Once known for bombs and bullets, now Belfast is all about cocktails and craic, not to mention black taxi tours to former trouble spots and an eye-opening experience on a big wheel
Belfast people like their nicknames. A symbolic 17m-tall statue on the banks of the River Lagan, of a woman standing on a globe holding aloft a giant ring, is officially called the Ring of Thanksgiving. Locals have cheekily dubbed it 'the thing with the ring' and 'Nuala with the hula'.
Likewise, they granted not one, but several, nicknames to what was, until recently, one of Belfast's most popular tourist attractions, now sadly dismantled. Belfast's version of the London Eye - the Belfast Wheel, was also known as the 'Belfast Aye', the 'ball at the Hall' and 'the big ring thing'.
Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, is a compact city, so it's easy to walk around its centre and take in most of the major attractions, including the impressive St George's Market - built between 1890 and 1896, it's now the last standing covered market dating from the Victorian era and was used as an emergency mortuary during World War II. These days, it hosts a weekly variety market on Friday mornings and a 'food and garden' market on Saturdays.
Start your jaunt around the city in the grounds of the City Hall, at the entrance to the city centre's main shopping street, Donegall Place and check out the many statues, including one of Queen Victoria, who granted Belfast its city status in 1888 in recognition of its then-thriving linen, shipbuilding, rope-making and engineering industries, when the city was a Victorian era powerhouse.
While Donegall Place cuts a swathe through the city centre, and was once home to big-name retailers, many of the big-name chains have moved to the nearby Victoria Square shopping complex, taking the traditional heart out of the city somewhat. These days too, major roadworks on Donegall Place mean that visitors and locals alike have to dodge construction bollards and fences, and navigate a circuitous route through a maze of alternative routes, just to walk a few hundreds yards. It's not tourist friendly and the locals aren't too pleased with what has become a tiresome eyesore either.
Walking southwards from the City Hall will bring you to onto the Dublin Road, heading towards Queen's University and the cafes of Botanic Avenue. Once deemed to be Belfast's 'left bank' (albeit only one street long), it's now distinguished by mostly chain coffee houses and some boarded-up shops, with just a few treats along the way, such as the independent bookshop, No Alibis, which specialises in crime fiction and hosts jazz nights and book readings.
A great way to get your bearings and an overview of the city and suburbs is on an organised tour. The red, open-top, hop-on, hop-off buses of Belfast City Sightseeing are a familiar sight on the roads, and will take in Stormont (the home of local government in the form of the Northern Ireland Assembly), along with the Harland & Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built in 1912 and where you'll see the twin shipbuilding cranes (which have also been nicknamed: Samson and Goliath) close up, plus all the other important tourist spots along the way. You can find the buses lined up and ready to start the journey at Castle Place, at the end of Donegall Place, and opposite the huge Primark store that occupies the Bank Buildings (a fromer bank, this impressive red sandstone building has been used as a shop, in some shape or form, since 1805, and, until 1816, criminals were regularly executed in the area in front of the building).
The company also offers walking tours that take in attractions such as Belfast's own 'leaning tower of Pisa' - the 19th-century sandstone Albert Clock (so nicknamed because it was built on marshy land and tilts ever so slightly), not to mention several historic pubs.
To find out more about the history of what's known as 'the Troubles' and modern life in largely working class enclaves, book a black taxi tour (there are several firms offering them). Around eight passengers can fit in each taxi and sometimes you'll see convoys of the black cabs driving up either predominantly Catholic/Nationalist or Protestant/Loyalist areas, taking in the city's famous political wall murals and former trouble spots.
If you want to fit in with the locals, drop the word 'craic' into conversations - it's shorthand for 'fun' or 'good times', as in 'last night was great craic', and craic, along with a biting wit, is what most locals thrive on. It's also why Belfast has become a popular destination for visiting stag and hen parties in recent years. It's a party city, but only at the weekend - if you're planning a mid-week break, you may find that many bars and clubs are deserted, or home to just a few hardly regulars. Come Saturday night and the scene changes, as dressed-up hedonists jostle at the bar and strike up friendly, and sometimes drunken, conversations with strangers.
And if it's craic you're after, sup a pint of slowly-poured Guinness in the National Trust-owned Crown Bar and Liquor Saloon, and mingle with everyone from flat-capped old-timers, office-workers and students to thespians taking a break from rehearsals in the Grand Opera House theatre across the road. The Crown is a sumptuous high-Victorian saloon bar and former gin palace, with an ornate interior, filled with painted and etched glass, and cosy snugs - carved wooden booths with doors for privacy.
On Saturday nights clubbers can be found in Stiff Kitten, off the Dublin Road, while music-lovers check out up-and-coming bands in The Empire on Botanic Avenue, a gorgeous former church, or Ormeau Avenue's Limelight club and adjoining Katy Dalys bar. A sign of how far Belfast has developed in the past decade or so is the proliferation of trendy bars, but it's places like The Garrick, one of the city's oldest pubs, that those wanting to see 'old Belfast' will make a beeline for.
While local developers haven’t always been kind to the city's buildings - it lacks the large number of Georgian townhouses that Dublin is famous for - some architectural treasures have been saved. One of them, the listed, 19th-century former headquarters of the Ulster Bank, is now the ornate and upmarket Merchant Hotel in the heart of a small area filled with bars and restaurants, known as Cathedral Quarter.
The hotel is a home-away-from-home for visiting pop, rock and sports stars, as are Malmaison and Ten Square Boutique Hotel - all of which are within walking distance of each other. Of course, for sheer anecdotal value, you can book a room at the Europa Hotel - once the mBelfast ost bombed hotel in Europe (though you'd never know it to look at it now).
If you fancy dining in style, splash out in Cayenne, the restaurant of TV chef Paul Rankin, or Deanes, from another culinary A-lister, Michael Deane - though truly, nothing washes down a pint of stout, or helps to cure a hangover, better than a good old Ulster Fry!
You can reach Belfast from either George Best Belfast City Airport, within the city itself, or from Belfast International Airport (a 30-40 minute drive from the city centre). For flights to Belfast City, try bmi, Ryanair and flybe. For flights to Belfast International, try easyJet, bmi baby and Aer Lingus.