David Atkinson finds the capital of Northern Ireland is rich in maritime heritage and swish hotels.
The 75-hectare regenerated dockside area in East Belfast, the Titanic Quarter, is still a work-in-progress but plans for the Titanic 100 Festival, celebrating the centenary of the vessel’s launch, are well under way for April 2012. The Titanic Belfast Museum (titanicbelfast.com), scheduled to open at the same time, will be the centrepiece with nine high-tech galleries. Currently, Titanic Walking Tours (titanicwalk.com) cost £12 and take in the ship’s Drawing Offices, the slipways where it was built and Belfast’s iconic pair of canary-yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath.
The west bank of the Lagan, across the river from the Titanic Quarter, offers a snapshot of changing Belfast. The Custom House, just off Donegall Quay, is a stately 1850s building with a triumvirate of sculpted heads – Neptune, Britannia and Mercury – gazing down over the dancing fountains of Custom House Square. Back on the quayside, admire the city’s tallest resident, the Ring of Thanksgiving, a 19.5-metre-tall steel sculpture of a woman holding a ring, symbolising universal peace. Look out for the unassuming door of Tedfords (tel +28 9043 4000; tedfordsrestaurant.com) on the quayside, a refined, maritime history-rich restaurant for seafood that’s open for lunch and dinner.
Head north, stopping for a moment to appreciate the Albert Memorial Clock Tower (Belfast’s answer to Pisa’s leaning tower), before entering the Cathedral Quarter. St Anne’s Cathedral gave this buzzy area its name, but it’s best known today as a hub for dining, drinking and art events with Donegall, Waring and Hill streets the places to be seen. A real catalyst for development has been the opening of the Merchant hotel, Belfast’s most chi-chi address, and its Bar at the Merchant is a good place to stop for a pick-me-up. But think twice before buying a round… Guinness World Records once credited the hotel with the world’s most expensive cocktail at £750. Visit themerchanthotel.com
Grand Opera House and europa hotel
Cut across the centre, passing City Hall (pictured above) and some independent boutiques, as you head to the Grand Opera House (goh.co.uk) on Great Victoria Street. The historic building has undergone a major revamp, adding a new wing to the auditorium. Next door, the Europa hotel is a city icon, having survived numerous bomb attacks and welcomed everyone from war correspondents to US presidents. Visit hastingshotels.com
The last stop, a few minutes away, is a cultural powerhouse in the heart of Queen’s Quarter. The museum reopened in 2009 following a £17 million revamp, and entry is free. The venue has sections devoted to both art and history and, while the first is home to an interesting range of works including one by Gilbert and George, the second is most compelling. The exhibit on 20th-century Irish history is fascinating. Open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm. Visit nmni.com