Three different locals have told me that Bristol has been voted the kindest city in the UK. It has taken the title this year but it’s not for the first time, it has also been named the happiest, and I can see why. Community is big here. You can see it in the local shops filled with unique brands, the independent cafes that really care about their menus and their produce, the packed calendar of diverse festivals and the thriving arts scene. This ever-changing cityscape has plenty of exciting new sights in addition to the tourist classics – I discover both in my Bristol city guide.
City break in Bristol | the mild, mild west
SEE | from fine art to street art
Classic museums sit cheek by jowl with modern streets in culture-rich Bristol.
Bristol’s cityscape is an interesting one. From the city centre Georgian townhouses to the multicoloured Totterdown neighbourhood, it provides a great backdrop for a wander. Sightseeing greats such as Bristol Cathedral and the Clifton Suspension Bridge are must-sees. Head to the bridge just as the sun sets for a dreamy view across the city. Or go during the day and wander towards Ashton Court to stroll through the woodland and grounds.
Bristol Museums are enough to take up a week let alone a short city break. If you’re going to pick one, make it the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, it’s stuffed with Egyptian mummies, fine art and even a few dinosaurs. It’s also showcasing an amazing Banksy painting until the end of this year. I went back in time when I visited Bristol, at The Red Lodge Museum, which has three of the oldest rooms in the city, lots of ancient artwork, ornate ceilings and antiques. There’s also the very pretty Knot Garden outside. If you’re with the family or fancy some childhood regression, Blaise Castle will do it, it has a cute collection of old toys and a bright red Picture Room filled with fine art.
One of Bristol’s most famous residents has got to be Banksy. His street art can be found across the city, we stumbled across it several times as we explored, but if you want to make sure you see them all, take the self-guided Banksy tour. If you’re interested in art, look up Bristol’s art trails. Hosted in all four corners of the city, the trails open up throughout the year, with local artists showcasing their studios, houses and creative spaces filled with art. It’s a great excuse to buy something from a local artist, and proves you don’t have to be a rich to start collecting.
Bristol thrives amidst its independent businesses. From Gloucester Road – Britain’s longest stretch of indie shops – to the colourful streets of Montpelier. Head to Picton Street for some great restaurants and cafes.
STAY | old banks to modern B&Bs
From the city harbourside to the pretty Clifton Village, there are some classic and modern hotels to bed down in Bristol.
Classic | waterside luxury on Bristol’s harbour
Oozing all the luxury you’d expect from an old bank building, the Bristol Harbour Hotel is a sound investment. Deep down in the vaults of this hotel hides a spa, with hefty safe doors leading to treatment rooms, and an indoor pool laid underneath the vaulted ceiling. Bedrooms are decorated with rich velvet and leather, chunky decanters of sherry and gin evoke those old school banking days, while Italian marble bathrooms complete the opulent experience.
Classic | this hotel has history
A classic Bristol icon, the Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel has history. This listed building once played host to Churchill, and the restaurant once refused entry to the Rolling Stones for not wearing jackets and ties. The atmosphere has relaxed since then, but it still keeps its grand vibe with a refurbished interior that echoes the past with vintage typewriters and an elegant ballroom. Art is brought from Bristol’s streets inside, with local artists lining the corridors and bedrooms. Rooms have high ceilings, inky green walls, colourful furnishings and industrial features such as exposed pipes and cage lampshades. There’s also a pool over the road if you want some chill time.
Contemporary | the hotel perched on a gorge
Head to pretty Clifton village to find the grand Victorian Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin. This old hotel has been given a total makeover, inside is decorated with Farrow & Ball inky walls, fine art hangs on the walls (although look closely and you might see one of the seemingly ancient subjects holding an iPod or reading a magazine) and rooms are given splashes of colour whether its with a burnt orange chair or a bright blue headboard. Gorge View rooms boast sweeping vistas across the gorge, but you can also take in that landscape from the glass-walled restaurant and terrace. Back in the day, this hotel was a favourite with Hollywoodite Cary Grant, so you couldn’t be in better company.
Contemporary | your own Bristol bolthole
If you’d rather get a grand pad to call your own for your Bristol stay, the Berkeley Suites is the place to pick. Each apartment is set over a single floor, so there’s plenty of privacy, and they’re decorated with luxury, think mid-century furniture, eye-catching art on the walls, and lots of space with a living area, kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom. There’s even a digital projector in each room should you fancy a night in with a film. Just save me some popcorn…
EAT | locally sourced food reigns king in Bristol
From the classic to the contemporary, Bristol is filled with some of the finest independent restaurants in the country.
Clifton is packed with restaurants all vying for your rumbling tummy, but River Cottage Kitchen was my first choice, if only for its setting in an old Grade II listed church from the 19th century. They’re big on veg and local produce, creating some rustic dishes that you can feel good about eating. It’s a fine place to worship.
No 4 Clifton Village
No. 4 Clifton Village is a cosy, classic restaurant set in a Georgian mansion, with honey stone walls and a seasonal menu filled with local ingredients. It was a cold day when I visited, so hearty classics like soup with chunky homemade bread and cheese scones provided the perfect comfort food.
Another Bristol classic is Cowshed, which is partly set in a former picture house and serves up some fantastic fresh meat from their own butcher, which is just next door. The rustic interior feels just right for tucking into a steak cooked on a lava rock. Pop next door to the Everyman cinema for a pre or post dinner flick.
Real foodies will revel in a visit to the Michelin star awarded Bulrush. It appears unassuming in its small building with cosy nooks and crannies, but it’s a real rush for the senses. The tasting menu will take you to and fro with its flavours, we tried punchy Montgomery cheddar with pickled carrot, warming BBQ leeks with turnip and mushrooms and sweet but delicate white chocolate mousse with miso parfait.
If I’m treating myself, it will invariably involve carbs, and so to Pasta Loco I go, and you really could not get a finer plate of pasta. Fresh and handmade, you can gorge on gnocchi, orzo, Pappardelle… even the rocket and parmesan salad is divine. Wash it all down with some perfectly paired wine, or the ‘finest negroni this side of Florence’.
Wilson’s was my last stop in Bristol. It’s a small, husband and wife owned restaurant in Redlands with a simple menu and simple decor, because it’s all about keeping it simple but perfect here. You don’t need complicated food when you have a bowl of homemade pasta covered in parmesan cream – pasta that you can see hanging in the semi-open kitchen. This was topped with truffles that melted in the mouth, total bliss.
If you're a foodie, you'll want to take a wander around Wapping Wharf, a shipping container yard filled with pop up delights, from artisan bakeries and coffee shops, to sourdough pizza and Salt & Malt fish and chips.
DRINK | hidden bars to science infused cocktails
Bristol’s locals know how to pull the perfect pint, while modern bars have the edge on cutting edge cocktails.
You could probably ask for anything (drink wise!) in Milk Thistle, a hidden speakeasy that you’d easily miss if you didn’t know about it. The bar staff know their stuff, acing martinis, old-fashioneds and just about any cocktail you can think of. It’s dark and cosy and you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled across a real treasure.
Cosy pubs have long been the backbone of Bristol nightlife, so it’s only fair you head for a pint in some of the city’s best. The Kensington Arms – known locally as The Kenny – is a classic country style pub with lots of space to while away an evening. They have a fab English sparkling wine and a lovely terrace.
As Bristol boozers go, you can’t get much more traditional than the Pipe & Slippers. I spent an evening here beside the fire in one of their cosy chesterfield armchairs. They’re known for a signature cocktail, the Pipe Dream. I’m not sure if it was the first three shots of rum, or the final flaming shot of the lethal Wray & Nephews (I touched it once while at uni, never again), but I figured it was best to steer clear.
Second Floor Bar
Hidden upstairs in Harvey Nichols, is the Second Floor Bar. Whether you need to rest your feet from some retail therapy or you just want a cool tall glass of champagne, this is the place to be. It’s a glam setting with a metallic ceiling and a long, golden, glowing bar. It’s every bit the stylish haunt, but this is Bristol, so it’s still extremely welcoming.
Swanky drinks can also be had at the Harbour Hotel’s Gold Bar. This opulent old room has been given a luxurious, modern vibe, with chandeliers, bright patterned seating and a marble bar. There are plenty of cocktails and craft beers on the menu.
If you were ever a Heston Blumenthal fan, Brozen Bar is not to be missed. Cocktails are fused with science here, frozen with liquid nitrogen to create magical cups of smoking drinks that taste as good as any dessert. You’ll never be able to stick to just one.
Bristol's secret bar scene is booming, you can find others like Hyde & Co, Red Light and Her Majesty's Secret Service with a little help from their websites.
DO | gin tasting, long walks and festivals galore
There’s always a festival happening somewhere in Bristol.
There are plenty of places to stretch your legs in Bristol. My boyfriend and I always enjoy an afternoon stroll across The Downs. They cling to the edge of the city with some great views over Avon Gorge. Ashton Court is also a great place for a wander, with 850 acres of land, there’s a dreamy wildflower meadow, a deer park and plenty of space to take a picnic.
St Nicholas Market
I challenge you not to come away with bulging shopping bags after a trip to Corn Street and the St Nicholas Market. It dates all the way back to 1743, but it’s all about the freshest local produce. We found some delicious sourdough bread, lots of colourful locally grown veg and a huge heap of cheese.
Gin is definitely having a moment, and in Bristol, it’s all about Weber & Trings. They host gin blending sessions twice a month in their cosy, drinking den tasting room. If you’re not a gin fan, they also hold a whisky club every month and a general spirit tasting if you fancy finding your new favourite tipple.
If the sun is shining it’s the perfect excuse to visit one of my favourite Bristol destinations, the Bristol Lido. Nestled in the pretty Georgian streets of Clifton, it’s a gem of a find, with a great waterside restaurant that is worth the trip even if you don’t fancy a swim. Yummy flavours like wood-roasted beetroot and slow cooked ox cheek give the menu some gusto, and they serve some great sangria to wash it all down. The pool is actually heated, so you could visit during the winter if you’re brave enough.
Bristol’s social calendar is packed with festivals. My must-see is the Balloon Fiesta, a magical celebration of hot air balloons, where over 100 fire breathing balloons take to the Bristol skies. It’s held in August and there are lots of fairground rides and stalls to visit too.
There are plenty of other festivals to satisfy a range of interests. From foodie festivals like the Bristol Sausage and Cider Festival in August to music fan favourites like the Downs Festival in the late summer. A brand new wellness festival proves this city really does have its finger on the pulse. The Bristol Film Festival is also a great one to explore. Events are hosted throughout the year, ranging from immersive dining and cinema experiences to Bristol Cathedral screenings and horror movies shown in the Redcliffe Caves.
Cycling is a great way to get around the city. Download the Yo Bike app to take advantage of Bristol's communal biking network.
I always leave Bristol wishing I had longer, longer to eat, longer to drink, longer to shop and longer to just wander around until I stumble across something amazing. Because invariably you will, no matter how much you explore, this culture-packed city still has lots of surprises at every turn.