It’s a bright day in Belfast. I’m standing on one of the upper floors of a brand new building on Queen’s Island, face pressed against the glass, soaking up the view. A century ago, this vantage point would have given me a bird’s eye view over a luxury liner taking shape on the slipways below. I would have seen workers hammering rivets into her hull and draftsmen filing into the Harland & Wolff drawing rooms nearby. The port city was booming back then, and this was her greatest export: the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic.
Then she sank. “She was fine when she left here,” the locals like to quip. In time, Belfast’s docks declined and the city sank into decades of heartbreaking political conflict. A hundred years later, however, and Belfast is booming again. Titanic Belfast — an immersive experience telling the liner’s story — and the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) have opened. Lady Gaga jetted in to perform at the MTV Europe Music Awards. They’ve even named an airport after George Best.
Before the Belfast Agreement, I often visited friends here. Eye contact was avoided, we worried about which pubs were safe, and shops closed at lunchtime on Saturday.
“See Belfast, devout, profane and hard,” wrote Louis MacNeice. I heard him. And I saw it.
Today, you can take black taxi tours of West Belfast’s political murals or quaff cocktails at The Merchant Hotel. A 40-metre ‘Spire of Hope’ pierces the roof of St Anne’s Cathedral.
Amidst all the change, however, the old city fabric remains. You can still see the dry dock in which Titanic was fitted; Samson and Goliath — the canary-yellow Harland & Wolff cranes — are still icons in a rapidly evolving skyline.
Belfast is still a boutique city, too. Two days is plenty for a visit and its layout is easily grasped. Streets radiate outwards from the splendidly restored City Hall and bridges cross the River Lagan to link with the Odyssey Arena and burgeoning Titanic Quarter.
Of course, it isn’t perfect. Not all of its development will be to everyone’s taste. But that’s the point. No city is perfect. And during the Troubles, this one would have given its eye teeth to be just like any other city. It’s a bright day in Belfast, indeed.
See & do
Titanic Belfast: An iconic building and the emblem of a new Belfast. Inside the stunning architecture, the world’s largest Titanic visitor attraction tells the liner’s story from conception through to launch, demise and rediscovery. www.titanicbelfast.com
Ulster Folk & Transport Museum: Titanic Belfast lacks artefacts, but they’re the first things you see inside the transport section of this museum — in the shape of a soup tureen and porthole recovered from the wreck. There’s a cool collection of vintage cars, buses and trains, too. www.nmni.com/uftm
Belfast Music Tour: Van Morrison, Snow Patrol and Therapy? are just some of the local legends whose lives are chronicled on this rock ’n’ roll tour of the city. Did you know Led Zeppelin first played Stairway to Heaven live at Ulster Hall? Surprises are in store. www.belfastmusic.org
Black Taxi Tours: A tour of Belfast’s ‘Peace Line’ — which separates Protestant and Catholic streets — with a humble taxi driver is one of the city’s USPs. Guiding you along the infamous Falls and Shankill roads, the journey takes you past murals celebrating the likes of hunger striker Bobby Sands. www.harpertaxitours.com
W5: If you’re visiting with kids, make it your business to go to W5 — an interactive discovery centre with 200 exhibits aimed at all age groups. www.w5online.co.uk
Belfast Castle: Nestled 400ft above sea level on Cave Hill, Belfast Castle is a history lesson, country park, pleasure garden and panorama all in one. www.belfastcastle.co.uk
Belfast Festival at Queen’s: 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of this international arts festival, from 19 October to 3 November. www.belfastfestival.com
The Giant’s Causeway: A day trip to this unusual basalt rock formation — the result of a volcanic eruption — has the added incentive of a new visitor centre. As well as the site itself, be sure to cross the precarious Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge nearby, before steadying your hand at the neighbouring Bushmill’s distillery. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway
Shopping in Belfast can be terrific, or it can be terrible. The trick is to tune in to the opening hours: shops open late Wednesday to Friday, close at 6pm on Saturday, and don’t tend to open until 1pm on Sunday.
The Lisburn Road: Belfast’s ‘Style Mile’ is a little more hit and miss than the literature suggests, but the hits are worth the taxi fare. Its boutiques, charity shops, galleries and cafes range from Gormleys Fine Art to designer cast-offs at Deja Vu. www.thelisburnroad.com
Victoria Square: The city’s newest shopping mall allows you to take an elevator to the dome and enjoy panoramic views of the townscape. www.victoriasquare.com
The Bureau: Northern Ireland’s best men’s boutique by a country mile. Expect designer and independent labels in a space fashioned from a former tobacconist’s shop and a Presbyterian hostel. www.thebureaubelfast.com
Like a local
Bargain travel: The new Belfast Visitor Pass offers unlimited travel on all Metro, NI Railways and Ulsterbus routes within a dedicated zone, as well as other discounts. It can be purchased for one (£6.50), two (£10.50) or three days (£14). www.gotobelfast.com
Botanic Gardens: When the sun comes out, join locals and students from Queen’s University for a stroll, fling out the picnic rugs or visit the Victorian palm house. The Ulster Museum is here too — it’s free to visit and has a good kids’ programme. www.nmni.com/um
Carry-on: Remember, there are no left luggage facilities at Translink bus or train stations — a hangover from decades of political conflict and bomb scares in
Belfast’s restaurant scene hasn’t quite kept pace with change elsewhere in the city and recently lost its only Michelin star. A little research, however, brings rich rewards.
£ At the vibrant St George’s Market casual trading stalls are complemented by a market bar and grill overlooking the trading floor. www.belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket
££ Owned by a former marine biologist, Mourne Seafood certainly knows its fish. Blackboards on bare brick walls list daily specials, with beer-battered fish, crab claws, devilish squid and chorizo risotto just some of the options in store. www.mourneseafood.com
£££ Slick, minimalist and championing local ingredients, Niall McKenna’s James Street South restaurant has just the right mix of polish and personality. Confident, French-influenced fare includes roast hake and braised Ramiro pepper. www.jamesstreetsouth.co.uk
If Belfast seems quiet on a Sunday morning, you don’t have to look far to find the culprit: Saturday night. The city has categorically come out of its shell.
Crown Liquor Saloon: A pub owned by the National Trust? All is right with the world. Dating from 1885, the mosaic tiles, scalloped lamps, cosy snugs and splashes of brass all give the air of an old-school boozer meeting the Orient Express. www.crownbar.com
The Spaniard: A must-see in the Cathedral Quarter, with a grungy East Village feel added to by the collection of vinyl plastered to its ceilings. You’ll know the new arrivals — as in New York, they’re the ones looking up. www.thespaniardbar.com
21 Social: ‘A place to eat, drink, listen and love…’ runs the blurb on this new bar and restaurant, and as the night wears on, you’ll probably find yourself doing all four. It’s a playground for night owls. www.21social.co.uk
£ A short stroll from most of the city’s tourist attractions, the Belfast International Youth Hostel is the biggest in town. En suite rooms and left luggage are options after a recent refurb, and there’s free parking and the on-site Causeway Cafe. www.hini.org.uk
££ Set in the leafy University Quarter, the Malone Lodge Hotel not only offers large and luxurious four-star bedrooms, but a good selection of self-catering apartments too. It’s a short hop from the city centre, but the Victorian terrace setting and surrounding parks and gardens give it the air of an oasis. www.malonelodgehotelbelfast.com
£££ Belfast’s Merchant Hotel is a beautiful reinterpretation of the old Ulster Bank building in the Cathedral Quarter, with dinner in the old hall, stylish rooms stretching into a new art deco-style extension, and the best cocktail bar in the city. www.themerchanthotel.com
Aer Lingus has direct flights from Heathrow to Belfast International Airport (18 miles northwest of the city centre). EasyJet flies direct from Bristol, Liverpool, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Southend airports. Belfast City Airport (just under four miles east of the city centre) is serviced directly by British Airways from Heathrow, and by Flybe from several other UK airports.
www.aerlingus.com www.easyjet.com www.ba.com www.flybe.com
Stena Line sails daily from Liverpool to Belfast — the trip takes eight hours. The city is also directly connected by road and rail to Dublin. www.stenaline.co.uk
Average flight time: 1h20m.
Belfast is a compact city and it’s easily navigable on foot or by taxi. There’s no underground, but Metro buses (day tickets from £3.50) run multiple routes in the city. Navigating the one-way systems can be trying for new visitors, so make sure you have a satnav. www.translink.co.uk/metro
When to go
The waterfront can be the bearer of an icy breeze in winter, so visit when temperatures and daylight hours are up. Shoulder months (May, June, September) will give you the best of all worlds, with smaller crowds and lower room rates.
Need to know
International dial code: 00 44 (0) 28.
How to do it
Stena Line has a ‘Car-cation’ bundling return ferry travel from Liverpool or Cairnryan with two nights’ B&B in Belfast. From £59 per adult staying midweek at a three-star hotel, to £124 at the five-star Merchant Hotel. www.stenaline.co.uk
Expedia offers three nights at the Hilton Belfast Hotel from £258pp, including flights from Heathrow. www.expedia.co.uk
Belfast Welcome Centre: www.gotobelfast.com
Northern Ireland Tourist Board: www.discovernorthernireland.com
In Your Pocket (download a free Belfast guide): www.inyourpocket.com
Insight Guides: Great Breaks Belfast. RRP £6.99
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)