Ireland’s second largest city, Belfast has a big heart, embracing one and all. You'll find it very hard to let go...
The first thing that strikes you about Belfast City is its people. They smile at you, enticing you to smile in return. A complete stranger will bid you, ‘A grand day!’ or a ‘How ya doin’?’
If you have'nt yet had the pleasure of speaking to a native of Belfast, be warned - their speech is renown for the speed at which it is delivered. But don't be deterred, for within hours you will not only be able understand, but will be envious of their dancing dialect; and the easy pace of daily life in Belfast as it glides, contently by.
It’s not so long ago that the city was torn apart by war. Today, it is unrecognisable, with its beautiful buildings, wonderful open spaces, great pubs and restaurants, fantastic hotels and places of interest. As you stroll up Donegall Place, you cannot but admire the beauty that is the City Hall, an all-imposing building of great grandeur, with magnificent grounds that provide a resting place for weary travellers and shoppers alike.
Because of the city's recent history, it is a must to take a tour of West Belfast. Here, gun battles were once a daily occurrence; today you find vibrant shopping roads and neighbourhoods. Along these urban streets you will come across large memorial gardens commemorating the dead of that particular area. Large, colourful, creative murals adorn gable walls and hoardings, portraying not only the past and present of Belfast but also that of other countries in conflict: Yasser Arafat, Che Guevara, Bobby Sands, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. The Irish tricolour flutters in the breeze. This is Republican Belfast. (Fáilte Feirste Thiar, 243 Falls Road)
The best way to enjoy these sights and political insights of the past and present, and that of witty guides, is by taking the TaxiTrax Tours (www.taxitrax.com), they also offer the services of airport pick up/drop off. Open-top bus tours also leave every 15 minutes from High Street in the city centre and include Stormont and Belfast Castles. The Belfast Welcome Centre (47 Donegall Place; Tel: 02890 24609) is situated close by and their very friendly and informative staff will give you a big Belfast, cead mile failte.
Belfast has four Quarters: the Cathedral Quarter, Titanic Quarter, University Quarter and Central Quarter, all very distinct from each other.
The Cathedral Quarter is a must-visit area comprised of a few small cobbled streets and alleyways that contain a vibrant mix of clubs, pubs and restaurants, frequented by all age groups, which include tourists and locals. Here you will find the five-star Merchant Hotel, where the ice in your drink is guaranteed not to melt, although the money in your pocket will. The rooms are grand and very pleasing as is the hotels service. It is a beautiful building and well worth a viewing and costs nothing.
A sup in the Spaniard (3 Skipper Street; Tel: 02890 232448) small in size but big on atmosphere, or the Duke of York (7-11 Commercial Court; Tel: 02890 241062) with excellent nightly live music, featuring my very good friend and fantastic local blues musician, Rab McCullough. Then a bit to eat, in Nicks Warehouse (35-39 Hill Street; Tel: 02890 439690) with its great service and inspired menu, would be an assured experience of great pleasure. A bit of Irish traditional music, song, craic and the best in locally brewed beers in John Hewitts (51 Lower Donegall Street; Tel: 02890 233768), and the night melts into a hazy laidback hooley. The Quarter is also dedicated to the arts, so festivals and exhibitions are always on the agenda.
The University Quarter is where the world-famous Queens University is located, surrounded by some of the best young person pubs in Belfast - a must area for the young and lively. The Bot and Parlour (23-27 Malone Road) are great young spots and if you are looking for some lovely, lively, live music, submerge yourself into the old church that is the Empire (42 Botanic Avenue) with some of the best in the local band scene. The area also has a great choice of eateries including American, Italian, Japanese, French and good local Irish. You cannot go wrong by booking a table at Drennans (43 University Road; Tel: 02890 204556), where the sharp white linen tablecloths and cosy atmosphere welcome you. Serving up grand helpings of local produce that will satisfy the most discerning diner among us. Or spend the day relaxing in the Botanic Gardens or in the adjacent Ulster Museum (Strandmillis Road).
The Titanic Quarter is the massive docks area, the industrial hub of old Belfast. Although presently undergoing major development, it still is worth a visit. It has its fair share of places of interest and iconic buildings and the massive shipbuilding cranes, Samson and Goliath. Dominating this area is the Odyssey (www.theodyssey.co.uk), a mammoth building that contains everything you require for a great night out - cinemas, restaurants, nightclubs, pubs and concert hall all await you; it is also home to the Belfast Gaints ice hockey squad. Take a stroll along the boardwalks and towpaths that surround the old docking wharfs and the dry dock that once cradled the construction of the Titanic.
The Central Quarter is the city centre. Small and compact, it is so easy to navigate. Once again, pub, restaurants and places interest, inspire and invite. Eat at the trendy, funky restolounge, Made in Belfast (1-2 Wellington Street; Tel: 02890 246712), where local produce is combined to make tasty, mouthwatering Irish dishes. Booking is highly recommended. Afterwards, swig pints of Guinness with the locals in one of Belfast’s oldest and most beautiful pubs, the Crown (46 Great Victoria Street; Tel: 02890 279901), and dance the night away in the grandeur that is Café Vaudeville (25-39 Arthur Street; Tel: 02890 439160), where Paris meets Belfast; all are within easy strolling distance of each other.
Irish traditional music sessions can be found at Kelly's Cellars (30-32 Bank Street; Tel: 02890 246058), reputed to be Belfast's oldest pub and stagecoach halt, Fibber Magees (38-42 Great Victoria Street; Tel: 02890 247447) and Maddens (74 Berry Street; Tel: 02890 244114).
Apparently many years ago, a young woman named Mauriel who was a stitcher by day, offered other services from her premises at Church Lane by night, the nature of which was somewhat, in demand by visiting seamen! This little bit of local history is well and truely celebrated by the large amount of lingerie that decorates the interior of the same premises today. Mauriels Cafe Bar (12-14 Church Lane; Tel: 02890 332445) as it is referred to now, honours the lady of many trades, small and chic it attracts a great cliente, and consistantly delivers great food and service.
A number of great hotels are within this area, from the Jurys Inn situated across from the BBC studios, it is comfortable, affordable and has doorstep entertainment, to the five-star Fitzwilliam, where luxury and ambience awaits you, along with a five-star service. Or why not rest your weary feet in the most bombed hotel in the world, the Europa? No need to worry - the only thing that explodes nowadays is champagne bottles opening daily during the weddings that are held within. This is a Belfast icon, well loved and used by it citizens, it offers the visitor comfort and excellent service with great facilities and restaurants.
Situated just outside the city centre is the Balmoral Hotel. It is ideally located just 100 metres from the M1 motorway and a five minutes drive from the heart of Belfast. This three star establishment offers comfort, friendliness and value for money. The Lady Ann serves great food made from local produce and at the weekend provides great entertainment for guests and locals. The rooms are pleasant, modern, compact and comfy. There is also four golf courses within 1.5 miles radius of the hotel.
You can shop till you drop in Belfast and undoubtedly you will have to spend some time in the Victoria Centre, with its mouthwatering, wallet-emptying trendy designer shops. Time for some lunch? Well you are in luck, for just outside the centre you will find the best pub grub in Belfast. The Kitchen Bar (1 Victoria Square; Tel: 02890 324901) is a firm favorite of mine, not only for its delicious and original, creative, tasty grub; (stuffed Belfast baps; Irish hams, butter and scallions, Ulster frys served with potato and soda breads, mmmm), but also its live music. Here a music session will begin at midday with tradional music and song, and end with funky jazz in the wee early hours.
Too much Belfast hospitality can leave the best of us totally devoid of energy, so relax and visit the Linenhall Library (17 Donegall Square North) and browse some of the oldest literature in Ireland? Or admire the paintings that adorn the walls and the Italian marble that dress the City Hall (Donegall Square; Tel: 02890 270456) during one of the daily tours. Maybe just sit on one of the many café terraces and watch the world go by, before taking in an early performance at the elegant and beautiful Grand Opera House (Great Victoria Street; Tel: 02890 241919).
All well and good, but what about public transport, getting from A to B, I hear you cry? Well, you will not require it. Belfast is so walk-friendly that you can find yourself literally in the countryside without pausing for breath. But if you feel the need to use four wheels then the Metro bus system (www.translink.co.uk/visitors) is just the ticket. It is just one more reason why you’ll be soon jetting in on one of the many low-cost flights that service Belfast’s two airports; George Best City, only one mile from the city centre and Belfast International, eighteen miles from Belfast. Translink (see link above) offer a regular city transfer.