Capital can be a must-see destination for travellers on a budget
I have spent most of lockdown reminiscing about city breaks past. You see, I am not that stereotypical holidaymaker that enjoys a bucket and spade splash on the beach. In fact, I can think of nothing worse. Rather, I am the explorer that moves from museum to monument, landmark to market and gallery to eatery taking in the culture, tradition and heritage of a town, or city.
Berlin, Cairo, Amsterdam and Douglas on the Isle of Man are among my favourites, but Krakow, in particular, has really stolen my heart. Less than 50 miles from those sobering concentration and extermination camps is a city that exhibits many well-preserved, historic and breathtaking styles of architecture, has the finest of cuisine (which is quite something for this hard-to-please vegetarian) and is home to one of the most beautiful and tranquil art galleries I have ever set foot in.
I love that it is largely pedestrianised (even if it makes it all too easy to enjoy that extra jar after dinner) and offers al fresco dining in both the hottest of summers and the coldest of winters.
I love that it is surrounded by stunning parks and green spaces and that you are never further than a few feet away from something to see or something to do. And that getting around her is made easier with dozens of reasonably cheap pedicabs and an abundance of rickshaw tours. Anyway, I’m digressing, just a little.
It was all those leisurely strolls around an unusually quiet Belfast city centre, what with all that spare time, that revived those fond memories and, well, later spurred this piece.
Named Lonely Planet’s Best Region to visit in 2018 and National Geographic Traveller’s Rising Star, Belfast is a city that is seemingly on the rise. And with a long list of award-winning restaurants, bars and visitor attractions such as Titanic Belfast, HMS Caroline, Samson and Goliath, the Ulster Museum, the Tropical Ravine and the Belfast exhibition at City Hall — to name a few — there are very obvious reasons why.
And, as you may have come to expect throughout the course of this piece, I have visited most, if not all, of these and can tell you they are FAB!
Lockdown, mind, created the perfect opportunity to set about exploring the visual appearance of our city. Just what does it look like without that familiar hustle and bustle in the light of day?
Admittedly, I did notice things I had never spotted before, particularly some quirky features of the city’s architecture and on more than one occasion I found myself excitedly googling the history behind some of the most jaw-dropping buildings.
Next time you’re in the centre, look up, she’s beautiful! Although, in hindsight, I probably should have nabbed some pictures, what with the widespread determination that seems to exist to demolish our built heritage. Small rant. But you know I am right.
More pronounced than ever before is the number of vacant retail spaces. Spaces that could, in my opinion, be repurposed to accommodate our rich and vibrant arts sector with art galleries, dance studios, small family friendly performance zones, or creative arts and craft workshops, adding to that existing portfolio of things to do and things to see in the city.
Things that showcase the Belfast of today, rather than that of the past. Creating experiences not just for our visitors, but for our residents, too, so that we all benefit.
Equally noticeable is the alarming volume of parking spaces. Honestly, it is little wonder Belfast is the UK’s fifth most-congested city. Of course, parking is an essential feature when we’re mapping accessibility for all, but large swathes of these spaces could — and should — be repurposed for city parks and open spaces.
Imagine. Row after row after row of birch trees, which are — fun fact — native to Ireland, comfortably occupying a pedestrianised Bridge Street with the old Northern Bank building brought back to life as an art gallery exhibiting our people, place and space in a post-conflict and increasingly progressive city.
Belfast is a very different place than it was 20-plus years ago. Once gripped by a brute ugly ring of steel, keeping people out of the city centre, she is now a cruise line destination inviting people in.
She has a healthy visitors’ economy that, according to our official destination marketing organisation, Visit Belfast, accounted for £417m-worth of tourism spend in 2019, supporting almost 22,000 jobs.
She is also in the top 10 tech cities of the future, ahead of Madrid, Milan, Frankfurt, Zurich and Cambridge. Pretty impressive, eh? But we can’t relax.
In a competitively fierce industry of travel-hungry, but budget-conscious, holidaymakers, we need to up the ante and build back both bigger and better.
The changes in the last 20 years have been massive, but we need to keep pace and look for new ideas and ways to give us that competitive edge.
The future is what we make it.
Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston is the Ulster Unionist Party’s North Belfast representative