Bristol is perfect for a weekend getaway with museums, quirky shops, fine food, fine dining, parks and beautiful architecture. Discover the real Bristol with my insider's guide to the British city
I was lucky enough to go to university in Bristol, and since I was doing an arts degree, I had plenty of time to explore. These are my top tips for a fun and varied trip to the best city in the south.
My parents and I stayed at the Berkeley Square Hotel, which is in a fantastic location, central yet quiet. There is interesting artwork all over the place, the staff are lovely, and the breakfasts are good too. A double room is around £80 per night. The Royal Marriott at the bottom of Park Street also comes highly recommended, and is in a fantastic location on the College Green by the Cathedral.
From the Downs to the Triangle
I would suggest starting your day by catching a bus to the top of Blackboy Hill, to go for a walk on the Downs. You can peer over the edge of the beautiful Avon Gorge, and perhaps spot a bird of prey or a rock climber (even Jack Osbourne has been spotted practicing there!). At about 400 acres, this place never feels crowded, and was a frequent retreat for me during university. It is hard to believe that there is a busy city so close to this calm and beautiful parkland.
Heading back down Blackboy Hill on foot you will find lots to entertain you. One of my favourite stops is Sheepdrove Organic Butchers. The family owned business sells lovely cuts of meat and the staff are always friendly and helpful (www.sheepdrove.com/145.htm). If you are in need of a snack, then pop into Wild Oats ‘natural food’ shop (www.woats.co.uk). I used to pop in there to buy myself treats, choosing something from the wealth of yummy things there. They sell lovely bread and have a great deli counter.
Another good stop is the kitchen shop, appropriately named Kitchens at 167 Whiteladies Road. It sells things that are sometimes strangely hard to find, like proper chopping boards and wooden handled knives.
Onwards, and if you need any sort of costume, then pop into Naff Clothing, 13 Cotham Hill, a fancy dress shop that helped me many times on the eve of one of many weirdly themed student parties. They also stock vintage clothes, some bizarre, some moth-eaten, and some quite beautiful.
As you walk on towards the Triangle you will pass the BBC Bristol buildings, so keep your eyes peeled for celebrities. I saw Terry Nutkins (from The Really Wild Show) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (from Green Wing), what more could you wish for? On your right you will pass the beautiful Bristol University Music Department, with its lovely fountain outside.
The (magic) Triangle
On the other side of the Triangle is Jack Will’s clothes shop. It is something of an institution among the university public school brigade; perhaps all being clothed in the same brand reminds them of being in their school uniforms! It is a beautifully laid out shop though, and well worth a look.
At the bottom of the Triangle is the City Museum and Art Gallery, housed in a lovely building, and containing a wealth of interesting things. More unusual displays include musical instruments and vintage aircraft. The perfect place to while away an afternoon.
Next door is the Will’s Memorial Building, the pride and joy of the university. It was built between 1915 and 1925 in honour of Henry Wills III, benefactor and first chancellor of the university. The exterior is dominated by a pale and splendid gothic tower, and if the inside is open you can take a peek at my personal favourite, the entrance hall, with its sweeping twin staircases and stunning vaulted ceilings. Incidentally, one of my favourite claims to fame is the fact that I, along with a couple of accomplices, was arrested in my second year for climbing up the scaffolding that had been erected around the tower, while on our merry way home after a night out on the town.
By now you will be at the top of Park Street, and if you need a rest then look no further than Brandon Hill Park. Sit on the grass and recuperate, or you can climb up the hill, admire the slightly crazy water garden, and try to avoid having your food stolen by the very cheeky squirrels. Then head on up to Cabot Tower, built in 1897, on the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s epic journey from Bristol to Canada, in a small ship called the Matthew.
If you still have energy left then climb up the stairs to see some spectacular views of Bristol. Looking towards the river you should be able to spot the SS Great Britain, and next to her a replica of the Matthew – you’ve got it, Cabot’s ship!
As you go back down through the park you can find Great George Street and visit the Georgian House. It was the home of John Pinney, who owned a slave plantation in the 18th century. His home has been furnished as it would have originally looked, and it is a fascinating although somewhat disturbing glimpse into Bristol’s past as a centre of the slave trade.
Next you can walk down steep Park Street (I saw a guy skateboarding down once!). If you need some sustenance, then Boston Tea Party has a lovely selection of cakes and teas, and a nice garden at the back. Further on there are some interesting shops, like BS8, which houses a variety of diverse labels and a good vintage section, as well as a quite brilliant gift and novelty item section in the basement.
At the bottom of Park Street you will find the beautiful cathedral, then on to the waterfront and the entrance to Broadmead, home of the high street chain shops. There is also an excellent example of Banksy’s work on the left hand side about three quarters of the way down the road. There are steps that lead under the bridge to a lovely wine merchant, Avery’s. It is a proper old wine cellar, dark and smelling of woodchips, with a wine to match every palate and budget.
The Waterfront and some evening entertainment!
At this point you might want to walk a little way along the waterfront so that you can catch a river ferry to the SS Great Britain, an ocean going passenger steamship, designed by Isombard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843. The attached museum is absolutely brilliant and really brings the fascinating history of the ship to life. There is an innovative glass ‘sea’ surrounding the ship, designed to keep the underside of the hull from further rusting.
If you walk back along the harbour front you will find a restaurant called the Olive Shed (Princes Wharf; www.theoliveshed.com, two course dinner special for £10), a lovely place with really fresh produce, a Mediterranean feel, and especially good tapas and seafood. Their wine selection is fantastic too.
Further along the waterfront are some good watering holes, including the bar joined to the Arnolfini modern art gallery (www.arnolfini.org.uk), an interesting stop in itself. When the hour is late enough, and if the mood takes you, you may want to make your way to the Thekla (www.theklabristol.org.uk), a bar/club on a boat, and a Bristol institution. It has another example of Banksy’s artwork adorning its hull and hosts a diverse range of gigs and musical genres. Being a boat and all, it used to get horrifically hot and sweaty when crammed full of sweaty, dancing bodies. After a revamp a few years ago the air conditioning has improved somewhat, and it is all part of the experience. The perfect way to round off your Bristol day.
Well, I think what would be more than enough entertainment for a day or a weekend, and I haven’t even mentioned Clifton, the Suspension Bridge, or Gloucester Road!