The strip of Belfast running south along Great Victoria Street to Shaftesbury Square and thence to the university area and beyond is ascribed the name of the “Golden Mile”, though in its present state its middle is, in truth, mostly a pretty depressing stretch of boarded-up businesses and building sites.
It begins at the grandiose, Victorian Grand Opera House, which sits just a short distance west of Donegall Square at the northern end of Great Victoria Street. At the northern head of the street, almost opposite the Europa Hotel, stands one of the greatest of Victorian gin palaces, the Crown Liquor Saloon. The saloon has a glittering tiled exterior resembling a spa baths more than a serious drinking institution, while inside the scrolled ceiling, patterned floor and the golden-yellow and rosy-red hues led John Betjeman to describe it as his “many coloured cavern”. Once armed with drinks (and if it’s not too crowded, or lunchtime when they’re reserved for diners only), grab one of the snugs and press the button to receive service. If the snugs are all busy, it’s still a great experience to sit or stand at the bar, with its carved-timber dividing screens, painted mirrors and frieze-decorated oak panelling.
Before heading into the university quarter, sidestep off Great Victoria Street into Sandy Row, which runs parallel to the west. A strong working-class Protestant quarter (with the tribal pavement painting to prove it), it’s one of the most glaring examples of Belfast’s divided world, wildly different from the city centre’s increasingly cosmopolitan sophistication, yet only yards away. In Blythe Street and Donegall Road, off to the west, are some of the murals that characterize these sectarian areas (see Belfast’s murals). Sandy Row used to be the main road south and, although hard to credit today, it was once a picturesque stretch of whitewashed cottages.