debates and discussions on local and international issues as well as local tours and walks (a guided tour of Milltown Cemetery where many of the IRA dead are buried, a walk along the Belfast Hills). And there's even a Festival radio station.
The other big community Festival is the recently rebranded Orangefest previously known as the 12th of July Orange Order parades. Traditionally there are bonfires on the 11th night (flying into Belfast that night is especially good, you can see the fires for miles around). Bonfires are often huge, reaching the height of a two or three story building. The parades themselves generally start fairly early the following day and the Orangemen march to The Field where there are speeches and food. The biggest parade is usually held in Belfast although one town in each County is designated as the big parade town - this varies from year to year. There can be an element of civil unrest around this time depending on whether the Parades Commission have permitted or not permitted marching through predominantly Catholic areas. Be aware that many towns close down entirely for the 12th of July so plan ahead and don't depend on buying provisions. It is generally safe to watch the parades go by on the 12th and there is usually a family atmosphere, but more care should be taken around the Bonfires - they are community events and you shouldn't assume that people from outside the community will be welcome there.
There are also community festivals in virtually every small town in Northern Ireland - check ahead with the local tourism people and they'll be able to tell you where and when they are taking place.