Travel: A short break in Belfast

There's a new spirit of optimism in Northern Ireland's capital, writes Sanjida O'Connell, as the city attempts to reinvent itself as a cultural centre rather than a battleground

When I lived in Belfast there was a perimeter fence around the city centre with armed guards at the gates and it was routine to be searched before entering any shop. Twenty years later, the gates and the guards have gone and money is pouring into the capital. Although it is not yet as hip as Dublin, the Cathedral Quarter is being revamped to rival Dublin's Temple Bar area, and some of the army barracks have already been torn down to make way for supermarkets. In this new mood of optimism, Belfast has reinvented itself as the cultural capital of the north.

When to go

The climate is slightly milder than mainland Britain - don't be surprised to see palm trees in some of the gardens - but it rains a lot more. The Summer Festival is from 22 May to 7 June, and there are folk festivals at weekends from May to September. The Belfast Festival, at Queen's University, is the second largest arts festival in the UK after Edinburgh: last year it featured comedy, dance, theatre, book and poetry readings, talks and concerts. It is probably wise to avoid Belfast on 12 July, when the marching season gets under way.

How to get there

The cheapest way to fly to Belfast City Airport (three miles from the city centre, with train connections) is from Heathrow with British Midland (tel: 0181-745 7321), from pounds 66 if you book seven days in advance. The Stranraer-Belfast return ferry crossing costs pounds 276 with Seacat (tel: 0990 523523) for four adults with a car (pounds 99 for a four-day return for two adults with a car), and pounds 240 with Stena (tel: 0990 204204). Both ferry companies usually offer special deals, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (tel: 0541 555250) has up-to-date information on city breaks.

Where to stay

The Culloden, Bangor Road, Holywood (tel: 01232 425223), is the place to stay in Belfast, especially if you have the money to hire a suite. The hotel is set in beautiful grounds overlooking Belfast Lough and has a health centre, a car service to take you into town, and staff are willing to get anything for you, from disposable nappies to flowers. From pounds 62.50 per person, per night.

Madison's, 59-63 Botanic Avenue (tel: 01232 330040), which also has a wine bar, restaurant and slightly tacky night-club, is far more modern, hip, central and affordable for twenty to thirtysomethings. From pounds 30 per person, per night. Belfast seems to be the home of the guest-house: small, friendly hotels, they are more comfortable than b&bs. The Old Rectory, 148 Malone Road (tel:01232 667882) serves guests a hot whiskey in the drawing-room. From pounds 25 to pounds 30 per person, per night.

The university offers places to stay during the holidays: one of the most central is the QUB Staff Common Room, College Gardens, University Road (tel: 01232 665938), pounds 27 per person per night. You even get your own mug. For those on a budget, Arnie's Backpackers, 63 Fitzwilliam Street (tel:01232 242867), is a Victorian house with real fires close to the city centre. The price, pounds 8 per person, per night, includes linen, showers and cooking facilities.

Getting around

The city is small enough to walk around quite easily. Black taxis are the only ones which will operate both to and from Protestant and Catholic areas. Citybus services run throughout Belfast (tel: 01232 246485) and the Ulsterbus service operates from the city to the rest of Ireland (tel: 01232 333000). A free Centrelink bus connects the centre with the Central Station, from where trains depart for Londonderry, Bangor and Larne, with a fast rail-link to Dublin. Bikes can be hired from Recycle (tel: 01232 313113).

What to see

A good overview of the city is provided by the Living History Tour, a coach trip around the major sites of Belfast, complete with witty commentary. The tour includes the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road which run parallel to one another, the back-to-back houses literally only divided by a "peacewall". The bus leaves from Castle Place at 1pm on Thursday and Sunday, and the tour costs pounds 8. Other tours operate during summer: Citybus tours (tel: 01232 458484), Pubtours (tel: 01247 882596) and City walks (tel: 01232 491469). For information on Ireland's history go to the Linen Hall Library, 17 Donegal Square North (tel: 01232 321707). The oldest library in Belfast, it was founded in 1788, and has a wide range of periodicals and an elegant tea room.

Transformed from the old baths, the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Ormeau Avenue (tel: 01232 321402), is a beautiful space for contemporary art. The Ulster Museum contains an eclectic mix of art, science and natural history, and hosts talks ranging from Irish Stone Age burials to Melvyn Bragg lecturing about art on television. The museum is situated in the Botanic Gardens (tel: 01232 383000) which are also worth wandering around. The Palm House here was used as a model for the one at Kew.

Food and drink

A large number of cafes and restaurants have recently opened in Belfast, but Bookfinders, 47 University Road (tel: 01232 328269), has been around for 14 years. It is a serious, second-hand bookshop with a cafe at the back selling cakes, coffee, teas and light lunch for under pounds 5. Archana, 53 Dublin Road (tel: 01232 323713), decorated in trendy terracotta and blackcurrant, claims to be Ireland's first Indian vegetarian restaurant. Most main courses cost under pounds 5 and eight different kinds of dahl are served. A little more upmarket is Planks, 479-481 Lisburn Road (tel: 01232 663211). A BYO with industrial-style wooden seating and scaffolding, it serves a number of fresh fish dishes, ostrich and good but limited vegetarian options, all in Pacific Rim-style. There is also a wide variety of side orders (potatoes and more potatoes) and desserts. A starter and main course costs around pounds 15. No restaurant worth its salt risks eliminating potatoes from the menu, and the good old "Ulster fry" is pretty ubiquitous. Don't go without trying soda farls and potato-bread.

Food at The Crown Liquor Saloon, Great Victoria Street, is uninspiring, but it's worth going in for a drink. Built in 1849, it is co-owned by the National Trust and Bass Brewery (makers of Caffrey's) and has snugs and gas-lighting. Roscoff, Shaftesbury Square (tel: 01232 331532) is one of the most genteel restaurants in Belfast. Two courses costs about pounds 30 without alcohol and there is an extensive three-course vegetarian menu for pounds 22.50. Book well in advance.

Shopping

Like every city, Belfast has a shopping centre, but for more unusual purchases, try Bedford Street. It is home to a variety of designer shops, including Craftworks (tel: 01232 244465), which sells quirky silver jewellery, linen and ceramics, and Smyth and Gibson (tel: 01232 230388), which sells unusual tailored linen shirts that can be delivered within 24 hours in pizza-style boxes. Lisburn Road was where the first deli in Belfast was opened. It also has a range of upmarket, second-hand and designer- clothes shops, global-trade and antique dealers, as well as American-style juice bars, wine bars and some decent restaurants. St George's Market, by the docks (May Street), sells fresh fish, flowers, cheap clothes and bric-a-brac. It is open from 8am on Tuesday and Friday, but will be open every day from March. I fear that it may lose some of its raw, streetwise character and become just another source of expensive olives and focaccia.

Entertainment

The Waterfront Hall, Lanyon Place (tel: 01232 334455), a giant chrome- and-glass building by the harbour, can seat 2,200 and is a new venue for art, concerts, rock and pop, theatre and conferences. The Queen's Film Theatre, University Square Mews (tel: 01232 244857), is a venue for up-and-coming local film directors - definitely worth watching out for - and art-house films.

There are two pubs and music venues which are the places to be seen in on a Friday night: The Fly, Lower Crescent, University Street, and The Empire, Botanic Avenue, in what was once a ruined church. Franklin Gate, Franklin Street, has just opened - a mega-leisure complex with music and micro-brewery. Or you could try the Duke of York, Commercial Court, where Gerry Adams had his first job, as a barman.

Out of town

When the giant Finn MacCool fell in love with a lady giantess on a Hebridean island, he built a suitably large bridge to bring her back to Ulster. The Giant's Causeway is an amazing sight: 40,000 basalt hexagonal columns rising from the sea, some up to 40ft high. Although it looks carved, the Causeway is actually the result of a volcanic eruption. Ulsterbus and NI railways run to the Giant's Causeway Centre (tel: 01265 731855). Following the larger-than-life theme, the nearest dolmen and stone circle (Ireland is littered with them) is The Giant's Ring (four miles from the city, along the A123 at Shaw's Bridge), which is about 2,000 years old.

Ship-building and linen were two of Belfast's major industries. The history of linen manufacture and its production is demonstrated at the Irish Linen Centre, Market Centre, Lisburn (tel: 01846 663377), which is 10 miles from the city centre. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (tel: 01232 428428) includes a fascinating open-air exhibition. Houses, factories, a church and a post office have been moved here from their original sites, giving a real feel of how people lived in the 1800s. There is also a Titanic exhibition (the ship was built in Belfast) and a large number of vehicles of all descriptions are on display. Take the train towards Bangor and get off at the Cultural Station in the museum grounds.

Ireland has never suffered from a lack of pubs. The oldest is Grace O'Neill's, 33 High Street, Donaghadee (tel: 01247 810930). Established in 1611 and haunted by Grace herself. Peter the Great and William Makepeace Thackeray drank here, and in the 19th century, it was full of smugglers and horse- thieves. Today, the food is excellent.

Further information

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board offices - in London at 24 Haymarket, London SW1 (tel: 0541 555250), and in Belfast at 4-10 Linenhall Street (tel: 01232 320202) - are very helpful and should be able to provide you with the Belfast City Pocket Guide and Belfast City: The Guide. The Belfast Telegraph has a useful "What's On" section.

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