City Guide: Bristol, UK
With the River Avon running right through it, Bristol has plenty of its action at the water’s edge. But there’s tons going on wherever you are, so get ready to explore, says Tom Powell
- By Tom Powell -
We know the feeling. You’ve just woken up in a city you hardly know – you’re tired, delirious and it’s time for brunch. Don’t panic – Brew Coffee Company, which sits pretty on Whiteladies Road (that’s up the hill between Bristol University and Clifton Down) has your back. The team are specialists in local bites and all things caffeinated, and stock brews by local single-origin specialists Clifton Coffee Roasters.
If you’re still anywhere near Clifton by lunchtime, make a beeline for Souk Kitchen. Expect moreish (and Moorish – sorry) mezze, pan-fried fish and North African grub that tells Ottolenghi to keep his eyes off Bristol in the most wallet-friendly of ways. What’s even better is that this branch has a cute little shop selling hard-to-come-by Middle Eastern ingredients. A belly full of mutton shawarma and home-blended za’atar to take home? Yes please.
When it comes to dinner, head to The Ox in the city centre for Bristol’s best bavette, or hike up to Bulrush in Kingsdown for no-nonsense fine dining. You’ll also find award-winning small plates at the latest trendy upstarts No Man’s Grace just around the corner in Cotham.
If you’re all done with the hustle and bustle and you’re still not full yet, the half-hour drive out to The Ethicurean near Wrington is more than worth it for a five-course feast sourced from the produce grown in the restaurant’s walled garden and reared in the wide valleys beyond.
Bristol might be famous for Massive Attack, dubstep and Skins (not necessarily in that order), but there’s plenty more to the city than trip-hop, wobble bass and lairy teenagers – we promise.
Kicking things off, head to Stokes Croft, the most raucous, cider-soaked and arty part of the city. There you’ll find an abundance of barcades and craft-beer boozers. Start at Canteen – a busy community hub-cum-live music bar with a laid-back vibe. Last time we went we were all over the local cider (they poured our pint straight from the box) and the pair of fiddlers playing Kanye covers.
If you’re up for dancing after a couple of tipples (us too), roll down the road to Lakota, an unashamedly brash club a couple of minutes from the Bearpit (that’s the eerie ensemble of underpasses that’s Bristol’s answer to Elephant & Castle) – it’s been blaring beats and bass for 27 years now, and doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon.
For something a little pubbier, make your way straight to The Christmas Steps – a cosy little boozer at the foot of the quaintly paved, er, Christmas Steps – recently revamped, it’s famous for its killer jukebox. Meanwhile, if you’re on the other side of the old city, there’s Small Bar, a simple, unpretentious alehouse where you’ll find 39 micro-brewed beers on tap.
Once you’ve tried them all, you’ve got two options: The Milk Thistle if you like sipping award-winning cocktails in flirty French boho interiors, or Thekla if you fancy, erm, dancing to pop bangers on a boat (we know which we’d prefer).
Ever get sad because your coffee shots aren’t quite right? Us too. Worry no more, just ramble on down to Two Day Coffee, a cool little roastery perched on St Michael’s Hill. It’s cute, it’s quaint, and most importantly – you can blend your own beans.
Heading into town from here, you’ll want to check out Bloom and Curll – an eccentric second-hand bookshop with an impressive selection that’ll keep you occupied if you’re in boring company on the train home.
Next, canter down the Christmas Steps and along the ironically narrow Broad Street to St Nicholas Market – a beautiful Georgian covered market full to the rafters with fine foods and freshly cooked fare. Once you’re done gawping and gulping, head across the river to Wapping Wharf, where you’ll find the Bristol Cider Shop’s brand-new premises, perfect if you like to dabble in all things apple.
The best way to start any Bristol day is at Clifton Lido – the once-rundown public baths is now complete with a spa, sauna and top-notch swim and breakfast package.
Nearby, the Clifton Downs are perfect for a bracing and windswept autumn walk, and have some pretty incredible views of the suspension bridge and Avon Gorge from Clifton Observatory hill.
Talking of views, clamber to the top of the slim yet ornate red brick Cabot Tower in the middle of Brandon Hill (just off Park Street) and you’ll be greeted with the best panoramic views in the city. That’s if you can manage 105ft of narrow, calf-shredding spiral stairs to reach the top.
Once you’ve wandered back through the gorgeous parkland, catch a show at St Georges – a converted chapel that’s now one of the UK’s best-loved jazz and touring theatre venues. Sip drinks in the converted vaults before heading upstairs to the concert hall, a pew-lined chamber with the best acoustics we’ve heard anywhere.
For a fix of Shakespeare, make your way to the Tobacco Factory Theatre. As well as a studio theatre, there’s a separately-run creative hub-meets-cavernous-real-ale-bar located downstairs that is well worth making the trip over the Avon to Southville for.
Other culture addicts will find plenty of art throughout the city, and most of it is conveniently gathered round the harbourside at the bottom of town. Check out an exhibition at the Arnolfini before heading over to Spike Island to sip char and coffee among the artists in residence.
Alternatively, amble around the harbour to the Watershed multi-arts venue for an arthouse cinema that does talks all week and late-night showings on Fridays.
Once you’re there, you’re a stone’s throw from At-Bristol, a cave of surprises and sensations that’s more than enough to keep the kids (and the big kids) entertained. We couldn’t say no to that, could we?
If you’re looking for carefree comfort in the heart of Bristol, either of Mercure’s two city centre boltholes are perfect places to rest your pretty head without dropping your entire payslip.
Take your pick between river views, roll-top baths and sensual spas in the Redcliffe-based Mercure Holland House, or a quiet refuge slap bang in the middle of the old city at Broad Street’s Mercure Grand.
Both offer bumper breakfast buffets and drop you right in the heart of the action. Book a privilege room for a seriously spacious stay and the best city views.
Similarly central, but an altogether different experience, is Rock & Bowl Motel. Set above a bustling bar and bowling alley, and near to all of Bristol’s best nightlife, this one’s definitely for the night owl in you.
With beds from a tenner, discount pizza and free tenpin for guests on Mondays, it’ll literally, er, bowl you over.
For a good night’s undisturbed sleep and access to the quieter, more upmarket neighbourhood of Clifton, try Number 38.
The ten-room townhouse has everything you’d expect from a boutique B&B, as well as great views across the rooftops towards the city (or the gorgeous Clifton Down if you’re unlucky enough to get a room that faces the other way).