Belfast, Northern Ireland

For years, Belfast was a no-go. Northern Ireland’s capital was grouped with Beirut, Bosnia, and even Baghdad as off-limits. Religion ripped the city apart. And bomb squads frequented it more than tourists. But slowly–and quietly–all has been changing at the mouth of the River Lagan in the past 15 years since The Troubles ended. Hotels have been renovated. The sound of fiddles and tin whistles flows from pubs. And chefs, who left to master techniques at well-respected restaurants around the world, have returned to show off their culinary skills. It’s time to return to Belfast. The first thing you’ll need is a great hotel.

Photo: Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast
Photo: Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast

Your first option is the Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast, a glass-and-steel boutique hotel in the city center. Contemporary rooms–decorated with black, white, and pops of either green or yellow–are full of modern technology and heaps of pillows. Huge windows look out over the city; the upper floors have fantastic views of the constantly changing skyline. The Scandinavian-style restaurant has communal tables and traditional Irish dishes. Eat an Irish breakfast with black pudding in the morning. Return for an Irish lamb rump with herb gnocchi in the evening. And cap off the night with a Smoking Old Fashioned at the bar.

The Fitzwilliam’s central location means you can walk almost everywhere. The Grand Opera House is next door. City Hall offers tours of the stained glass ceiling in the rotunda, the mayor’s throne, and the portraits of former lord mayors. St. George’s Market, one of Belfast’s oldest attractions, has stalls full of fish, cheese, and free-range eggs on Fridays and Saturdays. The extensive Botanic Gardens have a rose garden and a glass conservatory, called the Palm House, where colorful fuchsias and begonias are grown. And St. Anne’s Cathedral, which took more than 80 years to complete, has a black-and-white maze-like marble floor.

Photo: The Merchant Hotel
Photo: The Merchant Hotel

Near St. Anne’s Cathedral, you’ll also find The Merchant Hotel, another great Belfast option in the Cathedral Quarter. An 1860s bank was turned into a glamorous boutique hotel with a rooftop gym and a spa with a champagne nail bar. Choose between a sleek Art Deco room or a grand Victorian room with French antiques. Enjoy afternoon tea in The Great Room. Browse high-end designer clothing at Harper. Walk to the nearby Titanic Quarter, where the doomed luxury liner was built. Drink a Bramble at the classy bar or a pint in the comfy Cloth Ear. And listen to jazz at Bert’s late into the evening.

Comfortable and relaxed in the heart of the city, you’re now ready to explore the restaurants, the shops, and the clubs that have exploded–in a good way–on the scene. Welcome back, Belfast. The tourists won’t be staying away much longer.

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