The Best of the West – Top 5 things to see in Bristol
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Bristol, Bristol, Bristol… I could go on for years about my love for this place. There’s so many things to see in Bristol; I adore the street art and liberal attitude of Stokes Croft, the charming architecture of Clifton Village, the picturesque Harbourside. The city was my adopted home for just four years, yet i’m pretty sure when I leave the country I won’t miss London (where i’m from) at all. I’ll be Bristol-sick.
Anybody who lives here – people who have moved and locals alike, could spend an eternity telling you why it’s the best city in the UK. Yet it’s surprisingly under-visited for a city of its size; with people looking for large cities favouring London, Manchester and Birmingham and tourists seeking historical cities opting for Bath or Brighton. But Bristol has it all. Not only is it stunning and has a great city vibe but it was actually Europe’s green capital in 2015 and has its own currency (but don’t worry, you can still use the British pound!). Bristol revels in its intricate history, yet also paves the way to become a beacon for the future.
When planning a trip to England, i’d strongly advise you put the city on your itinerary. Only two and a half hours from London, the city acts as a gateway to Wales, Devon and Cornwall. Once you’re there, check out these top things to see in Bristol:
Clifton Suspension Bridge
Probably Bristol’s most iconic structure, the suspension bridge in Clifton opened in 1864 and has operated as a toll bridge ever since. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and leads from Clifton over the River Avon to Northern Somerset. The bridge is a marvel; stretching from bank to bank over the Avon Gorge, it dominates the skyline of Clifton and the views from it are extraordinary.
The idea for a bridge being constructed at the narrowest point of the Avon Gorge was thought of due to the old Bristol Bridge becoming too dangerous for people to use, yet a high bridge was needed for tall-masted warships to fit under it whilst travelling to the city. A competition to see who could design the bridge was established – it received 22 entries. Brunel submitted four entries, but they all ended up being rejected by Thomas Telford, Scottish engineer and competition judge. Telford decided he would be the best person to design the bridge, and it was predicted to cost a whopping £52,000 to build.
They failed to raise the money for this bridge, and Brunel designed a new proposal which cost £10,000 less to create. Another competition was hosted in 1831, with entries from many of the original proposers. The winner was actually first deigned to be Smith and Hawkes, but, in a personal meeting with the judge Davies Gilbert, Brunel persuaded him to change his mind. The bridge that we see today was largely based on Brunel’s winning design, yet was adapted by his predecessors (Brunel actually died before the bridge was constructed). Nonetheless, the grand Victorian monument harks to Bristol’s complex history and is one of the city’s most intriguing structures.
For a great view of the Bridge, check out The White Lion pub in Clifton Village; it has a great balcony where you can sit and marvel at the construction! Or climb up Observatory Hill and catch a glimpse of the bridge from another angle. The bridge is free for you to walk across (toll charge for cars), where you can enjoy impressive views of the river and city beyond. There is also a small museum at the North Somerset end of the bridge, open from 10am-5pm every day, entry free.
Just two miles from the city centre, technically in North Somerset yet merely a stones throw from Clifton, is the grand Ashton Court house and estate. The extensive history of Ashton Court spans back to before the 11th century, when a fortified manor house stood on the plot of land; believed to have been given to Geoffrey de Montbray by William the Conqueror. It passed through various noble owners throughout the centuries.
The house was extensively remodelled by both Sir John Smyth in the 1700s and Sir Greville Smyth in the latter half of the 19th century; it is still noticeable today which alterations took place and when.
SS Great Britain and the Harbourside
Often a waterfront is the most beautiful part of a city, and Bristol’s is certainly up there. The SS Great Britain is right at the top of any tourist’s ‘things to see in Bristol’ lists. The world’s first luxury cruise liner, she now stands majestically in a dry port on the River Avon. She was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic in 1845, which she did in 14 days, and was the largest sea vessel in the country at the time. Along with the suspension bridge, she was designed by Brunel.
The dock is where ships would set sail and was once a bustling trading area for those sailing. Nowadays, the waterfront area is equally busy with artisan markets, atmospheric bars and tasty restaurants. There’s always loads of boats to admire, and the area is the perfect place to enjoy the sunset.
Stokes Croft/ Gloucester Road
On Gloucester Road is Britain’s longest chain of independent shops. There is ‘everything you’ll ever need’ at these local stores, and it is widely known as Britain’s last proper high street. Whether it’s an ironmonger, a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer or a toy shop that you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Gloucester Road’s beautiful rebellion against Tesco.
Indeed, further down the road in Stokes Croft there is a wall mural saying ‘Think Local Boycott Tesco’, and this area certainly does that. There’s so many unique things to do in Stokes Croft; come here to mingle with hippies, support local businesses and marvel at the quirky exteriors of many shops and businesses. There is a strong ‘Love not War’ vibe around this area, and various pacifist quotations are etched into walls and on shop windows. It’s without a doubt my favourite part of Bristol.
Stokes Croft is also a great place for nightlife, with dozens of edgy bars and a few live music venues, two of which (Lakota and Blue Mountain) are open until 6am.
The Bear Pit
It might be odd to have a roundabout listed on here, but it’s covered in graffiti. That probably still doesn’t make sense to those of you who have never been to Bristol. The city is the home of Banksy (the world’s most talented graffiti artist) and wall art isn’t just not frowned upon, but actually encouraged. A tour of the city’s graffiti is definitely one of the quirkier things to see in Bristol!
The city has produced beautiful works of art over the years, and while the open air art gallery is in fact all over the city, The Bear Pit provides some of the best examples. Along with revolutionary slogans and steel drum bands, the bear pit also has various food stalls and occasionally market stalls, seemingly set up on a whim to sell whatever they have that day.
It’s the variety of Bristol that makes it so enchanting and captivating. There really is something for everybody, whether you’re after classy cocktails, coffee in a quirky cafe or lunch on a boat on the River Avon. Bristol is magnificent history, extraordinary culture and eternal optimism for the future all rolled up into one package. These five things to see in Bristol barely scratch the surface of what the city has to offer; you could easily spend weeks in the city without running short of things to do. Make sure you don’t miss it on your England itinerary but be warned – it may just capture your heart and refuse to give it back.