The perfect weekend in England’s most hipster city

The Clifton Suspension Bridge - Bristol city travel guide
Creative spirit and irreverent independence can be felt in every corner of the city on a weekend in Bristol - © Rich Jones 2018/Rich Jones Photography

Over the years the plaudits  have kept coming for Bristol: the happiest city in the UK, best place to live for under 25s (outside of London), best place to visit top food destination, vegan hotspot and Britain’s first-ever Green Capital. It’s regularly praised for its cool haunts and hip hangouts.

A creative spirit and irreverent independence are in Bristol’s DNA, so it’s also little wonder that it has produced artists such as Banksy, Massive Attack, Portishead and the Mercury Prize-nominated punk band Idles, but such enterprise and imagination also extends elsewhere, particularly to its food scene, arguably one of the finest in the country, with the city gaining an enviable reputation for its independent restaurants.

From the cultural diversity of Stokes Croft and the Georgian style of Clifton or affluent Westbury Park to the on-trend vibe of Wapping Wharf, historic Harbourside or bohemian Bedminster (North Street, in particular), this maverick and energetic city continues to make  waves. And don’t forget the lush surroundings of Somerset are only a short hop away. What’s not to love?

Simon Horsford, our local expert, offers his tips for visiting in our guides to the city's best hotels, restaurants, nightlife and things to do. If planning a longer trip, explore our guide to the perfect holiday in Somerset.


In this guide


How to spend your weekend

Day one: Morning

Start the day just above the Downs (take a taxi to start with) among the vibrant plants and trees at the perfectly formed University of Bristol Botanic Garden in Stoke Bishop. You can then either walk back across the Downs (30 minutes) or get another cab to Clifton Observatory. Grab a coffee here at the 360 glass café and head to the terrace, sit next to Wallambard (a Wallace & Gromit-style tribute to Brunel) and admire a breathtaking view of

Clifton Suspension Bridge; then seek out the Camera Obscura before tackling the fortifying 200-foot descent into the Giant’s Cave.  Find more of the best things to do in the city in our guide.

Wander back down Observatory Hill into Georgian Clifton and duck into the Victorian Clifton Arcade on Boyce’s Avenue and its eclectic shops before heading to Focus on the Past, a delightful antique shop, chock-full of old furniture, glass, silver and other retro collectables. The area is great for clothes shopping too.

Bristol Lido, Bristol
Bristol Lido, built in 1849 as a public bath, is now lovingly restored

Wend your way to Bristol Lido, built in 1849 as a public bath and now lovingly restored. The restaurant (Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food) and poolside bar overlook the heated outdoor pool (non-members can use the pool and spa, every day, 10am-3pm). Have lunch here (and a swim but you most pre-book). Alternatively,  if you are feeling flush, head to the terrific Michelin-starred Bulrush in Cotham for lunch, but be sure to book in advance, or have a pint and a pastie at Highbury Vaults.

Afternoon

Nicely fortified, walk down Queens Road, bypassing (for today) the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (free entry and everything from art to Egyptian mummies), to Brandon Hill Park, a conservation area and home to the 105-ft Cabot Tower. It was built in 1897 to mark John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to North America 400 years earlier; climb the 109 steps for a fine panoramic view of the city.

Cabot Tower, Bristol
Cabot Tower offers a fine panoramic view of Bristol - 2017 (2017 (Photographer) - [None]/Boxun Liu

Then make your way to the water – the Floating Harbour – and specifically Hannover Quay and take the Number Seven ferry for the five-minute trip across to the SS Great Britain and Being Brunel Museum both offer impressively curated nods to the great engineer.

Head round the corner to see Banksy’s Girl with a Pierced Eardrum in Hanover Place and then pop into Spike Island for some challenging contemporary art and, if

you’ve time, on to Underfall Yard with its visitor centre, working boatyards and Underfall Café – sit outside on the Knuckle for views of the harbour.

Wend your way back alongside the Floating Harbour to the M-Shed for an imaginatively presented history of the city. It’s also where you’ll find the rehoused, controversial Colston statue. If you’ve the energy and are feeling peckish wander up Park Street past Bristol Cathedral and the grand concave surrounds of City Hall to Fluffy Fluffy, the new American chain that specialises in Japanese-style souffle pancakes.

Late

Stay in the vicinity at Wapping Wharf and make for Cargo (eye-catching converted shipping containers, which now serve as independent shops – anything from local cheese to books and holistic massages to bamboo clothing and bubble tea). Have dinner at either Root or Box-E. The former creates vegetable dishes that would turn a committed carnivore’s head, while the latter captures Bristol’s food scene as its most inspirational: the tasting menu is ace. Find more of the best restaurants in our guide.

Root, Bristol
Vegetables are the thing at Root, thought meat and fish are also available

Afterwards dip into Bristol’s enviable music scene by making for one of three long-standing Bristol venues, just a short walk away. The atmospheric Thekla, on a converted cargo ship, or the distinctively whitewashed Louisiana, which puts new and up and coming bands every night, or, a short walk away, the down-to-earth The Fleece (12 St Thomas Street), where you might find Echobelly, Arab Strap or a decent tribute band. Find more of the best nightlife in our guide.

Day two: Morning

Again begin the day with a taxi ride, this time across the river to Paintworks, a creative hub in some former industrial buildings. Here you’ll find the Martin Parr Foundation with regular photographic exhibitions based around the British Isles; they don’t disappoint. Just opposite is the Royal Photographic Society and again with regular exhibitions and talks. If you have time, cross the river by the nearby footbridge to the hugely imaginative, other-worldly  Wake The Tiger “amazement park”.

Next make for the harbour this time for a boat trip – best get a cab some of the way as the walk isn’t through the loveliest part of the city. Hop out near the classically designed Queen Square (the first American consulate in Britain was established here in 1792). Head through the square across Pero’s Bridge to the Watershed cinema/café and pick up a Bristol Packet boat trip from the pontoon here. It’s a great way of seeing the city from the water.

Bristol Harbour, Arnolfini, Bristol
A boat trip is a great way of seeing the city from the water - Copyright:Stephen Dorey/Stephen Dorey

After the 45-minute City Dock tour, walk along Anchor Street, past the statue of Neptune and up Clare and Corn streets to St Nicholas Market. Grab some lunch in one of the many food stalls, such as Caribbean Wrap, The Moorish Café (for delicious Moroccan dishes) or go vegan at Royce Rolls Cafe or snack on a pastel de nata at Portuguese Taste. Take time to peruse some of the stalls – LPs to jewellery and prints – before, if it’s a weekend, popping in to the Palestine Museum, which offers an insight into Palestinian culture, heritage and political life.

Later in the afternoon head up to Broadmead to Sparks in the old M&S building for a department store with a difference – bringing together sustainable retail outlets, artist spaces and installations. Move on via the Bear Pit to the dynamic and diverse 'People’s Republic of' Stokes Croft. Look out for Stokes Croft China for retro street art and politically slanted fine bone china mugs and plates. Then maybe pop into The Cube, a progressive cinema and art centre which 'aims to offer alternatives and make a difference' in its programming. Find more of the top attractions in our guide.

St Nicholas Market, Bristol
St Nicholas Market is a great spot to grab lunch when you're in the Old City - AlbertPego/AlbertPego

Late

Order a Jamaica Mule (with Appleton Rum) at the lively Caribbean Croft. You can eat there – terrific Caribbean cuisine – and then make your way down to The Canteen, a bar/restaurant with live music every night (anything from hip hop to a samba band).


Insider tips

Neighbourhood watch

North Street in Bedminster is well worth checking out for its restaurants, shops and bars (such as the North Street Cheese Company, the KASK (a wine bar and bottle shop; the tastings are recommended), or the super Mediterranean-influenced COR, and the Tobacco Factory Theatre – maybe after a visit to nearby Ashton Gate to watch Bristol City or Bristol Bears.

The hilly suburbs of Cotham/Redland are also well worth a diversion. Here you’ll find Cotham Hardware, which has been going since 1915, pop into Papadeli, an-award-winning deli for a great cheese toastie and take in a movie at the Everyman Bristol. Later try a cocktail at HMSS or Crying Wolf and have dinner at Wilson’s. Find more of the city's best restaurants in our guide.

Did you know?

You can go try blowing your own glass bauble at Bristol Blue Glass. This family-run craft enterprise recreates the Bristol blue glass the city was once famous for in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Love old school arcade games, such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders? Head to Four Quarters (32 Park Street) to play an array of games and sample an array of cocktails and beers in the basement bar.

Find more of the best things to do in our guide.

Attractions

The Downs are the place to watch the annual balloon fiesta in August when they set off from the Ashton Court Estate. They'd be perfect to watch the fireworks on Bonfire Night, too.

City hack

Tickets at some museums in Bristol, such as Being Brunel/SS Great Britain and Aerospace Bristol are valid for a year, so you can make return visits.

Sunset spot

The White Lion Pub terrace at the Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin is still one of the go-to places on a summer's evening to take in the splendour of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and have a drink as the sun begins to set. Find more of the best drinking spots in our guide.


When to go

The pace in Bristol rarely lets up but as ever the best time to explore is during the week; it has a big student population too so you might want to bear that in mind. Accommodation is also likely to be more expensive during the week so you will get a better deal for a two-night stay then.

Weather-wise, the city has a range of activities to suit sunny or rainy days. However, there are numerous festivals throughout the seasons which may sway your decision. The main ones to watch out for are Upfest in May (now a biannual event, the next one will be 2026), Europe’s largest live street art and graffiti festival, the Bristol Harbour Festival, in July, a free celebration of music, food, dance and the arts in Harbourside, and the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, held over four days in August, when around 130 balloonists take off from the Ashton Court Estate. Then, at Christmas, you can look forward to street markets, ice skating and mulled cider.


Where to stay

Luxury living

Bristol Harbour Hotel, set in two former banks in the heart of Bristol, is a tribute to imaginative and traditional design, while its quirkiness reflects the city’s character. The glorious façade is complemented by the Sansovino Hall, and the underground spa in the old bank vaults is a treat, with a cavernous resistance pool, a hydrotherapy pool and top-notch gym. Rooms have plenty of light and the Jetty Restaurant serves a superb seafood-based menu and great wine list. 

Read our full review.

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£ 110

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Bristol Harbour Hotel, Bristol
Bristol Harbour Hotel reflects the city's character

Boutique beauty

Now taken over and completely revamped by the Hotel du Vin group, Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin is once again worthy of its fabulous position overlooking Clifton Suspension Bridge. The Grade II-listed building dates from 1898 and was formerly a spa. The spacious rooms have dark blue or green walls, and amusing paintings dotted throughout. The funky restaurant, Goram & Vincent, features floor-to-ceiling glass windows that show off the bridge; meats, in particular the steak, is the thing here, prepared with grills, clay ovens and a smoker.

Read our full review.

From

£ 110

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Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin, Bristol
The spacious rooms at Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin have benefitted from a stylish makeover

Budget bolthole

The Old City is a neighbourhood in Bristol where street markets rub shoulders with historic churches, jazz pubs and restaurants housed in converted Georgian banks. Brooks Guesthouse is located right in the thick of it; St Nicholas Market is on the doorstep, as are the Cabot Circus shopping area, cobbled King Street, and the museums and galleries on the waterfront. The inviting rooms are on the smaller side, but pleasantly decorated with tongue-and-groove panelling, pretty wallpapers and Farrow & Ball colours. Up on the roof, there’s a small collection of British-made 'Rockets' (American-style aluminium caravans). Book one of these for an urban twist on 'glamping'. 

Read our full review.

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Find more of the best hotels in Bristol in our guide.


What to bring home

Head up to Stokes Croft China for some radical fine bone china mugs and plates – slogans champion everything from the environment to the NHS and socialist politics.

A tiny outlet for The Bristol Cheesemonger in Wapping Wharf is the place to go for some delicious artisan cheeses from Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Gloucestershire. Or buy a gift pack of three craft beers plus a glass from the Bristol Beer Factory.

The Bristol Cheesemonger, Bristol
The Bristol Cheesemonger sells delicious artisan cheeses from Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Gloucestershire - BRYAN STEPHENS CAM/EARLY B

Want something equally Bristolian? Try the excellent shop at the M Shed for Banksy books, local prints, Bristol glass and children’s toys.


Essential information

  • Visit Bristol has everything from bus timetables to gifts.

  • Swap you money for the Bristol Pound, the aim of which is to keep the currency within the city and 'create a more sustainable and inclusive local economy'.

  • The Bristol Visitor Information Centre is open every day from 10am-5pm.


About our expert

Simon Horsford is a regular visitor to Bristol, drawn by its maverick way of thinking, its enviable restaurant scene and range of attractions from museums and markets to, in particular, its music.