A Weekend in Bristol, the U.K.’s Most Wonderfully Idiosyncratic CityBy Karen Gardiner
Just over two hours west of London, Bristol marches proudly to its own beat. Set on the River Avon in the rugged West Country, the city’s splendid isolation has fostered an independent spirit and streak of subversion where an economy that once prospered through maritime trade is now propelled by its creative industries.
It’s a spirited city that nurtures innovation, expressed through its cutting-edge music, arts, festival and food scenes. Here’s how to experience one of the U.K.’s coolest cities.
Underpinning Bristol’s vibrant contemporary culture is a strong sense of the city’s past. M Shed, on the historic wharf, is Bristol’s social history museum, where exhibits explore its history since prehistoric times, including its role in the transatlantic slave trade.
Nearby, the SS Great Britain was the world’s first great ocean liner. Now permanently docked in Bristol Harbour, visitors can explore its atmospheric interiors and, in the adjacent Being Brunel museum, learn about its designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was a key figure in the Industrial Revolution and also responsible for Bristol’s other great feat of engineering, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Spanning the Avon Gorge, and linking Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset, the bridge opened in 1864 and is a much-loved landmark—visit the Clifton Observatory for the best views of the bridge and the city skyline
Bristol’s most famous homegrown artist is still known only by their tag, Banksy. The prolific, mysterious street artist came up through Bristol’s underground scene and painted their first large mural, “The Mild Mild West,” depicting a teddy bear lobbing a Molotov cocktail at riot police, on Stokes Croft road, where it remains.
On walking tours with Where The Wall, local street artists, some of whom know the sneaky stencilist, lead visitors to the city’s best murals, including more works by Banksy, as well as by fellow Bristolians Nick Walker and Inkie. Bristol also has a few commercial urban art galleries, including Upfest, which is run by the organizers of the huge annual street art festival of the same name.
Of course, street art is but one piece of Bristol’s thriving art scene. See more by visiting galleries such as Spike Island, also a working artist studio, and Arnolfini, which presents an ambitious program of contemporary visual, film, musical and performance arts.
Bristol’s other best-known contribution to contemporary culture is the “Bristol Sound,” a deep, dark and slow style of music often labeled, to artists’ chagrin, “trip-hop” and exemplified by the likes of Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead.
The city’s music scene remains strong, and you can get a taste by visiting one of the city’s characterful live music venues. The biggest is Bristol Beacon, which is where top touring acts perform, while smaller spots include the floating venue of Thekla, a former cargo ship, and jazz bar The Old Duke.
You’ll find all your favorite chain stores in the centrally located, modern, indoor-outdoor shopping center of Cabot Circus, including an outpost of the British fashion brand AllSaints and the high-end department store Harvey Nichols.
Eating and Drinking
The focus on sustainability and independence that buoys Bristol’s creative scene is also in evidence in its dining scene. Locally sourced produce is a given at places such as Michelin-starred Poco Tapas Bar and Bulrush.
Vegans are especially well catered to: The city was named the world’s most vegan-friendly city in 2018. Even nonvegans should head for Owee Burger, known for its crispy seitan burger, and Fi Real, which reflects the city’s strong Caribbean population with dishes such as jerk tofu and Trelawny yam stew. For a great bite on the go, head for St Nicholas Market, home to several food stalls showcasing global cuisine, from Szechuan noodles to falafel.
Housed in a former inn, The Rummer is a cocktail bar and microdistillery where the Bristol Spirits Collective bottles Bristol Dry Gin and Bristol Vodka. Cocktail lovers should also seek out at least one of the city’s bevy of speakeasy-style bars, including Hyde & Co., The Milk Thistle and Red Light.