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 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 or affluent Westbury Park 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?
Simon Horsford, our local expert, offers his tips for visiting in our guides to the city’s best hotels, restaurants, nightlife and things to do. If planning a longer trip, explore our guide to the perfect holiday in Somerset.
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. You can then either walk back across the Downs (30 minutes) or get another cab to Clifton Observatory. 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. Find more of the best things to do in the city in our guide.
Wander back down Observatory Hill into Georgian Clifton and duck into the Victorian Clifton Arcade on Boyce’s Avenue before heading to Focus on the Past, a delightful antique shop, chock-full of old furniture, glass, silver and other collectables. The area is great for clothes shopping too.
Wend your way to Bristol Lido, 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.
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. 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 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 for some challenging contemporary art and, if
you’ve time, on to Underfall Yard with its visitor centre, working boatyards and Underfall Café – sit outside on the Knuckle for views of the harbour.
Wend your way back alongside the Floating Harbour to the M-Shed 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 or Box-E. 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. Find more of the best restaurants in our guide.
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, on a converted cargo ship, or the distinctively whitewashed Louisiana put on new and up and coming bands every night. Find more of the best nightlife in our guide.
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)with regular photographic exhibitions based around the British Isles; they don’t disappoint. Just opposite is the recently opened Royal Photographic Society 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 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. Grab some lunch in one of the many food stalls, such as Caribbean Wrap, The Moorish Café (for delicious Moroccan dishes) or go vegan at Royce Rolls Cafe. 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, 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 for retro street art and politically slanted fine bone china mugs and plates. Then maybe pop into The Cube, a progressive cinema and art centre which ‘aims to offer alternatives and make a difference’ in its programming. Find more of the top attractions in our guide.
Order a Jamaica Mule (with Appleton Rum) at the lively Caribbean Croft. You can eat there – terrific Caribbean cuisine – and then make your way down to The Canteen, a bar/restaurant with live music every night (anything from hip hop to a samba band).
The hilly suburbs of Cotham/Redland are well worth a diversion. Here you’ll find Cotham Hardware, which has been going since 1915, pop into Papadeli, an-award-winning deli for a great cheese toastie and take in a movie at the Everyman Bristol. Later try a cocktail at HMSS or Crying Wolf and have dinner at Wilson’s. Find more of the city’s best restaurants in our guide.
Did you know?
You can go try blowing your own glass bauble at Bristol Blue Glass. This family-run craft enterprise recreates the Bristol blue glass the city was once famous for in the 17th and 18th centuries. Find more of the best things to do in our guide.
The Downs are the place to watch the annual balloon fiesta in August when they set off from the Ashton Court Estate. They’d be perfect to watch the fireworks on Bonfire Night, too.
Tickets at some museums in Bristol, such as Being Brunel/SS Great Britain and Aerospace Bristol are valid for a year, so you can make return visits.
The White Lion Bar terrace at the Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin is still one of the go-to places on a summer’s evening to take in the splendour of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and have a drink as the sun begins to set. Find more of the best drinking spots in our guide.
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.
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.
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’.
What to bring home
Head up to Stokes Croft China 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 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 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 (now a biannual event, the next one will be 2024), 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.
• Visit Bristol has everything from bus timetables to gifts.
- Visit Bristol has everything from bus timetables to gifts.
- 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.
Simon Horsford 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.