Northern Ireland: 48 hours in Belfast

In a pleasant, prosperous and, finally, peaceful city, Nicole Veash finds fire and brimstone - but only in Ian Paisley's pulpit on a Sunday morning
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The Independent Online
Why go now?

Because after George Mitchell's Good Friday peace agreement and the result of the referendum, Belfast is experiencing a sustained period of calm. Forget images of grim streets and paramilitary murals; Belfast's late- Victorian splendour shows another, prosperous side to a settlement set in the natural harbour of Belfast Lough.

Beam down

Competition among airlines between mainland Britain and Belfast is intense, which explains why the lowest fare from London is a reasonable pounds 69 return, including tax. British Airways (0345 222111) and British Midland (0345 554554) fly from Heathrow to the international airport of Aldergrove.

Jersey European (0990 676676) has the same fare to Belfast International from Stansted, or to the more convenient Harbour airport from Gatwick. There are good connections to both airports from other UK cities.

Get your bearings

Aldergrove is a good half-hour from the city, with a bus (pounds 4.50) every 30 minutes or so. Better still, take a taxi and ask the driver to take you the back way, through rolling, heather-covered hillsides. The taxi will also weave its way to the top of either Shankill Road or Falls Road before reaching the city centre. From City airport, you can get a cab to the centre in 10 minutes, or take a train.

Check in

The four-star Europa Hotel (01232 327000), one of the most bombed hotels in the world, is the city's most expensive. Although the Europa has a certain faded prestige, don't expect fantastic rooms, although the friendliness of the staff more than makes up for this.

Since the 1994 ceasefire, other reasonably-priced hotels have sprung up across the city centre. Next door to the Europa is the newly built Jury's Inn (01232 533500). This is the one taxi drivers recommend, because it is clean and you can cram as many people as you like in one room for the same price. Neither hotel is in a particularly scenic location, but they are well-placed for browsing round the city centre.

On a lower budget, Malone Guest House (01232 669565) and Stranmillis Lodge (01232 682009) are based in the well-to-do, tree-lined end of Belfast. Neither is further than 15 minutes from the city centre in a taxi. Or you could try Arnie's Backpackers (01232 242867).

Take a walk

Belfast is a small city - you can easily explore it in a day. Start at the impressive City Hall in Donegall Square. The white Portland stone dome dominates the town centre, recalling the city's prosperous imperial heritage. It is worth taking a guided tour (10.30am and 2.30pm daily).

Cross over the square and have a browse around the Linenhall Library, founded in 1788 and essential for anyone keen to get a better understanding of the history of the Troubles. Then walk to the far end of the High Street, the oldest part of the city, which still has an 18th-century atmosphere. Near the docks you can see the Prince Albert Memorial Clock and more of the classical buildings that grace Belfast, including the restored Custom House.

Lunch on the run

To glimpse real Belfast, go to the pubs. From the many sound drinking holes, two stand worthy of mention. The famous Crown Liquor Saloon, built 1885 and preserved by the National Trust, is a beautifully embalmed gin palace with panelled snugs, ornate tiling and original gaslights still in place. Champ (an Irish speciality of creamy mashed potatoes and chives) and sausages costs about pounds 3. The Kitchen Bar, in the Cornmarket, is one of the friendliest old-fashioned pubs in town. The narrow-corridor, no- frills bar shows you grainy Belfast. Their Paddy's pizzas, under a fiver, are excellent lunch fare.

Cultural afternoon

Images of the Shankill and the Falls flashing across a TV screen constitute most people's view of Belfast and these are places worth seeing. What really strikes a visitor is the way in which two similar ribbon developments exist right next to each other. The proximity between the Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls is shocking.

The two communities are carved up by the peace line, a wall that meanders through the area, sometimes slicing streets in half. In places it is a 20ft wedge of iron, in other spots the developers have given it a two- tone garden wall look. Take a taxi here and ask the driver to take you past some of the more colourful paramilitary murals. The locals are used to a few tourists, but don't take liberties by lingering longer than necessary.

Rousing dinner

Belfast is still a meat-and-potato place - not all of the locals are inclined to gastronomical experiment. Most of the eating places are situated along the "Golden Mile", a fork of two roads which lead up to the university area.

Those on a budget can opt for any one of a number of Italian restaurants. Speranza, in Shaftesbury Square, is popular with students and always packed. The portions are a good size. If you want to splash out, Roscoffs, also in Shaftesbury Square, is probably the most expensive eating place in Belfast. It was chef Paul Rankin who brought modern British cuisine to the city. But the decor and harsh lighting are less than relaxing. Another stylish eaterie is Deanes, in Howard Street, worth going to just for the sumptuous decor.

Sunday morning - go to church

For some Sunday morning fire and brimstone, take a trip to the Rev Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church in Ravenhill Road. Experiencing his unique mix of religion and politics gives you some understanding of how he reached his key position in Ulster's history books. For Protestants, St Anne's Cathedral, at the junction of Donegall Street and York Street is worth visiting as the place where Edward Carson - the man who symbolised partition - is buried. For Mass, go to St Brigid's in tree-lined Malone Road, south Belfast.

Sunday lunch

Most restaurants don't bother opening on a Sunday, so people tend to plump for a hotel carvery. The picturesque Culloden Hotel, in Bangor Road, a taxi ride from the city centre, is worth visiting just for its loughside setting. The Stormont Hotel, in Upper Newtownards Road, an unexciting modern building with good food, is a convenient place for your next stop.

A walk in the park

Join families, couples and a few other visitors for a leisurely stroll up the leafy, grass-lined avenue to the Parliament building in Stormont for that must-have photo.The Parliament building is a plain, grand classical construction built in 1932. It is now used to house civil servants from the Northern Ireland Office. It was in Castle Buildings, a low-rise modern block, that the Good Friday deal was brokered. Parliament remains one of the most enduring images of the Troubles, a building which for many Catholics serves as a constant reminder of partitioned Ireland. The statue of Edward Carson gracing the front of the building is seen by nationalists as a nagging reminder of the province's unionist-dominated past.

Icing on the cake

Two other sights should not be missed. Queen's University (on University Road at the top of the Golden Mile), is walking distance from the town centre. The Tudor-style college, founded in 1845 by Sir Charles Lanyon, has an impressive facade and delightful grounds.

Walk back into town and towards the dockside redevelopment and take a peek at the Waterfront Concert Hall. The spectacular pounds 32m building was designed in the city and built from local stone. It is shaped like a ship in parts and an aircraft in others to symbolises the two proudest local industries. It also represents the money that big business has been pouring into the city since the 1994 ceasefire. Spot the luxury flats and Hilton hotel being built next door - sure signs that the property industry has realised that Belfast is the new good thing.