I was born and bred in Belfast and I would always have considered myself fairly familiar with the city centre. I mean, the City Hall, Castle Court, McDonalds, the In-Shops… what else really is there to it? Or at least that's what I might have said if you asked me ten years ago. Back then I thought that the city centre was made up of about three main streets (Royal Avenue/Donegall Place, Castle Place/High Street and Ann Street) and that the rest of the smaller side streets and entries were fairly pointless, with boring, tacky little shops and old man pubs. And hey, for a cynical teenager, I wasn't really that far wrong.
However in recent years Belfast has come on in leaps and bounds. Areas that were previously unknown or boring or thought to be "a bit dodgy" have blossomed and been developed, each with its own little personality. More restaurant and retail chains from the mainland UK have opened branches here in our wee city. On a sunny Friday evening Belfast is genuinely a pleasure to wander around and you definitely won't go short of entertainment, even if it's only warily eyeing the teenagers attempting to scale the Spirit of Belfast and laughing when they inevitably fail (and fall).
The development of Victoria Square was one of the big transformative events for Belfast. I remember being a child and bring dragged around the shops in the old Victoria Centre that was on the site beforehand. I don't remember much about it and, since that was back in the days before the Internet really took off, there's not really much information about it online. However I remember there was a big Spar that always had all the newest sweeties (like Nerds and caramel Wispas) and a Poundstretcher and also a second-hand book shop. It wasn't a particularly classy or even useful shopping centre (for that you would have headed to the newer metal-and-glass-fronted Castle Court); in fact that whole area was pretty dull back in those days.
I imagine that when the plans to flatten a massive area of land in the city centre (including plans to implode the city's former tallest building) and build the super-chic Victoria Square development first came out, a lot of people probably wondered if Belfast was quite the right location for such a grand scheme. I mean it's not like we were a huge metropolis like London or Manchester, or even Dublin - would enough people even shop there to make it all worthwhile?
However I'm glad that someone out there had the courage of their convictions and believed that, yes, the people of Belfast do want better. They want to be a major city, with plenty of things to do and see and tourists flocking in from all over the world. And so Victoria Square was built. Oddly the best place to see photographs of the whole process, from the implosion of Churchill House through to the lighting of the dome, is in the corridor leading to the toilets on the second floor of Victoria Square itself, tucked in between Nandos and Gourmet Burger King.
I guess some people might argue that the introduction of more luxury, designer stores is merely a sign of capitalism gone wild but I would argue that it's just nice to have the choice to indulge a little if you have the money to do so. I don't by the way - Primark and Dunnes are much more my kind of budget than Hollister and Fossil - but I enjoy looking and dreaming all the same!
Anyways, at around the same time as Victoria Square was being dragged up, other areas of our wee city were growing up too. It's not even that these places were particularly down-at-heel to start with - I just reckon not many people really considered going there very often, maybe because it was a bit inconvenient or maybe because of a preconception about the area. Thankfully we're all getting a little more adventurous and in the last couple of years I've found myself in streets and entries that I never even knew existed. What's more is that so have a lot of other locals and visitors and there's not one bar I can think of that's not stuffed to the gills on a Friday or Saturday night, no matter how tucked away it may seem.
One of the areas I've especially enjoyed seeing develop over the last few years has been the Cathedral Quarter. I realise that the arty crowd have been frequenting the likes of Hill Street for quite some time, but in recent years new developments nearby have connected it a bit more obviously with the city centre, for instance the Merchant Hotel's recent extension and the new St Anne's Square and MAC Centre developments.
The Cathedral Quarter is now widely considered as the hip and happenin' place to be for the young professionals crowd, something fairly evident to anyone who should venture in that direction on an evening after work. Even getting through the door of places like the Duke of York, the John Hewitt or the Cloth Ear on a Friday night is nearly impossible, never mind securing a round of drinks at the bar or, heaven forbid, actually finding somewhere to sit down. At least the Duke of York lets you spill into the entry outside - sitting on one of their red benches sipping a lovely, cold pint of Guinness on a warm evening is a very enjoyable experience altogether.
The Yorkshireman and I spend a lot of time in the Cathedral Quarter area these days because that's where our gym happens to be, so we've gotten to know it quite well. But although we walk past all of the trendy bars and restaurants a couple of times a week, we never really stop and go in, even though at 27 years old and both working full time in office-based jobs that we hate but endure so that we can jet off and explore the world, we're probably as close as we'll ever get to fitting into that whole "young professionals" crowd. And so on our last date night we agreed to finally frequent one of the eateries we so often passed by - I shall bring you more on our tale of dinner in the Cathedral Quarter tomorrow.
There are, of course, still plenty of areas in Belfast that could do with a bit of a makeover, but with the recession over the last few years, I imagine funding for regeneration has been a bit thin on the ground. But we are trying. I think the new ARC development over by the Odyssey, for example, is another wonderful development - I only hope that they find enough of the hip and trendy young professionals crowd to live there and make it the upmarket, waterfront, urban area it clearly has the potential to be. Perhaps they could try drumming up business at the Cathedral Quarter after office hours..?