Cool and funky, Bristol is like the San Francisco of the UK, amazing arty quarters set amongst steep hills and colourful houses. With a reputation for alternative culture, eco-awareness and innovation it is very easy to spend a couple of weeks exploring all the hidden gems it has to offer. Bristol was my home for a few years, and from my time spent exploring this vibrant and fun city here are the best and most beautiful places to visit in Bristol…
Bristol City Hall, College Green and Bristol Cathedral – some of the finest and most beautiful places in Bristol
The stunning Neo-Georgian City Hall curves gracefully around College Green at the foot of Park Street alongside the equally beautiful Cathedral. There has been a church on this site since the 12th Century but it was added to right up until the late 19th Century, making it a mish-mash of architectural styles.
As it stands now it is a grade 1 listed building and features medieval vaults, gothic columns and rose window, and a Norman chapter house, as well as many references to Bristol’s more recent maritime history.
The Christmas Steps – a picturesque and historic street in Bristol
These historic steps in the centre of Bristol date back to the 1600’s and contain 11 listed buildings down their short flight. The steps are flanked by quaint old fashioned shops and pubs including the fantastic Sugar Loaf Public House which is a great place to stop for a pint or two!
They are such a lovely little surprise when you stumble upon them in the midst of the busy city centre, for a while it’s like you slip into a time warp and find yourself in a Dickensian novel. The steps also feature in the eponymous song by Mogwaii.
Bristol Docks and Marina – some of the best areas to explore in Bristol
The docks and Marina are a big draw for tourists, especially the legendary SS Great Britain. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel she was a trailblazing passenger steamship in her time and held the title of the longest passenger ship in the world between 1845 and 1854.
Most importantly she was the very first steamship to cross the Atlantic. Now she operates as a museum and is an absolute must for maritime enthusiasts! Also on the marina is the fantastic Arnolfini gallery and many quirky little cafes, shops, and bars to mooch around. In the summer it’s the perfect spot for an outdoor beer and a view out over the water.
Clifton – an affluent and leafy suburb of Bristol filled with fine restaurants and boutiques
One of the most splendid areas of Bristol is Clifton, which begins at the top of Park Street and comprises of some of Bristol’s most stunning Georgian buildings including The Bristol Museum. By far the jewel in Clifton’s crown is The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, originally designed by Brunel it was completed by William Henry Barlow and John Hawshaw and opened in 1864. The immense wrought-iron structure spans the dizzying Avon Gorge and links Clifton to Leigh Woods.
It is absolutely stunning to stroll over the bridge at sunset or watch the hot air balloons float over in their dozens during the balloon fiesta in July. Other Clifton must-sees are the second of Bristol’s Cathedrals, the amazing modernist/ brutalist SS Peter and Paul, Clifton Village with its quaint arcades and lovely independent shops, and finally the historic Clifton Lido. This ‘cool urban oasis’ on Whiteladies Rd includes a spa, fine dining restaurant, and massive heated outdoor pool, swimmers don’t miss out!!
Portishead – a pretty coastal town on the Severn Estuary
For a little bit of a coastal stroll and a breath of sea air, it’s worth taking a trip out to Portishead and walking along the recently renovated promenade. Perhaps stop a while and watch the old folk sail their remote control boats on the ornamental lake.
After a good leg stretch head to the high street for a cuppa or an afternoon gin in one of the little bars or cafes. It is a very pleasant way to pass a few hours in the afternoon, perhaps catch the sunset over the channel if you’re lucky! Of course, you are very welcome to hum Glory Box the whole time you’re there!
Stokes Croft/Gloucester Road – Bristol’s famous independent shopping districts
Gloucester Road starts at the north end of the city centre and runs out for miles towards Horfield. It is a dream for lovers of street art and independent shopping! Literally packed with quirky shops and cafes, retro and vintage warehouses, and delicious locally produced food stores and restaurants that serve plenty of inspired vegan and vegetarian delicacies… take your shopping bags and just go for it!
Make sure you call into Stokes Croft China, a community enterprise of artists that create beautiful modern vegan chinaware out of the old Stokes Croft China factory, I defy you not to come home with at least one quirky politically explicit mug!
Stoke Park – a public beautiful open space of 108 hectares in Bristol
This public park runs for 270 acres north of the city centre alongside the M32. It is the site of several Bristol landmarks such as The Purdown Transmitter, The resplendent and apparently haunted Dower House, The Orangery, Obelisk, and Broomhill Gate… all of which are listed.
In the woods, you’ll find the cold bath and the semi-derelict stone tunnel and rustic archways. Adding a bit more spook is the reclaimed Stoke Park Hospital, an old asylum that used to be known as The Stoke Park Colony which had a very chequered history up until its closure in the ’80s.
St Nicholas Market – the oldest and best-loved market to visti in Bristol
This much-loved market was established in 1743 and is the oldest in Bristol. It is now home to the biggest selection of independent retailers in the city. In addition to the 60 stalls inside many outdoor markets occur around st nicks throughout the week.
It is one of the best spots for a bit of lunch on the fly as well, with its glass arcade housing an array of delicious street food from across the world, we’re talking delicious noodles, falafel, tacos and Caribbean wraps, healthy smoothies, and sweet treats! Not to be missed!
Brandon Hill Park – a pretty hilly park that is often used for picnics
This hilly splash of green close to the city centre is positively buzzing with wildlife and aflame with colourful flowers and blossoms. Amidst the green fields, perfect for a summer picnic, is the 105ft Cabot Tower, built in 1857 to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland.
Visitors can climb the viewing tower for free and enjoy breathtaking panoramic views across the city and beyond, a real treat.
Mendip Hills – a range of limestone hills to the south of Bristol
The rolling green hills of the Mendips are an AONB starting to the South of Bristol and stretching for 76 square miles across Bristol, Somerset and into Wiltshire. They include some fantastic caves and grottoes including Wookey Hole Caves and Cheddar Gorge as well as several caves accessible to members of caving clubs.
Long distance footpaths such as Mendip Way and Limestone Link will allow you to absorb the best flora and fauna that nature has to offer. For history buffs, there are 286 examples of round barrows dating back to the Neolithic period and numerous other ancient monuments within the remarkable landscape. The Mendips are a holiday in themselves really but if you have a bit of spare time you can take in a small section of them as a day trip from Bristol city centre.
Leigh Woods – a popular beauty spot to explore in Bristol
Cross the wonderful Clifton Suspension Bridge and you will find yourself in Leigh Woods Nature Reserve. A tangle of broadleaf woodland, winding pathways, and superb views across the Avon Gorge.
In springtime, the woods are a carpet of bluebells and you can follow the established footpaths through shady branches on carpets of leaves. Take the easy pathway down to the base of the Gorge for an amazing perspective of the bridge high above you.
Tyntesfield – a spectacular Victorian Gothic revival house with gardens and parkland
A short hop from Bristol you will find the stunningly ornate Tyntesfield House and Gardens, a wonderful example of Gothic Revival.
Displaying a glorious faded beauty the house balances splendid architecture with a profusion of nature and for a while, you can imagine you are a fine Georgian lady as you stroll through the kitchen garden, flower-filled terraces, and empty lake. You can enjoy a lovely cuppa at the pavilion cafe and find out about the history of the house in the home farm visitors centre.
Totterdown – iconic colourful houses, Instagrammable graffiti and quirky artworks
If you have ever travelled into Bristol on the train from the North you’ll probably have noticed the colourful ramshackle terrace houses that line the high ridge on the approach to Temple Meads Station. Well, that is the aptly named Totterdown that runs up alongside Bath Road and is home to Vale Street; the steepest residential street in the UK.
The hike up the hill is well worth it to just hang out in the cute little neighbourhood bars and cafe’s, join in an open mic night or purchase tasty local produce…the views from up there are also to die for. It’s much more homey and down to earth than some of the more gentrified spots close to town and it really is beautiful to see the colourful houses tripping down the steep hills like something from a children’s book illustration!
Arnos Vale Cemetery – a unique heritage site in the heart of Bristol
This beautiful grade 2 listed cemetery was very nearly flattened and turned into a housing estate in the ’80s but was saved thanks to industrious local campaigning, and thank goodness it was. It was designed in the early 1800s by Charles Underwood who set it out in the style of a Greek Necropolis, the first burial took place in 1837 and many known Victorian industrialists, politicians, and social reformers are buried there in splendid Sepulchres.
A large section of the cemetery is also dedicated to maritime and war graves. I think during my time in Bristol Arnos Vale was my most treasured discovery, it isn’t just a cemetery, it is a 45-acre oasis high up over the busy city with woodland walks, a small museum and cafe, winding pathways, and little secret messages hidden on ancient gravestones. During the summer several events are hosted there including outdoor theatre and music, the cemetery also hosts many weddings throughout the year and regular workshops too. It is a true community triumph and a real hidden gem!
Bag of Nails – a cool little pub to visit in Bristol
Bit of a cheat because it’s indoors and under the current circumstances limited capacity, but I couldn’t write a post on Bristol without including it! Just along the waterfront towards Hotwells this quirky little pub was my favourite place to hang out when I lived in the city! Inside you can enjoy board games, respectfully choose from the excellent collection of vinyl, scoff the tasty scotch eggs and gourmet pork pies and quaff delicious real ale.
Most importantly you can hang out with the cats… of which there are many! This is no orchestrated cat cafe, these are pure moggies… they hang out in boxes on the bar and pinch your seat when you’re not looking. The owner is brilliantly cantankerous and the whole atmosphere is completely authentic and absolutely unique!