City slicker: Belfast

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It's festival time in the capital of Northern Ireland, a destination that's trying to shake off its troubled past. Tom Adair offers a guide for new and returning visitors


Why visit?


Even when this city was on its knees in the direst days of the 30-year Troubles, it could always fake a swagger. Today it thrives on a rich combination of hospitality and humour.

The giant cranes bestriding the docklands bear the legend H&W, the iconic symbol of Harland and Wolff, in whose shipyard was built the ill-fated Titanic. But barmen and taxi drivers will tell you that H&W is, in fact, Belfast's proclamation of "Hello and Welcome".

This is a city that likes to proclaim; just look at the many murals. They blazon their messages of republican and loyalist propaganda from walls on the Falls and Shankill roads, and in East Belfast. Take The Black Cab Tour (07798 602401), which will navigate you in safety through the enclaves, providing often darkly comic chapter and verse on bombings and shootings, riots and demos as you proceed.

But the scene is changing, one reason to come here in a hurry. A new generation of peacetime murals, featuring non-sectarian heroes such as Van Morrison and George Best, is replacing the old. East Belfast has just unveiled a stunning 20ft addition depicting a collage of significant Titanic scenes by renowned local artist Ross Wilson.

Another reason to visit right now is Belfast's spring-fever addiction to festivals. If the current recession is laying you low, get high on the Festival of Fools (foolsfestival.com), a street carnival of performers, stand-up comics and theatrical happenings. Comedy, music, theatre, visual arts and literature are also celebrated at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (cqaf.com) from 29 April to 9 May. The Belfast Film Festival (belfastfilmfestival.org), from 15 to 30 April, offers indoor respite – Belfast's weather can be fickle – with more than 130 screenings, including local and international premieres.

Don't miss...

City Hall, fronted by a statue of that other great survivor, Queen Victoria. The exterior grandeur of white Portland stone and copper cupolas gives way to Italian marble, sublime stained-glass windows, tracing Belfast's industrial history, a grandiose staircase and city chambers, all of which feature in the hour-long free guided tour (belfastcity.gov.uk/cityhall/tours).

Belfast's listed Albert Clock, now doubly listed, leaning these days off-vertical by four feet.

A cocktail at the Merchant Hotel to gawp at Belfast's most opulent interior (the former grand hall of the Ulster Bank), and enjoy, in the nouveau-chic atmosphere, the precision of Sean Muldoon, world champion cocktail maker (prices from £7.45 to £750).

Taking a lift to the top of the Victoria Square shopping complex dome for great views of the city.

More great views at the Scots-baronial Belfast Castle on the slopes of Cave Hill (belfastcastle.co.uk).

What's new

The Cathedral Quarter

The blend of historic architectural grandeur and new bohemianism evident in the Cathedral Quarter's proliferation of cafés, bars, new restaurants and artists' galleries makes it Belfast's answer to Dublin's Temple Bar, and the home of "craic-chic". Here, Belfast's sophisticates mix with students from the art college – and not just during festival time – spilling out into Writers' Walk near the towering cathedral, crowding into the cutting-edge Black Box Theatre, or hogging the bar of the John Hewitt pub for a dash of poetry or a session of Belfast's blazing jigs and reels. This once sober quarter of pillared façades has become Belfast's stratosphere of cool.

Oh Yeah

This converted warehouse in cobbled Gordon Street, near High Street, houses the latest, and still developing, hub of music experimentation and entertainment citywide. Music fans browse the exhibition of rock and punk history in Northern Ireland, featuring artefacts belonging to The Undertones, Ash and Snow Patrol, while visitors keen to shimmy can drop in on a gig (often free) showcasing the rising wave of new talent, such as Aaron Shanley or The Jane Bradfords

Details: ohyeahbelfast.com

Ulster Museum

Once the grande dame of Belfast attractions, now bright-eyed and newly reopened, this keeper of treasures is flooded with light, where some old favourites (Takabuti, the first mummy displayed outside Egypt, the Spanish Armada hoard, and an Irish prehistory section par excellence), are augmented by a brand new Troubles installation / exhibition that walks the political tightrope with poise.

Details: ulstermuseum.org.uk

Bobbin Café

Newly opened at City Hall, this café boasts the most comfortable seats in the city – and an eye-raising exhibition of things Belfast gave the world. Would you believe air-conditioning, chocolate bars, milk of magnesia, and the ejector seat?

Details: belfastcity.gov.uk/cityhall/bobbincoffeeshop

Coco

This popular new restaurant mixes fun (an entrance bedecked with a stuffed cloth-elephant and an ibex head), with dark-pillared, low-ceilinged chic. By night the place buzzes with lively chatter, criss-crossed by waiters who glide plates of venison topped with pineapple mango salsa through the mêlée, and in the muted lighting and satirical paintings come into their own.

Details: cocobelfast.com

Insider's secret: Matthew Armstrong, student

"The Duke of York pub in Commercial Court is a tucked-away gem. Belfast works best as a modern city by playing on what it's been good at for centuries. This is tradition with a 21st-century twist – the perfect atmosphere."

Further information

Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau (gotobelfast.com).

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