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Belfast City Trip

Belfast City Hall, a high Victorian, pompous architectural statement
Belfast City Hall, a high Victorian, pompous architectural statement

72 Hours in Belfast

by Mary Anne Evans


Belfast is Northern Ireland's most vibrant city. Huge foreign investment — much of it from the European Union — has helped clean up and revitalize the city center; many of the public buildings have been fabulously restored to their former glory, and the new Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) has added another layer to Belfast's vibrant cultural life. In addition, the luxury Victoria Square development has brought more top designer names to add extra luster to Belfast shopping.

Belfast enjoyed its greatest era of prosperity during the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution brought opportunities for canny local entrepreneurs. The city soon boasted the largest linen mill, tobacco factory and rope makers in the world as well as, of course, the largest ship builders — the famous Harland and Wolff Shipyards, which built the Titanic. Belfast was a boomtown, a place for civic pride displayed in public buildings like the Grand Opera House, City Hall and the cathedrals of St. Peter and St. Anne.

While Belfast doesn't have the great nineteenth-century boulevards or fourteenth-century medieval bridges of cities like Paris or Prague, its Victorian architecture is impressive. And its resilient residents are among the friendliest people on the planet.

Waterfront apartments
Waterfront apartments

Belfast is also known for the "Troubles," the time when Protestants (or Loyalists) and Catholics (or Nationalists) clashed in constant warfare. The "Troubles" meant that the city remained undeveloped, unspoiled by the march of bland high streets and faceless office blocks, and today the city has an individual feel to it, with locally owned butcher shops, pharmacies, shoe stores and cafés. When the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement locked a lasting truce, investment and renovation quickly followed.

The revitalization of the city has produced a string of up-market hotels, restaurants and clubs in the last few years. Walk through the city streets in the evening and you'll discover clubs, pubs and late night venues catering to every taste and age group.

The addition of top class accommodations is impressive. If you want to be in the action, the choice is wide, from the new five-star Merchant to chic Ten Square, just behind City Hall, and the contemporary Fitzwilliam beside the Grand Opera House. Those with a sense of history should try the Hastings Europa Hotel, a favorite of the Clintons and Julia Roberts. For those staying outside Belfast, the five-star Hastings Culloden Estate and Spa is the top choice. A nineteenth-century chateau, it overlooks Belfast Lough.

BELFAST DAY 1: Victoria Square, Metropolitan Arts Centre and Gaeltacht Quarter

Albert Memorial Clocktower
Albert Memorial Clocktower

For first-time visitors, one of the many surprising and delightful aspects about Belfast is its compact size and accessibility. Divided into the city center and four well-defined cultural "Quarters," each possesses its own character and history. Breakfast at your hotel before starting out at Donegall Square right in the City Center at Belfast City Hall. Take a free guided tour from Monday to Saturday to see the inside of this splendid example of Edwardian classical renaissance architecture. Completed in 1906 as the administrative heart of the city, it reopened in 2009 after an £11 million refurbishment. Beside the building, the statue called Thane and the Titanic Memorial Garden are reminders that this was the city where the ill-fated ship was built.

A stroll along Howard Street leads to the Grand Opera House, opened in 1895 where the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Laurel and Hardy, Orson Welles and Gracie Fields performed. The gilt and red auditorium and gallery are worth a visit. Or book for one of the world-class performances of dance and music.

Saint George's Market, on the corner of May and Oxford streets, has been supplying the locals since 1604. On Fridays, Ireland's oldest covered market offers antiques and clothes alongside fresh fish and organic fruit and vegetables which attract the city's chefs; on Saturdays the range of food becomes wider and more eclectic, and on Sundays there's a craft, garden and food market.

From here, it's a short walk north on fashionable Victoria Street to the up-market shopping center, Victoria Square. In its wake has come a whole swathe of cafés and restaurants like Café Vaudeville, located in what was originally a whiskey distillery then a bank. The elaborate wrought-iron work, splendid pillars and sinuous decorations recall a more leisured era. It's great for lunch, but come back in the evening for a Champagne moment.

If shopping's not your thing, a brisk walk north will bring you to Belfast's leaning tower. While the 1867 Albert Memorial Clocktower may not lean as much as its counterpart in Pisa, the tilt is noticeable if you look closely enough. To its east is the Custom House, where the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope worked in the 1850s; Custom House Square is now the venue for live concerts, festivals and events.

Typical black cabs
Typical black cabs

Walk north to the Cathedral Quarter, one of the liveliest of the new areas, with St. Anne's Cathedral anchoring it firmly in Belfast's historical fabric. Here you're spoiled with choices for restaurants, particularly in St. Anne's Square. The John Hewit, opened in 1999 and now a gastro pub, is popular for its modern Irish take on traditional dishes. The pub's interior, with its dark wood, is as impressive as its mission: profits from the pub go to the unemployment agency next door, set up by local poet and politician John Hewitt in 1983. Come back in the evening for a pint of Guinness and live traditional Irish music. Come back in the evening for a pint of Guinness and live traditional Irish music. Or go for the express lunch at 4th Wall, a smart, contemporary restaurant serving a modern version of Irish cooking.

The 4th Wall overlooks the new, £18 million MAC which opened in 2012 and is the latest multicultural attraction, with ever-changing art shows, theater, dance and music. Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later on performance nights, MAC epitomizes Belfast's burgeoning contemporary cultural life.

Writers' Square commemorates Belfast's strong literary tradition and is the centerpiece of the annual January Cathedral Quarter's Arts Festival and the Belfast Pride Festival held at the end of June and beginning of July. The cobblestone streets of the area, once known as Sailor Town, are now home to art galleries and exhibition spaces displaying contemporary art, photography and graphics.

Afterwards, try something completely different. To the west of Belfast, the Gaeltacht Quarter has shed its former image of the continuous raging battles between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. In good entrepreneurial spirit, the "Troubles" have been turned to advantage. Book a Black Taxi Tour for a tour of the area with its ghosts of the past and famous murals, painted homages to those fallen in the battle for faith, ideology and turf. You'll be taken to Shankill Road, the Protestant stronghold, which is particularly known for its murals and also to Falls Road, the epicenter of the city's Catholic movement. You'll get an understanding of both the loyalist and republican viewpoints if you book a Coiste Belfast Political Tour. Political ex-prisoners, now trained as tour guides, take you through their particular patch, and then pass you on to the other side.

Other historic attractions in the area include Conway Mill, which recalls the thriving linen industry of the past and is now a center for local artists and craftspeople who make and exhibit their work, as well as Clonard Church and Monastery, home to the initial talks which helped start the peace process.

Crown Liquor Saloon
Crown Liquor Saloon

The latest attraction to open is the Crumlin Road Gaol. You can take a guided tour of the nineteenth-century building that was an infamous gaol until 1996, giving you a sombre view of prison life for both women and children held here and later, political prisoners. The brave or unimaginative might consider the effective paranormal after-hours tour.

Return to the center for a pre-dinner drink at the Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street. Built in 1839 and bedecked with Victorian tack a half-century or so later, this famous pub is a feast for the eyes. Locals and tourists happily drink side-by-side in carved wooden booths, while wooden griffins stare down from above and gold tiles reflect the light on the walls.

Nothing sums up the resurgence of Belfast as a hip city better than its new and wide range of restaurants. Try the Mourne Seafood Bar, which serves the freshest locally caught fish. Finish the evening off at Apartment in Donegall Square, a sleek, stylish bar with a great cocktail list and music.

Continue to Day 2


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* Images courtesy of Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau

(Updated: 06/07/13 CT)

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