There was a time when the name Belfast raised an immediate red flag to visitors, but these days, the town's highly publicized political unrest has greatly subsided. Curiosity-seekers can still find elaborate murals and other relics from turbulent times lingering in certain neighborhoods, but for the most part, Belfast is now safer than many other European capitals, and its new image is one of both progress and hospitality.
If you've been to Dublin, the differences between that city and Belfast may seem striking. Belfast, of course, is part of Northern Ireland, which itself is part of the United Kingdom; the Republic of Ireland is part of... just the Republic of Ireland.
So British influence seems to have coated Belfast with a more polished veneer and a Victorian elegance that's evident in the town's shops, restaurants and even its pubs. The omnipresent Irish charm still exists, but Belfast also projects a cosmopolitan flair that's rarely seen elsewhere on the Emerald Isle. The glittering row of boutiques lining the Golden Mile, Belfast's premier shopping district, is more reminiscent of Paris or Milan, while a new wave of trendy restaurants now offers visitors haute cuisine in addition to local favorites. The city has come a long way since the days of security checkpoints and armored patrols, and Belfast now appears poised to shed its unfortunate past and take its place among Europe's new hot spots.
You'll dock at the Port of Belfast, roughly two miles northeast of the city center.
Unfortunately, the amenities at the port itself are scarce, and there's very little of interest within walking distance. Visitors are better off taking one of the free shuttles that run between the harbor and the city center every 15 minutes.
As you would in any city, keep unnecessary valuables onboard in your cabin's safe.
On Foot: Belfast is one of those small, intimate cities that caters to pedestrians, so walking here is a pleasure. Many attractions are within a short stroll of each other and there are plenty of pubs for those who need to stop along the way and refortify themselves.
By Bus:> Belfast's Metro bus system is quick, easy and fairly inexpensive. You can purchase one-way trips or all-day passes.
By Taxi: Cabs in Belfast are plentiful but expensive. Look for the classic black London-style taxis, and avoid the non-official varieties that may not have a meter and can sometimes charge outrageous fares.
By Rental Car: Avis, Budget and a host of other rental car companies have offices in Belfast. Trying to drive and park in the downtown area can be quite a chore, though, so it's better to rent a car only if you're planning to explore the surrounding countryside.
Belfast, like the rest of Northern Ireland, uses the British pound. Many large stores will accept euros as well, although a service charge may apply.
Most banks are open Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and a few are open on Saturday mornings. ATM machines are commonplace, and you'll find one on practically every corner. Currency exchange booths are plentiful, too. You'll find one located inside the Belfast Welcome Centre on Donegall Place.
For up-to-the-minute conversion rates, be sure to check www.xe.com.
The language spoken is English. Unlike in the Republic of Ireland, you'll rarely find Gaelic signage in the north.
Nearly every pub serves food in some shape or form, and these are great places to try local dishes like sausages with champ (mashed potatoes fancied up with spring onions and butter) or oysters fresh out of the bay. Sandwiches and Irish stew can also be found on nearly every menu, and dining in a pub is a great way to soak up the local atmosphere during your meal. For a more formal dining experience, check out one of the hot new restaurants indicative of Belfast's growing food scene.
Best Local Eats: The John Hewitt (51 Donegall St., lunch Monday through Saturday from noon to 3 p.m.) serves up traditional Irish food at reasonable prices, including homemade soup, grilled lamb and roasted salmon. The mood there is always festive, and a great selection of beer and wine adds to the attraction.
Best for an Upscale Treat: James Street South (21 James St., lunch Monday through Friday from noon to 2:45 p.m.) is an elegant eatery offering modern versions of Irish favorites in a chic, minimalist setting. Prices are a little high, but the three-course lunch menu is actually quite reasonable at $29. Try the warm duck salad and roast sea bream, and finish the meal off with chocolate panacotta, a creamy dessert jazzed up with spiced plums.
Best for Families: Parents can make it easy on themselves by taking the kids to the Odyssey (2 Queen's Quay, open at 9 a.m.), a multi-story entertainment complex chock-full of eateries, shops and diversions. The Odyssey Pavilion houses several restaurants popular with children, including a sandwich bar, a pizza place, a Chinese restaurant and an old-fashioned diner called Soda Joe's.
Best in Bushmills: If you're paying a visit to Bushmills, stop for a midday bite at the restaurant at the Bushmills Inn, located at 9 Dunluce Road. Open for lunch from noon to 6 p.m., you'll find menu items like seafood tempura, smoked salmon, burgers, steak, pasta and a selection of desserts. A vegetarian menu is also available.
Jameson may be the whiskey of choice down in Dublin, but once you travel north, Bushmills takes the spotlight. In addition to its other brands, Bushmills makes a special Distillery Reserve whiskey that can be found only at the distillery itself. The trip from Belfast takes about an hour by car or train, but the tour of the distillery is fascinating, and connoisseurs will love this unique 12-year-old single malt. Since it can't be purchased anywhere else in the world, a bottle of Distillery Reserve makes a perfect souvenir or a unique gift for those back home.