Before travelling to Belfast, most of my ideas about of the city were based on the pictures painted by the news when I was growing up. They certainly weren’t ones of the thriving, confident and friendly place I discovered when I went to see it for myself.
My hosts for the weekend, Botanic Inns, wanted to give an idea of what Northampton Saints fans could look forward to when they visit Ulster next month.
What I saw was a city which offers plenty for sports fans – but also sightseers, couples, families, daytrippers – well, pretty much everyone.
And for a place which is very forward-looking, it is not afraid to look at its past, and make sure visitors understand the journey it has been on.
Getting to Belfast is easy. FlyBe runs flights from both East Midlands Airport and Birmingham Airport and the flights out to George Best Belfast City Airport are under an hour.
If you’re flexible on times, you can do the whole return journey for between £60 and £70.
Once you’ve landed, it’s a 15 minute cab ride to the city centre, costing a very reasonable £8.
I stayed at Madison’s Hotel, which is five minutes on foot to the Botanic Gardens, Queen’s University and the Ulster Museum, and 10 minutes from the city centre.
It’s a theme I regularly encountered over the weekend – there’s so much here, but it is all so close together.
The 35-bed boutique hotel was very comfortable and cosy, with double rooms from £40. It was full of character and also boasted a very large bar/restaurant area and its own nightclub in the basement.
Like all of the Botanic Inns venues, it had a range of food and drink offers, and served breakfast until 3pm at weekends – perfect after a night on the Guinness.
I’d recommend the Traditional Fry (£4.95) - all of which was locally sourced and served without an ounce of grease on the plate.
So, where to start on your Belfast odyssey? You’re a Rugby fan in town, so how about a pub or two?
I found Botanic Inns to be quite unlike any English pub chain. While all of their venues come under the same umbrella, no two are alike.
There’s no generic Wetherspoon’s or Walkabout-style places - each has its own flavour and feel, all with a big emphasis on quality grub as well as drinks and craic.
Sports fans will quickly find themselves in The Botanic Inn – or The Bot to locals – which is the biggest sports bar in the city.
It has several vast rooms, plenty of big screens and even a locals-style room on the side which feels like a pub in its own right.
The Kitchen Bar is another must-visit. Right in the heart of the city centre, this historic institution will be buzzing on the night of the game and offers a vast selection of real ales.
If you’re hungry, the Moyallon pork, sundried tomato and basil sausages live up to their award-winning status, and you can even make an appointment to be shown how to pour a proper pint of Guinness.
But it’s not the only place to recommend if you’re hungry. Ryan’s serves – without exaggeration – the best chicken wings you will ever taste.
And McHughs wins the award for the most novel eating experience – hot rock steaks, which you cook yourself at your table on 430 degree volcanic stone.
The smell and taste is amazing, as is the bar, which at 300 years old lays claim to the title of oldest building in Belfast.
The latter is based in an old newspaper office and its centrepieces are three granite Russian statues from Prague.
You’ll easily find a drink for all tastes in each of these venues – including BrewDog ales, a particular favourite of mine which are rarely seen in pubs on this side of the water.
Before or after a trip to the Rugby or pub, I’d certainly recommend taking the time to explore this beautiful city.
The aforementioned Botanic Gardens looked stunning in the autumn sunshine and I spotted one besuited man lying on the grass at lunchtime – presumably just because he could.
You’re also right next to the Ulster Museum, a vast, free treasure trove of art, history and natural sciences.
Head in the other direction and you will quickly find yourself in the city centre. Don’t worry about getting lost – maps and signposts to the attractions are plentiful.
For shoppers there is the vast Victoria Square complex, which is full of high-street names and eateries.
But I’d recommend you go armed with a camera and see the sights – namely City Hall, the Grand Opera House and also the Crown Liquor Saloon, a beautiful old pub run by the National Trust. Even if you don’t have a drink, you’ll want to have a peek inside.
If you’re not as keen on walking as I am, then don’t worry. Taxi tours are popular and plentiful, and our host Ken Harper will take you to every nook and cranny of the city.
You can choose the political tour and see the famous murals on the Falls Road and Shankill Road, an eye-opening glance into the fear and violence which befell so many innocent people in this city.
The ‘peace wall’, a vast,imposing metal fence to separate the Catholic and Protestant communities, still stands as a lasting reminder of ‘The Troubles’.
You will also see the Cultural Quarter, including the historic Duke of York pub and the amazing Dark Horse coffee house, which is worth a visit even just for the smell.
And for anyone interested in music, the Oh Yeah centre is another fascinating spot. A recording studio, performance area and museum dedicated to Irish music history are all inside the facility, which was founded by Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody.
Up until recently, there was very little here to recognise the fact that the ill-fated Titanic was built here. But now that has all changed.
The stunning Titanic Belfast exhibition traces the history of not only the liner, but also Belfast’s ship-building heritage.
It is very popular, so booking in advance is advised. And you should allow at least two to three hours to do it justice.
There were many standout parts of the exhibition (not including the Celine Dion song), but for me, the deep-sea camera footage of the wreckage was as fascinating as it was haunting.
If you’ve made it to the bottom of this piece, you may have some idea of just how much I wanted to convey about this fantastic city.
Next time you’re planning a sporting, shopping or weekend break in the UK, I’d have it at the top of your list.