Belfast is vibrant city that’s also your gateway to the pastoral and coastal beauty of Northern Ireland. It’s grown from a single castle to a fortress city to a 19th-century industrial powerhouse whose citizens worked in factories or shipyards. It was a city proud of its arts and architecture and was at the height of its powers when the Titanic launched here in 1911.

With Irish independence in 1921, Belfast became capital of Protestant Northern Ireland. Always a socially and politically divided city, it suffered badly during the Depression. German bombers blitzed the city in World War II and Belfast never really recovered. “The Troubles”--the spiral cycle of civil unrest and terrorism between the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority that began in 1969--caused an major exodus, with a third of the city’s population fleeing the city between 1971 and 1991.

But the Good Friday agreement in 1998 ended the pattern of violence and Belfast has undergone a rebirth, without forgetting its past. Some of the graffiti-covered walls or “peace” lines that separate Catholic and Protestant districts still stand. Its city center is full of strolling shoppers, and you can take a guided tour to historical hotspots with a one-time prisoner as your guide.

Belfast is a contemporary city, with a lively nightlife. Sports, pubs, live music, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it here (it’s an Irish city, after all). You can shop at the prestigious Victoria Square Shopping Centre, a new development, where you’ll find Apple, Build-a-Bear and similar brands. There are numerous stores, family businesses, luxurious designer boutiques and specialty shops. Start at Donegall Place, where you’ll find Carter, Karen Millen and Zara. Further down Royal Avenue CastleCourt there’s Warehouse, Gap, and Debenhams to name a few. And you’ll undoubtedly find other hidden treasures when you explore the Belfast.

Belfast is a cosmopolitan city--you can see that in its restaurants, which include Michelin-starred eateries, Asian and Spanish cuisine, pubs, bistros, and great fish and chips. Belfast is a monumental city, and many of its buildings reflecting its 19th-century heyday. City Hall can be found on Donegal Square, the city’s heart. This Edwardian “wedding cake” froth of a building, underwent a $16 million refurbishment in 2009. There’s the opulent Grand Opera House, which stands at the head of the historic--and happening--Golden Mile. Also on the Golden Mile is the historic Crown Liquor Saloon, a Victorian landmark awash in rich mahogany, cut glass and magnificent tile. Other must-sees are the Botanical Gardens, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and Belfast Castle.

Belfast has a good public transport system, with buses running roughly every ten minutes until 11 p.m., somewhat less frequently after that. It has winding streets that are best explored on foot. It has two airports, direct sea crossings from Scotland and England and a direct rail link from Dublin. You can fly direct to Belfast from over twenty European cities as well as from a number of North American locations.