A year had gone by since I first touched down on the Emerald Isle for St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin and my memories were still crisp and clear: meet and greet with the President in his pretty palace, DJ party at Guinness Storehouse, champagne afternoon tea at the Four Seasons and waving at an ecstatic sea of green while rolling through the parade.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Land of Leprechauns, let it be known that the Emerald Isle is split in two: Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland to the south is a member of the European Union and Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland smiles for the Queen’s United Kingdom.
Belfast was once lumped with Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia as one of the four “Bs” for travellers to avoid. The city was regularly mired with gruesome international headlines, now politely referred to as The Troubles. Today Northern Ireland practices peace and Belfast has quite remarkably pulled off a transformation from bombs-and-bullets pariah to a hip hotels-and-hedonism party town.
The city’s skyline is in a constant state of flux: old shipyards are giving way to the luxury waterfront apartments of the Titanic Quarter and Victoria Square, Europe’s biggest urban regeneration project, has added a massive city-centre shopping mall to a list of tourist attractions that include Victorian architecture, glittering waterfront lined with modern art and foot-stomping music in packed out pubs.
In Belfast my “home away from home” would be the Fitzwilliam Hotel, glamorous neighbour to the Grand Opera House on Great Victoria Street. The design-led luxury property is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland’s capital, adding an enthusiastic stylish flare to the city. The look of The Fitz plays on “Baronial Moderne,” coined in reference to an interior design concept that marries traditional references to the grand baronial mansion house with a modernistic / deco styling. Arriving in the lobby guests are greeted by a cosy fireside nook, perfectly juxtaposed by edgy white leather sofas which sit on black and gold carpet under a dramatic double height lobby. On the 8th floor six studio suites boast fabulous open plan layouts where bedroom flows into bath, past a jaw dropping panorama of the city via floor to ceiling window wall. An opulent free standing bath offers the perfect solo bubble party while double walk in shower and glitzy dressing area adds a touch of refined romantic potential.
I arrived in Belfast just in time for the Giro d’Italia, only second to the Tour de France as the worlds most famous cycling competition with an audience of 775 million. There is a tradition of hosting the opening three stages of the race – the Grande Partenza or “Big Start” – outside of its home country of Italy every other year. This year, Northern Ireland was chosen to host a four day Big Start celebration of elite professional cycling, with three competition stages, visiting Belfast, the Causeway Coastal Route and Armagh, before moving on to Dublin. The Giro brand is a pretty pink and I’ll never forget the hilarious display of enthusiasm locals offered by dressing up the city as if she were a pretty pageant queen. In Belfast families cheered in the city centre while along the rural countryside of the Causeway Coast Irish humour was a perfectly pronounced pink; the exterior of pubs had been repainted, trees were adorned with streamers and balloons, bicycles had been sprayed and hoisted on rooftops and coy farmers dunked their sheep herds in fuchsia.
Sips and Nibbles: Belfast offers a wild array of dining options from affordable pub fare to glitzy glamorous over the top dining. During my visit I had the opportunity to enjoy many a fine feast: pub grub lunch at The John Hewitt, downtown dinner at the Fitzwilliam Hotel’s Restaurant, epic evening feast at Dean’s Meat Locker, celebration of Irish flavours at Hadski’s and the creme de la creme at Saphyre.
Ulster Museum: Recently reopened after a major revamp, the Ulster Museum is now one of the North’s don’t miss attractions just a short stroll from Queen’s University and the Botanical Gardens. The multi-purpose museum is broken down into three zones making a visit easy to navigate. Starting at the top floor, the Art Zone features a colourful display of sculptural and painterly works which highlight notable local artists. The Nature Zone starts at the ice age, passes through the dinosaur period and touches on the biology and geology found in Ireland today. A final jaunt through the History Zone showcases a swath of artifacts from prehistoric and Medieval Ireland, the plantation period of the 1600’s and The Troubles.
Architectural Highlights: St Anne’s Cathedral began construction in 1899 and was built in an imposing Hiberno-Romanesque style. The stunning mosaic of The Creation in the baptistery contains 150,000 pieces of coloured glass while the 10 pillars of the nave are topped by carvings symbolizing aspects of Belfast life.
Visitors to Belfast Castle stand on the slope of Cave Hill some 120 metres above sea level and take in beautiful panoramic views of the city and harbour below. The castle was built in 1870 for the third Marquess of Donegall, in the Scottish Baronial style made fashionable by Queen Victoria’s then recently built Balmoral. Legend has it that the castle’s residents will experience good fortune only as long as a while cat lives there, a tale commemorated in the formal gardens by nine portrayals of cats in mosaic, painting, sculpture and garden furniture.
The industrial revolution transformed Belfast in the 19th century, and its rapid rise to muck-and-brass prosperity is manifested in the extravagance of City Hall. Highlights from the free, 45 minute guided tour include sumptuous Italian marble and colourful stained glass of the entrance hall and rotunda; an opportunity to sit on the mayor’s throne in the council chamber; and the idiosyncratic portraits of past lord mayors.
Black Cab Mural Tour: Black Taxi tours of West Belfast’s murals – known locally as the “bombs and bullets” or “doom and gloom” tours – are offered by a large number of taxi companies and local cabbies and should be on every visitors Must Do list. Since the start of the Troubles, the gable ends of Belfast’s housing estates have been used as informal canvases, painted with colourful murals that serve as territorial markers, political statements and defiant symbols of Loyalist or Nationalist identity. As the “voice of the community” the murals were rarely permanent, but changed to reflect the issues of the day.
Titanic Belfast: Perhaps the most famous vessel ever launched, RMS Titanic was built in Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard for White Star Line. When her keel was laid in 1909 Belfast was at the height of its fame as a shipbuilding powerhouse. Today Belfast’s star attraction is Titanic Belfast, a world class museum which sits where the original ship was constructed. In its first year some one million visitors walked through the museums doors including Her Majesty the Queen, director James Cameron and Hilary Clinton. The iconic six-floor building features nine interpretive and interactive galleries that explore the sights, sounds, smells and stories of the Titanic, as well as the city and people who made her.
St. George’s Market: A short stroll from City Hall this elegant Victorian covered market, was built in 1896 for the sale of fruit, butter, eggs and poultry. The oldest continually operating market in Ireland was given a facelift after being recently restored in 1999. A local farmer offered me a quick tour of his fresh eggs before proudly showcasing a banner at the market which reads “UK’s Best Indoor Market 2014!” If you’re a food nerd like me and want to suss out the produce from Belfast’s finest farmers be sure to leave your Saturday or Sunday morning free. These two busy market mornings feature live music and the hustle and bustle of locals shopping for their weekly groceries. Perfect for people watching!
Spa at the Merchant Hotel: Belfast’s most flamboyant Victorian building (the old Ulster Bank head office) has been converted into the city’s most luxurious boutique hotel, a fabulous fusion of contemporary styling and old-fashion elegance. For those looking to rest their weary feet look no further than the Merchant Hotel’s petite spa. If you’re in a rush sign yourself up for The Spa Taster which features a quick refresh featuring relaxing hydrotherapy experience and choice of one 25 minute treatment: facial, back massage or body scrub.
My visit to Belfast was a press trip coordinated by Tourism Ireland. Flights, accommodation, restaurant visits and activities featured in this destination guide were complimentary.