Hmpf! I’d thought the Troubles had been put to rest in Belfast, but hundreds of coppers, armed to the teeth, were milling around the Europa, known as the most-bombed hotel in Ireland. No worries, it turned out: It wasn’t the Irish Republican Army (IRA). It was Hillary Clinton. “Hello, Minneapolis,” the Secretary of State said. What Troubles?
Had Clinton snooped around the city (not her job—I’m the travel writer; she does the heavy lifting), she’d discover that Belfast is the boomtown of the Emerald Isle—and high time. First, America’s Prohibition felled the city’s whiskey industry, then ruthless Nazi bombing put a halt to shipbuilding—well after the Titanic was launched. “She was fine when she left here,” Belfasters are quick to note. Then, havoc from the Troubles, whose politically charged murals still emanate from brick walls of working-class West Dublin. The only Trouble I encountered there was trying to focus my camera.
Nowadays, its “Cheers!” everywhere you wander—the all-purpose Irish word for hello/good-bye/good luck/God bless. And there’s a lot to cheer about.
The luxe Merchant Hotel is adding a spa. The new Fitzwilliam Hotel struts a stylish decor of black, white, and lime. The Malmaison, carved from vintage warehouses, is all Alice in Wonderland inside.
Each boasts a destination restaurant where Modern Irish chefs wallop taste buds with riffs on granny food, such as the Fitzwilliam’s bacon-and-cabbage terrine with leek puree, or Benedict of locally smoked salmon; the Merchant’s scallops and ham pie with cauliflower, or star-anise-scented venison Wellington; and the Malmaison’s plate of roast pigeon, black pudding, and bacon on lentils, following pea soup served with Cashel Blue cheese scones.
Smart, but not showoffy: That’s not Belfast. Stylish (as chic shops attest), but stripped of attitude. And talk about good value: Posh Londoners and Dubliners are streaming here on holiday to get their money’s worth.
“Right, then! Got yourself sorted out? Brilliant!” the concierge sang each morning, no matter if I had a plan at all. But I did. I decided to explore each of the city’s compact districts in turn, starting with (duh) the center.
Facing each other on Great Victoria Street stand two venerable landmarks: the uberornate Opera House and the just-as-fancy Crown Liquor Saloon of 1849, beloved for its wooden snugs and flowing taps of Guinness. Nearby City Hall, ornate as a wedding cake, is the pulse of the city—well, at least its surrounding greensward, where teenage Goths, looking like cherubs dressed for Halloween, stake claim (and a polite bunch they are—as in “I beg your pardon, Madam!”—when we bumped elbows).
Beyond rises the Belfast Wheel, a grand way to get an overview aboard the Ferris wheel. Climb to the top of the new Victoria Square, 100 shops domed with a dazzling glass observatory. Scan the nearby riverbank, where you’ll spot the city’s iconic cranes, Samson and Goliath, loading ships. Cross the waterway for a Titanic-themed tour.
Pass the harborside Albert Clock, tilting more than the upright husband of the upright queen ever did, to venture to St. George’s Market, an indoor extravaganza of Irish provender held every Saturday, as well as the nearby Ormeau Baths Gallery, with avant art housed where once the city’s unwashed headed to come clean.
Tread the tiny alleys off High Street to seek the pubs of your Inner Irish soul, reeking with history—and Guinness: John Hewitt, known as the literary pub; White’s (established 1630), boasting “Lords and ladies, smugglers and shawlies, all are welcome here”; and Kelly’s Cellar (established 1720), where likewise “liberty, equality and fraternity” reign.
Should you imbibe too freely, seek penance at St. Anne’s. Now, we’ve ventured into the Cathedral Quarter of the city, once home to derelicts, and now a hotspot for nouveaux galleries. Home, too, to stylin’ cafes, such as Mourne’s Seafood, which does fish fingers (as Ken, my guide, calls them) with chips (i.e., fries), or my tender salmon, served with wild mushrooms, celeriac mash, and frizzled leeks. Try the oysters, too.
Looking for a soul- (or bed-) mate? The Kremlin has been voted Best Gay Bar in Ireland. Facing a colossal statue of Lenin, who’s to argue? Shake your ass, or simply chill. Head to Dubarrys, whose three floors draw a sophisticated crowd. Black and gold, mirrors, and paintings of bare-naked men lure an older bunch. Mynt is a super-slick, singing-dancing entertainment complex starring Titti von Tramp, Belfast’s resident baroness. Many polysexual clubs in this open city also host gay nights.
Demographically, Belfast is a young town, fueled by Queen’s University, an enticing campus anchoring Queen’s Quarter, where an expansive Botanic Garden draws its share of lollygaggers. The quarter is even livelier by night, with clubs and ethnic cafes of every persuasion.
Queen’s Quarter also boasts fine-dining temples, such as Beatrice Kennedy, housed in what was a surgeon’s comfy home. The kitchen sends out creative fare like local scallops paired with duck confit set upon spinach, or fillet of local hake aside croquettes of local crab. How about a hearty, and offbeat, combo of braised beef with scallops and pearl barley? Yes, it works. Then, it’s back to the blessed basics with sticky toffee pudding.
That classic finale also heads the dessert list at Ginger, a bistro saluting those fab local scallops once again, this time partnering chorizo and black pudding on arugula, then a patrician rack of lamb paired with a prole’s potato-crusted shepherd’s pie—best of both worlds. In fact, brilliant! Got it all sorted out.
For information, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com.