I really did not know what to expect to find in Belfast. While the city is featured in many movies, most of the scenes occur along darkened streets or inside noisy pubs and someone is being hurt. I was therefore pleasantly surprised with what I found.
It is not a big city, but the compact downtown seemed vibrant and offered a mix of heritage and new buildings. There are a number of pedestrian streets and a remarkable new shopping centre called Victoria Square in the city centre. What makes it remarkable is that it is both enclosed, and open to the elements; the sort of thing you might expect to find in Hawaii, not Northern Ireland. A lovely feature is an upper level glass dome which offers a 360 degree public viewing area.
One of the most impressive buildings in the downtown is the City Hall…which sits within extensive landscaped grounds at the end of a major street. While we didn’t go inside, it is much more impressive than Vancouver’s City Hall, or most other North American City Halls for that matter. Within the grounds a large TV had been set up in advance of the Summer Olympics which begins in a couple of weeks.
We had planned to stay at the Merchant Hotel ranked number 2 on TripAdvisor but had trouble finding it, and ended up at the Malmaison, part of a small chain of boutique hotels in the British Isles, since it was where we thought the Merchant would be, which also happened to be right next to where we had parked our car. While I suspect the Merchant would have been a more luxurious place to stay, the Malmaison was very comfortable, with extremely friendly staff, and an interesting extremely purple lobby and intimate dining room.
I was particularly impressed with the art work throughout the hotel. However, we did encounter one problem…while the stone façade leads one to expect a very solid building, in fact it is a converted heavy timber structure, and we could hear people walking above us…and I know that those below could hear us. Therefore, if you go, request a room on the top floor.
Someone had posted a comment on TripAdvisor that he thought the breakfast was the worst he had in Ireland. I don’t know where he had been staying, but I was impressed with the food and enjoyed fresh smoked kippers. (They’re Irish aren’t they?)
Speaking of TripAdvisor, we did take its advice and have dinner at Ginger Bistro, the top rated restaurant in Belfast. While we were surprised to find it accepting its last reservations at 9pm, we had a very good and creative meal.
Before dinner, we visited The Crown considered by many to be the best pub in Belfast. It was once a Victorian Gin Palace and is most remarkable for its splendid ornate interior featuring individual and very private booths.
The highlight of our trip to Belfast was the Titanic Experience or Museum, which just opened in March 2012. It is spectacular, and well worth a visit…it is also worth a separate blog posting!