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.
But I’m not sure what Bristol people were referring too 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.
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.
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.
Here are some things to see and do in Bristol:
(College Green, West End, +44 117 926 4879, bristol-cathedral.co.uk)
This is one of the true must-sees in Bristol. It’s a beautiful cathedral that was built during the Norman Era and originally the abbey of St. Augustine (you know the guy with the quote). It’s open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 6pm and Sunday from 7:20am to 5pm. Admission is free. It’s grand and should not be missed. Catch a tour of the Cathedral on Saturdays at 10am and 3pm and on Tuesdays at 2:15pm. The tours are free but a donation is appreciated.
Visit King Street
King Street is a fascinating, historical part of Bristol. It used to be where the old sailing barges docked after their journeys from South Wales. Now the area is the heart of the theatrical district and features outstanding bars and restaurants too.
Go see the Clifton Suspension Bridge
(+44 117 973 1579, cliftonbridge.org.uk)
This is Bristol’s most famous landmark. Suspended high above a river, this is not an attraction for those afraid of heights. The bridge gives you sweeping views of the river and surrounding parks and buildings. The bridge is open and manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Stop in at the visitor centre any day from 10am to 5pm.
Check out St. Nicholas Market
(Corn St, +44 117 922 4014, stnicholasmarketbristol.co.uk)
Just off the old Corn Exchange, this is an awesome, bustling market with more shops than you could go through in an afternoon. There seems to be an endless number of farmers’ stalls, with amazing local produce, second-hand bookshops, and vintage clothing stores. The markets are open Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 5pm, excluding bank holidays.
Visit the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
(Queens Road, +44 117 922 3571, website)
A museum is awesome because it coves a little bit of everything. From archaeology to dinosaurs to English history to art (from all ages), it’s the area’s largest museum and one of my personal favorites. It’s not too overwhelming and it’s easy to see in a day. Plus, like all public museums in England, it’s free! You can visit the museum and gallery Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.
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.
Book Your Trip to Bristol: Logistical Tips and Tricks
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Note: This article was originally published in 2008.
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