The most famous ship in the world was launched a century ago this year in Belfast. The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage the following April.

At the moment, the best way to appreciate Belfast’s role in the story is to peer into a long, deep hole in the city’s once thriving shipyards. The hole in question is the Thompson Graving Dock, where the Titanic was fitted out. Back then, Belfast was a world leader in shipbuilding, with 176 vessels launched in the first decade of the 20th Century alone. For 70 years, the sinking of the Titanic was a source of shame for the city – until it was proven that the fault was human, not mechanical. Now it’s a part of Belfast’s history that people are keen to celebrate once more.

I stood on the dock by the original yellow squat capstan – around which a cable was wound to drag the ship – and imagined the vast vessel edging forward until it towered over my little head. Alongside is the pump house, where I viewed a pump that emptied water out of the dock at a rate so speedy that it was measured in swimming pools per minute.

A £97m Titanic Built in Belfast attraction is scheduled to open near the dock in April 2012. Its design mimics the brow of the ship, and it should prove to be a signature attraction in Belfast’s “Titanic quarter”.

Until recently, the city has tended not to make much play of its role in the story – but, this year, several exhibitions have commemorated the building of the ship. In 2012, Belfast can expect anniversary interest to be fevered: a Titanic Memorial Cruise – taking passengers across the Atlantic to pass over the wreck site on 15 April, 100 years to the day after the disaster – sold out months ago.

David Musgrove is editor of BBC History Magazine. His new book is 100 Places That Made Britain (BBC Books; £14.99).

This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.