With years of political strife and civil unrest behind it, Northern Ireland’s capital has developed an exciting vitality and welcoming atmosphere. Energized is the best way to describe the city divided by the River Lagan and flanked by an amphitheater of hills. Moreover, now that its “troubles” are in the past, visitors are flocking to this engaging metropolis – some to trace their Irish roots while others are enticed by numerous historic sites, contemporary attractions, the inimitable Celtic spirit and scores of Irish pubs.

After more than a decade, I revisited the city this spring and the change I observed in its character was significant.

Belfast is enjoying a lasting peace and a genuine joie de vivre seems to be everywhere. Downtown streets are bustling with tourists and residents alike: shopping, taking city tours, spilling onto sidewalks from overflowing pubs, visiting museums and galleries, strolling in parks and dining at sidewalk cafes.

There is layer after layer of things to see and do and the list of attractions is long, however, certain must-see sites and must-do activities are considered the “essential” Belfast.

The Titanic Quarter

Belfast and its harbour shipyard, where the ill-fated Titanic was built, is buzzing this year as the city prepares for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ocean liner on its maiden voyage to America. In April 2012, a century after the vessel went down, Belfast will commemorate the tragic event with the unveiling of its new Titanic Museum on shipyard property now called The Titanic Quarter. Through four floors of interactive exhibits and displays, the multi-million-dollar museum will tell the story of the ship from construction through to its fatal sinking. In the meantime, the city is featuring an abundance of Titanic-related activities such as a Titanic boat tour of the Belfast harbour led by a guide whose great grandfather was an engineer aboard the liner said to be unsinkable. There are also shipyard tours and Titanic walking tours highlighting the complete story of the ship and its passengers and crew. Also located on Titanic Quarter property is the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland where people can trace their Irish roots. This archival storehouse contains thousands of searchable documents and records and the use of the facility is free.

The Crown Pub

Its reputation as the most famous drinking hole in Belfast is widespread and it’s often the first place tourists head for their initial pint of Guinness. Now owned by the Northern Ireland National Trust and situated in the heart of the city, there’s never a time when the place is not entirely filled with patrons. It’s one of the oldest pubs in town dating back to Victorian times and, true or not, it bears the lofty reputation of being the most beautiful bar in the world.

Its Italian crafted interior features lots of ornate wood carving, a mosaic tile floor, etched glass windows, gas lamps, a long granite bar, and the entire length of the west wall is lined with private, elaborately carved booths the Irish call snugs. The Crown is indeed a magical place and nobody should leave the city without visiting it. One of the best ways to learn the story of this and some of Belfast’s other significant bars is to take a guided pub tour. They are widely available including those led by city-certified Blue Badge Guides who are particularly knowledgeable.

The Ulster Museum

This is Northern Ireland’s most famous and most comprehensive treasure house of antiquities, art, nature and iconic objects. Its extensive collection includes a 20-ft-long dinosaur skeleton, a bona fide Egyptian mummy, Spanish Armada gold, 30,000 fossils and Stone Age artifacts. Among the museum’s most intriguing exhibits is its extensive “troubles” section that attempts to explain the modern history of Northern Ireland’s period of political upheaval and violence. The museum property also features lush botanic gardens

Belfast Castle

Built in 1870 in the Scottish baronial style, it sits high on a hill above the city and is one of Belfast’s most famous landmarks.

With its many turrets and towering presence, this imposing sandstone masterpiece is the epitome of fairytale castles. Surrounded by beautiful grounds and an adjoining country park, there are guided tours, an interpretive center, and the cellar houses a Victorian-style restaurant that serves meals and high tea.

West Belfast

To its credit, the city has made no attempt to sweep its long period of violent and rebellious “troubles” under the carpet. Rather there are tours to certain parts of town that were particularly affected by the upheavals such as Falls Road and Shankill Road. Visitors from other countries are naturally curious about the history of Northern Ireland’s infamous age of uprisings and the best way to learn more about them and how peace came about is by taking a guided tour. On any given day tour buses large and small visit these areas where the most prominent features are political murals painted during the dark period, together with peace walls which are large stone and steel structures originally built during the height of the “troubles” to protect neighbourhoods from sporadic attacks. Informed Blue Badge Guides provide detailed, non-partisan analyses in which they attempt to impart an understanding of what went on and how today’s Northern Ireland peace has been elevated to the unshakable resolve to never allow such things occur again.

Elegant Dining

The city is literally filled with excellent eating spots featuring international cuisines and, of course, Irish pub food is renowned. However, when actor and native son, Liam Neeson, endorses a particular restaurant, it’s worthy of notice. I personally witnessed his message in the guest book of The Merchant where he scribbled, “great restaurant, great food.”

The Merchant is an elegant hotel occupying the former Ulster Bank built in the mid 1800s and its restaurant is arguably the most luxurious in the city with food and service to match. Featuring an opulent Victorian décor, this is a special occasion kind of place not just for dining but for impeccable atmosphere.

TRAVEL PLANNER

Recommended websites: www.discoverireland.com; www.visitbelfast.com; Information: For more information and/or brochures on travel to Belfast call 1-800-SHAMROCK.

Getting there: There are no direct flights from Canada to Belfast. Air Canada offers daily service to Dublin July 1 to Sept. 15 and Air Transat flies weekly April through Oct. Train/bus service Dublin to Belfast takes 2 hours. An alternative is flying to London’s Heathrow followed by a direct flight to Belfast.