A troubled city reborn
In 1981, the pictures of Belfast on the world’s television screens were of hunger strikes, bombs and bullets, and the worst job in the world was the Head of Northern Ireland Tourism. Thirty years later the images on television screens were of Lady Gaga, Queen, Coldplay, and what looked like every music star on the planet arriving in town for the 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards. This is proof that the city, plagued for three decades by what locals called The Troubles, is now as cosmopolitan a city as any in Europe.
With the cobbled streets of the Cathedral Quarter reborn as a buzzing nightlife hub; the inspired Titanic museum at last commemorating Belfast’s role in building the great doomed liner; an excellent live music scene celebrating the legacy of local heroes (such as Van Morrison), and glorious Victorian architecture, the city really is a destination in its own right. And beyond the city lies the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea, the world’s oldest distillery, the Giant’s Causeway, the idyllic Fermanagh lakes and the Antrim Coast Road, one of the great drives of Europe.
Hot right now . . .
Geoff Hill, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat, drink and stay this season.
Hill Street in the Cathedral Quarter has become the heart of the city’s nightlife over the past couple of years. With eight bars within three minutes’ walk, most with live music, it’s perfect for an evening of civilised flâneuring. If you’ve only time for one pub, The Duke of York (7-11 Commercial Ct; 028 9024 1062) has a great combination of atmosphere, live music and friendly staff.
The food at The Muddlers Club (1 Warehouse Lane; 028 9031 3199) in the Cathedral Quarter is so good, a Michelin star could be in the offing. The salt-aged steak is so perfect it will move you to tears, while those who’d rather hug cows than eat them will rave about the vegetarian options.
The Grand Central (9-15 Bedford Street; 028 9023 1066), Belfast’s newest, tallest and biggest hotel, has a great location, flawless food, comfortable rooms and fantastic city views from the upper rooms and the Observatory cocktail bar above. Even if you're not staying as a guest of the hotel, make a trip to the aformentioned bar on the 23rd floor – it's the highest place to indulge in a tipple in the city. Doubles from £190.
48 hours in . . . Belfast
After breakfast, head to Castle Place to get your bearings with the Belfast City Sightseeing Tour (028 9032 1321), a 90-minute hop-on, hop-off jaunt on an open-top bus – the perfect introduction to the city. Tickets are valid for 48 hours, so you can do a recce and come back for more.
Once you’ve got the lay of the land, hop off at harbourside Titanic Belfast (1 Olympic Way, Queens Road; 028 9076 6386). This glittering metal edifice is the world’s biggest Titanic museum, with 10 galleries over six floors. The displays start with an inspired look at how Victorian Belfast was an industrial powerhouse, then move on to the great ship’s conception, construction, launch, tragic maiden voyage and rediscovery at the bottom of the Atlantic. It's one of the busiest attractions in the city so book online ahead of your visit to avoid the queues.
The formula of Mourne Seafood Bar (34-36 Bank Street; 028 9024 8544) is simple and perfect for lunch: fresh fish dishes in rustic surroundings at reasonable prices. Try the ceviche and the crab and chorizo risotto, and there are daily specials such as hake, monkfish, sea bream and more, plus steak for non-pescaphiles. Note that lunch is no reservations.
Having learned about Titanic on land, top off the story from the sea with Derek Booker. His one-hour Titanic Harbour Boat Tour (028 9024 0124) on the jaunty cream and red Joyce Too, leaving from Donegall Quay, contains witty and wonderful tales of the ship and the characters of the shipyards. In summer, look out for Belfast's own seal colony.
Back on land, hop on the city bus or take a taxi to Crumlin Road Gaol (53-55 Crumlin Road; 028 9074 1500), which opened in 1845 as one of the most advanced prisons of its day, closed in 1996 and reopened as an attraction in 2012. The tour includes the Governor’s Office, the execution cell where 17 men were hanged between 1854 and 1961, the flogging room, and the tunnel under Crumlin Road to the courthouse where prisoners were sentenced.
The ever-changing menu at Eipic (28-40 Howard Street; 028 9033 1134), celebrity chef Michael Deane’s latest Michelin-starred restaurant, is always witty and satisfying. Famous fans of the restaurant include Roger Moore, who had lunch and dinner there three days running. For a less expensive option, the same building houses Michael’s less expensive but still excellent Meat Locker (for grills) and Love Fish(for, er, seafood).
After that, you may not want to hit all eight pubs in the Cathedral Quarter, so wind down with a nightcap at the Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria Street; 028 9024 3187), five minutes’ walk from Eipic. It’s the only pub in the United Kingdom owned by the National Trust; the listed, ornate interiors were created by Italian craftsmen in Belfast’s Victorian heyday.
St George’s Market (12-20 East Bridge Street; 028 9043 5704), built in the 1890s, is the only surviving covered Victorian market in Belfast. The Saturday and Sunday markets have a huge, infinitely tempting range of local, continental and specialty foods and local art and crafts, to a backdrop of live music. If you’re self-catering and cooking later, get up at dawn to head straight for the market - this is the ideal time to get the best cuts before local chefs pounce.
After wandering around, treat yourself to coffee and the best cupcakes in town at Muriel’s Café Bar (12-14 Church Lane; 028 9033 2445), a former Victorian dressmakers and bordello.
Have lunch in Edō (2, Capital House, 3 Upper Queen Street; 028 9031 3054). Chef Jonny Elliott first worked under Gordon Ramsay, followed by a stint on a Russian billionaire’s yacht in the Med, and that regional influence shines through in his food. The tapas are great, but the slow-roasted ham hock and salt-aged beef cheek are divine. Finish with the churros – if you have any space left.
Afterwards, order a taxi to take you the six miles to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, Holywood (153 Bangor Road; 028 9042 8428), one of the great, lesser-known museums in Europe. It has a transport section filled with planes, trains and automobiles, and a folk section which brilliantly recreates rural and urban Northern Ireland life in the early 20th century. You could easily spend a full day here, so if time is short, pick either the folk or the transport section.
The food at Belfast's other Michelin-starred restaurant OX (1 Oxford Street; 028 9031 4121) is beautifully presented, understated and elegant. If your budget and/or palate is all Michelined out, The Muddlers Club in the Cathedral Quarter is a cheaper but very satisfying option (1 Warehouse Lane; 028 9031 3199).
Afterwards, walk three minutes to The National Grande Café (62 High Street; 028 9031 1130) for a nightcap in a rooftop bar with great views of the Albert Clock, Belfast’s own leaning tower of Pisa.
Where to stay . . .
The Merchant Hotel, in the grand 1860 Italianate former Ulster Bank HQ, remains a stylish way to see the city. It has a superb location to experience the Cathedral Quarter nightlife, as well as an excellent spa and fantastic food. There's Bert’s Bar, a lovely recreation of a 1920s New York bar, and The Great Room, which features classical French recipes using the finest local ingredients.
Doubles from £200. 16 Skipper Street; 028 9023 4888
Some hotels try so hard to be hip that they go out of fashion between checking-in and checking-out, but designer John Busteed has createdBullitt, a haven of pale wood, exposed brick, leather, earthy colours and original artwork which will stay cool for ages. The trendy rooftop bar, Babel, comes with great views and a retractable roof.
Doubles from £120. 40a Church Lane; 028 9590 0600
Tara Lodge has for years been ranked as one of the top hotels in Belfast, and it's easy to see why: it offers a handy location, friendly and helpful staff, scrumptious breakfasts, off-street parking, comfortable rooms and stylish details throughout – all for great value. The hotel is located on a peaceful side street just off the busy and cosmopolitan Botanic Avenue in the leafy south of the city.
Doubles from £75. 36 Cromwell Road, Botanic Avenue; 028 9059 0900
What to bring home . . .
Take home luxurious lambswool, cashmere and mohair blankets, throws and clothes from Avoca (41 Arthur Street; 028 9027 9950), which have been woven in its family-run mill in County Wicklow since 1723. The shop also carries exquisite ceramics and tableware.
Sample Irish whiskey from The Friend at Hand (35-43 Hill Street; 028 9032 9969), ranging from miniatures at £5 to £11,000 for a bottle Midleton Pearl, one of only 112 in existence. Upstairs is a fascinating museum on the history of Belfast distilling.
When to go . . .
Weatherwise, the best times to visit are April to September, but be prepared at any time of year for all four seasons in the same day. Bear in mind that Northern Ireland can be very quiet for the traditional Protestant marches in the two weeks around the Twelfth of July, when many people disappear for their holidays.
Know before you go . . .
Currency: As in the rest of the United Kingdom, pounds sterling
Tipping: Practices are similar to the rest of the UK – usually 10 per cent minimum, 15 per cent or more for good service
Emergencies: Call 999. The police non-emergency number is 101
Clothes: If you’re wondering what clothes to bring, the answer is all of them, since the weather can change in five minutes
Tourist information:Ireland.com. In Belfast, your first stop on the ground should be the Belfast Welcome Centre (8-9 Donegall Square North; 028 9024 6609) in front of City Hall. There you can find out everything you need to know about all of Northern Ireland, as well as book tours, pick up maps, check email in the internet café or leave your luggage
The Belfast Visitor Pass, from translink.co.uk, offers unlimited travel in and around the city and discounts to attractions, restaurants, cafes and shops, from £6.50 per day
After attending university in Belfast, Geoff worked in the Netherlands, Los Angeles and London before returning to live in a grand Victorian town house beside a lake, just 10 minutes from city centre – where else can you do that?
Experience Belfast with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours, cruises and holidays in Belfast, tried, tested and recommended by our Belfast experts.