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Travel: Belfast – a city stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea

© SYSTEMBelfast City Hall.
Belfast City Hall.

The best way to arrive in Belfast is by boat. Not only because it is a calm, almost leisurely way to travel and that the ferry from Scotland (Cairnryan, to be exact) is modern, clean and has loads of things to do on it, including a cinema and a spa, but also because you will sail down the same channel where the famous RMS Titanic first took to the water.

As you glide down Belfast Lough, it is easy to take yourself back to April 2, 1912, when more than 100,000 people lined the dock to cheer the liner off on her doomed maiden journey.

People from Belfast take a strange pride in the fact that the ship, which sank on its first journey, was built in the city.

As well as the £100 million Titanic Belfast museum, you can visit the dry dock where the liner was built, board the SS Nomadic (a ship that ferried passengers to the Titanic), and walk on the slipway where it launched.

If the aim of a travel review is to give an insight into how to live like a local, then you are in good hands – I used to be one. Growing up in Belfast wasn’t always easy but what it lacked in normality, it more than made up for with fun. There are few cities in the UK that I’d rather spend time in than Belfast.

Whether it is going on the tourist trail of sightseeing, shopping or eating out, there is an electricity about the place that I’ve not felt anywhere else.

Firstly, where to stay. If you are from Belfast it is guaranteed that you will have spent time in the iconic Europa Hotel, which proudly states that it is the most bombed hotel in the world.

Booking into the Europa is like purchasing a tiny slice of Belfast history. The hotel has had many famous guests but none more impressive than when Bill Clinton and his family visited in 1995.

Clinton was the first sitting US President to visit Northern Ireland and his memorable speech in front of the City Hall (where he was helped by none other than the Power Rangers to switch on the Christmas lights) felt like a turning point in the peace process for the city.

People from Belfast remember the visit vividly, with Clinton taking to the stage behind thick bullet-proof glass and backed by Van Morrison playing Days Like This – a song loaded with meaning after being used in an TV advertisement for peace in Northern Ireland.

Nowadays, the Europa is a thoroughly modern hotel with large rooms and excellent restaurants. The classic Piano Lounge, which has hosted some amazing nights, exudes style. As a place to people watch, it is unrivalled in the city.

The hotel, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, is one of the tallest buildings in the city and from the top floors you get a fabulous view of Belfast, from Stormont in the east to Cave Hill and Napoleon’s Nose (where the hillside is said to resemble an outline of the French general’s face) in the north.

Another advantage of staying at the Europa is the hotel’s location. The hotel sits right in the centre of the city, with a bus and train station literally connected to the building. Right outside the hotel is another Belfast institution – The Crown Liquor Saloon. If you don’t visit the bar, known as just The Crown to everyone, then have you even really visited Belfast?

It is just 20 steps from the front door of the Europa to The Crown and inside the bar is beautifully ornate with even the original gas lighting still in place. The key to a good afternoon or evening in The Crown is nabbing one of the booths.

Each has space for about eight or nine people and has a small door that can be closed when you are fully stocked.

There you are as likely to meet locals as you are tourists or even celebrities – James Nesbitt is known to be a fan. For the genuine experience, a pint of Guinness here is a must.

A short walk away and another landmark comes into view. The impressive green copper roof of the City Hall is instantly recognisable.

The building was originally home to the White Linen Hall, an important international linen exchange, which gives a clue to the city’s industrial past as a major linen exporter.

When we visited, the City Hall was home to a continental market, where producers offer everything from German bratwurst to Japanese sushi. We opted for the latter, which was expertly dished up by Gary Laird, a local chef with culinary flair – he even sprayed edible gold liquid on our sushi.

© SYSTEM
Belfast sushi.

Sport also plays a major part in the life of the city. If you want to really live like a local then look out for rugby fixtures at Ravenhill Stadium, home to former Heineken Cup winners Ulster. Or buy a copy of one of the main daily papers, The Irish News, and find a Gaelic football or hurling game being played in the city. Former Ulster club winners St Gall’s GAA club is only two miles from the Europa.

When it comes to culture, Belfast is spoiled. The Metropolitan Arts Centre, or The Mac, host amazing contemporary shows, the Ulster Museum, home to fabulous dinosaur and ancient Egyptian exhibits, and the Lyric Theatre, where Liam Neeson had his stage debut.

Sadly, it was time for the curtain call on our trip but, with so much still to explore, we will return.


P.S.

Dating to the 1880s, The Crown bar was originally a Victorian Gin Palace. Patrons step on a famous crown mosaic as they enter, paying tribute to the royals or tramping on them disrespectfully, according to religious persuasion.


Factfile: 

Europa Hotel Golden Moments package from £115 per room which includes overnight stay, full Irish breakfast, a signature cocktail in the Piano Lounge, signature truffles and exclusive golden Hasting duck. The Europa hotel also offers rooms from £95 based on two people sharing a Classic Double Room. For further information or to book, go to www.hastingshotels.com. 028 9027 1066