In search of... Retail therapy in Belfast

The fashionistas' peace dividend is umpteen designer boutiques. Stephanie Debere goes shopping

It may lack Dublin's Georgian splendour but, thanks to the Peace Process and subsequent injections of money, Northern Ireland's capital is enjoying a renaissance. Cheap flights from Britain, combined with a surge of innovative local shops, make Belfast the perfect place for some quality retail therapy. The city is compact enough to walk round comfortably, and wide streets surrounded by bright green hills give it a relaxed atmosphere.

It may lack Dublin's Georgian splendour but, thanks to the Peace Process and subsequent injections of money, Northern Ireland's capital is enjoying a renaissance. Cheap flights from Britain, combined with a surge of innovative local shops, make Belfast the perfect place for some quality retail therapy. The city is compact enough to walk round comfortably, and wide streets surrounded by bright green hills give it a relaxed atmosphere.

I thought style-conscious Belfasters shopped in Dublin or London

Until recently, fashionistas did shop elsewhere, but gradually Karen Millen and Whistles have come to them, although the new boutiques are the real draw. Londoners descend on Belfast for sumptuous shirts and accessories at Smyth and Gibson (Bedford House, Bedford Street). Above its own espresso bar, the shop oozes Irish warmth despite its Parisian chic. Men's and women's shirts, made from the finest local linen or poplin, reflect a serious commitment to excellence. There are Creed toiletries, exquisite, roulette backgammon and chess sets, hand-stitched gloves, Fox's umbrellas, Circa bags, leather writing goods, unusual cuff-links and hundreds of ties.

Nearby, wooden floors and high ceilings give The Bureau (4 Wellington Street) a classic feel, yet the shelves heave with the likes of Fake London Genius, Paul Smith, Burberry, Mandarina Duck, and Camper shoes. Menswear dominates but the balance is restored at Bt9/Brazil/Rio (43 Bradbury Place), where the smaller Rio section caters for the boys, while Bt9 and Brazil have glorious womenswear by the likes of Paul Costelloe, Save the Queen, Roisin Dubh, Orla Kiely and Joseph.

The last word in street fashion goes to the innovative, tongue-in-cheek Apache (60 Wellington Place) – a synergy of fashion, music and graffiti art. Tunes from resident DJs help you choose from labels like Fubu, Psycho, 555 Soul, Ecko, Duffs shoes, as well as own-label sweats, jackets, embroidered jeans and clever T-shirts. Apache staff will tell you where the hottest dance-spots are.

What about retail therapy of the non-sartorial kind?

Belfast has interiors shops to make Conran quake. Part symptom, part cause of the city's renaissance is Lounge (13 Wellington Place). The shop is packed with clever, covetable household items, from inflatable lights, wetsuit wine-coolers and Philippe Starck's link system shelving, to luxurious photo albums, fearsome Kasumi knives and luminous light-pulls. Designers include Wireworks, Inflate, Guzzini and Rosendahl.

Alternatively, get lost in the Tom Caldwell Gallery (40-42 Bradbury Place), a three-storey emporium of soft furnishings with exquisite cushions, lamps, ceramics, small sculptures, and exhibitions of local artists.

In Donegall Arcade, The Wickerman is a treasure-house of traditional high-quality Irish craft from more than 150 artisans, including candles, paintings, ceramics and carvings. Epicureans should head for Gourmet Ireland (Lisburn Enterprise Park), brainchild of celebrity chefs Paul and Jeanne Rankin, for fine Northern Irish foodstuffs.

But aren't the signs of the former Troubles off-putting?

The centre has no obvious signs of sectarian tensions. Further afield there are clues, although they're more interesting than threatening. Approaching Oakland Antiques (135 Donegall Passage), you'll see some of the famous murals. Oakland has opulent contents testifying to Belfast's prosperous industrial past.

Further south is the Lisburn Road, with a police station fortified like a medieval castle, but otherwise free from sectarian reminders. Its cocktail of shops and coffee houses includes boutiques such as Panache, Anne Harper, Rojo (shoes), Koko and Chameleon. Look for Irish art in the Mullan and Eakin galleries, and recharge at The Yellow Door patisserie-deli.

What if the heavens open?

Try the main central mall, Castle Court on Royal Avenue, though be prepared for the usual high-street names and lack of charm. Nearby is the quaint Queen's Arcade for jewellery: Lunn's stocks serious rocks, while Lauren May has futuristic amber, amethyst and costume pieces. Alternatively, enjoy coffee or lunch at Apartment on Donegall Square or The Northern Whig (2 Bridge Street) – a style-conscious converted printing press.

After a hard day's shopping, I want some decent nightlife

Legendary pubs include the Crown Liquor Saloon (Great Victoria Street), with its opulent Victorian interior, and McHugh's (29 Queen's Square). Food-wise, there's lots more on offer than champ (bubble and squeak). Try Cayenne (Shaftesbury Square) or the Belfast Bar and Grill (Ramada Hotel, Shaw's Bridge) for creations by Paul Rankin. Deane's restaurant (36 Howard Street) is Michelin-starred and The Edge (Laganbank Road) is great for Sunday jazz brunch.

OK, you've convinced me. So how do I get there?

Go (0870 60 76543; www.go-fly.com) is offering 10,000 tickets for just the £5 tax each way from Stansted, Bristol, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Those tickets are on sale until 5pm this Tuesday, 21 May.

Belfast has a burgeoning accommodation scene, with the luxury boutique hotel Ten Sq at 10 Donegall Square (028 90 241 001; www.ten-sq.com) being the newest. The hotel is offering a two-night break for £275 for two, including b&b and dinner on one night. The McCausland Hotel at 34-38 Victoria Street (028 90 220 200; www.mccauslandhotel.com) is another stylish option, set in a former waterside warehouse. A two-night break costs from £89 per person, including b&b and dinner on one night. Cheerful mid-range places include Benedict's, a hotel with a club and restaurant attached, at 7-21 Bradbury Place (028 90 591 999), which charges from £60 per room per night for b&b. For a budget stay, try the excellent Greenwood Guest House at 25 Park Road (028 90 202 525; email: info@greenwoodguesthouse.com), which offers b&b from £25 per person per night.

For more information contact the Northern Ireland Tourist Board at the Belfast Welcome Centre, 47 Donegall Place (02890 246609; www.gotobelfast.com).

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When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
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