Belfast: The city has some troubled memories, but Elaine Lemm found a new confidence and some rather wonderful food.
Staring into an 880ft long hole in the ground, I am trying to grasp the scale and impact of a space which was once the largest dry dock in the world and home to RMS Titanic. Thompson Dry Dock was where the ship was completed and from where she was launched in front of 100,000 people on May 31, 1911.
Titanic’s dry dock, and the iconic Harland and Wolffe gantries, known fondly as Sampson and Goliath, are tangible reminders of a bygone age when Belfast was not only the largest ship builder in the world, but also the largest linen manufacturer, tobacco industry and was where air-conditioning was invented, I am reliably informed my tour guide Billy Scott.
Billy owns and runs Belfast’s original Black Cab tours and is fiercely and justifiably proud of his city. He soberly reminds me that Belfast is known more for bombs, bullets and decades of sectarianism than its rich history and heritage.
However, a three-hour tour which includes the history as well as the political areas of the Falls and Shanklin Roads, Peace Wall and murals, leaves little doubt that Belfast is a beguiling city.
“Until recently, even the Titanic was rarely mentioned, we were embarrassed at what happened though she was all right when she left here,” he chuckles.
Now there is no avoiding the Titanic, it is plastered everywhere. No opportunity is missed from Titanic tours, ales and even an aptly named Thai Tanic oriental restaurant I notice from the back seat of my black cab.
The doomed ship is best represented at the recently opened £90m Titanic Belfast visitor centre, which is not part of the Cab Tour as it demands several hours to enjoy all nine floors. From the “Boomtown Belfast” section which creates a social context and lauds the industrial heritage of the city, to a train ride deep into a reconstruction of the shipyards, complete with noise, heat and odours. State of the art technology cleverly transports you through the ship from engine room, the ballroom, to the upper decks and a starlit sky and at the tour’s end, an eerie glimpse of Titanic’s ghostly remains on the ocean floor.
After such intensity, take a walk from the Titanic Quarter past Belfast Waterfront – one of the world’s leading concert and conference centres – to the city centre. It is well signposted and the walk will pull you back to the Belfast of today; a modern, thriving and cultural city. On the walk keep an eye out for inspirational artworks and sculpture including the Ring of Thanksgiving, a 15m high steel woman holding a ring representing peace and reconciliation, a theme you will become familiar with in the city.
Belfast city centre is compact with most attractions, hotels and restaurants in easy walking distance. Donegall Square is central to the city and hard to miss as it is home to the imposing City Hall which was based on St Pauls Cathedral in London. There are free tours around the magnificent Edwardian hall every day except Sunday.
The nearby Cathedral quarter houses galleries and the Metropolitan Arts Centre. Slightly further afield but worth the walk, are the Botanic Gardens and the Ulster Museum which are also free to visit.
While so much is made of the past, both the troubled and the celebratory, surprisingly, what Belfast is not doing is shouting more about their food. The inaugural Belfast Week was launched in 2012 to correct this. The week-long celebration showcased the great chefs, restaurants and pubs to be found in the city and Belfast is certainly gaining ground as a culinary destination thanks to this initiative.
The range of foods on offer are vast. Stalwarts are Deanes on Howard Street which has held a Michelin star for 13 years and Paul Rankin’s Cayenne which has been going strong for over two decades. Young guns are also ablaze and James Street South with Great British Menu chef Niall McKenna is a must for the fine cooking, and Shu on Lisburn Road will serve you eclectic, modern cooking, great wines and you can also dance the night away.
The Mourne Seafood Bar is unmissable and if jazz is your thing, Berts at the Merchant Hotel offers a touch of 30s New York with great food and music. There are many more besides.
Food lovers should not miss the St George’s Market built in 1896 and considered one of the best markets in the UK and Ireland (though it is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and if you want to know what to do with the great produce to be found there, then there are cookery schools dotted about the city. An evening class at The Belfast Seafood Cookery School on Castle Street with the talented (and humourous) chef Shea Trainor is an informative and fun way to spend an evening.
No visit to Belfast can be complete without a pint (or two) of the “Black Stuff” in a traditional pub. The Crown Liquor Saloon, Great Victoria Street is owned by the National Trust presumably to protect the stunning gas-lit interior and ornate snugs. If it is packed (and it usually is) there’s always the Duke of York, Commercial Court, for a stunning array of whiskies or the John Hewitt, Donegall Street for good pub grub and fine ales.
Such is the growing popularity of visiting Belfast, hotel rooms, across all price levels are in demand, so booking ahead is best, but the good news is that prices are still reasonable.
Flybe offer three flights daily from Leeds Bradford Airport to George Best Airport (City Airport) Belfast. Prices from £34.99 New Economy fare, one way including tax and charges.
Airport Bus number 600 to city centre departs every 20 minutes, fare £2.20 single
Black Cab City and Mural Tours: www.touraroundbelfast.com
Further Information: Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, 8 Donegal Place, Belfast BT1 5AD, www.gotobelfast.com