Explore maritime history and a thriving art scene in Bristol in south-west England
The largest city in the south-west of England is also one of the country’s oldest and most established, thanks to a rich maritime history dating back to the Roman era. John Cabot set sail from here in 1497 en route to ‘discovering’ North America, while famous Victorian engineer Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel launched several record-breaking passenger ships from the docks.
Coupled with its handy location on the rivers Avon and Frome, as well as facing out to the Atlantic via the Bristol Channel, the city was at the centre of cotton, wine and tobacco trading in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The wealth of that era helped carve out a city with grand architecture
and abundant green space – particularly Brandon Hill, Clifton Downs and Arnos Vale, a 45-acre Victorian garden cemetery.
Bristol is a creative city too. Aardman Animations – the Oscar-winning team behind Wallace & Gromit – is based at the harbour, while BBC Bristol’s Natural History Unit makes 25 per cent of the world’s nature documentaries, thanks to working with Sir David Attenborough.
View Brunel’s early masterpiece
Prior to his shipbuilding career, Brunel designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge when he was just 22. At 1,352 feet, it was the largest span in the world upon its completion in 1864 and continues to dominate the Avon Gorge today. The best views can be had from Clifton Observatory.
Meet historic animals
Bristol Zoo Gardens is the fifth oldest zoo in the world, having opened in Clifton in 1836. Since that time, 175 species have been saved from extinction. The site is home to red pandas, tree kangaroos and more.
Indulge in fine art
Queen’s Road boasts two of Bristol’s grandest galleries. The Royal West of England Academy stages open exhibitions alongside single-artist shows – a display of abstract work by post-war painter Albert Irvin runs 8 December to 3 March 2019 – while Bristol Museum and Art Gallery mixes dinosaur bones and Egyptian mummies with Old Master paintings.
Look back in time
In 1497, John Cabot set sail from Bristol in search of a trade route to Asia and instead discovered Canada. Four hundred years later, the Cabot Tower was built in tribute on Brandon Hill. The 105-foot sandstone edifice provides panoramic city views, while the nearby Georgian House Museum recreates a typical 18th-century plantation and slave owner’s home.
Pause for thought
Further down Brandon Hill sits Bristol Cathedral, a twin-towered structure with 12th-century roots and a Gothic revival nave. Look out for lunchtime recitals every Tuesday. Venture across Anchor Road from here to the waterfront for a number of relaxing cafés and bars.
Float on by some culture
There is more to Bristol’s “floating harbour” (so called because the water level remains constant despite the tides) than places to eat and drink. Culture abounds at the Arnolfini, a contemporary art gallery in a converted warehouse, while the M Shed has displays on local people, places and daily life. Further along Wapping Wharf rests Brunel’s SS Great Britain, once the longest passenger ship in the world.
Taste the best of British
Don’t let the unassuming, blue-and-white exterior and discrete neighbourhood location fool you – the Bulrush Restaurant in Cotham Road South is one of the finest restaurants in Bristol. Chef George Livesey just earned a prestigious Michelin star and was praised by inspectors for “great flavours and inspired combinations” on a tasting menu with a modern British focus.
Watch theatre with distinction
Sir Patrick Stewart and Daniel Day Lewis are just two of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s famous alumni. The 250-year-old venue itself, the longest continually working theatre in the English-speaking world, has recently undergone a major renovation. Festive highlights include a take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (29 November to 13 January 2019).
Spook yourself out
Regency terraces and Victorian docks make Bristol an atmospheric backdrop for John Hughes’s Haunted and Hidden Ghost Walks. Book onto his Friday night tours that take in film and TV locations, as well as atmospheric venues, such as the Llandoger Trow pub – supposedly home to more than a dozen ghosts.
Have a secretive nightcap
When it comes to clandestine cocktail bars, Bristol is better equipped than most cities. Hausbar is hidden under a curry house, Red Light only accessible via a payphone on Unity Street, and HMSS offers British- themed cocktails behind an unmarked door on Whiteladies Road. Pick of the bunch is Milk Thistle – a decadent, 1920s-style bar split across four floors and fit for Jay Gatsby.
Sleep in the city
Set in a Georgian townhouse overlooking the downs, the 10-bedroom B&B Number 38 Clifton is a wonderful home from home. Heritage colours and tweedy fabrics create a smart, understated look inside, while cocktails can be enjoyed on the roof terrace.
Escape to luxury
Berwick Lodge is a few miles out of the city, yet worth the drive for the sheer ostentatious pleasure of staying in this plush Victorian manor. Run by couple Sarah and Fevzi Arikan, the 14 rooms and suites are decorated with flamboyance, from carved king-size beds to a classically sculpted fireplace in one bathroom.