Bristol, the darling town of England’s artists, writers and those seeking a calmer, alternative lifestyle, is back in fashion. According to a report using the International Passenger Survey by the Office for National Statistics only in 2018 Bristolians welcomed nearly 600,000 overnight tourists. It’s the perfect connection between Bath and the Cotswolds so it doesn’t surprise me one bit.
I was first introduced to Bristol back in 2016. A bunch of us spent a gloomy, rainy and bitter cold weekend in February walking around. I fell in love – maybe all of us did – with the quiet buzz of the town. I always say it has the best of London and the best of a small town, and I stand by it.
From the elegant terraces of Clifton to the grungy vibes from Stokes Croft and everything in between, Bristol has plenty to offer for a quick day trip or a weekend escapade.
St Nicholas’ Market
If you’ve taken a coach to Bristol, you’ll start at the Bus & Coach Station in the city centre. The station is right next to Castle Park but perhaps my favourite is its proximity to St Nicholas’ Market, open Monday to Saturday and featuring the largest collection of independent retailers in the UK. Be ready to wade through the crowds and to take home a small treasure or two.
Bristol is one of those English towns where life happens near and around the river and canals. Come here to see the Cascade Steps overlooking the harbour or take a stroll through The Harbourside Outdoor Market, dotted with local artists and craftspeople. If it rains, which it probably will, take refuge at the Watershed, an indie arts centre including a cafe, cinema and art gallery.
Alternatively, cross Pero’s Bridge over the harbour and follow the river until you reach the Mud Dock Cafe. I happened on this small cyclists’ paradise in my last visit, after a recommendation by a friend. It’s incredible. The food is simply fantastic, the place cozy but busy and the light is simply remarkable.
The Cathedral and Christmas Steps
Lovers of European old towns and architecture will also find their fix in Bristol. Back in 2017, I loved having some tea and snacks with my parents at the Cathedral’s courtyard. The church is still a functioning place of worship, yet visitors are welcome. If you listen closely, sometimes you can hear the local choir practicing in one of the wings.
Leave the Cathedral behind and walk back to the riverside and into the city center. Soon enough you’ll come across the Christmas Steps, dating back to the 17th Century. The street is home to a handful of independent art galleries and shops ranging from pottery to dress makers. If anything, you’ll want to take a picture and stroll up and down.
Clifton and Clifton Bridge
A visit to Bristol isn’t complete without Clifton and the suspension bridge. The suburb is full with Victorian terraces that will make you think of Jane Austen and the views from the nearby observatory are breathtaking. Which brings us to Clifton bridge. Connecting the two sides of the lovely Avon Gorge, the bridge is one of the oldest of its kind. It’s free to visit and to cross on foot. Not suitable for the faint-hearted :-).
My friend Marina, founder of Ifwefilm, suggested we visited the botanical gardens on my last visit. We were supposed to attend the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta but it was cancelled due to the weather. So off we went on an adventure seeking shelter from the downpour.
Bristol’s botanical gardens are part of the University of Bristol and harbour a small collection of tropical plants, a wonderful English manor and a medicinal garden and a chinese inspired plot. There’s also a small trail featuring prehistoric plants, which made our visit ever more interesting. Its £6.50 to enter for the whole day.
Stokes Croft is basically what Shoreditch and Hackney aspired to be. I loved walking around this area for two reasons: the street art and the community. Stokes Croft is a community-run neighbourhood and you can tell. All businesses aim to support the local economy and its inhabitants, and you’re left with that wonderful “home” feeling. A place that particularly stuck with me was The Canteen, serving great Sunday roasts and boasting loud live music in the evenings.
While the town is beautiful, fun and buzzing, it’s also worth noting its history. Bristol used to be a prominent port town during the peak of British slave trade in the 18th century, and much of its wealth is founded on that as well as the import of tobacco. Bristol’s chapter in the history of slavery is brutal, and it is estimated that around one fifth of slaves at the time passed through this port.
Bristol is well-connected and features a train station, bus & coach station and an airport. If you’re visiting from London I highly recommend taking the coach from London Victoria – it will save you a considerable amount and the time to get there is roughly the same.