Belfast – renaissance city

Foodies, shoppers and music lovers have long savoured the charms of Northern Ireland’s top city. But the new Titanic attraction is drawing even more admirers, writes Seth Linder.

Is it wise, sceptics ask, for a city to build its global image around a ship that sank on its maiden voyage? But sceptics miss the point. When it sailed out of Belfast Lough in April 1912, Titanic was the largest, most innovative and luxurious ship the world had seen. It symbolised a city that was an industrial powerhouse, leading the world not just in shipbuilding but in the manufacture of linen, rope, cigarettes, whiskey and much else. Besides, as Belfast people are wont to say, “It was all right when it left here”.

Coming full circle

Coincidentally, the Titanic’s sinking marked the beginning of a long decline for this most resilient of cities but, fittingly, the centenary of that maiden voyage marks Belfast’s revival, this time as one of Europe’s top tourism destinations. A “must see”, said National Geographic magazine, echoing the Lonely Planet Guide’s pithy description of the city as “hip, historical and happening”.

In the last few years, a dramatic renaissance has transformed a place that still bears the architectural imprint of its Victorian and Edwardian era. The end of the Troubles in the mid-90s has prompted the arrival of a welter of chic bars, clubs and hotels, concert venues and smart shopping centres. The city’s eating scene is now the equal of Dublin, renowned for its value and innovation. Belfast, in short, is fun.

Ship shape

It’s Titanic that is the big draw. Just over the Albert Bridge from the city centre, one of the largest waterside developments in Europe is continuing apace on the former site of the Harland & Wolff shipyards where the liner was built. Now known as Titanic Quarter, this vast area by the Lagan River now has hotels, restaurants, a science park and above all, the six-storey Titanic Belfast. Since the attraction’s opening in March, amid spectacular celebrations, visitors have been able to trace Titanic’s story, from her design in the nearby drawing offices to the building project itself. Then, special effects, rides, reconstructions and interactive features take visitors through the maiden voyage and tragic sinking to the discovery of the wreck in 1985.

There are countless tours around these hallowed sites, which include the huge dry dock where Titanic was fitted out and the adjacent Edwardian pump house, which filled and emptied the dock. Two stand out. The Lagan Boat Company runs the only nautical tour around the sites while Susie Millar, a great granddaughter of a man who both worked and sailed on the liner, runs personalised tours in a Mercedes people carrier. There is now even a dedicated Titanic bus tour, the Titanic Explorer.

More to explore

“The most romantic city in the world”, said musician and TV presenter Jools Holland of the city that gave birth to Titanic, possibly with tongue slightly concealed in cheek. But Belfast is much more than Titanic, and there is something about its openness and accessibility that makes it a most attractive place to explore.

A trinity of famous exports – CS Lewis, George Best and Van Morrison – emerged from East Belfast, where so many Harland & Wolff workers lived. “The sound of the steamer’s horn at night still conjures up my whole boyhood,” said Lewis, creator of Narnia, of the harbour he grew up beside. Sandy Smith, a Lewis expert, runs bus tours around those boyhood locations, including the house where the writer lived, Little Lea, and the church in which he was baptised by his grandfather, whose rector’s house may hold the inspiration for Aslan. Other tours take you around key locations from the lives of Best and Morrison – and, in Van the Man’s case, from his songs, too.

If political history is your bag, there is still plenty to see, especially in West Belfast. “The UK’s top attraction is open 24 hours a day and has yet to start charging admission”, said the Independent newspaper of the famous political murals of the area. There are, again, many ways to explore these but none have the personal insight and wit of the black cab tours, which can be tailored to suit your interests. Another fascinating way to get a local insight is to visit during Ireland’s biggest community festival, Féile an Phobail, in August. Also known as the West Belfast Festival, it’s a lively mix of drama, talks, comedy, music, sports and tours, including a tour of the City Cemetery that reveals much remarkable history.

Clubs and cathedrals

A big change has been the development of the historic area now called the Cathedral Quarter. Around these atmospheric cobbled streets, Belfast’s nightlife is thriving. Here revellers can enjoy vibrant clubs like the gay-friendly Mynt and the sumptuous Ollie’s, leading restaurants like Nick’s Warehouse, pubs renowned for live music and great food such as the community-run John Hewitt (a hub of the groundbreaking Cathedral Quarter Festival each May) and intimate bars like the bohemian Spaniard.

At the core of the Cathedral Quarter, which takes its name from the century-old St Anne’s Cathedral, is a stylish hotel, the Merchant. Untold millions were spent transforming this Victorian bank. The Great Room restaurant, a piece of splendid visual theatre, sits in the old banking hall beneath the biggest chandelier in Ireland.

Also popular with visitors are the elegant streets and avenues of Queen’s Quarter, based on Queen’s University. Near here is the recently renovated Ulster Museum, boasting Northern Ireland’s finest art collection and much else. It sits at the edge of the charming Botanic Gardens, whose Palm House and steamy Tropical Ravine are well worth a visit. The area includes Botanic Avenue, where you’ll find interesting restaurants like Beatrice Kennedy, live music and comedy at the Belfast Empire and unusual shops like the specialist crime bookshop, No Alibis. Around the corner, Donegall Pass is Belfast’s Chinatown and antiques heartland.

For the best views, join the giraffes at the attractive Belfast Zoo, now a renowned conservation zoo, built into Cave Hill, which towers over the city, and take a walk to nearby Belfast Castle for an equally spectacular panorama of the lough.

Halcyon days

The centre of Belfast is dominated by the magnificent City Hall. Built in response to Queen Victoria’s grant of city status, it reflects the pride and ambition of those halcyon days. Nobody minds now that it went far over budget, thanks to the fine marble halls that embellish its interior, and a Lord Mayor’s Suite built by the craftsmen that worked on Titanic. Its pleasant grounds remain the place to relax in the city centre. Every spring and Christmas continental markets appear here and a Titanic Memorial Garden contains statues of Edward Harland and Lord Pirrie, the man behind Titanic, as well as the sombre Titanic Memorial itself.

The streets leading off Donegall Square are packed with bars, restaurants and clubs. Fine eating places include Deane’s, winner of a Michelin star, celebrity chef Paul Rankin’s Cayenne, the new award-winner Coco and James Street South. Two of the best value are the Mourne Seafood Bar, where Northern Ireland’s superb local seafood and fish are best appreciated, and the intimate Ginger. Speaking of eating, Ireland’s oldest covered market, St George’s, is the place for artisan foods. It’s also the end stop of Belfast Bred, a dramatised food history tour that feeds and waters visitors at key foodie locations.

While stylish bars like the Apartment and Café Vaudeville are proliferating, the best places to get to know the locals are the traditional pubs. If you’ve time, Belfast Pub Tours give you a great taster, beginning at a Victorian masterpiece, the Crown Liquor Saloon, with its ten wooden snugs. Other gems on the tour include the triangular Bittles and the ancient Kelly’s Cellars (home to great traditional sessions).

Live music has become another big plus, whether it’s indie bands at the Spring and Airbrake or stars at the historic Ulster Hall, Belfast Waterfront Hall and Odyssey Arena.

Shopping is another attraction, at spectacular centres like the new Victoria Square or locally flavoured independents like Smyth and Gibson’s shirts, Steenson’s jewellery or crafts at the Wicker Man. For chic boutiques head for leafy Lisburn Road.

Saving the best for last, while Titanic may be garnering the headlines, most visitors to the city find it’s the warmth and humour of the people that are the main attraction. Why not join them?