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Belfast reaches new heights

OPENING a €60 million hotel in 2018, in the haze of Brexit chaos and uncertainty, might seem to run somewhat counter-intuitive. But the Grand Central in Belfast can rightly lay claim to being a proud symbol of this great city’s determination to carve out its future on its own terms.

Part of the Hastings Hotel Group – who also own the nearby Europa, Stormount and Culloden Hotels – the Grand Central, at 23 storeys, is Ireland’s tallest hotel. Located on Bedford Street, it has replaced a once anonymous office block to become one of Belfast’s most impressive buildings and a valuable addition to the city’s tourism offering. Growing demand for overnight accommodation in Belfast was a deciding factor when developing the hotel and the Grand Central has added 300 superbly appointed bedrooms to the market.

Despite its sleek design and 21st century feel, the hotel’s very name is a nod to history; a modern reincarnation of the Victorian-era Grand Central which operated on Royal Avenue from 1893 until the 1970s. 

Expansive floor to ceiling windows in the bedrooms offer stunning panoramic views across the city. If you look closely, you can even see the iconic Harland and Wolff cranes in the distance, reminding you to put a visit to the city’s Titanic Quarter on your travel itinerary. Directly below, you’re struck by the instantly recognisable grandeur of Belfast City Hall.

All guest bedrooms are superbly appointed and raise the bar when it comes to comfort and relaxation. It’s well worth looking for one of the rooms on the higher floors to get the full Grand Central experience.

The hotel has made quite an impact on Belfast’s social scene, not least for its spectacular Observatory Bar on the 23rd floor which offers unparalleled levels of sophistication. You will literally be living the high life as you sip a pre-dinner cocktail with the stunning backdrop of Belfast’s city lights surrounding you on all sides. It feels like New York chic mixed with Northern Ireland hospitality.

On the ground floor, the Grand Café has become the venue of choice for locals and tourists alike. Be it for coffee or a long, lazy lunch over a glass wine or craft beer, the atmosphere is less formal than the Observatory Bar but exudes understated elegance.

The seahorse is a symbol of Belfast’s great maritime history, which is where the Grand Central’s main restaurant draws its inspiration from. The excellence of the food on offer is matched by the friendliness and professionalism of the staff. Hotel guests will be happy to start their day here as the Seahorse Restaurant is also home to Belfast’s finest breakfast.

While it’s highly tempting not to leave the comfort of the Grand Central for the duration of your stay, the lure of this wonderful city makes it impossible not to venture outside. From politics to music, you are surrounded by a sense of history and occasion at every turn. 

Let’s start with the music. In Belfast, we’re not just talking local heroes like Van Morrison who wrote about the city’s streets in some of his most loved songs. At Ulster Hall, for instance, Led Zeppelin performed ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for the very first time in the early 1970s – how about that for a claim to fame?

The Grand Central Hotel, which is located in the up-and-coming Linen Quarter, is right at the heart of the action, be it for shopping, entertainment or dining out. Belfast City Hall is just a skip across the road and, apart from its official functions, regularly hosts music events, street performances and markets within its grounds.

Also close by is the Cathedral Quarter, which can probably be best described as a classier version of Temple Bar; its streets lined with trendy bars, delicatessens and world-class restaurants. You could lose yourself here for an entire weekend.

One of the best ways to see the city is by booking one of the famous Black Cab tours. Our guide, Billy Scott, is something of a local legend. Part-comedian, part-storyteller, part-historian, he offers his passengers a fascinating insight into Belfast’s turbulent past. 

Although many of his stories are infused with that trademark Belfast wit, Billy respectfully changes tone when he drives through suburbs that were at the centre of sectarian conflict. The tour takes in the world-famous murals and you are even invited to add your own piece of legalised graffiti to the peace wall that divided loyalist and nationalist communities. For more information visit touringaroundbelfast.com

But the Troubles are only part of Belfast’s history – a history its citizens openly acknowledge – and this is best exemplified by Titanic Belfast. Most deservedly, Titanic Belfast was voted the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016.

It is impossible not to feel emotional as you stand on the very spot where the ill-fated ship was launched in 1912.

The overall shape of the building represents the bow of the ship and the hulls are the same height of Titanic, from keel to deck. Over six floors there are nine interpretive and interactive galleries that tell the story of Titanic, from its design, construction and launch to the night of the disaster when it struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Visit www.titanicbelfast.com.

Given everything that Belfast has to offer, it is bizarre that it is often overlooked as a weekend destination, particularly when you consider that Dublin is just an hour and half away by car. If you really want to unwind, we suggest that you take the Enterprise train from Connolly station to Belfast.

Tony McCullagh visited Belfast courtesy of the Hastings Hotel Group. Other hotels in the group include the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, the Everglades Hotel in Derry, Ballygally Castle, the Europa in Belfast, Culloden Estate and Spa and the Stormont Hotel. For details on the latest offers at the Grand Central Belfast, visit www.grandcentralhotelbelfast.com or phone 028 90231066.

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