The capital of Northern Ireland is a rejuvenated, cosmopolitan metropolis. Samantha Day explores the city's new attractions, and takes in some poignant reminders of the past
Saturday 05 July 2008
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WHY GO NOW?
The once-troubled city has been transformed by huge investment. It's now a cultural centre, with acclaimed restaurants, superb hotels, excellent shopping and world-class galleries.
The main airlines flying to Belfast International Airport are easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com), Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; www.aerlingus.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com). The Airport Express 300 runs every 10 minutes and takes 30-40 minutes to the Europa Centre Bus Terminal (1) for a fare of £6 single, £9 return.
To George Best Belfast City Airport, the chief carriers are Flybe (0871 700 2000; www.flybe.com), BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.Ryanair.com). The Airport Shuttle Bus runs twice hourly (hourly after 6pm) to the central train station (2), for £1.20. Alternatively, the Airlink bus operates every 20 minutes to the Europa Centre Bus Terminal (1), fare £2.20. A range of ferries runs from Scottish ports to Belfast, or to Larne – from where there are frequent trains to the city centre.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Belfast's centre is compact. All roads lead to Donegall Square, home to the imposing City Hall (3). The square is fringed by a variety of majestic Victorian and Edwardian and Art Deco buildings, including the Grand Opera House (4) and next to it the Seventies façade of local landmark, The Europa Hotel (5). To the north, lies the busy, pedestrianised shopping district and beyond that the lively Cathedral Quarter. East of the centre is contained by the banks of the River Lagan, an area that has seen much regeneration – most notably the addition of the Odyssey (6) indoor arena. South of Donegall Place is the leafy Queens Quarter, which takes its name from the Queens University campus linked to the centre by what is known as the Golden Mile. The Belfast Welcome Centre and Bureau (7) is at 47 Donegall Place (028 9024 6609; www.gotobelfast.com). It opens 9am-5.30pm except Sundays (11am-4pm), with shorter hours October-May.
The most striking and luxurious option is the Merchant Hotel (8) at 35 Waring Street (02890 234888; www.themerchanthotel.com). The erstwhile headquarters of the Ulster Bank, this grand 19th-century, Grade I listed building has been transformed into an opulent and classically styled hotel. Doubles start at £140 (depending on availability) including breakfast. Ten Square (9) at 10 Donegall Square South (028 90 241 001; www.tensquare.co.uk) is a boutique hotel with Asian inspired decor and an ideal central location for sightseeing. Doubles from £140, including breakfast. The Tara Lodge (10) at 36 Cromwell Road, Botanic Avenue (028 90 590900; www.taralodge.com), is a welcoming hotel set on a quiet residential street in Queen's Quarter; doubles from £85 including breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
Start outside the majestic City Hall (3), completed in 1906. This fine Edwardian building was inspired by St Paul's Cathedral in London and is the home to the city's council. First stop as you head north is the Linen Hall Library (11) at 17 Donegall Square North (028 9032 1707; www.linenhall.com). Founded in 1788 and housed in an old linen warehouse, this charming place also hosts exhibitions and recitals and is home to a café. It opens 9.30am-1pm on Saturdays, 9.30am-5.30pm from Monday to Friday.
Continue through the modern commercial centre, bear right down Castle Place onto High Street; continue along and turn left down Hill Street, where you will find yourself among the small streets of the historic Cathedral Quarter that extends north as far as Clifton House (12), the grand Georgian building that was once the city's poor-house. This area plays a pivotal role in the city's emerging cultural scene.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Check out St George's Market (13) (028 904 35704; www.belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket), dating from 1896 and packed with fresh fish, local organic produce, cheese and freshly baked breads.
Belfast's commercial centre concentrates around Donegall Place, High Street and Castle Street. You can find smaller boutiques and designer shops a little out of the centre along the Lisburn Road, while Belfast's latest addition is the brand new Victoria Square Shopping Centre (14) on Chichester Street.
Set on the first floor of Queen's University's elegant Lanyon Building (15), The Naughton Gallery (028 90 973580; www.naughtongallery.org) exhibits works from the mid-19th century onwards. Open 11am-4pm daily except Sundays, admission free. The Ormeau Baths Gallery (16) at 18a Ormeau Avenue (028 90 321402; www.ormeaubaths.co.uk) is Belfast's main showcase for contemporary art, housed in a stylishly converted Victorian swimming baths. The gallery exhibits works by leading Irish and international artists. It opens 10am-5.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, admission free.
The interior of the National Trust-owned Crown Liquor Saloon (17) at 46 Great Victoria Street (028 90 279901; www.crownbar.com) is one of Belfast's architectural gems. Sit in one of the wooden booths and admire the frenzy of Victoriana. For a more contemporary feel, the stylish Apartment (18) at 2 Donegall Square West (028 90 509777) is a place to see and be seen.
DINE WITH THE LOCALS
For the best choice of fresh local seafood, try the Mourne Seafood Bar (19) (028 90 24 8544; www.mourneseafood.com) which is somewhat tucked away at 34-36 Bank Street. This excellent bistro, with a small fish shop at the front, has an extensive menu with special focus on oysters.
Nicks Warehouse (20) at 35-39 Hill Street) (028 90 43 9690; www.nickswarehouse.co.uk) is a contemporary wine bar and restaurant housed in the atmospheric surroundings of the converted Bushmills Whiskey warehouse and offers a range of European dishes using locally sourced produce. Advance booking is recommended.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The Anglican St Anne's Cathedral (21) which is on Donegall Street (www.belfastcathedral.org) is a neo-Romanesque building built in 1904, topped by a shiny new stainless steel spire added in 2006. Inside it is adorned with an array of Celtic mosaics and stained glass windows, as well as the largest Celtic cross in Ireland. It opens 10am-4pm daily and after services, which take place at 10am, 11am and 3.30pm every Sunday. The twin spires of St Peter's Cathedral (22) on St Peter's Square (www.stpeterscathedralbelfast.com) have long dominated the skyline of west Belfast. Mass is celebrated at 9am and 11am on Sundays.
TAKE A RIDE
A unique way to learn about Belfast's more recent history is to take a personal tour of the wall murals or political Belfast by black taxi. A friendly and informed local driver provides an expert and often very personal commentary. The most striking sights are the many powerful murals scattered across these districts. Official Black Taxi Tours (028 90 642 264; www.belfasttours.com) offers several itineraries including Wall Murals and visiting the Falls and Shankhill Roads costing from £8 per person, based on three sharing.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Built in 1711, the charming McHugh's Pub (23) at 29-31 Queen's Square (028 90 50 9999) is Belfast's oldest bar.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Take a stroll around the charming Botanic Gardens (24) on Stranmills Road (028 90 314762), a remnant of the city's Victorian heritage. One of its focal points is the curved iron and glass structure of the 19th-century Palm House built in the mid-19th century – reputedly the oldest of its kind in the world. It opens 6am–10pm (dawn until dusk), admission free.
ICING ON THE CAKE
Take Metro bus 20A or 23 to the east of the city and the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly: the majestic Parliament Building and grounds known as Stormont (25), Upper Newtownards Road (www.niassembly.gov.uk). Dating from 1932, this Greek Revival style building played a starring role in the end of the Troubles. You can walk from main gates, along Prince of Wales Avenue, to the statue of Lord Carson (one-time leader of the Ulster Unionist Party) and enter the Great Hall. The extensive public park, a popular site for picnics, is open daily to 7.30pm.
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