These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Irreverent and independent
The plaudits keep coming for Bristol: the happiest city in the UK, best place to live for under 25s (outside of London), top food destination, vegan hotspot and Britain’s first-ever Green Capital. A creative spirit and irreverent independence are in Bristol’s DNA, so it’s also little wonder that it has produced artists such as Banksy, Massive Attack, Portishead and, more recently, the Mercury Prize-nominated punk band Idles, but such enterprise and imagination also extends elsewhere, particularly to its food scene, arguably one of the finest in the country, with the city gaining an enviable reputation for its independent restaurants.
From the cultural diversity of Stokes Croft and the Georgian style of Clifton to the on-trend vibe of Wapping Wharf, historic Harbourside or bohemian Bedminster, this maverick and energetic city is making waves. And don’t forget the lush surroundings of Somerset are only a short hop away. What’s not to love?
Hot right now . . .
Simon Horsford, our local expert, offers his tips on the hottest things to do and the best places to eat, drink and stay in Bristol this season.
Former Lido chef Freddy Bird’s Littlefrench restaurant in Westbury Park (2B North View, 01179 706 276) specialises in sensibly priced, unpretentious French food. A nice local feel and they do weekend brunch too.
Finzel’s Reach, Bristol’s new waterfront quarter opposite Castle Park and a Bristol Ferry stop, is taking shape with Channel 4’s new Creative Hub also now having taking up residence in part of the revamped Fermentation Buildings (Hawkins Ln; 0117 973 4000), once home to various breweries. Bars and restaurants are opening all the time. Try The LHG Brewpub, with some 65 beers to choose from (they serve Mission pizzas too), or Le Vignoble, where you can indulge in wine tasting (there is a line of nifty self-service dispensers) accompanied by French small plates.
It sounds bonkers but The Wave (Washingpool Farm, 0333 016 4133) is an inland surfing experience where you can test your board skills on a 180m-long surfing lake. Waves can range from 1.7ft to almost 6.5ft in height and they arrive every eight to 10 seconds. Even a wipe out can be fun.
The Artist Residence (28 Portland Sq; 0203 019 8623) brings its stylish, arty brand to Bristol with the opening of their latest hotel in spring 2020. In a Grade I-listed building, the part former boot factory and Georgian townhouse in St Pauls has 23 bedrooms, a garden, bar, café and a restaurant.
48 hours in . . . Bristol
Start the day just above the Downs (take a taxi to start with) among the vibrant plants and trees at the perfectly formed University of Bristol Botanic Garden in Stoke Bishop (Hollybush Lane; 0117 42 82041). You can then either walk back across the Downs (30 minutes) or get another cab to Clifton Observatory (Observatory Hill; 0117 974 1242). Grab a coffee here at the 360 glass café and head to the terrace, sit next to Wallambard (a Wallace & Gromit-style tribute to Brunel) and admire a breathtaking view of Clifton Suspension Bridge; then seek out the Camera Obscura before tackling the fortifying 200-foot descent into the Giant’s Cave.
Wander back down Observatory Hill into Georgian Clifton and duck into the Victorian Clifton Arcade on Boyce’s Avenue before making a beeline for Papersmiths (6a Boyce’s Avenue; 01173 296 347), a lovely stationers filled with must-have pens, paper goods and diaries.
Wend your way to Bristol Lido (Oakfield Pl; 0117 933 9530), built in 1849 as a public bath and now lovingly restored. The restaurant (Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food) and poolside bar overlook the heated outdoor pool (non-members can use the pool and spa, Mon-Fri, 1pm-4pm). Have lunch here (and a swim), or walk up to Cotham for a bowl of freshly made pasta at the deservedly popular Pasta Loco (37a Cotham Hill; 0117 973 3000).
Nicely fortified, walk down Queens Road, bypassing (for today) the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, to Brandon Hill Park, a conservation area and home to the 105-ft Cabot Tower (Park St). It was built in 1897 to mark John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to North America 400 years earlier; climb the steps for a fine panoramic view of the city.
Then make your way to the water – the Floating Harbour – and specifically Hannover Quay and take the Number Seven ferry for the five-minute trip across to the SS Great Britain and Being Brunel Museum (Great Western Dockyard; 0117 926 0680) both offer impressively curated nods to the great engineer.
Head round the corner to see Banksy’s Girl with a Pierced Eardrum in Hanover Place and then pop into Spike Island (133 Cumberland Rd; 0117 929 2266) for some challenging contemporary art and, if you’ve time, on to Underfall Yard (Cumberland Rd; 0117 929 3250) with its visitor centre, working boatyards and Pickle Café – sit outside on the Knuckle for views of the harbour.
Wend your way back alongside the Floating Harbour to the M-Shed (Princes Wharf; 0117 352 6600) for an imaginatively presented history of the city.
Stay in the vicinity at Wapping Wharf and make for Cargo (eye-catching converted shipping containers, which now serve as independent shops – anything from local cheese to bamboo clothing and bubble tea). Have dinner at either Root (Unit 9, Cargo 1, Gaol Ferry Steps; 0117 930 0260) or Box-E (Unit 10, Cargo 1; no phone). The former creates vegetable dishes that would turn a committed carnivore’s head, while the latter captures Bristol’s food scene as its most inspirational: the charred hispi cabbage with brown shrimp and lemon butter is ace.
Afterwards dip into Bristol’s enviable music scene by making for one of two long-standing Bristol venues, just a short walk away. The atmospheric Thekla (The Grove, East Mud Dock; 0117 929 3301), on a converted cargo ship, or the distinctively whitewashed Louisiana (Wapping Road; 0117 926 5978) put on new and up- and coming bands every night.
Again begin the day with a taxi ride, this time across the river to Paintworks, a creative hub in some former industrial buildings. Here you’ll find the Martin Parr Foundation (316 Paintworks; 0117 329 3270) with regular photographic exhibitions based around the British Isles; they don’t disappoint. Just opposite is the recently opened Royal Photographic Society (0117 3164450) and again with regular exhibitions and talks.
Next make for the harbour this time for a boat trip – best get a cab some of the way as the walk isn’t through the loveliest part of the city. Hop out near the classically designed Queen Square (the first American consulate in Britain was established here in 1792). Head through the square across Pero’s Bridge to the Watershed cinema/café and pick up a Bristol Packet boat trip (0117 926 8157) from the pontoon here. It’s a great way of seeing the city from the water.
After the 45-minute trip, walk along Anchor Street, past the statue of Neptune and up Clare and Corn streets to St Nicholas Market (The Corn Exchange; 0117 922 4014). Grab some lunch in one of the many food stalls, such as Caribbean Wrap, The Moorish Café (for delicious Moroccan dishes) or go of an all-day breakfast at the long running Zak’s Café. Take time to peruse some of the stalls – LPs to jewellery and prints – before, if it’s a weekend, popping in to the Palestine Museum (27 Broad St; 0117 912 3123), which offers an insight into Palestinian culture, heritage and political life.
Later in the afternoon head up via the Bear Pit (a roundabout that used to have a black and white sculpture of a bear) to the dynamic and diverse ‘People’s Republic of’ Stokes Croft. Look out for Stokes Croft China (35 Jamaica St; 0117 944 4540) for retro street art and politically slanted fine bone china mugs and plates. Then maybe pop into The Cube (Dove St South; 0117 907 4190), a progressive cinema and art centre which ‘aims to offer alternatives and make a difference’ in its programming.
Order a Jamaica Mule (with Appleton Rum) at the lively Caribbean Croft (30 Stokes Croft; 0117 330 5298). You can eat there – terrific Caribbean cuisine – and then make your way down to The Canteen (80 Stokes Croft; 0117 923 2017), a bar/restaurant with live music every night (anything from hip hop to a samba band).
Where to stay . . .
Bristol Harbour Hotel, set in two former banks in the heart of Bristol, is a tribute to imaginative and traditional design, while its quirkiness reflects the city’s character. The glorious façade is complemented by the Sansovino Hall, and the underground spa in the old bank vaults is a treat, with a cavernous resistance pool, a hydrotherapy pool and top-notch gym. Rooms have plenty of light and the Jetty Restaurant serves a superb seafood-based menu and great wine list.
Rooms from £110. 49 Corn St; 0844 811 1103
Now taken over and completely revamped by the Hotel du Vin group, Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin is once again worthy of its fabulous position overlooking Clifton Suspension Bridge. The Grade II-listed building dates from 1898 and was formerly a spa. The spacious rooms have dark blue or green walls, and amusing paintings dotted throughout. The funky restaurant, Goram & Vincent, features floor-to-ceiling glass windows that show off the bridge; meats, in particular the steak, is the thing here, prepared with grills, clay ovens and a smoker.
Rooms from £110. Sion Hill; 0117 403 0210
The Old City is a neighbourhood in Bristol where street markets rub shoulders with historic churches, jazz pubs and restaurants housed in converted Georgian banks. Brooks Guesthouse is located right in the thick of it; St Nicholas Market is on the doorstep, as are the Cabot Circus shopping area, cobbled King Street, and the museums and galleries on the waterfront. The inviting rooms are on the smaller side, but pleasantly decorated with tongue-and-groove panelling, pretty wallpapers and Farrow & Ball colours. Up on the roof, there’s a small collection of British-made ‘Rockets’ (American-style aluminium caravans). Book one of these for an urban twist on ‘glamping’.
Rooms from £70. Exchange Av; 01179 300066
What to bring home . . .
Head up to Stokes Croft China (35 Jamaica St; 0117 923 2017) for some radical fine bone china mugs and plates – slogans champion everything from the environment to the NHS and socialist politics.
A tiny outlet for The Bristol Cheesemonger (Unit 8, Cargo 2, Museum St; 0117 9292320) in Wapping Wharf is the place to go for some delicious artisan cheeses from Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Gloucestershire.
Want something equally Bristolian? Try the excellent shop at the M Shed (Princes Wharf; 0117 352 6600) for Banksy books, local prints, Bristol glass and children’s toys.
When to go . . .
The pace in Bristol rarely lets up but as ever the best time to explore is during the week; it has a big student population too so you might want to bear that in mind. Accommodation is also likely to be more expensive during the week so you will get a better deal for a two-night stay then.
Weather-wise, the city has a range of activities to suit sunny or rainy days. However, there are numerous festivals throughout the seasons which may sway your decision. The main ones to watch out for are Upfest in May, Europe’s largest live street art and graffiti festival, the Bristol Harbour Festival, in July, a free celebration of music, food, dance and the arts in Harbourside, and the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, held over four days in August, when around 130 balloonists take off from the Ashton Court Estate. Then, at Christmas, you can look forward to street markets, ice skating and mulled cider.
Know before you go . . .
• Swap you money for the Bristol Pound, the aim of which is to keep the currency within the city and ‘create a more sustainable and inclusive local economy’.
• The Bristol Visitor Information Centre is open every day from 10am-5pm (0906 711 2191; E Shed, 1 Canon’s Rd).
Simon Horsford now lives in Bath but is a regular visitor to Bristol, drawn by its maverick way of thinking, its enviable restaurant scene and range of attractions from music to museums and markets. He’s even tackled the ZooRopia high ropes course at Bristol Zoo.