Brave new Belfast: How the city went from Troubles to tourism
Belfast is transitioning from Troubles to tourism with a success few would have thought possible, says Pól Ó Conghaile.
I'm writing this week from Belfast - a city less than two hours by motorway from Dublin, a harbour gearing up for the start of the Tall Ships Races 2015 (July 2-5), and a hotspot turning heads thanks not just to Titanic Belfast, but to flourishing food and cultural scenes.
Ten years ago, I never could have written that paragraph. Heck, I couldn't have written it five years ago (not the foodie bit, anyway).
But since then, Titanic Belfast has opened. OX has given Northern Ireland a flagship 21st century restaurant. The MAC has arrived on to the arts scene. The Cathedral Quarter has become one of Ireland's hippest 'hoods. Crumlin Gaol is now a visitor attraction. Game of Thrones is as much of a selling point for Antrim, Down and Derry as Lord of the Rings is for New Zealand. There's a new FolkTown Market to complement St George's.
Every time I visit, there's something fresh to do... just as there should be on a city break.
Of course, Belfast has a way to go. On Sunday mornings, the place is a ghost town (use this time to visit Titanic or W5, the Odyssey Centre's interactive discovery centre). Its Black Taxi Tours can be magnificent... or mediocre. But the transition from Troubles to tourism continues, making it a beacon for post-conflict cities.
Next up? The green light has been given for a boutique hotel in Harland & Wolff's former HQ and drawing offices.
Road and rail access (train fares from Dublin start at €17.99 each-way with irishrail.ie) has never been easier, but the current Sterling exchange is a definite barrier for travel to Belfast. The Belfast Visitor Pass (visit-belfast.com; £6.50/€9 for one day) is one way to save, covering Metro bus tickets and discounting dozens of attractions - 10pc off Titanic Belfast, for example, and 30pc off the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum. Jurys Inns (jurysinns.com) and the Ibis (ibisbelfastcity.com) offer three-star stays. See discovernorthernireland.com for more.
The Merchant Hotel (themerchanthotel.com) is to my mind Belfast's finest hotel, straddling a Grade A listed former bank building and an Art Deco-inspired modern wing in the Cathedral Quarter. It has doubles from around €222. Nearby, the Malmaison Hotel (malmaison.com) brings its signature boutique decadence - and friendly service - to Victoria Street. A two-night offer bundling B&B, a cocktail and one dinner from £109/€152pp could be the start of a very slick weekend away.
NB: Prices subject to availability/change.