When visiting England, there are a handful of places that simply must be on your hit list. From the beautiful Cornish coastline to Devon’s wild moors, to Bath’s pristine Georgian architecture to London’s iconic skyline… there’s something for everyone. But if you’re after music, festivals, artisan beer, speakeasies, street art, community vibes and green thinking, then Bristol is the place for you.
It’s been my home city for five years and it’s constantly been lit up with events and fun – the time has flown by since moving here and it’s oh-so-easy to understand why. Voted as Britain’s best city to live in and included in the top 10 happiest British cities to work in, Bristol has seriously made a name for itself over the past few years; a place that’s extremely liveable with a fantastic pace of life. It’s also come on leaps and bounds with its digital scene becoming one of the strongest creative industries outside of London (no wonder so many Londoners are moving here to escape the rat race…) and was the first UK city to be named the European Green Capital for 2015 for its progressive, creative and conscious approach to urban living.
I could go on and on about how many titles it’s won and why its such an ace place, but you won’t really know until you’re here. So I’d better get down to the nitty-gritty about why this city has won my heart to persuade you to visit… Get stuck into this Travelettes guide to Bristol and be sure to pencil it into your itinerary on your next trip to England!
A Travelettes guide to Bristol
How to get there and away:
Bristol is quite literally the gateway to the south-west of England. With a huge train station, you can get to Bristol from nearly every major city – a train ride to London will only take you 1.5 hours, and if you want to save that dollar (and you don’t mind getting a touch sweaty) you can catch a MegaBus to the capital for a fraction of a train ticket. Bristol also has its own airport which is seriously well-connected to many European cities.
Where to stay in Bristol:
Bristol’s hotel options have been slowly improving over the years. When I first moved here, there wasn’t much on offer that would WOW you, but now hotels are getting refreshed with cool designs and alternative additions.
See the city in style from the rooftops above the Old City. Perched atop the historic St Nicholas market, five silver airstreams can be spotted up on the roof of Brooks Guesthouse. Pick between 16ft, 18ft or 20ft and stay in your very own Retro Rocket in the centre of Bristol.
Imagine waking up in your own little sleek cabin, high above the bustle, hearing the neighbouring market opening and the sleepy city slowly awakening. Enjoy a coffee on your door step, then get ready for your day in the surprisingly spacious rocket.
If you’re after a classic hotel, hit up the beautiful Mercure Grand Hotel. Recently refurbished with quirky design elements and with its brilliant new restaurant, Keepers, that includes honey from local bees throughout their food and cocktail menu, this historical Grade II listed building is now one of the hippest places to stay in Bristol. With wall art by Bristol’s very own design talent, and vintage additions locally sourced by the hotel manager himself, it’s certainly bringing an element of cool to Bristol’s accommodation offerings.
Where to eat in Bristol:
Holy crap – where to start?! Bristol’s cafe and coffee scene has exploded over the past few years – I feel lucky to have lived in Bristol long enough to see how the options have expanded and how the locals are welcoming these brilliant new spots. Unlike London that has such a high-turnover of cafes, Bristol places that open up and do well are quickly embraced and well-loved by locals – they become institutions.
The Best Brunch Spots:
Head to Montpelier’s quirky neighbourhood, north of the city centre for Katie & Kim’s – my personal favourite cafe. With a short and sweet menu that rotates every few months, expect hearty home-cooked brunch creations that will stuff and satisfy you. From piles of avocado to fluffy cheese scones, this is a popular brunch spot that attracts the masses and may have you waiting for a spare seat around the communal table on the weekend.
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The Bristolian cafe is a stone’s throw from Katie & Kim’s, and does huge servings of full English breakfasts and great veggie options. Opt for their big salads and a smoothie if you want a healthier start to the day! On Gloucester Road, the longest street of independent shops in the UK, you can find more cafes – Baker’s and Co attracts many a yummy mummy and you can find breakfast classics (smashed avo and eggs), plus some alternative breakfast items, like chia seed breakfast bowls and dutch pancakes.
Pop down Gloucester Road into Stokes Croft and hit up Ceres – a new ‘Melbourne style’ cafe. I was pretty dubious about a cafe that is daring enough to compare itself to Melbourne brunch legends (as I’m a Melbourne cafe connoisseur) but this place blew me out the water. Corn fritters, poached eggs, home tea smoked salmon, halloumi, smashed avo – they bring together everything good in life and make a decent brunch out of it!
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Simply Delicious Dinners:
Throughout the city centre there are some top places to dine. From great British pubs to hidden underground steak havens, you’ll find something that will float your boat. Oh and if you like boats, there are a few great places on actual boats in Bristol’s famous harbour.
In England, you should always try a brilliant roast dinner, and in Bristol you will have so many to choose from! The Naval Volunteer on King Street and The Volunteer Tavern tucked behind Cabot Circus, have some absolutely delicious and hearty roasts… but head south of the river if you want to taste one of the best roasts in Bristol. The Old Bookshop is full of cool, vintage and quirky furniture, with a very nautical theme in their small pub garden. The roasts are sublime (explore a Bookshop roast experience here!) and their brunches are awesome as well – it’s well worth the journey down south!
Asian varieties are popping up all over the city – my top picks include homely Ramen Ya on Gloucester Road, the sleek Sticks and Broth in the city and Nomu up in fancy Clifton – Nomu’s sushi and cocktail range is top! Be sure to pick up on their 3 plates for £13 where you can stuff yourself silly on sushi.
So I mentioned boats earlier – Under the Stars has a prime location and is a pretty cool boat. This pirate ship floats in the harbour and offers a cosy interior (or a spacious deck in the summer) for you to be wined and dined. Delicious tapas and pizza are available, and the staff are insanely nice with a talent for cocktails. Three Brothers has quickly become a burger institution and trumps any chain burger joint. Floating on a wide boat, you can find thickshakes, craft beer, sweet potato fries and the most delicious brioche buns on your burgers. Yum!
Other homegrown talents include The Ox, a stunning steak restaurant under the pavement of Corn Street. With distinctly 1920’s decor and speakeasy styling, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back into history. Get decadent with the best steaks to grace your palate and go for gold with the quality cocktail menu. More homegrown deliciousness includes The Canteen, found in the community-run Hamilton House. This legend of a cafe sources all their food locally and sustainably, plus a cut of profits get invested back into the community. It’s certainly a place that values and champions the locals – support them!
Top things to do in Bristol:
The top things to do in Bristol range from the family-friendly and wholesome, to crazy street parties where you’ll spot your seemingly quiet neighbour grinding to a bit of reggae. We’ve had some strange, but cool, things happen here over the years (remember that giant waterslide down Park Street?) so it’s always good to keep an eye out for upcoming events on local sites, such as, Bristol 24/7. But here’s a quick snapshot on how you can fill a few days in this colorful city:
Take a walk with The Ultimate Bristol Walking Tour as they’ll show you the artistic side of the city, including the famous Banksy works of art! You’ll be surprised how much of it adorns the walls and you’ll also cop an eyeful of other local street artists who are making waves in the graffiti world. This tour will also walk you through the old pirate haunts and smugglers’ taverns from way back when it was a bustling shipping port.
Take a walk up to the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. Situated north-west to the city centre, this grand and architecturally beautiful bridge spans the mammoth Avon Gorge giving spectacular views of the surrounding land. It opened in 1864 and is Grade I listed – a GORGE-ous bit of historical sightseeing! Cabot Tower is also worth a walk – head up the steep staircase where you’ll get panoramic views across the rooftops of Bristol.
Bristol Museum always has some great exhibitions on, and it once had a huge Banksy exhibition which attracted thousands of visitors around the world. Find a treasure trove of Egyptian artifacts, ancient Mexican art and more… Also, head down to Harbourside for the M Shed‘s offerings, where you can spy multimedia art and tours of the archives of the industrial, maritime and social history collections
A short walk from the M-Shed, brings you to the Arnolfini for contemporary art and culture, and the Watershed. There’s a brill little cinema tucked away in here, which shows cultural indie films and the latest releases for a fraction of the price. Plus you can take wine and Baileys hot chocolate into your screening, which is always a win!
Embrace Bristol’s nautical theme and jump on a boat taxi from Harbourside. The Bristol Ferries run on a loop from the centre, through Hotwells (jump off for a pint at The Pump House!) to the grand Temple Meads train station. They make for a pretty sweet and scenic tour of Bristol by water.
And when the sun comes out, stay around the Harbourside and see everyone come out to bask in its rays – when the sun shines, Bristol shines too!! Whether it’s teens after school, office workers with loosened ties or procrastinating students; expect heaps of smiles and gatherings around the harbour. Dangle your feet over the edge with a can of G&T or cider in hand and soak up the warmth.
Talking of summer, hot air balloons take over the skies as soon as the season is upon us. The Balloon Fiesta is a huge affair which sees hundreds of balloons fill the air – snap up a ballooning trip to see Bristol and the surrounding West Country from above. It’s a view to be reckoned with <3
Brilliant shopping in Bristol: Vintage & local designers
There is a huge variety of shopping available in Bristol, and you can find everything from top vintage finds to classic high street stores. Wander the city centre in Broadmead and Cabot Circus, the large shopping mall, for any of your usual needs, but head a touch out of the centre for more interesting and cool shops:
Bristol has such an eclectic style – anything goes! Many of the locals wear cool charity shops finds and vintage apparel, sometimes paired with local, independent brands. Loot is a huge hulk of a vintage cave, right beside the bustling Bear Pit. Find reworked pieces by Loot’s in-store designers and other original vintage finds here.
Head up Gloucester Road – the longest road of independent shops in the UK – and pop into That Thing (formerly known as Dutty) for local designer wares, have afternoon tea at Cox and Baloney and shop their vintage pieces, and venture into a whole host of charity shops and vintage stores further up the road. Be sure to pop down to Rhubarb Jumble in Bedminster, opposite The Old Bookshop, for gorgeous floaty dresses and real retro furniture.
For boutiques and more independent shops, Clifton Village is packed full of them! Delightful shops contain lovely items for gifts, and do make sure you pop into Papersmiths – a stationary addict’s dream. St Nicholas Market is stocked full of delicious food stalls where you can dine on falafel (Eat A Pitta is the most delicious takeaway!), wholesome cakes, unique ice cream and Bristol’s best pies: Pieminister.
Wander Corn Street on the weekend for more stalls that spill out of St Nicholas market, and if you happen to need a haircut, skip down to Betties & Baldwins – the hair salon that specialises in brilliant hair colouring and unique cuts.
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The Street Parties:
The community of Bristol always organises some kind of shindig out on the streets. From iconic carnivals to street art celebrations, there’s always an excuse to enjoy the summer sun with a few bevvies in hand. Each of the neighbourhoods usually puts something on – St Werburgh’s summer fair is always a fun time where a band plays in the back of a truck and everyone comes together to dance at the city farm. Head down to Southville in July for Upfest, Europe’s largest (and free) street art and graffiti festival. See talented artists from 30 countries and across the UK gather to paint live on 30,000 sqft of surfaces. Add in art, music and workshops and it makes for a great free festival!
I know that everyone in Bristol has all their fingers crossed that St Paul’s Carnival will be making a comeback, finally, in 2017. This epic carnival celebrates the Afro-Caribbean community of the city with parades, jerk chicken, dancing, multiple stages of pumping music, street food and general revelry. Think Notting Hill Carnival, but a quarter of the size, a million less people, a seriously welcoming atmosphere and no massive queues to tube stations at the end of the night. It was the highlight of my summer in the UK for years and if it makes a comeback, you need to come party with us.
Where to Drink in Bristol:
And this brings me to where’s good to drink in Bristol! Everyone loves a good, solid British pub and the city centre is full of them. Head to the Old City area of Bristol – cobbled King Street has a host of cosy pubs with vast selections of craft beer: Kong’s, The Old Duke (a great place for a shindig to a live jazz band), Small Bar and The Apple – a boat dedicated to cider!
Again, Gloucester Road has some great places, and when night falls on Stokes Croft, a party atmosphere is rife. From fun bars like No. 51 and The Love Inn, to casual pubs with music like The Crofter’s Rights and The Bell, you can really find something hella fun ’round these parts.
Everyone loves a cocktail, so go a bit classy and head to speakeasy hideaways for exquisite potions and poisons. Red Light, Milk Thistle, and Hyde and Co are some of Bristol’s biggest cocktail gems – they may be hard to find with a few of them having no outside signage, but once you find them, you’ll never want to leave.
A new addition to Bristol cocktail scene is Bambalan. A huge bar opposite the famous music venue, Colston Hall, Bambalan serves summery, breezy cocktails to match their expansive roof terrace. The perfect place for after work drinks or Sunday beverages.
So there you have it! Bristol is clearly jam-packed with so much to see and do, not to mention a huge array of places to eat, drink and party. Wapping Wharf, a new area of shipping containers and spaces dedicated solely to independent Bristol companies, is proof that Bristol is constantly evolving with a focus on the people, eateries and brands that make the city as awesome as it is. It’s only going to get bigger and better, so be sure to give Bristol a visit ASAP.
All photographs by Sophie Saint, unless otherwise stated.