Belfast is a city on the up – but don’t just take my word for it. In the last year, it has attracted 2.4 million visitors, 70 conferences and nearly 652,000 visitor enquiries as well as being named Best UK City in the Guardian and Observer Travel Awards 2016.
With this in mind, and expectations high, I headed off to find out about the buzz for myself.
A short hop from Leeds Bradford Airport with Flybe and visitors are greeted by a stunning vista as they come in to land, the skyline dominated by two giant yellow cranes bearing the Harland and Wolff logo. Affectionately known as Samson and Goliath, these landmarks are visible from many parts of the city, a strong reminder of Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage and Titanic in particular.
Belfast is perfectly set up for a short break, as the airport is just ten minutes or so from the heart of the city. We were met by taxi tour guide Billy Scott, who made us feel at home straight away, pointing out attractions and cracking jokes from the get-go.
A taxi tour is a great way to see the city, as the driver’s knowledge, combined with the convenience of being chauffeured about, means you can sit back, relax and let the city unfold before your eyes.
We stopped at Hadskis for lunch, an upmarket establishment in Donegall Street, which was offering a special menu for Restaurant Week 2016. I don’t know what excited me more, the amazing-sounding food on offer or the chance that we might catch a glimpse of Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson as The Fall had been filmed nearby.
Restaurant Week focuses on showcasing local produce and this was evident from Hadskis’ menu, which featured Lough Neagh smoked eel, grilled lemon sole with dulse and Strangford shellfish, and for dessert, Armagh pear tart tatin.
Suitably refuelled, we headed off to the Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens, in the heart of the university area of south Belfast. The museum is definitely worth a visit and features artworks as well as historical exhibits.
Billy also took us to see the murals, in particular along the Shankhill Road, which were fascinating to see but also a solemn reminder of the Troubles. I don’t think a visit to Belfast would be complete without seeing these unique and poignant sights, along with accompanying graffiti on old roadblocks and barriers asking for peace.
Our weekend took a gastronomic turn again that evening when we joined the Titanic Taste Tour, a special event for Restaurant Week which takes diners on a journey thought the Titanic Quarter, sampling a different course in each restaurant.
Ferried from place to place on a road train known as The Wee Tram, we were treated to some stunning food in a diverse mixture of locations. These included beer and beef sliders at Cast & Crew; parsnip soup at the Scullery and the Yard at Belfast Met; Irish beef and seasonal vegetables at Bistro 401 at Titanic Belfast; a Baileys panna cotta at Cafe 1404 at Titanic Dock and Pump House, all topped off with Irish coffee at T13, a warehouse that is now a young people’s community project. The food, and the experience of being whisked by moonlight around the very shipyard where Titanic was built was an unforgettable experience.
The following morning we met up with Billy again for a walking tour of the vibrant St George’s Market and Victoria Square shopping mall, which affords visitors a stunning news of the city skyline from its magnificent dome.
After probably the best hot chocolate of my life at Co Couture, we walked to the nearby City Hall, a classical renaissance building that is still home to Belfast City Council.
After lunch at another wonderful restaurant, Home in Wellington Place, we headed to Titanic Belfast, which was recently named best attraction in Europe. The centre brings to life one of the world’s more tragic and fascinating stories on the very site where it all began.
Personal tales are told, both of those who survived and those who did not, and the technical feat of engineering that was Titanic is chronicled in every detail, from its creation to its demise.
In just two days, we managed to experience the heart of a city which is in the process of putting itself back on the map. Billy told us there is a shortage of hotel rooms at the moment and I can see why. This place has heart, hospitality and hope by the bucketload.
Flybe (flybe.com) operates five times daily between Leeds Bradford Airport and Belfast City Airport. Fares available from £27.99 one way, including taxes and charges.
Titanic Taste Tours explore the city’s maritime heritage through art, photography and food. For dates go to TQ Events Belfast on Facebook.
For more information go to visitbelfast.com