After surviving decades of violence, Belfast is finally enjoying the fruits of peace in the form of a major construction boom. Mark Caswell visits the city that is building for a better future.

For most of the past century, Belfast has been on the wrong end of history. The Northern Irish capital saw its greatest achievement, the RMS Titanic, sink without trace, and the city itself subsequently became mired in decades of sectarian violence. Today Belfast is finally hitting the headlines for all the right reasons, with the recent restoration of power-sharing government at Stormont; but behind the scenes the city has already quietly engineered its renaissance.

For years a city patrolled by armoured police vehicles and under the constant threat of violence, Belfast has transformed itself into a bustling capital with a lively social scene and increasing visitor numbers – 2006 saw a 5 percent rise in business visitors and a 12 percent increase in leisure visitors on 2005, and in the four years between 2002 and 2006 the number of hotel rooms sold has increased by some 32 percent (despite the total number of rooms available increasing by just 7 percent). Notorious Protestant and Catholic “Troubles” areas such as the Shankill Road and neighbouring Falls Road, once the scene of sectarian violence, now swarm with guided black cabs carrying tourists clambering over each other to see the outdoor art gallery that is the muralled walls.

One such tourist guide is Billy Scott, a Belfast resident and a Blue Badge Institute of Tourist Guiding holder. Once he had finished ribbing me about Northern Ireland’s “historic” 1-0 win over England at the last World Cup qualifiers (at the time of going to press Northern Ireland stood in a creditable third place in its European Qualifying table), Scott proceeded to take me on a whistlestop cab tour of Belfast new and old.

Modern developments like the Laganside project fit neatly beside famous hotels such as the Europa, believed to be the most bombed hotel in the world, and historic pubs such as the Crown Liquor Saloon. Dating back to 1885, legend has it that the Catholic owner revenged himself on his Protestant wife, who had given the pub a name signifying allegiance to the British royal family, by including a floor mosaic of a crown at the entrance to the bar for visitors to trample on.

Of course, the reality in Belfast during the Troubles was not nearly so light-hearted. Scott took me to one of the city’s “peace lines” – a 7.62-metre-high concrete wall separating Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, and showed me the shatter zones, so-called because of the sound of shattering glass that would signify sectarian fighting. These days the city is at peace, but the walls, murals and memorials serve as a timely reminder – we drove past the Beacon of Hope, a 15-metre-high sculpture by Queen’s Bridge of a female figure atop a globe, known affectionately to the locals as the “doll on the ball” (according to Scott, at least).

Most of the violence in Belfast centred around the poorer areas to the north-west of the city, with the wealthier inhabitants living around southerly Malone Road and Queen’s University, the city’s famous centre of learning which has recently been inducted into the UK’s Ivy League of research universities. It’s in this part of town that you’ll find the café culture enjoyed by students and visitors – Botanic Avenue in particular is a hive of activity. Those with time on their hands should follow this road up to the city’s Botanic Gardens, with its immaculately kept lawns and 19th-century Palm House, a domed glasshouse packed full of plants including a 400-year-old Xanthorrhoea. The park feels a world away from the Belfast’s bustling streets, and must have seemed like a peaceful haven during the Troubles.

Of course, not all of Belfast’s history has been so disturbed. Its geographical position at the mouth of the River Lagan made it the ideal city for ship building, and in the early 1900s, Belfast boasted the world’s largest shipyard, courtesy of Harland and Wolff. Little surprise then that the company was chosen as the builders of the RMS Titanic, at that time the world’s largest passenger steamship. Even the sinking of “The Ship of Dreams” on its maiden voyage didn’t dent the shipyard’s success – in its heyday H&W employed some 35,000 workers, and during the Second World War was responsible for repairing over 22,000 vessels. The shipyard also boasts two of the largest cranes in the world, the bright yellow giants known as Samson and Goliath which can be seen from various parts of the city.

The shipbuilding industry has since declined to the extent that just a few hundred workers now remain at H&W, but the memory of the city’s maritime past is guaranteed with the city council’s recent purchase of the SS Nomadic, the last surviving tender ship of the Titanic. Moored in Queen’s Quay, the Nomadic opened to visitors earlier this year and is currently undergoing feasibility studies, including the possibility of putting in new engines to restore it to its former glory.

A memorial to those who lost their lives in the Titanic shipwreck can be seen at Belfast City Hall, and the name also lives on through a vast development project, the Titanic Quarter, located on reclaimed land formerly owned by H&W. There are ambitious plans for a Titanic-themed attraction park, a riverside entertainment centre, apartments and a blue-chip technology district, although much of this remains some years off.

The H&W cranes may still dominate the Belfast skyline, but it is construction of another nature which is driving the city’s future. Building cranes pepper Belfast’s city centre, and a proposed 109-metre mixed-use building was announced earlier this year to be located on central Queen Victoria Street – a tower which, if approved, would be the tallest building in Northern Ireland by some distance.

Until then, though the record books will have to make do with the £50 million (US$100 million), 80-metre high Obel Tower, a residential apartment block due to open later this year. All 182 apartments were sold within 48 hours of construction beginning, and the tower will stand proud against the banks of the River Lagan, the crowning glory of the £1 billion (US$2 billion) Laganside regeneration project.

The area around the River Lagan has been transformed over the past decade following years of neglect, and now boasts the Waterfront Hall, a 2,600-seater concert hall and exhibition centre, as well as a Hilton hotel and the Odyssey, an entertainment centre including an IMAX cinema, several bars, restaurants and clubs, and a 10,000-seat indoor arena, home to the Belfast Giants ice hockey team.

At the south end of the Laganside project lies the Gasworks, a redeveloped site comprising government offices, a Halifax call centre employing some 2,000 people, and the Radisson SAS Hotel. Once employing as many workers as the call centre does now, the city’s gasworks lay derelict from 1988 until its redevelopment, which has seen several of the buildings and the original clock tower restored.

The river itself has also had a makeover. As the natural ebb and flow of the tide had previously caused unsightly deposits and an “unpleasant odour”, a weir has been added to keep the water levels artificially high. The Lagan is now so clean that salmon, trout and even otters have returned to its waters. The towpath alongside the river has also been restored and is now a pleasant 12-mile walkway and cycle path which attracts over 500,000 visitors every year.

What is particularly impressive is the way in which the private sector has embraced public regeneration in the city. Jackie Johnston, director of Belfast City Centre regeneration, says: “For every pound of public-sector investment in the Laganside development it has triggered £5 (US$10) in private-sector investment. It has also created nearly 15,000 jobs for the city.”

Johnston adds that Laganside is just one of a raft of urban regeneration projects happening in Belfast over the next few years. “Victoria Square is a £330 million (US$660 million) development project, including around 600,000sq ft of retail space and anchored by a flagship House of Fraser store. When it opens next year it will increase the retail floor space in the city by about one third, and it will also aim to take the retail offering upmarket, something which at the moment is broadly mid-market.”

Other projects include a £360 million (US$720 million) development called Royal Exchange, located near Cathedral Quarter and slated to be finished in 2012, with a mixture of hotels, office and retail space. Public spaces are also in line for a facelift, with the multi-million-pound Streets Ahead programme being carried out by EDAW, an international design firm responsible for the reshaping the cityscapes of Manchester and Barcelona. “It really is an urban regeneration renaissance,” says Johnston. “The amount of private investment wanting to come into the city is phenomenal but understandable, given that there was hardly any here for about 30 years.”

The combination of regeneration and peaceful times has led to a surge in the city’s property prices, outstripping the rest of the UK (which has hardly been slacking). Average house prices in Belfast stand at £263,000 (US$526,000), up more than 60 percent from 2006, and Northern Ireland as a whole is now the fourth most expensive region in the UK after London, its suburbs, and the south-east coast of England. It’s no coincidence that, since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, prices have risen by more than 280 percent, compared with the UK average of 179 percent.

This affluence is also attracting foreign retail investment into the city, with a 29,000-square-metre IKEA store due to open later this year. Indeed, Belfast has achieved something of a coup in beating Dublin to have the first of the Swedish giant’s outlets in Ireland – the Republic had been due to open its own store at around the same time, but the plans have been delayed due to concerns over traffic implications. The Belfast store will be located in Hollywood Exchange, a retail development close to Belfast City Airport, and will employ around 500 people. This should help to hammer down even further Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate, which stood at 4.2 percent for the first quarter of this year, some 1.3 percent below the UK average.

The city is even attracting Hollywood of another nature, with Tom Hanks currently directing a science fiction film in town. The dual Oscar winner has taken over a former paint hall within the H&W shipyard for the project – his curious casting requirements included “a serious cyclist, a female jockey, and a very athletic or agile child”. Whether this film can hit the heights of the most famous story to take place in the Belfast docks is debatable, but even without Hollywood’s movie millions it seems the city is on course for a blockbuster future.

For more information on Belfast, visit, and to arrange a city and mural tour email [email protected]

Europa Hotel
The world’s most bombed hotel, the Europa has 240 rooms in the city centre. Rooms start from US$218;

Days Hotel Belfast
At 250 rooms and with a 150-seat restaurant, this is the largest hotel in Northern Ireland. Rooms start from US$168.43;

Hilton Belfast
Situated next to the city’s Waterfront Hall, this 195-room hotel has views over the river Lagan. Rooms start from US$253.81;

Holiday Inn Belfast
Just south of the city centre, the Holiday Inn has 170 rooms and facilities for 600 delegates. Rooms start from US$265.53;

Close Formerly, the McCausland Hotel. It has 62 Standard Rooms plus two suites. Rooms start from US$277.42;

The Merchant Hotel
Formerly the headquarters of the Ulster Bank, this Cathedral Quarter hotel has 26 rooms. Rooms start from US$277.42;

Park Plaza Belfast
Close to the international airport, this four-star hotel has 106 rooms and 10 conference suites. Rooms start from US$198;

Radisson SAS Hotel
One of two Radissons in Northern Ireland, it’s part on the site of the former Belfast Gasworks, which closed in 1988. It has 120 rooms, of which, 90 are standard and seven are one-bedroom suites; an Italian restaurant, the Filini; and five meeting rooms with different capacities. Rooms start from US$277.42;

Stormont Hotel
Four miles from the city centre, this 110-room hotel next to Stormont Castle has 16 conference suites. Rooms from US$178.34;

Ten Square
This central 22-room boutique option has an events space for 200 delegates, and the popular Grill Room. Rooms start from US$327;

Travelodge Belfast Central
One street across from the Europa, this budget option has 90 rooms starting from US$136.73. Visit