Bristol, that other south west English town just 15 minutes on the train from Bath and a mere two hours from London, probably isn’t on your radar. At least that’s what a gathered from my polling of friends that live in England. Only a few had even visited and of the ones that had, it was a quick trip for the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta held every August. While we definitely think a balloon fiesta is as good an excuse as any to travel, after our recent visit to the the harbor city we think Bristol is worth a trip all year long. Pop on over on the train and use our itinerary for the perfect 3-day weekend in Bristol.
With really only two and half days to cover all that Bristol has to offer, you’ve got to hit the ground running. Luckily, even traveling from Western Europe, you can land in London and be in Bristol by the early afternoon.
As you likely arrive at Bristol Temple Mead station like we did, don’t forget to glance back and admire one of the prettiest train station’s we’ve seen. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ingenious English engineer who also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the SS Great Britain.
Bristol has a beautiful cathedral well worth a wander around. It’s free to enter, though it is a working church so the usual opening times sometimes change or it may be temporarily closed to the public. Be sure to follow the signs to the cloisters, where there’s access to a lovely garden where locals like to have a quiet moment.
Steps away from Bristol Cathedral is what local, Heather Cowper, tells me is Bristol’s best gelato shop. Who doesn’t need an afternoon gelato pick-me-up? The artisan gelato is churned on-site and in addition to Swoon’s regular 10 favorite flavors, there’s six seasonal flavors that change monthly.
We grab a scoop to go to keep our energy up as we immediately work it off climbing up Bristol’s Christmas Steps.
No one really knows why the historic four flights of shop-lined steps dating back to the 1600s are called the Christmas Steps. One theory is because there’s a nativity scene in the stained glass of the Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne, standing at the top of the steps.
There’s tons of cool bars where you can grab a cider or cocktail, though one definitely right up our alley is Chance & Counters. It’s a board game cafe with hundreds of games. How about a round of Scrabble and a glass of wine before dinner?
For a more refined wine experience in Bristol, you can also head to Averys Wine Merchants. The fifth generation wine merchants have been a fixture in Bristol for over 220 years and their historic cellars once stretched in a labyrinth all the way to the port where the barrels of wine would be discreetly rolled right from the ships in to the tunnels.
These days most of the tunnels beneath Bristol’s streets have been sealed up, but the cellar is impressive to see none-the-less. You can stop by for a free tasting or join one of their regular themed tasting events.
Not wanting to wander too far after a long day traveling and jumping straight in to sightseeing, the Bistro at our hotel, Hotel du Vin, is an excellent choice for dinner. The menu is French inspired and the wine list is plentiful, with a fair selection of wines by the glass on offer. There’s also an in-house sommelier to help with pairing suggestions.
Bristol is a beautiful destination we would have loved to have a birds-eye view of from a hot air balloon. Unfortunately, the weather was too unstable during our visit and our scheduled balloon flight was cancelled.
We were really looking forward to getting yet another unique view of Clifton Suspension Bridge, but with a full day ahead, sleeping in a bit is a nice indulgence.
Directly across the street from Hotel du Vin is Bristol’s Old City, with parts of it dating back to Medieval times. This is charming neighborhood to wander the cobbled lanes of and a great neighborhood to take a bite out of the Bristol’s foodie scene.
Be sure you pay a visit to the Bristol Cheesemonger. Rosie is passionate about and knows her cheese. What we loved most, though, was how welcoming she was.
“Come on in and have a taste. If you find a cheese you like, buy it. If not, no obligation,” Rosie told us.
We couldn’t resist bringing a little cheese home, especially a good cheddar since Bristol is located so close to Cheddar Gorge. Rosie will package the cheese all up perfectly for transport and give you tips on how to store it once you get it home. That is, if you don’t eat it all before you even get there.
The St. Nicholas Market is the lunch spot of locals who live and work in the neighborhood. The glass arcade is lined with an eclectic variety of food spanning six continents. Moroccan, Caribbean, Chinese, Middle Eastern…you name it and you can probably find it.
Come with friends so you can share orders from several of the vendors for a sort of do-it-yourself food tour. A fair amount of the vendors also offer samples, so you can graze your way down the stalls and see what strikes your fancy. We definitely recommend the Caribbean place, which constantly had a line of locals. One local told me she’d been looking forward to goat curry all week, though even the small portion is a heaping plate at an unbelievably cheap price of just £4.95. Opting for something a little smaller, we tried the jerk chicken wrap with mango which was very flavorful.
We were also lured in by the brightly colored salads and scents of hot falafel at Eat a Pitta. The owner told me that he grew up with his Grandma Yolandes’ falafel recipe, which she perfected in her kitchen in the back streets of Algiers more than 70 years ago. She’s now in her nineties and proud her grandson has carried on the secret family recipe. The falafel is made fresh throughout the day, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a sample.
Another favorite was Brozen, where your ice cream is made-to-order in a Kitchenaid stand mixer with liquid nitrogen before you eyes.
With the better part of the morning and in to the early afternoon spent eating your way around Bristol, do a complete 180 and spend the afternoon walking off the street food while discovering Bristol’s more controversial side.
Bristol is the UK’s home of street art and the famous anonymous street artist, Banksy, hails from Bristol. Dubbed the heart beat of street art, Banksy painted in Bristol early on in his career. Though most of his works are long gone, some have been preserved and one even hangs in the M Shed museum.
Banksy isn’t Bristol’s only famous street artist, though. Many locals know the styles of various artists and they love spotting new works.
And as I quickly learned, street art isn’t just street art. There’s graffiti artists, stencil artists and even urban knitters. If you really want to dig in to it, Where the Wall runs very popular guided street art tours. Only available on Saturdays and Sundays, be sure to book early as they often sell out quickly.
If you’re not visiting on a weekend or don’t want to join a guided tour, but you’re still curious, pop in to the Upfest Shop on North Street. You can pick up a map of street art in the neighborhood for a do-it-yourself street art tour. And if you’re headed to Bristol in July, there’s the free 3-day Upfest, which is the largest street art and graffiti festival in Europe.
Stokes Croft has gained a reputation for being Bristol’s artistic hub and is another great neighborhood to wander around for street art. You can even see a very early Banksy mural just outside of The Canteen.
The Canteen is a great place to end the evening. The menu is a chalkboard menu that changes with what’s fresh and they even know the very boat and fisherman that caught the fish on their menu. With prices between £5 – £10 for a main course, you can hardly beat that in the city.
There’s also live music every night night of the week. Actually, The Canteen is one of only two venues in Bristol that do have live music every single night. And did I mention it’s free?
Bristol is full of steep hills, so you don’t need to feel guilty about indulging in a full English breakfast or my personal favorite breakfast indulgence, eggs benedict. Even if you’re not staying at the Hotel du Vin, the restaurant in the historic former sugar warehouse is open for breakfast to everyone.
Trust me, you’ll want to fuel up with a good breakfast before hopping on the bus to explore Clifton Village.
Clifton Village is home to one of Bristol’s top attractions: the world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Spanning the Avon Gorge, there’s more to the Clifton Suspension Bridge than meets the eye and you should plan at least a few hours to explore above, below and on the bridge.
To get that famous photo of the bridge, follow the paths up to the Clifton Observatory. But don’t miss out on visiting the Observatory. Climb to the top to the camera obscura. It’s one of only two camera obscura open to the public in England. It’s a type of pinhole camera that projects a true image (not mirror) of the Clifton Suspension Bridge on a white screen in a dark room at the top of the observatory tower.
Unless you’re claustrophobic, you won’t want to miss climbing down the narrow passageway that descends about halfway down the gorge to the Giant’s Cave. This vantage point offers a truly unique view of the bridge and the gorge.
Crossing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, you can also learn more about the construction of the bridge at the Visitor’s Center. Why not? It’s free entry.
I hope you wore your walking shoes, because back in Clifton Village you can meander along the pastel Georgian and Regency houses of Royal York Crescent. This elevated terrace is the most prestigious street in Bristol and it’s said to be the longest terrace in Europe. Strolling along it, you’ll soon see just why these houses are such a desirable address. The sweeping terrace affords its owners, or envious passersby like us, a view over the entire city and stretching right out to the rolling hills of the countryside.
I didn’t really have time to do anything more than window shop, which is a good thing for my wallet. But Clifton Village is also renowned as Bristol’s best shopping quarter. Even if shopping isn’t your cup of tea, be sure to pop in the Clifton Arcade if for no other reason than to admire the beautifully restored glass ceiling Victorian arcade. It houses 17 vintage shops, plus the beloved Primrose Café that is a very popular local lunch and brunch spot.
For something a little lighter and faster, pop in to one of Clifton Village’s many independent delicatessens or cafes. Spicer & Cole is an excellent choice with everything made in house from locally sourced seasonal fruit and veggies. I loved that even their ice tea is made-to-order from a variety of loose leaf teas.
Head to Bristol Harbour for the rest of the afternoon.
There’s a lot to do around with harbor, but one thing you won’t want to miss is Brunel’s SS Great Britain. I’ve got to admit that I wanted to skip it. I remember moaning and groaning when I’d be dragged to visit the historic tall ships when they sailed in to my home town of Erie, Pennsylvania each summer. But the SS Great Britain is definitely Bristol’s top attraction for a reason.
The ship was once the longest passenger ship in the world and was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, which she did in 1845 in just 14 days. She now resides in the dry dock, where she was originally built.
She is now a museum, which helps you to imagine just what it would have been like to travel on the SS Great Britain. Unbelievably, even the first class beds were incredibly small! Though the cabins were, without a doubt, far more glamorous than second class.
Our favorite part is going down below, where the harbor has been walled off to create the dry dock. It’s here that you can really appreciate how much work was done to restore the ship as beams of sunlight stream through the rusted out holes in the underbelly.
There are several other museums along Bristol Harbour that have free entry, like M Shed, which tells the stories of Bristol and its people from prehistoric times right up to present day. You can even find Banksy here, with one of his works he tagged a ship in the harbor now adorning the walls of the museum.
Our absolute favorite part of Bristol Harbour is Wapping Wharf. Here cargo shipping containers have been turned into a two story center housing independent retailers and restaurants. This is an excellent spot to come for dinner, where you can turn the experience in to a sort of do-it-yourself food tour.
Visit Sebastian at Bristol Cider Shop, which offers cider tastings. A former wine sommelier, Sebastian is most definitely a cider aficionado and he personally visits the cider farms to hand select the ciders that the shop carries.
Next door is Lovett Pies, where the award-winning savory pies are all made with locally sourced ingredients. Perfectly sized for sharing a couple, they’re all so good that you can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.
We had the most indulgent burger we’ve ever had at Pigsty, where as the name implies, the menu features pork, pork and more pork. The “burger” is dubbed the Pig Mac. It’s a pork patty topped with slow roasted barbecue pulled pork, cheese and slaw on a brioche bun slathered with – get this – BACON mayonnaise. I don’t even want to know how many calories were in that thing, but wow, was it ever good!
It’s Tim that is the beer drinker, and I was skeptical when the bartender at Wild Beer was sure we could make a beer drinker out of me. I’m glad I didn’t take that bet, because he was right.
Wild Beer not only carries craft brews from local breweries, they make several of their own. Spend some time talking with the bartenders because they’ll pick out brews that suit your tastes. Between the cider and the beer tasting flight, I was set. But I’d definitely order a pint of Wild Beer’s Millionaire and Billionaire stouts.
They also have Hook, which offers a unique take on fish and chips. If you like a little spice, try the tacos which have great kick from the chipotle they’re topped with.
Don’t leave the Bristol Harbour area without strolling around and over Pero’s Bridge. The pedestrian bridge spans the harbor to link Millennium Square and the Old City. The two horn sculptures act as counterweights when the bridge lifts to let tall ships pass. The horns also make for a great photo when they’re lit up at night.
Where To Stay
Hotel du Vin is housed in a restored sugar house and is situated at the bottom of the Christmas Steps, steps away from the Old City and a short walk from Bristol Harbour.
The hotel is, of course, wine themed and you’ll notice the collection of antique corkscrews as you enter the courtyard. Each of the rooms are uniquely themed, like the Dom Pérignon room we stayed in. The rooms are spacious and all offer separate claw-foot baths and walk-in showers.
Know Before You Go
- Hotel du Vin is located within easy walking distance of many attractions and situated close to public transportation.
- Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel has also recently be refurbished and is located in the heart of the Old City, steps away from St. Nicholas Market.
- Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa is also located just outside St. Nicholas Market in the heart of the Old City.