Thursday 19 October 2017

Travel Insider: Belfast keeps getting better, and Brexit makes it cheaper too

Travel tips & advice

Belfast's Christmas market
Belfast's Christmas market
The Merchant Hotel in Belfast
The Merchant Hotel in Belfast
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Belfast is improving all the time as a city break, and Brexit has made it cheaper, too says Pól Ó Conghaile.

Every time I visit, Belfast goes up a gear.

On my latest trip, the new Bullitt Hotel, EastSide Visitor Centre and CS Lewis Square had opened, and a raft of new retailers - including Stradivarious - were tempting Christmas shoppers. The city’s food scene is arguably second only to Dublin, and whisper it, but Brexit gave my euro a boost, too.

Amidst all the change lay one constant. Since it opened in the noughties, The Merchant Hotel has been one of the flagships around which Belfast has blossomed.

The Merchant Hotel in Belfast
The Merchant Hotel in Belfast

Already a masterful conversion of a Grade A-listed Victorian bank, it added a new, Art Deco-styled wing in 2010, creating a slick, tale-of-two-hotels effect that by now firmly ranks among Ireland’s finest five-stars.

The Merchant is glitzy and decadent, yet super-comfortable in its skin. I love the soaring Grand Room restaurant, but this time found a plush counterpoint in Bert’s Jazz Bar, with its velvet banquettes and 1930s murals. Service is smart, I didn’t want to leave my room’s rainshower, and lush contemporary art helps tie together two wings that don’t always connect intuitively inside.

A rooftop hot-tub, amped-up Art Deco decor and add-ons like its luxury ‘Water List’ occasionally lurch towards bling, but overall, its quality and confidence of touch make it, in my book, the city’s best hotel.

Here’s to Belfast in 2017. A new Titanic Hotel in the former Harland & Wolff HQ, a £6 million extension to the five-star Fitzwilliam and Game of Thrones Season 7 are all on the way. See more on visitbelfast.com.

Market magic

2016 marks the 12th year of Belfast’s Christmas market. Set in the grounds of City Hall, you’ll find dozens of wooden chalets selling arts and crafts, and the munchies have taken a step up too (among the Dutch pancakes, Spanish paella and German wursts, watch out for ice-cream chimneys at Rossi’s Ice Cream).

In my experience, the market can get pretty rammed at peak times, so I’d suggest going early, late or midweek (it opens from 10am-8pm Mon-Weds, 10am-10pm Thurs-Sun and 1pm-6pm on Sundays). See discovernorthernireland.com.

Merchant stays

iw Victorian D.jpg
The Merchant Hotel in Belfast

B&B with a three-course dinner at The Merchant Hotel (themerchanthotel.com) is available from £99/€116pp on a winter special (January-March).

Many Belfast families have a tradition of visiting the hotel’s 20-foot Christmas Tree, but you can go one better with a Christmas stay priced from £200/€234 for a deluxe Victorian room and breakfast in the Great Room.

If you can’t stay, swing by for a cocktail beneath the antique Baccarat chandeliers, or better still, a festive afternoon tea (from £26.50/€31pp), which is being served daily during December.

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