Consistently being voted best place to live and study in recent years, this South West English city, located by the River Avon is just short train ride from the Welsh border and packed full of things to keep you busy over a weekend for sure. There is the pretty waterfront at the Harbourside, beautiful cliffs and Georgian houses in Clifton, the eclectic and graffitied Stokes Croft, the historic old part of Temple Meads, as well as a vibrant city centre full of shops, bars and restaurants. I probably visit twice a year due to having friends here and with so much going on in the city, there is always a reason to return.
Arrivals – Around a 2 1/2 hour drive from London, and 3 1/2 hour drive from Manchester and Liverpool, it may be better to take a train instead of fighting the motorways especially if you are travelling on a Friday. Bristol Temple Meads is the main train station, and its possible to get direct trains here from a lot of the big UK train stations, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, London, Portsmouth, Cardiff and its one change if you travel from destinations such as Liverpool or Swansea. There is also a National Express bus station for those on a tight budget but have time to spare.
A lot of the sights around Bristol are walkable, but there is a good system of buses that stretch all across the city and lots of taxi’s and uber’s. The tourist information centre also sells tickets for the hop on hop off tourist bus and its here where you can book onto one of the walking tours aswell.
History Bit – There has been evidence of people living in the Bristol area since the Stone Age, no doubt the River Avon playing being an important factor over the years. During the Roman Era, Sea Mills (a current suburb of Bristol) was recorded in a registry and a road was created from here, linking it with Bath. It was in the 13th Century that Bristol really developed into a busy port and by the 14th Century was said to have become Britain’s 3rd largest town. By the mid 1500’s Bristol became a city, but in the 1600’s the city was damaged badly during the civil war. Prosperity returned in the 17 & 1800’s as it became an important part of the slave trade between Africa and America. By the 1900’s the main industries were tobacco and cigarette manufacturers, the now large empty warehouses converted into modern apartments, art spaces and cafes such as the one in Southville.
Sights – Temple Meads is the largest train station in the city and the first train station built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel so seems a good place to start, as many people arrive from here. Isambard’s particular part of the station is no longer operational, but still present and now a grade 1 listed building. About a 5 minute walk in the direction of the city centre is where you come across Temple Church, a grade II listed building which was built on a site originally housing a church of the Knights Templar. It is definitely worth an explore on your way in, but wrap up warm, as all that is left now is the exterior walls and a leaning bell tower. The Quay area around is a new developing part of town full of cafe’s, bars and restaurants and makes a good stop off if you’re about to board a train onward. If you have just landed though, ignore that growling stomach and wait until you make it into the heart of the city.
Harbourside – This riverside area is a great place to explore whether you want history, ships, culture, entertainment, or just good food and drink. Probably the most visited site here is another one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s creations, the SS Great Britain. Although £14 per adult, the ticket allows you a full years access, and this includes touring the ship from the hold, to the steerage and up out onto the weather deck. There are different talks on different days, so check the online calendar to see if you can time your visit with something of interest and a Victorian dressing up area complete with photo booth is also included in the ticket price. The surrounding dockyard is also worth a wander, full of grade II listed buildings it really gives a sense of how it must have been like during the busy days, when it was full of sailors and merchants ready to set off and explore the seas. Anyone interested in Isambard Kingdom Brunel may want to visit the Brunel Institute to get a greater understanding of Britain’s most famous and prolific engineer, the institute is free but closed on Sundays, Mondays and the middle two Saturdays of each month.
M Shed is part of the Bristol Museums group and is located here at the Harbourside inside a 1950’s transit shed. Celebrating all things Bristolian, its free and well worth an hour of your time in this part of the city, as it tells the tale of Bristol from prehistoric times to present day, featuring videos, photographs and artifacts as well as the obligatory cool souvenir shop and coffee bar. More and more of the old buildings are being regenerated into quirky art spaces, restaurants and theatres around here, so if more art and less history is your thing, visit Arnolfini or Spike Island, regardless; a visit here to the harbourside should be on anyones Bristol itinerary.
City Centre – This is where most visitors will be spending the majority of their time (and money), and with good reason. There are brand new shopping centres jam packed with shops, restaurants, cinemas and cafes, loads of live music venues and theatres too and I always tend to time my visit with a gig at the Academy or Bierkeller. Venture towards the old part of the city centre too, taking time to explore St Nicholas’s Market with its vibrant food markets and beautiful Georgian buildings and Queens Square which used to be the city rubbish dump back in the 17th Century, but is now a gorgeous tree lined park. Park Street and College Green have a great selection of boutique shops, bars and restaurants as well as more stunning Georgian buildings and last time I walked through they had a Sommes of the Shroud display to remember WW1. Oh and keep a look out for the Cary Grant statue who although went on to find fame and fortune in Hollywood, was actually born in Bristol.
Those wanting a more eclectic, bohemian experience head up North to Stokes Croft, the road is named after the mayor in the 1300’s John Stokes, but the side streets and surrounding area has now also taken on the nickname as well. In the early 19 Century it was a busy thriving part of the city, but the whole area had to be rebuilt after WW2 and has now developed into a centre for arts, music and food. If you want an alternative history of the area then you must visit the Stokes Croft Museum Hungry? then visit the first Pieminister to be opened in the UK, or if you fancy a local cider and live music (it’s also a hostel should you need an overnight stay) then head to the Full Moon.
Trying the local cider always leads to a good night out
Heading a bit further north on Stokes Croft, you’ll end up on the Gloucester Road, known as one of, if not the longest street of independent shops in Europe, I havent had the chance to explore it yet, but will report on it next time!
Clifton is an area I only just started to explore on my latest visit to Bristol which was earlier this month (Dec 2017). As well as Clifton Village the main draw is yet another Isambard Kingdom Brunel masterpiece, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. On the Leigh Woods side there is a visitors centre, when I visited there was limited parking and I was tired and cranky from my 3 1/2 hour drive. With the rain starting to fall, my anxiety got the better of me and I ended up driving to the other side of the river via an A road to admire the bridge from afar. Although its only £1 to cross if you are driving but take note, the toll machine didn’t take notes, and although you can get change from the visitors centre, I couldnt find anywhere to park, so ended up doing a 3 point turn and heading off. Frustrating!! But I shall return to walk or drive it next time with my £1 ready!
So close, yet so far, I’ll try again next visit.
A cool local area I discovered on my latest visit was the area around North Street in Southville and Bedminster where my friend now lives. Full of small independent shops, cafes, organic supermarkets and art spaces, it makes for a good wander, look out for the amazing street art too, the John Lennon mural made me feel like I was back home in Liverpool 🙂
Speaking of street art, you cannot fail to ignore the impact that Banksy has had on the art world and even if his identity is still largely a secret, it is known that he is a Bristolian. His art can be spotted in many places around the city and a quick google search will give you some good tips on where to spot them, or you could tailor your trip to Bristol around a Bansky Walking Tour.
Eating and Drinking in Bristol would need its own blog post and as I often stay with friends when visiting the city, we don’t always eat out, so I would say just head to the city centre or Harbourside and explore, there are so many cool little finds. A couple of gems I have found during my trips are the epic cat pub (Yes cats!!) called Bag o’ Nails which as well as lots of cats and kittens just chilling around the place, has a great selection of ale, board games and a decent amount of vinyl. Close by is a great little organic cafe that serves delicious brownies and coffee with none dairy options too, called the Salt Cafe. If you fancy a bit of a different night out, I can recommend Thekla which is a live music venue, club and bar on a cargo boat. Moored in the Mud Dock not far from Queens Square, its the first time ive been to a gig on a boat and loved it.
Always be polite -Alright my luvver? is basically Bristolian for Hello!