TO GET A SENSE OF WHY BELFAST, LONG SYNONYMOUS WITH VIOLENCE and hatred, is suddenly so vibrant, we stop in on Paul Arthur, professor of politics at the University of Ulster and one of the country's foremost commentators on the peace process. "For the first time in our history, people have said, 'We can control our own destiny.' It's not the politicians in the assembly who control it," says Arthur. "It's not Tony Blair, it's not Bertie Ahern [the Irish prime minister], it's not Bill Clinton. And therefore we feel that this is our peace. All those factors, I think, have been very important in inducing this sense of normality."
We are talking in the downstairs parlor of the quaint Victorian town house that Arthur, who runs the university's graduate program in peace and conflict studies, shares with his wife, Margaret, a printmaker, and Daniel, the youngest of their three children. The house is in Bangor, a charming seaside town 20 minutes outside Belfast. Less charming is the train ride past the working-class neighborhoods along the tracks, which offer a fleeting tableau of children surrounded by graffiti and murals dedicated to the greater glory of the Loyalist paramilitaries.
Here in Bangor, as in central Belfast, money has demonstrated its unerring ability to paper over difference. Even though it's easy to sidestep the conflict in Belfast, there are still areas ringing the city where it's clearly present. In the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road, perhaps the most historically sectarian communities in Belfast and the sites of some of the most horrific violence during the Troubles, some estimates put unemployment as high as 70 percent (Northern Ireland's rate as a whole hovers around 6 percent), and the educational standards are among the worst in Britain. "For the most part, the Troubles didn't strike the middle class directly," Arthur says. "People like me—lawyers, academics, journalists—oversaw the conflict from a distance."
Where the Troubles did strike, they struck hard, and you can't miss the signs: political murals on every corner, pub windows covered in wire grating, surveillance cameras on the rooftops, and a snaky network of peace walls—barriers that mark the borders of Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Since 1994, a company called Black Taxi Tours has been shuttling interested passengers around these neighborhoods, narrating their history. According to our guide, Paul, five new peace walls have gone up in Belfast in the past year, mostly in the north, where allegiances shift from street to street. "As long as the walls remain," Arthur says, "they will be a warning to us that in fact we don't have peace."
AT SHANKS—A MICHELIN-STARRED RESTAURANT ON THE GUINNESS ESTATE in Bangor—any sense of the Troubles, past, present, or future, couldn't be farther away. Upon entering, Eric Nonacs and I are led up to an airy, modernist lounge furnished in blond wood and jewel-toned velvet couches, where we meet our friends Dawn and Michael, two of many young progressives moving to the city center. In the dining room downstairs, the walls are lined with limited-edition Hockney prints owned by the Guinness family, and the nouvelle-continental food is, as Dawn, an event planner in her early thirties, puts it, "gorgeous."
By the time we return to our hotel in Laganside, a bouncer has ins- talled himself at the door, attempting to organize a crowd of revelers, some decked out in skimpy, spangly dresses and stiletto heels despite the damp chill. Most of the hotels have pubs with live music on weekends to help attract crowds during the low tourist seasons, and ours, the McCausland, is no different.
But the coolest new place in Belfast, at least for the moment, and the one that most evokes the spirit of Dublin or London, is BT1. The bar, which takes its name from central Belfast's postal code, sits underneath Robinson's, a lively pub on Great Victoria Street near the Europa, and has the feel of the basement rec room your aunt might have had if she'd been a Jetson. It is one of the few bars in Belfast with low lighting and consistently fabulous patrons. The walls are silver-painted brick, the furnishings—space-age retro—are close to the ground, the music is trancey ambient techno, and the wine list offers oddball descriptions such as this: "Faustino VII Rioja—the wee man with the beard!" And then there's the bathroom: unisex, with a kind of wacky Betsey Johnson aesthetic (animal prints, plastic spiders embedded in the toilet seats). Eddie, a stout bartender who also works upstairs at Robinson's, explains that he's half expecting the Free Presbyterians—Northern Ireland's equivalent of the Moral Majority—to try to shut the place down. "Ten years ago, when the bars opened on Sunday, they protested," he says, "and then again when the shops opened on Sunday. So now you'll probably get them down here—unisex toilets and all that."
Of course, it took a while for customers to adjust to the idea, but now it's no big deal, and to some, it's even a draw. As Eddie says with a laugh, in all his years of pub service, he has "never seen so many men washing their hands."
Diane Cardwell is a story editor at the New York Times Magazine and has written for Vogue and Elle.