Since 1613, when a Royal Charter bestowed it with town status, Belfast has been on a mostly steady ascent — officially becoming a city in 1888 and quickly achieving a reputation as a major force for its linen works and rope-making and shipbuilding industries. Wander into the magnificent City Hall in Donegall Square and this history spills through in illustrated stained-glass light onto marble surfaces. The massive Portland stone building, capped with a copper dome, maintains a strong presence in city center. Completed in 1906 in a combination of Edwardian and Baroque Revival styles on the site of the former White Linen Hall linen exchange, it houses a stunning porte cochère and the city’s coat of arms.
The connection between Belfast and the sea echoes in several elements of the Belfast Coat of Arms, including two seahorses and the image of a ship in full sail against a blue sky on a blue sea. Perhaps a far more poignant link to the past is the legendary RMS Titanic, built in Belfast’s shipyards. Just outside of City Hall, the Titanic Memorial Gardens and monument, constructed of gray Cornish granite, offer powerful tribute to this connection and the lives lost during the ship’s long-ago maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.
Belfast remains a major port city, but there’s also plenty going on back on shore. New luxury hotels, an extensive new transportation hub and a new rapid transit bus service are all in the works. Loosely divided into the Titanic, Cathedral, Gaeltacht and Queens quarters, evolution is especially apparent in the Titanic Quarter, or TQ, where the 110,000-square-foot Titanic Studios has become one of Europe’s largest film studios and the primary location for HBO’s Game of Thrones. An expansion is already being planned, along with the development of a 19,000-plus-square-foot Titanic Exhibition Centre capable of accommodating large-scale exhibitions and up to 20,000 visitors.
Development is also well under way for the Titanic Exchange, a next-generation data center that will provide opportunities for investors in financial services, media and media software. A 24-acre site within TQ next to Queen’s University technology hub houses the Northern Ireland Science Park. As one of Europe’s most connected and secure telecom hubs, businesses and other occupants have access to an Open Access Carrier Neutral Network, direct Tier 1 Internet access, fiber optics to every workspace and Europe’s fastest direct fiber optic link to North America.
All that technology should get plenty of use, as an ambitious £29.5 million (about $45 million) development of the Belfast Waterfront hopes to see an annual addition of 50,000 conference delegates arriving in the city. Along with new state-of-the-art office space and conference and event facilities, city leaders are prepared to attract new investment with competitive commercial property rates and a talented pool of well-educated professionals.
“Belfast already enjoys an impressive reputation for graduates in the fields of computing, finance, medicine and law emerging from Queen’s University,” says Cllr Arder Carson, Lord Mayor of Belfast. Carson adds that the addition of a new Ulster University city campus promises to positively affect the availability of highly skilled area talent.
But to see only Belfast’s business potential is to completely underestimate the countless ways to unwind and be entertained in this historic city near the sea. Just for starters, Belfast hosts more than 70 cultural festivals each year. Two of the biggest events include the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival in autumn, Ireland’s premier contemporary international arts festival.
In summer, the Belfast Mela festival brings tens of thousands of visitors to the city for a celebration of world cultures expressed through music, food, fashion, dance and visual arts. During 2015, the city also welcomed the first annual Lughnasa International Friel Festival. Brian Friel, considered Ireland’s greatest living playwright, was hailed with live concerts, dance performances, food and the Kite Tanica kite fair. Other highlights included a staging of Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa and “Amongst Women,” a series of talks led by some of the world’s most renowned women in the fields of politics, literature, sports, business and academia.
Visitors to Belfast can enjoy a classical performance by the Ulster Orchestra or an evening of traditional music in a cozy pub, or plan their trip to coincide with a major music act at the SSE Arena (formerly the Odyssey). There’s theater and dance at the MAC and Lyric theaters and drama at the Grand Opera House and Belfast Waterfront Hall.
“I would say that whenever you choose to visit, you’ll find something inspirational,” says Carson. “There’s something to suit all tastes. Along with world-class music and theater, there are other cultural delights such as street performances, historical walking tours, public art, exhibitions at the Ulster Museum, a broad range of galleries from photographic to contemporary, plus a growing reputation for our bars, restaurants and local cuisine.”
Today’s Belfast is firmly at anchor as a business, leisure and cultural destination, with a range of experiences that would likely stun those long-ago mariners who once sailed in and out of the city’s port. As Belfast’s city leaders chart a course into 2016 and beyond, the journey promises to be exhilarating.
Things to Do in Belfast
Belfast gave both berth and birth to the original ship of dreams, the RMS Titanic. Today, one of the city’s most enduringly popular destinations is Titanic Belfast, commemorating the ill-fated ship’s existence from her conception to tragic end. Located next to the shipyard where the Titanic was built, the six-floor building — complete with nine separate interactive galleries — tells the historic tale of one of the world’s most iconic vessels. Themed galleries include The Launch of the Titanic, Maiden Voyage, The Sinking, Myths & Reality and Visit & Explore the Wreck.
In the underwater exploration center, visitors can view live underwater footage or segments from a past deep-sea expedition conducted by explorer Robert Ballard’s Nautilus exploration vessel. During Ballard’s ongoing journeys via remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), live footage is broadcast. Interactive features of the exhibition include high-definition video microscopes and simulators that allow a close look at ancient wrecks, mysterious marine life and recently ROV-mapped underwater landscapes.
Among the numerous artifacts on exhibit are the menu from the ship’s last luncheon, a collection of promotional brochures, still-intact pieces of White Star china and a detailed handwritten launch notebook. To wrap up your land cruise, slip into the tearoom located within the Titanic Suite, with a décor that includes a replica of one of the ship’s staircases. For added atmosphere on Sundays, live jazz music performances provide a backdrop to modern tea pouring and the excellent selection of cakes and treats available in the exhibition space’s cafés.
CHECKING IN WITH CLLR ARDER CARSON
Lord Mayor of Belfast
BELFAST IS REGARDED AS NORTHERN IRELAND’S CENTRAL PULSE, BUT WHERE WOULD YOU SAY THE HEARTBEAT OF BELFAST ITSELF LIES?
Being Belfast’s First Citizen, I would, of course, say in City Hall! While I admit to being biased, I do actually think if you stopped 10 people in the street and asked them the same question, most would independently say City Hall is the heart of Belfast. That’s not just because it is a beautiful building, but it is right in the center of the city. It’s also an incredibly important building in the city’s history. It opened in 1906 and has seen many historic events and visits in the last hundred years, including various heads of state. In recent years, Belfast City Council made a conscious effort to make City Hall much more accessible to the general public, and I would argue it is a must-see for any visitor to the city. Within the building, notable features include the porte cochère and Grand Entrance, The Grand Staircase, The Reception Room and The Great Hall. It is also important to point out the people of Belfast are also the city’s heartbeat. Most who visit here remark on the warmth of our welcome, and we are proud of our reputation as one of the friendliest cities in the world.
WHAT’S CURRENTLY ON THE HORIZON WITH REGARD TO NEW DEVELOPMENT WITHIN THE CITY?
Belfast is a city transformed in recent years, and its rapid transformation shows no sign of slowing down, with more than £1 billion (about $1.5 billion) of investment estimated to be in the pipeline for the next decade. We have equally ambitious plans to become a world-renowned city for conferences. Central to that aim is the £29.5 million (about $45 million) expansion of the Belfast Waterfront Exhibition and Conference Centre, which will see the venue’s event space double in size. From May 2016, the new, fully integrated development will offer 75,347 square feet of flexible space and wow up to 4,600 guests with a brand-new event experience. Working in partnership with other city service providers, including Visit Belfast, the Belfast Waterfront will ensure each event will stand out in the city and in the minds of the delegates. The expansion program is jointly funded by Belfast City Council, Tourism Northern Ireland and the European Regional Development Fund, under the European Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland, and administered by Tourism Northern Ireland.
HOW WILL NEW DEVELOPMENT AFFECT BUSINESS AND INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES?
Our planning and investment decisions around the city’s major capital projects and infrastructure are largely shaped by our ambitions to position Belfast as a progressive European city very much open for business and open to tourists. The new hotels that are in the pipeline are almost certainly influenced by the anticipated growth in the conference market, as well as the year-on-year increase in tourists to the city. The Belfast Tourism Strategy 2015–2020 includes an ambitious target of doubling visitor numbers by 2020.
Belfast: Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT +0 (Daylight Saving Time +1)
Phone Code: Country code: 44 City code: 28
Currency: Pound sterling
Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. citizens must have a valid passport with a full blank page; a visa is required for stays beyond 90 days.
Official Language: English
Key Industries: High-tech manufacturing, business and financial services, creative industries, environmental and new energy technologies, hospitality and food processing
Belfast Info to Go
Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport serve the city. Belfast International, 20 miles to the north of the city, has no train connection to city center, but the dedicated Airport Express Bus 300 operates 24 hours a day to and from the city from a stop outside the terminal exit. Weekday service is at 15-minute intervals; off-peak and weekend service is less frequent. The International Airport Taxi Co. operates official taxis 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Stands are located outside the lobby exit on the right-hand side. Find car rental desks in the arrivals hall for Budget, Europcar, Hertz and Enterprise/National/Alamo. Belfast City Airport, just more than a five-minute drive from the city center, offers regular bus and train connections. It primarily connects to all main U.K. airports and some European airports.
Where to Stay in Belfast
The Fitzwilliam Hotel The Fitzwilliam features swish contemporary spaces in a stately building. Located next door to the Grand Opera House, it makes a great base for wandering city center. Great Victoria Street $$$$
The Merchant Hotel At Belfast’s undisputed luxury address, the guestroom décor reflects Victorian design, the spa theme exudes tranquility, and the events floor is all Art Deco. 16 Skipper St. $$$$$
Ten Square Hotel Indulge in award-winning boutique luxury with a definite touch of whimsy, steps from City Hall and shopping in Victoria Square. 10 Donegall Square S. $$$$
Restaurants in Belfast
Acton & Sons Enjoy morning tea through dinner here, with lunch favorites such as sizzling portavogie prawns with chili and garlic. Craving potted duck? You’re in luck: The menu includes Jars to Share. 17 Brunswick St. $$$
Deane’s EIPIC Sample fine-dining choices from Chef Danni Barry in an elegant, sophisticated setting. The small, progressive menu changes weekly. 28-40 Howard St. $$$$$
OX Belfast OX earns ongoing accolades for the innovative dishes, gin menu and wine offerings. Try the Friday and Saturday five-course seasonal tasting menu and vegetable menu with wine pairings. 1 Oxford St. $$$$$
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