The Saturday City: Bristol

By Nomadic Matt | Published October 4th, 2008

Bristol England fountainOne of the great things about running a travel website is that you get to meet other travelers. While in England this summer, I received an offer to explore the English city of Bristol with Heather. 

Around England, I’d explain my route through the country and people would universally go, “Bristol? There’s not much there.” Needless to say, I had low expectations.

I’m not sure what Bristol people were referring too, however, because I found a hip college town with amazing eateries, great ethnic food, wonderful things to see, and great parks to relax in.

Bristol is like the English version of Seattle. Most travelers seem to use it as a base for trips to Bath, and never fully explore this city, giving it only a brief glance before heading back to London. This is a mistake.

With a population of around 400,000, Bristol is the largest city in southern England after London and the largest shipping port in England. It received a royal charter in 1155 and, until the rise of Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, was one of England’s largest cities. Bristol suffered extensive bombing during World War II and a subsequent steep decline in its manufacturing industry.

Bristol England grassy noll with church

The port of Bristol grew up in medieval times because of its location near the rivers Avon and Frome. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, this area was turned into the enclosed Floating Harbour by the construction of locks. With the advent of larger ships, though, the Avon Gorge became too much of a liability, and commercial shipping moved downstream to more modern docks at Avonmouth and Portbury.

The city is no longer an industrial center, but rather a vibrant college town. The University of Bristol dominates the city, and the students provide a lot of income and jobs for the community.

Spending the day walking around, I found the city pretty easy to navigate. Almost everything was within walking distance from somewhere. And if it wasn’t, the city has an easy-to-use bus system that can take you anywhere you need to go.

Bristol England fountain

The waterfront area has a nice collection of restaurants and art galleries. It’s been cleaned up in recent years and has become a local hot spot. It’s a very fashionable area, and you could see the renovation was not completed. More condos were being built, more restaurants going up, more galleries in the works. I suspect this will be a very upscale place within the next few years.

What I really enjoyed the most about Bristol were all the parks. Bristol is filled with great parks. I particularly liked Castle Park. Castle Park is located near the river and features a bombed-out church from World War II. The church has been left in ruins as a monument to the destruction of the war. Around the church are beautiful gardens and grassy fields where locals gather for lunch. I sat there during lunchtime and watched the park fill with office workers enjoying the fresh air while they ate. It was a great place to people-watch.

Bristol England fountain

The main natural attraction in Bristol is the Avon Gorge, which features the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Built in the 19th century, this bridge is free to walk across and provides excellent views of the surrounding countryside. There is also an observatory tower next to it. Right next door are the Clifton Downs. The Downs are simply a huge open space. During the summer months, people are out there playing sports, catching some sun, picnicking with their loved ones, or just napping. The Downs offer views of both the gorge and the suspension bridge. Best of all: the Downs face west, making for excellent sunsets.

Bristol England fountain

I thought Bristol, with its old industrial-turned-Bohemian charm, made for a great place to spend a few days. There were historic houses to visit, a few good museums, and some wonderful parks. Its image as an industrial center still lingers on in most of England, making it a place few go or want to explore. But that works out for the rest of us. For while everyone else heads off to Bath, we can have the city of Bristol to ourselves.

I suspect one day the word will get out, but, at least for now, Bristol remains a hidden gem and a city that is well worth a visit.

comments 13 Comments

Cool. So many places are underrated simply because they are not ‘touristic’ enough. Thanks for the info on Bristol :)

Bristol is easily the biggest city in the British Isles I’ve never been to (although that’s not because I’ve ever heard anything bad – I’ve always heard great things about the place, mostly from all the ex-Bristol University students I know).

I prefer visiting the non touristy towns..there is always a charm there..thanks for the info

NomadicMatt

Non touristy places are always the best. I am not a fan of crowds!

Admit it, you picked this city because it shares a name with Sarah Palin’s daughter.

Is there really a girl out there called Bristol? I do know a Paris and of course there’s a Brooklyn Beckham.

Great post Matt, managed to read it at last as was getting error messages trying to open with Internet Explorer on the http://www.nomadicmatt.com address but managed to open it with http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/ so you may want to check that out.

NewWrldYankee

You know, one of my best friend just move there this summer, so even more incentive to visit her now. I will def. tell you how it goes!

As a native Bristolian I’ve always felt a little frustrated at how Bristol’s smaller neighbouring city of Bath overshadows it as a tourist attraction, and at how Americans passing through Bristol on their way to Bath have looked at me quizzically when I’ve suggested that they should spend more time looking around the city. It’s a little know fact that there is a wider range of classical Georgian architecture in Bristol than there is in Bath, but because it’s more scattered around the city than the Geogian part of Bath is few people are aware of this. I am of course extremely biased but I think Bristol is a much more rounded city than Bath (which is still beautiful nonetheless) with a greater variety of things to do and places to see. I was very pleased to read the above article which I think will correct quite a few misleading impressions.

Francis N

According to you, being that it is a “hip college town”, I have always seen some great music come out of this town. I will be traveling there next fall and would like to know where all the hip clubs and bars are at that play great music? If you know of any, please list. Thanks!

NomadicMatt

I haven’t been to Bristol in five years. I have no idea what is hip there at the moment!

Hi Francis, The Canteen and Mr Wolfs always have good live acts. The canteen is free and My wolfs is £3 I think. There is also bands regularly at Start The Bus, No1. Harbourside and all up Gloucester Road. A really good app and website to check is: http://www.headfirstbristol.co.uk/

Sorry, Mr Wolfs* Typo!

I live in Bristol currently (Setting off for long term travel in July! ) and I love it!
It is such a quirky place, there is always something going on and it has some amazing bars and restaurants. Did you check out Zaza bazaar along the water front? All you can eat! :D

Bristol now, as of last years hold events called making sundays special where St nicks is all closed off and there is a bunch of street acts and pretty much a mini festival all around the street. On May 4th (May the forth be with you) Park street is being closed off and they are putting a slip and slide water slide down the entire length of it from the top of the hill. It is things like that that happen constantly that I love. Ha, can you tell I am a huge fan of this city? ;)

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