Belfast is perhaps the most rapidly changing city in the UK. Peace has brought prosperity, and ambitious regeneration schemes are changing the image unrecognisably from the scarred city of The Troubles. And with transformation comes a house-price boom.
Average purchase prices in the city have risen from £99,000 to £221,000 in just five years, making it the fastest growing housing market of any of the UK's major cities. Yes, there is talk of young couples being priced out, but other people have done very well.
For investors, the market is particularly interesting. If, in the rest of the UK, prices slow or even drop, then such powerhouse regions as Belfast become tempting propositions indeed.
Peace and prosperity have given Belfast city centre a real buzz. The Belfast Wheel (similar to the London Eye) has just gone up, and the redevelopment of the Cathedral Quarter is attracting restaurants and arts centres. Belfast Port lies at the heart of what is claimed to be Europe's largest mixed-use waterfront.
Belfast has become a cosmopolitan city, with a growing sense of optimism. It has the excellent Queens University, and many elegant Victorian buildings. As the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast hosts its best galleries, theatres and pubs. Strangford Lough, the Ards Peninsula and the Mourne Mountains are all nearby.
Your kind of people?
The arts are flourishing in Belfast. Performances are held at the Grand Opera House, the Lyric Theatre, Waterfront Hall, Queens University – and even the former Crumlin Road Gaol. Belfast today feels a safe city, but crime levels remain high. Peace is recent and sectarian intolerance remains widespread.
Can you shop till you drop?
The massive Victoria Square shopping mall is due to open in March. Shaftesbury Square is vibrant at night, with its many restaurants and bars and the nearby university district, around Botanic Avenue, has a rich mix of cafés and shops.
Is it green and pleasant?
Belfast has good parks, including the botanic gardens, next to the university. The River Lagan runs through the city, while Cave Hill, Divis Mountain and the Black Mountain are easily accessible for walks. The city centre is clean, but the Holy Land area, where many students live, is not, and it has serious problems with anti-social behaviour.
Do the schools make the grade?
Northern Ireland still has the 11 Plus (though not for long) and grammar schools. There are a few private schools. The best grammars – such as Campbell College, Methodist College and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution – produce excellent results. But the weakest schools do worse than those in England.
Dublin is a two-hour journey by road or rail. A two-hour drive also takes you to the Donegal hills, the Fermanagh lakes or the historic walled city of Derry/Londonderry. The seaside town of Newcastle is less than an hour away.
What your money could buy
Victoria Square - from £225,000
The new Victoria Square development will contain over 100 luxury flats.
Templeton Robinson: 028-9066 3030; www.templetonrobinson.co.uk
Danesfort Houses - from £525,000
A new development of townhouses in the city's desirable Malone area.
Gerry O'Connor: 028-9066 2366; www.gocestateagents.com
The Coach House - £895,000
A four-bedroom house in the up-market nearby town of Holywood. Tastefully refurbished.
Eric Cairns: 028-9042 8989; www.ericcairns.co.ukReuse content