B elfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is a city in recovery mode. From 1968 to 1998 it was embroiled in the Troubles as Unionists and Republicans battled over whether the country should remain part of the United Kingdom or join a new united Ireland. Thankfully for all those concerned the war is over and the city is carving out a name for itself as an up-and-coming, trendy metropolis, with lots to see and do, and with plenty of bang for your buck.
The four-star Malone Lodge Hotel is a short distance from the city centre is and makes a superb choice of accommodation while in the northern capital. Located right beside the famous Queen’s University, the hotel combines good service with superb interior design, which revolves around minimal, yet homely interiors, paired with impressionist art on its walls.
The modern décor and feel to the hotel embodies in many ways the new Belfast and its desire to be something fresh and unique.
Similarly, some of the city’s top attractions also offer a nod to the past, while firmly planting their best foot forward.
The RMS Titanic was built in the city, and around the docklands where the ship was built, a simply superb museum has been constructed, which tells the history of the world’s most famous shipwreck; this detailed exhibition incorporates information on the construction, interior design, passengers, journey, sinking and search for the wreck of this famous vessel, which at the time was the largest moving piece of machinery in the world.
What’s more, the museum is housed in a stunning building that is designed in the shape of four ships’ hulls, clad in metal shards. The Eric Kuhne-designed building is reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and strolling around the exterior to gaze at its metal walls is part of the experience.
Nearby in the Northern Ireland Science Park one can also visit the Titanic’s Dock and Pump House where the ship was constructed.
The scale of the dock is quite incredible to behold, and the exhibit about the pump house that filled and emptied the dry dock gives a valuable insight into the engineering feats of the Edwardian age, which paved the way for man to build bolder and better as technology advanced.
The Troubles are over, but gaining an insight into that segment of Northern Ireland’s history is worthwhile, as without understanding the conflict to a fair degree it’s hard to gain a full grasp on the nature of this fascinating country.
The Crumlin Road Gaol is an excellent place to start that education. The prison was in working use from 1845 to 1996 and during that time housed many famous figures associated with Irish history, both Unionist and Republican.
Today, guided tours of the establishment run daily and give a fascinating insight into the lives of prisoners on both sides of the political divide during their time of incarceration.
Following a tour of the gaol, another must-see in Belfast are the murals that line the Republican Falls Road and the Unionist Shankill Road in west Belfast.
This area of the city was one of the main flashpoints for the Troubles and a huge 25ft high peace wall to divide the two communities still stands today. However, while in the past the wall was covered in paramilitary murals, today artists mainly use the wall for murals unrelated to the Troubles. In fact, grants are given to artists to create art that depict peace in Northern Ireland and the wider world.
Today, both areas are safe to visit, and walking both sides of the wall to take in the art is perhaps the most interesting attraction in the city.
But it’s not only history that Belfast has to offer. It also has a burgeoning restaurant and bar scene. The Malone Lodge Hotel’s Knife and Fork Grill restaurant is the place to go for steak, where the rib eye is an excellent choice.
In Belfast’s city centre, Ox restaurant is the fine dining eatery of choice, and in fact one of the best restaurants in Ireland.
Named Best Newcomer at the 2013 Irish Restaurant Awards, Ox is the creation of chef Stephen Toman, one of Belfast’s own, and Brittany’s Alain Kerloc’h, sommelier and restaurant manager.
Together the pair have turned an old tile store into a sleek, open-plan, urban eatery, where the eye-catching design is matched by a menu which prides itself on using the best local and seasonal ingredients.
Alain has also assembled a superb wine list that will leave you in no doubt as to his excellent knowledge of both whites and reds.
Top this off with excellent service and Ox provides a dining experience that should not be missed when in the city.
Following dinner, a short stroll will bring you to the Cathedral quarter, the up-and-coming nightlife area of the city, where you can grab a drink, and chat to the locals to get their take on where Belfast is headed in 2014.
The choice is huge and having a saunter around is probably the best way to find the kind of bar you’re looking for. However, a few that stood out for me were: The Spaniard if you want good beer in an intimate setting; Bert’s Bar at the Merchant Hotel for live jazz; and the Dirty Onion for its cool design, traditional Irish music and quality banter.
So, put the culture, history, food and drink together and Belfast offers something to cater for most tastes.
The city is different to any other on the island of Ireland, due to its unique past and mix of cultures, and most importantly it has citizens that are just aching to show visitors that their town is on the up.
Malone Lodge Hotel: http://www.malonelodgehotelbelfast.com/
Titanic Belfast: http://www.titanicbelfast.com/
Titanic’s Dock and Pump House: http://www.titanicsdock.com/
Crumlin Road Gaol: http://www.crumlinroadgaol.com/
Ox restraurant: http://oxbelfast.com/