In 1866 Bradshaw’s Guide for Tourists declared that visiting Bristol and bathing in its springs produced excellent results in alleviating “chronic diseases”. Thankfully, scrofula and scabies may no longer plague travellers, but a trip to this delightfully idiosyncratic destination — reached direct from Scotland by plane from just £30 return — still delivers a powerful tonic.
The birthplace of Banksy, Damien Hirst and Portishead, Bristol feels like a quirky, faraway land where the pace of life is more tortoise toddle than rat race. The eccentric port’s population may be nudging towards half a million but it retains the amiable atmosphere of a bohemian, overgrown village, where scrumpy-swilling bikers will happily address complete strangers as “me lover” and the mellow sound of dub reggae reverberates from white vans and building sites.
If you want a break from reality, set your watch to Bristol time, prepare to take it really easy and mosey on down to the mild, mild west.
Where to start
The epicentre of Bristol’s otherworldly vibe is Wake the Tiger, a self-styled “amazement park” (adults from £15, children from £10; wakethetiger.com). Part art installation, part psychedelic labyrinth it feels like a portal into a family-friendly parallel dimension. Here, enthusiastic young actors ham it up and dispense clues for Crystal Maze-style tasks involving mirror mazes, pulsating mushrooms and a room concealed behind a wall of dusty library books. It is brash, bewildering, overwhelming — and my wife and I loved it, though it is probably best avoided if you are claustrophobic (or hungover).
⬤ Times Travel’s Bristol travel guide
Pay homage to Banksy
Take a self-guided street art tour (£15 for adults, £7.50 for children under 15 for two; wherethewall.com), which includes Banksy’s Girl with the Pierced Eardrum and Grim Reaper. Much of the city is a gallery in its own right; with brightly coloured graffiti creeping over buildings like ivy.
Banksy’s Girl with the Pierced Eardrum in Albion Dockyard
Hit the waterfront
The harbour, once one of the busiest in the country, remains home to the SS Great Britain, Brunel’s mighty Victorian steamship that is now a fascinating museum (£22 for adults, £13.50 for children; ssgreatbritain.org). At Wapping Wharf (wappingwharf.co.uk) you’ll find CARGO, a glorious guddle of independent bars and eateries housed in repurposed shipping containers, including Gambas tapas bar, whose terrace has incredible views of the city skyline (gambasbristol.co.uk).
Bristol has finally come to terms with its history as a hub for transatlantic slavery and the city now takes pride in its multicultural make-up. Just along the dock from CARGO, M-Shed museum (free; bristolmuseums.org.uk/m-shed) tells the story of life in Bristol. On my visit it chronicled the heyday of the Bamboo Club, which hosted Desmond Dekker, Ben E King, the Ronettes, Percy Sledge and Bob Marley before burning down in 1977.
A mixture of modern and Georgian colourful houses on the banks of the River Frome, Bristol
Explore Bristol’s Victorian past
If graffiti and trip-hop — Bristol’s own musical genre popularised in the Nineties by Tricky and Massive Attack — aren’t your thing then make your way to Clifton, the city’s most affluent and attractive neighbourhood. There you will find cravat-wearing BBC veterans from the nearby studios enjoying leisurely lunches in the many cafés and restaurants close to the glass-roofed Victorian Clifton Arcade, which is filled with charming antique shops. Don’t miss the observatory on Clifton Down (£5 for adults, £2.50 for children), which houses a museum, a camera obscura, and a 61m-long tunnel descending to a limestone cave that opens onto a cliff-face on the Avon gorge. The observatory also has a café with a rooftop terrace overlooking the city and Brunel’s peerless suspension bridge.
Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864
Where to eat
Just north of the centre, the Arches district buzzes with restaurants celebrating the city’s diversity. Try the Coconut Tree, which serves Sri Lankan specialities including Jaffna goat curry, hoppers and potent cocktails served in elephant-shaped tumblers. It’s worth a journey for the chicken curry on the bone alone (thecoconut-tree.com).
Heading north from the Arches, Gloucester Road has one of the longest stretches of independent shops, bars and businesses in Europe. Here, the Gallimaufry has legendary open-mike nights, a cosy vibe, beers made by the Bristol Beer Factory and an excellent Somerset beef shin ragu with gnocchi and parmesan (thegallimaufry.co.uk).
Where to stay
The Artist Residence is a boutique hotel housed in a former boot factory in a quiet corner of the city centre. The pick of the 23 rooms is the opulent Artist Suite, which features floor-to-ceiling windows, superb soundproofing, great views and a jaw-dropping roll-top bathtub (doubles from £150, room-only; artistresidence.co.uk).
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