It was difficult to know what to expect as we flew from Leeds Bradford Airport and headed into Belfast.
I knew the city had suffered its fair share of problems in the past. From Ireland's partition in 1920 and the major conflict that followed this preceded the the Outdoor Relief Riots in 1932 and the suffering inflicted upon it by the German forces in the Second World War. Then there was The Troubles. Belfast was bound to still show scars of the conflict with almost 1,500 killed since violence broke out in 1969.
On touchdown at George Best Belfast City Airport though, there was a definite buzz about the city. But, rather than tension and worry, this was excitement. This was a city out to prove a point and showcase, not only its rich history but its bright future.
We had been informed beforehand that 2016 was the Northern Ireland Year of Food and that we would be enjoying Belfast Restaurant Week. I've always thought you can learn a lot about a city by the food on offer. So, if the meal at Hadskis was anything to by then Belfast was on course to be the vibrant, unique and proud city that I hoped it would be.
Set in Belfast's stunning and eclectic Cathedral Quarter, Hadskis' adventurous yet appetising menu made it a must-visit in the city. The restaurant prided itself on the exciting range and flavoursome taste of their dishes, but it was clear its presentation was clearly important. When you're blessed with being surrounded by the natural beauty and inspired artwork surrounding the Cathedral quarter though, any less would have seemed out of place.
The sun was fighting through the clouds as we headed into our black cab and proceeded on our city tour of Belfast. This was where I assumed, we would be sold Belfast's promising future with perhaps a cursory glance over its past. But our tour guide Billy had different ideas. His encyclopedic knowledge of the city, and it seemed almost everybody that lived there, was inspiring. We moved seamlessly from Belfast's bustling University campus to its city centre, filled with designer shops and fabulous restaurants that wouldn't look out of place in any major European city.
As we made our way towards the Falls and the Shankhill, Billy's extensive knowledge of Belfast's history and deep-routed love of it began to really shine through. The political murals that lined the Nationalist and Loyalist communities spoke a thousand words but Billy was not shy to add his own. His combination of witty anecdotes and heart wrenching tales brought the city's history to life and showed just how far its come. Rounding his journey off by writing a message of hope on the iconic Peaceline wall is a memory I will never forget.
While Belfast's chequered history has certainly left its mark on the, it does mean that its Ulster Museum isn't short of material. With 8,000 square metres of public display space, it was easy to lose track of time but unimaginably enjoyable to do at the same time. Starting at the top, we worked our way down, attempting to take in more than 12,000 imaginative works of art. From grandiose sculptures to sprawling landscapes, we then moved into the Natural Sciences Department for a complete change of pace. The stories we heard a matter of hours before from Billy were then brought to life in the Human History section, tracking Northern Ireland's historic past.
The crowning jewel of any trip to Belfast however, is all things Titanic. It's the most famous ship that ever sailed but, what should have been the city's proudest accomplishment became its greatest shame. We were given a unique taster into how every facet of the ship shaped the city's history up to this present day on the Titanic Taste Tour. The ingenious Wee Tram took us on a bustling tour through the Titanic Quarter, broken up by five glorious courses of food.
However, it was the astounding Titanic Museum where the ship's true status within Belfast came alive. The expertly choreographed display takes you on an eye-opening journey through Titanic's history, from its design and at the gargantuan Harland and Wolfe shipyard to the crew and passengers on board. But, like anyone remote aware of Titanic's sad past, we knew somber stories lay ahead. The Titanic experience has clearly put in an undeniable amount of effort to give visitors a fresh and true insight into the despair and suffering of the ship's fortune and those on board.
At points it's hard to take in and imagine the circumstances but to devise a tour so far removed from the scores of films, books and adaptations before it is surely a magnificent feat. It's clear to see why Titanic Belfast cooped the leading visitor attraction title at the World Travel Awards. Both outside and inside, it is a credit to the effort that went into building the magnificent ship and those that lost their lives aboard it.
Belfast is truly a city that has rebuilt itself from its past and is reaping the rewards. The city has finally been able to embrace its links with Titanic after years of suffering. The museum is now a focal point, drawing visitors in who then embrace the city's culture and history. Like any city worth visiting, Belfast boasts a host of wonderful bars and restaurants. Tourists and locals flock exciting and much loved hot spots including Home on Wellington Place, the Dirty Onion and the Duke of York in the Cathedral Quarter. While a pint of Guiness in the historic Crown Liquor Saloon is a must for any trip. If getting lost in history isn't up your street, getting lost in Belfast's wonderful culture and it's bustling bar scene is a fantastic alternative.
But Belfast offers so much more than this and, it seems, the city is finally ready to show that to the world.
Dan Windham flew to Belfast from Leeds Bradford Airport courtesy of www.flybe.com
Flybe operates a five times daily flight between Leeds Bradford Airport and Belfast City Airport. Fares available from just £27.99 one way, including taxes and charges. To book, visit www.flybe.com