exterior the merchant

Paris, Rome… Belfast? The capital of Northern Ireland might not be the first place that pops into your head when you’re choosing a romantic city break. But the opulence of The Merchant makes this hotel a destination in itself.

The wow-inducing building served as the headquarters of Ulster Bank back in 1858, and the Victorians clearly knew how to build their temples of mammon – think Italianate sandstone columns, sweeping staircases and a glass dome. Converted into a hotel in 2006, The Merchant has kept the original period features and, in 2011, also added an Art Deco wing complete with spa, gym and rooftop hot tub.

A night at The Merchant is a seriously swank affair, from the moment a top-hatted doorman opens the huge glass doors for you and bellboys in uniforms straight out of The Grand Budapest Hotel rush to relieve you of your luggage. But because this is Belfast – aka the chattiest place in the world – the friendliness of the staff stops things feeling stuffy.

Be sure to have breakfast in the Great Room restaurant with its gold pillars, lute-playing cherubs on the ceiling and a giant glass chandelier. This is probably how Kanye West tucks into his Ready Brek in the mornings.

The hotel’s location in the newly-regenerated Cathedral Quarter means that you’re right in the thick of some of Belfast’s coolest bars, cobbled streets and festoon lantern-filled courtyards. Or you could just watch it all unfold from the rooftop hot tub with a chilled glass of champagne.

Rooms

The hotel is divided into 21 Victorian rooms, which come with bouncy four-poster beds, roll-top baths and portraits of people who might well be haunting you later (from £160/night). These rooms feel cosy but slightly on the chintzy side, so if you’re the type of person who has a migraine just looking at a patterned carpet, you might want to stay in one of the 36 Art-Deco rooms instead. Here you can channel your inner Gatsby with Tiffany lamps, walk-in marble rain showers and Corbusier chairs (from £180/night).

What’s for breakfast?

Breakfast isn’t included, but you don’t want to miss it. The Great Room might be the grandest place you’ll ever crack into a boiled egg. The continental menu (£14) offers porridge with whiskey cream and honey, but clearly it’s all about the Full Irish (£19), complete with Ballinwillin black and white pudding and soda farl.

What about lunch and dinner?

The hotel has three restaurants so you’re very much covered on the eating front. There’s the Great Room, which offers fine-dining, afternoon tea and a great value midweek set menu (£22.50 for two courses). At lunchtime it’s a smart crowd on expenses-lunches and during the evenings it’s definitely a ‘special occasion’ vibe. For something more informal there’s Bert’s Jazz Bar, which offers an old-school French bistro menu, so retro it even has Baked Alaska for dessert. Lastly, The Cloth Ear serves up locally-sourced pub grub, such as its signature hanging skewers of chargrilled meats.

Is there a bar?

Yep, there’s two. Bert’s is Belfast’s only live jazz bar, so it’s full of trendy musos with facial hair. We might have even spotted a beret. There’s a younger, louder crowd getting stuck into the craft beers and the craic at The Cloth Ear.

Amenities

The rooftop hot tub and glass-walled sauna have some of hottest views in town – literally. There’s also a steam room and a gym, complete with iced cucumber water (sometimes it’s the little things). As you’d expect from a hotel of this standard, there’s free wifi, newspapers delivered to your door and movies on your flatscreen.

Things you should know

The candle-lit spa in the basement has an impressive hydrotherapy area and Darphin treatments. The company that own The Merchant have just opened Bullitt nearby, a sleek, no-frills hotel complex with 43 rooms, two bars and a raved-about small plates restaurant.

Within a short walk you can find…

Directly opposite the hotel is The Spaniard, a quirky rum and tapas bar with velvet ceilings and walls packed with religious icons. Go early or late on a weekend night or risk being seriously squeezed. Mourne seafood bar is the spot for fresh oysters and check out SpaceCRAFT in the Fountain Centre for locally-made ceramics and baskets.

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