Niamh Horan: Belfast city break "puts Dublin to shame"
Belfast is arguably one of the best getaway locations in Ireland, says The Sunday Independent's Niamh Horan.
It's rare that I go to the pub with my mother.
In fact, I think this was the first time I ever found myself propped up at a bar beside her. And I couldn't pick a more perfect place for the baptism of fire.
She was in her element. On the walls, the counters behind the bar, everywhere I turned, pictures of the Sacred Heart and statues of Our Lady looked down on us. She beamed as she surveyed the surroundings.
"If only every pub was decorated like this," she said. "You would never get up to anything bold with him looking over you."
The Spaniard pub (thespaniardbar.com) in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter is just one of the quirky attractions I spotted during the weekend I spent in what is arguably one of the best getaway locations in Ireland.
It's a compact city but it boasts over seven million tourists each year. And with its unique cultural and historical gems, it's no wonder it manages to attract so many.
In fact I'm going to go so far as to say that it puts Dublin to shame.
Ireland's capital is dirty in comparison to what they're offering across the border. If there's one memory I will take from the weekend, it's the flowers and cleanliness of the city. Colourful hanging baskets adorn the streets. Litter is nowhere to be seen.
The red-brick Victorian buildings are a welcome sight in comparison to the mostly grey and dull infrastructure back home.
And the people are its finest asset.
In a way, Dublin seems to have lost a bit of its warm heart during the Tiger years. But perhaps because Belfast's citizens have been through so much, they are eager to heal the scars left by the Troubles, and to remind us that they are more than their past. And their eagerness to prove it shows.
Not that the Troubles haven't brought their own fair share of tourist attractions.
I was expecting the Falls and Shankill Road to be an ominous trip through the heartland of terror. But what I found in its place was almost comical.
The black taxi tours are by far the best way to see city's famous murals and estates, especially if you want a quick history lesson on how the Troubles started, finished and everything in between.
We took a drive with our larger-than-life driver, Billy, to see a number of evocative sites symbolising the worst years of the conflict.
One of my favourite stops on the drive was the famous peace wall, where we wrote our own personal message of love and peace to add to the thousands scribbled by other pilgrims.
In a lighter moment, we witnessed what can only be described as a 'terrorism safari' in one of the estates once considered a complete 'no go' area.
Picture the scene. A tough-looking guy walking two large pitbulls on the end of a heavy link chain in one of the more notorious west Belfast housing estates. His arms and neck are covered in tattoos that reveal an allegiance to a terrorist splinter group.
He looks menacing enough, until a busload of American tourists pull up. Their noses are pressed up against the windows as they take pictures of this foreign species. He, meanwhile, seems to be loving the attention.
These estates are crawling with buses and black cabs full of over-zealous tourists. It takes the chill factor out of the area and makes it all a little bit amusing.
Did we ever think we'd see the day?
But then the Northern Irish are not short of a sense of humour either. I note with a chuckle the name of one nearby outlet: 'A Salt and Battered' fish and chip shop. You have to give them credit.
Take-away food aside, when it comes to dining, Belfast holds its own. James Street South (jamesstreetsouth.co.uk) restaurant is my personal favourite. My mom swore she ate the best steak she's ever had there - but my palate was woken up by the incredible crab lasagne in a brown crabmeat bisque.
When it comes to their pub food, the standard of presentation is to be commended. A simple dish such as the chicken skewers and sweet potato fries in the Cloth Ear of the Merchant Hotel was served up to us from a quirky hanging tree.
The city itself is bursting with things to see and do. Belfast Castle at the Cave Hill site is a must-see. If you want to stay outdoors, Belfast contains more than 3,000 acres of parkland.
But the most popular attraction has to be Titanic Belfast (titanicbelfast.com), a homage to the ship that was built in the city's docks, as well as to the men, women and children who perished in icy waters after taking off in what was hailed as a creation that "neither God nor man could sink".
The people behind the museum have paid incredible attention to detail. Visitors can peek into the first-class cabins where VIPs slept on the way to their deaths, read letters sent home from the ship and walk through the final moments of the people on board.
The words of Thomas Hardy stand out before you hear the SOS signal beeping frantically overhead: "as the smart ship grew in stature, grace and hue... In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too."
It is a genuinely chilling look back into one of the greatest tragedies in Ireland's history and if you haven't visited yet, put it on your list for 2016.
On the accommodation front, the best place to stay in Belfast is what I believe now stands as Ireland's best hotel: The five-star Merchant Hotel is the jewel in the crown of an exceptional city.
We stayed in the uber-chic Art Deco quarter of the hotel, where its mirrored headboards and rooftop hot-tub are for the young at heart.
From their pancake stacks and fry-up breakfasts to dinner at night - and regardless of whether you stay here or not - if you come to Belfast, a meal in the great room is not to be missed.
B&B at the Merchant Hotel (themerchanthotel.com) over the festive period from £230/€320 in a deluxe double room.
Overnight accommodation and breakfast in January and February starts from £180/€250 in a deluxe double room. Prices subject to availability.
For further information on things to see and do in Northern Ireland, see discovernorthernireland.com or Callsave 1850 230 230.
Sunday Indo Living