BELFAST: Belfast in the 21st century is developing into a chic capital of culture, character and chatter built on a proud industrial heritage which includes the world’s most famous luxury liner.
A century after the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic – considered a marvel of engineering when it was built in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyards – the modern city has experienced a seismic cultural shift since a peace deal in 1998 consigned “the troubles” of the 1960s-1990s to a footnote of European history.
Although there are still some rough neighborhoods that remain segregated and aren’t tourist-friendly around July 12 (a public holiday when historic tensions can reignite), most of the main streets in central Belfast where warring paramilitary groups once used violence and preached intolerance are bustling with cultural hotspots, cafes and friendly faces.
Local correspondents help you to spend 48 hours enjoying some of the best places to visit – on the centenary of the Titanic.
FRIDAY 7 p.m. – Check into The Merchant Hotel, the New Chapter wing is ideal for business travelers with a bit of cash, who can try out a drink in the Jazz bar, consider buying the world’s most expensive cocktail or take a lift to the hotel’s hot-tub with a view over the city at night, overlooking Belfast’s answer to the leaning tower of Pisa, the Albert clock.
8 p.m. – Take a short walk down the road to the city’s newest shopping center, Victoria Square, which is home to some of the most exclusive department stores in Northern Ireland. Climb the center’s spiral staircase to the lookout dome, with a 360-degree panoramic view across the city, taking in the slopes of Cavehill to Samson and Goliath – two monolithic cranes that can be seen from most parts of the city. Or if you’re lucky, you might be able to catch a rugby match at Ravenhill to watch Ulster take on a rival in the Heineken cup.
10:30 p.m. – Alternatively, visit the atmospheric bars dotted around the Cathedral quarter, with the John Hewitt bar as a local favorite, named after the late poet and nestled in Belfast’s answer to Fleet Street – down the road from the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News offices. Let’s not forget to mention the oldest continuous English newspaper – the News Letter is located behind the City Hall.
SATURDAY 10 a.m. – Start the day with a dose of history and take a red tour bus from outside Dixons electronic store on Castle Place or catch a Back Taxi tour (visit http://www.belfasttours.com/for a more bespoke experience). Both promise a rundown of the recent political history that helps explain the current state of affairs – spiced up with some dry Ulster humor. No doubt the tour will pass one of the most bombed hotels in Europe – the Europa hotel – where President Bill Clinton stayed on his peace trip to the North of Ireland in 1995.
12 p.m. – If you’re looking for a pub lunch try the Crown Bar facing the Europa hotel – a tourist haven – but if it’s a more local experience you’re after, Cafe Vaudeville on Arthur street will entice you with its charm. Both eateries are minutes away from Belfast’s City Hall. A great view can be seen from hidden-away Linen hall library which also serves a healthy lunch – where the bookshelves hold dusty copies of C.S. Lewis, academic, novelist and theologian who lived in East Belfast during his childhood. The reader may already be aware of anther East-Belfast great – Manchester United football player George Best, who was once quoted as saying: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
1 p.m. – Take of a tour of the City Hall, to digest the morning’s history lesson, rather useful when looking around for evidence of the province’s modern history, flags and murals. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to escape the city for a day, travel to the north coast to visit the Giants’ Causeway – formed by cooling volcanoes revealing curiously shaped hexagonal stones – often explained as a mythical land bridge stretching out to Scotland that was laid by the giant Finn McCool so as not to get his feet wet. Also unmissable in the area is the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge and Dunluce Castle, the latter precariously hangs off the edge of a cliff. If you need a stiff drink to help revive your spirits on the way home in damp weather, drop into the Bushmills whiskey distillery for a sample.
7:30 p.m. – On the way to dinner in Botanic Avenue, Scalini’s restaurant is a safe bet, an Italian menu with a dash of South Belfast-posh where part-time student types of rubgy school Methodist College Belfast serve pasta and pizza without pomp but a sprinkling of the Northern Irish charm. For the business traveler try the Bo tree or even Beatrice Kennedy for a date. All are within 10 minutes walk from the center.
9:30 p.m. – Spend the evening at your leisure. Take a stroll across the road to Queen’s University Belfast, an impressive building illuminated at night, and a stones throw away from film and art house the Queen’s Film Theater for a dose of culture. Or if it’s comedy you’re after try the Belfast Empire on Botanic Avenue.
SUNDAY9 a.m. – Head straight to the newly opened Titanic museum in the former docklands area, complete with rides, full-scale reconstructions, innovative interactive features and a replica dining room staircase. There is plenty for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet fans to get their teeth into here – so take your time to digest it all.
11 a.m. – On the way back to the hotel it is worth checking out the Lagan lookout, guarding the entrance to Belfast’s arterial river, from which the expression “Do you think I came up the Lagan in a bubble?” derived, a shorthand term to describe the hardened humor of the citizens.
12 p.m. – If you’re into political history, a trip to the lawn-laid expanses of Stormont, the seat of devolved power in Northern Ireland, where political leaders of Sinn Fein sit with the Democratic Unionist Party, a partnership unimaginable 30 years ago.
1 p.m. – Lunch can be arranged in the Stormont Hotel, a four star hotel which sits opposite the seat of power. A proper Northern Irish dish will generally include stew, or an Ulster Fry – similar to a full English but with extra, fatty bread and freshly baked soda farls.
2 p.m. – It is worth touring the murals. The bus tour passes a few main ones from East to West, including the peace walls, still erected between the Falls road and the Shankill.
More recently paramilitary-styled murals have been replaced by tributes to prolific Northern Irish striker David Healy, who rose to fame with a strike to beat England 1-0 and a hat trick against the Spain at Windsor Park in 2006.
3 p.m. – By now you will have dipped into Ulster history, culture, politics and the arts, but there is still time to stroll up and down Donegall Square, shop in the Victoria Center or even listen to a concert in the Ulster hall, where Sergei Rachmaninoff is said to have once played to a private audience during World War II, according to friends of a relative who organized the concert and this correspondent’s old piano teacher.
4 p.m. – On the way back to the hotel, ponder the industrial powerhouse that Belfast used to be, famous for shipbuilding, cotton producing and ropeworks, not to mention engineering and the many famous people it has yielded from snooker player Alex Higgins, to physicist Ernest Walton who studied in Belfast, golfer Rory McIlroy and film director Kenneth Branagh.