The regeneration that Belfast has undergone in the last couple of decades has restyled not just its skyline but its reputation. Its Titanic associations have been buffed and polished, its fizzing nightlife is now common knowledge, and its Victorian architecture is these days complemented by no small number of modish hotels and designer shops. Negative social headlines might still emerge sporadically, but they haven’t stopped the momentum of change and innovation. As recently as 2012 National Geographic Traveler described the city as “a capital that is redefining itself in the eyes of the world”, and the process continues apace.
The pull of Northern Ireland’s coastal scenery – not least the UNESCO-listed spectacle of Giant’s Causeway – means a boost in visitor numbers to the region over summer, and Belfast itself gives plenty of reasons to linger in the city. The annual Music in the Parks programme brings live performances to public parks from May to September, ably backed up by festivals such as Féile an Phobail (August), which was established as a showcase for community arts, and Rose Week (July). If it’s rock music you’re after, meanwhile, the summer gigs put on for the Belsonic Festival bring big-name acts to Custom House Square each August.
Belfast isn’t the largest of capitals (the city proper plays home to less than 300,000 people) but it’s big enough to benefit from a major bus network, serving a dozen ‘high-frequency corridors’ into the centre from all corners. Taxi ranks are found around town. For the key sights, open-topped sightseeing buses are on offer, as are black cab tours of the Shankill and Falls Road murals. Interesting to note are the shared ‘People’s Taxis’ still operating semi-fixed routes from the town centre to West Belfast, usually only departing when full – another legacy of The Troubles.
Top cultural sites
The opening of Titanic Belfast (Queens Island) in early 2012, which coincided with the centenary of the famous ship’s untimely maiden voyage, has seen the museum become the most high-profile attraction in the city. The sharply designed building sits on the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard where the vessel was constructed. Elsewhere in town, key sights include the Renaissance-era extravagance of City Hall (Donegall Square) and – especially good if you happen to be thirsty – the National Trust-owned Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria Street), arguably the UK’s most ornate pub.
Best for families
The sleeping giant-like contours of the Belfast Hills are said to have inspired writer Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels, and there’s plenty more to fire young imaginations in the city itself. A prime example is W5, the award-winning science and discovery centre at the Odyssey (2 Queens Quay) – it has more than 250 interactive exhibits. Other key family attractions include Belfast Zoo (Antrim Road), which occupies a peaceful hillside spot on the city outskirts, and the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum (153 Bangor Road), a chance for youngsters to experience age-old traditions and vintage vehicles.
Best for couples
When Victoria Square was regenerated a few years ago, it represented the largest such urban project in Europe, and the resulting Victoria Square Shopping Centre now bills itself as one the UK’s most upmarket retail malls. Among its 50-plus stores is the country’s largest House of Fraser. For couples in search of luxurious accommodation, prime options include The Merchant Hotel (16 Skipper Street), a refurbished banking hall complete with spa and champagne bar. And for evening entertainment, why not take in a show at the century-old Grand Opera House (2-4 Great Victoria Street)?
If you love a thrill
There’s good choice for Belfast visitors in search of a raised pulse. The T13 urban sports complex (Queens Road, opposite Titanic Belfast) encompasses BMX, skateboarding, kick scooter, breakdancing, urban art and DJing, while Adrenalin Karting (Unit 1 Cedarhurst Road) features the biggest indoor go-karting track in Ireland. A 45-minute drive from town is The Jungle (60 Desertmartin Road), a base for everything from paintball to zorbing. And if you’d rather watch than get stuck in, the Belfast Giants ice hockey team play at the Odyssey Arena (2 Queens Quay) most weekends from September to April.
Best hidden gems
Belfast is recognised as being one of the best-value city destinations in the UK, so it’s fortunate that there are plenty of relaxed cafés and pubs in which to test the theory. Try breakfast at Rhubarb (2 Little Victoria Street), a friendly spot with a focus on local ingredients, or gorge on caramel squares and bubble tea at the Little Cupcake Cafe (8 Bedford Street). For a stronger drink, the handsome Bittles Bar (70 Upper Church Lane) is a narrow but convivial pub with some good microbrews. To walk off any excesses the next day, the redeveloped Lagan Towpath stretches for 20km from central Belfast to Lisburn.