Belfast, Northern Ireland

With the festival season in full swing, Northern Ireland's capital is in buoyant mood. Simon Calder and Melanie Gerry join the party
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

Northern Ireland's capital is en fête, midway through the city's festival (028 9097 1034; www.belfastfestival.com). Even when it ends on 4 November, the pulse of Belfast will beat strongly between now and Christmas: the city's Beer and Music Festival takes place 16-18 November; the Christmas lights are illuminated on 21 November and festive markets begin the following day.

TOUCH DOWN

The easiest airport for weekenders is George Best City (1), two miles east of the city centre. The main airlines are FlyBE (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) from a wide range of airports from Gatwick to Glasgow; BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from East Midlands and Heathrow; and Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com) from Stansted. From the airport, bus 600 runs frequently, fare £1.80, to the city's bus depot (2) beside the Hastings Europa Hotel.

Belfast's international airport is 12 miles due west, and mainly devoted to no-frills airlines - notably easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com). Buses run from outside the terminal to the bus depot (2). There are ferries to Belfast Harbour (3) from Heysham and Troon; Stena Line (08705 707070; www.stenaline.co.uk) sails from Stranraer; and Norfolkline Ferries (028 9077 9090; www.norfolklineferries.co.uk) sails from Liverpool.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The core of the city is relatively compact, with Donegall Square (4) - named for the family that owned much of the land in Belfast in the 17th and 18th centuries - at the centre, dominated by the fabulous, century-old City Hall. The Cathedral Quarter in the north of the city centre is rapidly being gentrified.

"The Golden Mile" is the name given to the Dublin Road - University Road axis, though some assert that it applies equally to the Great Victoria Street - Botanic Avenue strip, The two meet at Shaftesbury Square (5), south of the city centre.

The Belfast Welcome Centre (6), on the first floor at 47 Donegall Place (028 9024 6609; www.belfastcity.gov.uk) opens 9am-5.30pm daily (11am-4pm on Sundays). It provides a wide range of information - and, currently, hosts a photographic exhibition about the footballer George Best. For details of the city's many cultural events, pick up a copy of The Belfast Telegraph.

CHECK IN

The hotel opening of the year is The Merchant (7) at 35 Waring Street (028 9023 4888; www.the-merchanthotel.com), a former derelict bank in the Cathedral Quarter that has been magically transformed into a luxury hotel. Many of the intricate original features are superb, and the few dozen rooms are sumptuously appointed - which helps to explain the nightly rate of £220, including breakfast.

A stylish mid-range choice is Madison's (8), located just south of the city centre at 59 Botanic Avenue (028 9050 9800; www.madisonshotel.com). A well-appointed double room costs £80, including a good breakfast.

At Arnie's Backpackers (9) at 63 Fitzwilliam Street (028 9024 2867; www.arnies-backpackers.co.uk), you are welcomed with tea and biscuits in return for a rate of just £11-a-night for a dorm bed in a Victorian house close to Queen's University.

A WALK IN THE PARK

... is the name of an excellent brochure, free from the tourist office (6), that details 18 itineraries in and around Belfast. The simplest and possibly most rewarding of the hikes is the "Highway to Health", a signposted, circular 1.6-mile trail through the city centre. It begins in the grounds of the City Hall, where the notable sight is a monument to the Titanic - the doomed vessel was launched from the city in 1911. From many parts of Belfast you can see the yellow "Samson and Goliath" cranes at the Harland & Wolff shipyard where she was built. Tours are available of City Hall from Monday to Saturday, if you pre-book on 028 9027 0456; a "Centuries of Memories" exhibition is currently open 9.30am-6.30pm daily except Sundays.

The Highway to Health trail leads from the south side of Donegall Square along May Street for five blocks. After a quick one-block jig south on Oxford Street, it continues along East Bridge Street past the least central Central Station (10) in the UK. At the Albert Bridge (11), turn sharp left to follow the Laganbank Road along the left bank of the river as far as the five arches of Queen's Bridge (12), built in 1849 during the optimism of the early Victorian era. Turn left (west) along Ann Street to Arthur Square (13) - the oldest in the city.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Call in at Molly's Yard (14) at 1 College Green Mews (028 9032 2600), behind Queens University. It opens noon-9pm daily except Sunday, and offers alternatives to the ubiquitous Ulster Fry, such as mushroom and wilted rocket toast topped with melted cheese (£4.60) or poached crayfish with Caesar salad (£6.95).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The city's biggest cultural draw, the Ulster Museum, is closed until the spring of 2009 for refurbishment. Instead, head for Queen's University (15); the Visitors' Centre (028 9097 5252; www.qub.ac.uk) opens only 10am-4pm from Monday to Friday, but at any time it is worth a wander. Then visit the impressive Ormeau Baths Gallery (16) at 18a Ormeau Avenue (028 9032 1402; www.ormeaubaths.co.uk), where the Royal Ulster Academy is staging its 125th annual exhibition. Despite the academy's name, the selection includes artists from all over Ireland. It ends on 4 November; from 17 November to 22 December, an exhibition called "Work [w3:k]" explores employment in the past three decades. The gallery opens 10am-5.30pm daily except Sunday and Monday, admission free.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Donegall Place in the city centre contains all the usual retail suspects. But Belfast has some intriguing options hidden away. St George's Market (17) has been neatly refurbished with shops and restaurants, open 6am-1pm on Fridays (when it is mainly a farmers' market) and 10am-4pm on Saturday - when your shopping is accompanied by live music. On 8, 9 and 10 December, the market will host a Christmas Fair. On any weekday, head to Shaftesbury Square (5), and aim south-west along Lisburn Road to find all kinds of one-off stores, including upmarket fashion boutiques.

AN APERITIF

Drink in the culture at a National Trust property: the Crown Liquor Saloon (18) at 46 Great Victoria Street (028 9027 9901). This is a preserved Victorian drinking den, complete with gleaming tiles and elaborate mirrors decorated with painted birds and wood carvings. Its wood-panelled drinking booths are not unlike old railway compartments and come equipped with your own service bell. A pint of Guinness costs £2.65.

At the other end of the city centre - and the drinking spectrum - The Merchant (7) is worth visiting even for a £5 glass of wine (the cheapest available) as you drink in the sheer opulence of the surroundings - it feels rather like immersion in a sea of red velvet.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Close to the Merchant, Nick's Warehouse (19) has long been a gastronomic beacon in what, for many years, was an urban wasteland. Today, the stylish restaurant at 35 Hill Street (028 9043 9690; www.nickswarehouse.co.uk) continues to serve good Irish food, simply prepared, with excellent seafood and vegetarian options; open for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

St Anne's Cathedral (20) (028 9032 8332; www.belfastcathedral.org) is Belfast's version of the Sagrada Familia; while it does not have the scale of the temple in Barcelona, it was built to a similar time-scale: the church was started in 1904, in the Hiberno-Romanesque style, and is still not complete. Inside, you can find the largest Celtic Cross in Ireland, sculptures and mosaics. The cathedral also boasts stone from all 32 counties in Ireland. The choir sings on Sundays at 11am.

OUT TO BRUNCH

From 10am on Sunday morning, seek out Giraffe (21) at 54 Stranmillis Road (028 9050 9820) to loaf about in comfy chairs with good coffee plus muffins, bagels and bacon sandwiches. There are plenty of other eating options nearby.

TAKE A RIDE

For many travellers to Belfast, the political murals of the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road are the most memorable feature of a visit. You can ride on bus 10 along the former and bus 11 along the latter - or simply wander freely along both sides of the sectarian divide (separated by the "peace line", a bigger-than-Berlin barrier), looking at the memorials to the fallen of both sides. But for a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of the conflict, take a Black Taxi tour. The trip also takes in Milltown Cemetery, the so-called Peace Line and the Harland & Wolff shipyard. Book in advance on 0800 052 3914, or visit www.belfasttours.com. The cost is £25 for one, two or three people, or £32 for four.

ICING ON THE CAKE

The Grand Opera House (22) on Great Victoria Street (028 9024 1919; www.goh.co.uk) has just re-opened. Admire the Indian-style façade with its tiny turrets, then head inside to see the elegant and spacious new foyer. Try for a peek into the auditorium, not least to see the sculpted elephants that support the boxes, and its lovely, gaudy ceiling.

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