The unofficial capital of England’s West Country, Bristol is a thriving University town dating back to 1155 when it was one of England’s most important cities. Whilst considered by many an excellent base for exploring the region, the city itself is a diverse and exciting destination in its own right. With a historic town centre, great value accommodation and a thriving bar and restaurant scene, Bristol is one of the most vibrant cities in the south of England and one that should be on every visitor’s itinerary!
Getting There & Away
If travelling from within England or Scotland, by far the most pleasant way to get to or from Bristol is by train on Brunel’s historic Great Western Railway. With services from as far afield as Glasgow, York, London and Exeter arriving at the centrally located Temple Meads station, all corners of the UK are accessible on modern intercity trains. With London Paddington just less than two hours away, it’s also possible to visit for the day from the capital, although tickets purchased on the day of travel can be eye-wateringly expensive! For the budget conscious, Megabus and National Express coaches also have excellent connections to and from the city, and with prices as low as £1.50 each way it’s well worth booking in advance. If coming from further afield, Bristol’s small but perfectly-formed international airport serves over 100 destinations across Europe.
With a relatively compact town centre, Bristol is best explored on two feet, or even two wheels! The Old City and Harbourside areas are both home to some stunning waterside walkways and pedestrianised main streets, whilst the wider area can be explored on the excellent network of dedicated cycle paths that criss-cross the town. Another option in the summer months would be to jump aboard the Open Top bus tour, which delivers visitors to local highlights such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol Zoo and City Docks, making this a great option for those looking to cover big ground in little time. And naturally a visit to this maritime city wouldn’t be complete without a trip around the harbours on one of the local ferry boats!
Sights & Culture
The historic Harbourside district is considered by many to be the jewel in Bristol’s crown, and plays host to a number of the city’s key attractions. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain makes a great first stop, and exploring this vast steam powered passenger ship is great fun for all the family and a fitting tribute to Bristol’s industrial history. From there, it’s just a short hop into the Old City, complete with historic buildings, cobbled streets and secret alleyways. Whether exploring the ancient crypts beneath St John on the Wall church, or catching a show on King Street – Bristol’s answer to London’s West End – this is the perfect area to while away a lazy afternoon. The St Nicholas Market is a gourmet’s dream, with a wonderful selection of both local and international produce, as well as the renowned Bristol Sausage Shop and famous Pieminster Pies making an appearance. The tranquil Castle Park provides a welcome escape from the often-bustling city centre, with the ruins of Bristol Castle and St Peter’s Church standing as a humble memorial to those who lost their lives locally during the bombing raids of the second world war.
For a little retail therapy, Broadmead is within striking distance of the old city, and despite its drab post-war architecture, has a good selection of shops and department stores. For a more modern shopping experience, Cabot Circus, opened in 2008, is home to a large number of up-market brands. Being largely undercover and having its own cinema complex, it’s also the perfect escape on a rainy day!
Slightly further afield, the historically upmarket suburb of Clifton has become a popular hub amongst Bristol’s student community, and is home to the namesake Clifton Suspension Bridge. Another of Brunel’s industrial-age triumphs, the bridge spans the Avon gorge at a height of 75 metres, so definitely one to avoid if you have a fear of heights! Free tours of the bridge are available at 3pm every weekend if you’d like to know more about its history and workings. The area is also home to Bristol Zoo which is definitely worth at least half a day if your itinerary permits. Alternatively, for a taste of Bristol’s diverse communities, head over to the Eastside where colourful neighbourhoods and independent shops and restaurants from around the world are flourishing.
Action & Adventure
For those looking to get a little more active during their visit, why not grab a bike and take on the beautiful Bristol to Bath Cycle Way! A relatively flat, traffic free route links the city to the Roman spa town of Bath, just 22 kilometres away. A good track and gentle gradient makes this a great ride for those of all abilities, and the trip takes just around two hours each way, meaning a day trip is perfectly possible. If the return cycle seems a little too much effort, you and your bike can always hop on one of the regular trains back Bristol and you’ll be home before you know it!
If you’re comfortable with your feet off the ground, every August Bristol plays host to the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, which see over 100 hot air balloons take to the sky at any one time. Traditionally, on the first night, a number of balloons are inflated after nightfall and glow along to music and a spectacular fireworks display. Whether you’re lucky enough to bag a place in one of the balloon baskets, or simply observe from the ground, it’s an experience not to be missed!
Eating & Drinking
With a strong student population and a proud sporting heritage – particularly Rugby – it’s no surprise that there is no shortage of pubs, bars and restaurants in the town centre. Aside from the ubiquitous and frankly boring chain restaurants, one of the best places to grab an authentic meal is in one of the city’s historic pubs. Traditional dishes such as Pie & Mash, Sausages & Mash or Fish & Chips are all staples and are perfect with a pint of real ale. These can all be found in practically all of the city’s pubs, so simply pick somewhere that’s busy with people eating and drinking and you’ll be in for a treat.
Another west-country classic is a pint of proper, still cider. Essentially just fermented apple juice, it is generally served lightly chilled and un-carbonated, meaning it can take a little getting used to if it’s your first time trying it! Ciders often have funky names such as “Dead Rat”, but don’t let this put you off – it’s just British humour! A great place to try a pint of cider in the Harbourside area is at The Stables, as they carry a huge selection and their staff are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Styles range from Sweet, through medium to dry (and they mean dry!), whilst alcohol content can be anything from 4% up to 9%+! Pay attention when ordering, though, or you may find your legs don’t work after a few pints!