The Best of Belfast

Photo by Conlon

Claire Wrathall, The Daily Telegraph, July 30, 2015

Its charms have long been overlooked, but high-calibre hotels, impressive dining and cultural clout mean Belfast is better than ever. 

For evidence of just how much money used to reside in Belfast – thanks to the linen trade, its shipbuilding industry and its eminence as a port – one only need swing by the Tesco Metro on Royal Avenue, surely the most splendid supermarket, architecturally, in Britain. For it is contained within the exuberantly ornate Grade I-listed former headquarters of the Provincial Bank of Ireland, a heavily ornamented white stucco wedding cake of a building designed in the 1860s in the Italianate style. The aisles and chill cabinets may be nondescript but cast your eyes up to its coffered ceiling!

A five-minute walk away, on Waring Street in what has become known as the Cathedral Quarter, you come to another magnificent Victorian bank, formerly the Ulster Bank’s head office, an extraordinary edifice built in 1860 that is almost Byzantine in its decoration, and now the city’s finest hotel, The Merchant (from £180), which I’d recommend highly. Its ambitious restaurant, the Great Room, and late-night bar hum at weekends with good reason (though the restaurant you absolutely should not miss is the miraculously inexpensive Mourne Seafood Bar on Bank Street, at least if you like oysters and scallops). That the boutique in the lobby of The Merchant stocks shoes and handbags by Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo and Charlotte Olympia gives you a clue to its target clientele.

For too long Belfast’s tourism authorities have promoted the city on the basis of the Troubles (the Crumlin Road Gaol is both a “visitor attraction” and a conference centre, and you can now tour the notorious H-blocks of the Maze Prison); the fact that Titanic was built here (the giant ship-shaped Titanic Experience is actually well worth the £15.50 entrance fee, and an object lesson in how to create a museum with barely any original exhibits); and that HBO has been shooting Game of Thrones hereabouts since 2010.

But there is plenty of higher culture here too, not least at the excellent Ulster Museum, which has an extensive collection of more than 12,000 paintings (not just Irish and English, but Dutch, Flemish and Italian) and decorative objects; and, for contemporary art, The MAC, a runner up in this year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year award. Then there’s Ulster Hall, home of the Ulster Orchestra and designed, like the Provincial Bank, by William J Barre: hence its unusually light, pretty auditorium, which also has one of the best acoustics of any UK concert hall.

This summer also sees the launch of the city’s first-ever international festival of theatre, literature, music and dance, a pioneering collaboration between arts and tourism organisations both in Belfast and within the Republic of Ireland (with which Northern Ireland now shares a tourist board, at which point it’s worth pointing out that Belfast is less than two hours by road from Dublin, if you fancy a two-city break).

Prefaced by three days of events at locations in Country Donegal, the Lughnasa International Friel Festival opens in Belfast on August 27 and is at its heart a celebration of the plays of Brian Friel, who was born in Omagh and grew up in Derry in the north, lives in Greencastle over the border on the Donegal coast, 60 miles or so from Glenties, the village his mother came from.

Among those taking part are the writers Kamila Shamsie, Kathy Lette, Ahdaf Soueif and Sandi Toksvig, but the main attraction promises to be a new production of Friel’s unforgettable Dancing at Lughnasa at the Lyric Theatre Belfast. 


This article was written by Claire Wrathall from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.