Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Belfast better put a Sunday smile on its face if we want to make the tourists happy

Fionola Meredith pities the bewildered visitors who wander the streets on the Sabbath morning, wondering what to do

St George’s Market is one of the few places open in Belfast on a Sunday morning
St George’s Market is one of the few places open in Belfast on a Sunday morning
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Pity those poor tourists you see wandering around Belfast on Sunday mornings, looking lost, bored and cold. They have come up against the essential fact about Belfast on the Sabbath morn, already well known to locals: there is diddly-squat to do.

The city centre, in particular, has an empty, wind-blown, deserted kind of feel to it. You can imagine the visitors' disappointment. Is this the vibrant, ebullient and energetic city that Lonely Planet named as the best place in the world to visit in 2018?

Did the Lonely Planet judges ever happen to visit Castle Place at 10am on a wet Sunday morning in November? The most thrilling thing they'd likely see is a discarded burger wrapper or an empty bottle of Buckfast left over from last night's tacky revels in the nearby Cathedral Quarter: the stag and hen-ridden boke-zone that we laughingly call our cultural quarter.

Look, this isn't a total broadside against our beloved capital city. If tourists know where to look, there are things you can do in Belfast on a Sunday am.

There's any amount of churches, for a start, if you feel like praising the Lord. The place is coming down with them: a veritable smorgasbord - take your pick. For those who do not wish to kneel in prayer, there is Titanic Belfast and the Ulster Museum. There are cafes, too, of varying quality. There is the small Tesco on the Dublin Road.

Hmm, what else? Well, if it isn't absolutely chucking it down, there are our rather fine Victorian-era city parks.

And of course there is the undoubtedly excellent St George's Market, with local art, crafts, and food. If I was one of the thousands of tourists regularly disgorged from one of those massive cruise ships - last year 28 of them docked in Belfast on a Sunday, carrying 46,000 passengers and crew - that's the destination I'd make a beeline for.

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But it's not enough, is it? Nowhere near enough for a city that has a reputation - deserved or undeserved - as one of the best places in the entire globe to come and see.

That creates some very high expectations, and we'd better be ready to offer visitors - and locals too - something better than the dead-end dump that is Belfast city centre on a Sunday morning.

Radical and imaginative change is urgently needed. To be fair to Belfast City Council, it has noticed the problem.

They have launched a consultation so we can tell them how to improve the Sunday experience.

Considering that these were the bunch who, back in the day, chained up the swings on the Sabbath, you could call this progress.

So here's my tuppence worth.

For a start, throw the shops open - yes, all of them, including the big ones which are currently placed under this silly 1pm to 6pm restriction. Personally, I loathe shopping, and can't understand people whose idea of heaven is several hours of browsing the stores. But there's no doubt that shops bring people in to town in their flocks, and that brings life to the streets.

Don't give me that guff about Sunday being the traditional religious day of rest as a reason to keep the shops closed in the mornings. It makes no sense whatsoever.

Why is it considered unacceptable, before God, to buy a pair of pyjamas at 11am in the morning, but perfectly okay at 2pm in the afternoon? People visiting are rightly bemused by this restriction. They expect to be able to shop where and when they want. But if we are to create a bright, welcoming, distinctive and exciting city on Sunday mornings, we need far more than a liberalised Sunday trading scheme.

To my mind, pedestrianising the city centre is absolutely key to transforming the place. The Primark fire was awful, but at least it gave us the chance to see how pleasant and relaxed a city centre unchoked by traffic and smelly diesel fumes could be.

Green walkways, trees, street games and theatre, comfortable seating areas, pop-up stalls offering excellent street food, flea markets, interactive art galleries installed in vacant lots, talented buskers, historical displays - in other words, all the things you find in other, more civilised and imaginative European cities - could be ours, if only we're willing to take the leap.

Belfast has never been very good at fun. As a city, it has tended more towards the dour and dismal. But if we're to put a smile on tourists' faces on a Sunday, we really need to lighten up.

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