Belfast: Make an investigation of your own

Crime drama 'The Fall' returns to TV screens this week, but the city in which it's set offers a more optimistic view

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The Independent Travel

Belfast has always had plenty of swagger. Like the UK's other great seaport cities such as Glasgow or Liverpool, Belfast has attitude, black humour, a love of words. Even during its 30 years of Troubles, walls were emblazoned with murals proclaiming defiance.

Crime thriller The Fall, which returns to BBC2 on Thursday, is set in the city. Just as The Killing lured TV viewers as tourists to Copenhagen, so The Fall is inducing fans to the scene of its crimes.

Belfast happily trades on this dark fantasy, but in reality the city is more alive than ever. This is an ultra-walkable place, much pedestrianised at its heart. As I stroll along the downtown streets I can readily see the post-industrial, post-Troubles city has shaken off its straight-laced past and discovered its extravagant, fun-loving side.

Hugging the river, the Waterfront concert hall is a boy-band's howl from the buzz of the Cathedral Quarter's restaurants, bars and clubs, while south of the centre the Queens Quarter is latterly a spider's web of café-bars, an art-house cinema, a prize-winning modernist theatre, the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, and an on-the-streets spill of brasseries, which gives leafy Botanic Avenue and its surrounds the twist of bohemian allure.

The Victorian boom years bequeathed the city its glorious architecture. Linen and shipbuilding barons had money to burn, with the outrageous marble opulence of City Hall (028 9027 0456; free daily tours) and the elegant brown-brick, Tudor-style Queens University exemplifying their ambition.

Even when cocooned by the grand buildings of the city centre, you can't avoid a view of hills – the hump of Divis, brooding Black Mountain, the distant jutting crags of Cave Hill overlooking the docks and shipyard cranes known as Samson and Goliath (Old Testament references die hard in this one-time Bible-thumping redoubt).

A ride on the No 57 bus north to Ligoniel provides the perfect antidote to all the bustle. Step on to the hillside and take in the view: the shipyard, the Lagan, Belfast Lough, the city sprawling at your feet.

Unpack

Crammed with history, on the cusp of the docks and the city, the Malmaison Belfast is a converted Victorian seed store of sculpted sandstone on the outside, but so smouldering and intriguing on the inside that they used it to shoot bar and bedroom scenes in the first series of The Fall. Black-crimson décor sets the mood, from the downstairs Malbar to the decadent, boudoirish bedrooms.

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Don't Miss

The Titanic Belfast Visitor Centre (028 9076 6386; titanicbelfast.com; adults £15.50, children £7.25) will wow "Titanoraks" with its massive, aluminium "hull" which reflects the elegance of the liner. The interior, meanwhile, tells the tragic tale of the ship, from its construction in Belfast to its ill-fated first voyage. Add a visit to the Titanic's Dock and Pump House (028 9073 7813; titanicsdock.com; adults £6) and a tour of SS Nomadic (028 9073 7860; nomadicbelfast.com), "little-sister" of the Titanic, to get the full picture.

Think Local

Explore the "bad old days" at Crumlin Road Gaol (028 9074 1500; crumlinroadgaol.com; 75-minute tours, £8.50), where loyalist gunmen shared digs with republican bombers during the 1970s until the prison's closure in 1996. The 19th-century prison was restored and opened for tours in 2012.

Explore this slice of history guided by an ex-prison officer, take a tunnel walk and look inside the execution chamber; under the noose and above the trapdoor, you are spirited back to the prison's darkest days.

Eat

French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Japanese – the options studded around St Anne's Square or the university precinct are cartwheeling for attention.

The most interesting relative newcomer is Ox (028 9031 4121; oxbelfast.com) on Oxford Street, where the view of Queens Bridge and the water, a thing of splendour, is eclipsed by chef Stephan Toman's excellent cooking and his partner Alain Kerloc'h's nose for fine wine. My meal convinces me I couldn't have eaten better – a cured ham starter, squid, chateaubriand with smoked potato, all washed down with a 2011 mencia.

Drink

Belfast's blossoming bar and club scene fills the downtown cobbled lanes with the babble of conversation and the clink of glasses.

In the Cathedral Quarter, warehouses have been revamped, gentrified and converted into dens of booze and blues. Harp Bar (028 9032 9923; harpbarbelfast.com) in Hill Street is the latest place for a cocktail, or a sip of Belfast Blonde, the local tipple.

A more traditional form of craic is on tap at Bittles (07 793 962 329) in Upper Church Lane, an authentic, eccentric nest of literary and sporting memorabilia and blarney.

Spend

Avoid what's in front of you – the chain stores of Castle Court mall or Victoria Square – and instead look up. On the roof of the shops along College Street is the Fountain Centre's terrace, where the Craft and Design Collective (028 9032 9342; craftanddesigncollective.com) sells pictures, jewellery and beautifully crafted ceramics by local artists.

Alternatively, back at street level you'll find Sawers (028 9032 2021; sawersbelfast.com) Belfast's original family-run deli, open since 1837. Ulster cheeses, and smoked Lough Neagh eel, head a sensory feast.

Or dress yourself up in outrageous colours at Liberty Blue (028 9023 0396; libertyblue.co.uk) on nearby Lombard Street. Sassy assistants flog gorgeous frocks and quirky accessories – sunglasses are practically compulsory, even in winter.

Getting There

The two main airlines are easyJet, serving Belfast International, and Flybe, serving Belfast City – both from a wide range of UK cities, Belfast City is also served by Aer Lingus from Gatwick and Heathrow, and BA from Heathrow.

Staying there

Malmaison Belfast (028 9022 0200; malmaison.com/locations/belfast) has double rooms from £79 a night.

More information

visit-belfast.com

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