Home to historic cathedrals, theatre, pubs galore and Britain's most celebrated street artist, Bristol is a friendly and affordable alternative to London
Every year, Americans flock to London. And while the Tower of London and Big Ben may live up to their expectations, London prices and crowds can daunt even the most committed anglophiles. In addition, American tourists remind you that you are… another American tourist.
Yanks who crave a more affordable, relaxed English vacation should consider Bristol. Just a 2 ½ hour train journey from Heathrow Airport, the UK’s ninth largest city offers spires, theatre and ale without London’s expense and bustle. Admission is free at many attractions, and accommodation is reasonable. Bristolians are friendly and the city is easily navigated by foot or bus, so visitors can enjoy Bristol without feeling like conspicuous tourists.
A port city that amassed great wealth from the slave trade during the 18th century, Bristol has both repudiated its past and preserved its heritage. Graceful mansions line the city’s many Georgian squares, notably Queen Square. Sedate parks during the week, the squares’ greens transform into festival sites most summer weekends. Bristolians love festivals, celebrating everything from Caribbean culture to vegan food to hot-air balloons every summer.
For a look inside an 18th century mansion, visit the Georgian House. Built by a prosperous sugar merchant in 1793, the house offers visitors a chance to explore an upper-middle class home of the period. One room houses a small, but poignant exhibit about the life of Pero, the original owner’s African servant.
Nearby, Bristol Cathedral stands on College Green. The cathedral began life in 1140 as part of an abbey; parts of the original structure remain today. With a magnificent great hall, several small chapels and a mysterious corridor to explore, the cathedral welcomes visitors. Equally worth seeing is St. Mary Redcliffe, situated just a short walk from the city centre. Accounted the prettiest parish church in England by Elizabeth I, Mary Redcliffe is also an ideal place to learn about Bristol’s past. One of the church’s exhibits discusses the church’s role in the city’s history.
Bristol may have experienced its heyday in the 18th century, but the city doesn’t lack more recent history. For Victorian innovation, don’t miss the breathtaking Clifton Suspension Bridge or the S.S. Great Britain, the first oceangoing, propeller-driven iron ship. Both were designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Empire and Commonwealth Museum doesn’t flinch from darker side of Victorian zeal. Far from glorifying the empire, the museum explores its reach, ramifications at home and many casualties.
Art and theatre lovers will find Bristol rich in culture. The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery houses antiquities, a representative selection of European art and ever changing contemporary exhibits.
This summer, the museum presented an exhibit by Banksy, Bristol’s anonymous graffiti artist whose paintings now attract celebrity buyers. Lines are long, but Banksy’s work also appears on walls throughout the city. For more contemporary art, head to Arnolfini, a gallery with a busy bar and café, on Bristol’s Harbourside. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre, which includes the Theatre Royal, the oldest theatre auditorium in the country, presents contemporary and classic drama, while the Bristol Hippodrome serves up Broadway-style musical theatre.
Bristol is a pedestrian city, so visitors will quickly walk up an appetite. Fortunately, Bristol offers nosh (food) for all tastes and budgets. Don’t leave Bristol without sampling a Pie Minister pie. This Bristol brand has put on a 21st century stamp on the English savory pie by using local ingredients, introducing scrumptious vegetarian varieties and giving their pies clever names like Moo Pie (steak and ale) and Heidi Pie (goat cheese and sweet potatoes). Curry is the unofficial English national dish, so visit one of Bristol’s many Indian restaurants. Locals swear by Krishna’s Inn, which serves tasty, cheap eats, and the pricier Myristica, famous for its chocolate samosas.
With two universities and a vigorous artistic community, Bristol boasts a varied and colorful nightlife. Hop aboard The Apple, a pub on a (stationary) riverboat that serves over 40 varieties of cider and other apple-derived libations. Thekla, another riverboat nightspot, hosts well-known bands and topflight DJs. For a more traditional English pub experience, try The Beaufort in Bristol’s Montpelier neighborhood. A tiny establishment that attracts a convivial crowd, the Beaufort is an ideal place to end a long day of sightseeing – and a reminder that the England anglophiles imagine still exists.
Most major airlines fly to Heathrow Airport. Train fare from Heathrow to Bristol Temple Meads Station, with a change at London’s famous Paddington Station, starts at around £27 (about $44) if you book in advance.
Continental Airlines runs regular, non-stop flights from Newark International Airport to Bristol Airport.
17 St. Stephen's Street
0117 925 7900
Guest Houses/Bed and Breakfasts
Downsview Guest House
38 Upper Belgrave Road
0117 973 7046
The Bristol Royal Marriott
0117 925 5200
Food and Bevies
46 St. Nicholas Market
0117 302 0070
4 Byron Place
0117 927 6864
14 King Street
0117 927 2277
21 York Road
0117 955 5216
Welsh Back Canal
0117 925 3500
0117 929 3301