Voted the happiest city in England, Bristol seems to have it all: hills, plenty of water, brilliant architecture and art, proximity to the countryside as well as the Atlantic Ocean, and cafes and restaurants galore -- so many good ones, in fact, that the city was named the world’s best culinary destination in 2019. And to think that all this can be found a mere 1.5-hour train ride from London...
Bristol, with just over half a million inhabitants, is small enough to be walkable despite a handful of steep hills, and large enough to offer great shopping and a cosmopolitan feel. For those who love great architecture, a picturesque and bustling harbor, good food, and art -- from the Old Masters to street art -- Bristol is the perfect place for a day trip.
Let’s assume you arrive from London by train at Bristol Temple Meads and walk from there. You can find my favorite things to do in Bristol in order as you walk.
Here’s how to spend a great day in Bristol.
Browse Saint Nicholas Market
You can either walk down Victoria Street and cross the Bristol Bridge to get to the old part of the city (roughly a 10-minute walk), or you can hop on a waterbus and take a more scenic trip between Temple Meads Station Landing and Castle Park Landing. The ferries come every few minutes and are cheap, with prices depending on how many stops you pass.
First, pop into Bristol’s oldest market, Saint Nicholas Market, which dates to 1743. It’s a covered market full of small stalls selling everything from arts and crafts to local produce, and there are many tempting street-food stalls, should you feel peckish after your journey.
The Saxon fortified settlement bounded by Saint Nicholas Street, Leonard Lane, Bell Lane, and Tower Lane is the most historic part of Bristol. Nearby is the former entrance to the walled city, Saint John’s Gate.
Head To The Harbor
Meander down the small lanes and past the picturesque Queen’s Square to the harbor. This array of waterways hints at Bristol’s past as a thriving port with easy access to the ocean and is one of the few instances in which a city harbor was reinvented and modernized successfully.
Here you’ll find countless cafes and restaurants, the M Shed with its displays on Bristol’s history, and the We The Curious interactive science museum. Both museums are worth spending an hour or so in if you can spare the time. But don’t linger too long, since there is plenty more to see. You’ll be heading up College Green next.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled For Banksy’s Street Art
The most famous street artist of our day is Banksy, with his politically aware, ironic, and to-the-point pieces. Bristol is his hometown, so his work can be found around the city. One of his earliest works is Well Hung Lover, also known as Naked Man Hanging From Window, which can be seen from College Green on the bridge crossing Frogmore Street. Keep your eyes peeled for other works, or download the app called Banksy Bristol Trail to make sure you don’t miss any.
Visit The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
At the top of this not-too-steep hill, you’ll find the beautiful university buildings and the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, one of my favorite museums. It has a quirky and eclectic collection of art, ceramics, and natural science exhibits -- and even an airplane hanging in its grand entrance hall. Not too big and free to enter, it has something to keep anyone enthralled for an hour or so.
Explore Clifton Village
Keep following Queens Road until you get to the lovely Victoria Square in Clifton Village. This residential area, incidentally my second home, allows you to experience one of the reasons Bristol has been voted the happiest city in England. As you leave the square through the arch on the far side, you step into a bustling village full of little cafes and shops, market stalls, and lovely buildings. Examine the old Clifton Arcade, have a drink at The Albion, and then head up Clifton Down Road through the park full of friendly squirrels and take a left at Gloucester Row.
Cross The Clifton Suspension Bridge
The Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpieces, is stunning to behold. Crossing the Avon Gorge some 336 feet above the river, the elegant bridge was completed in 1864, although it was designed and funded back in 1753. Depending on your schedule, you can either walk across to the visitor center on the other side or take the path down through the park and enjoy the views of the bridge towering above the river’s cliffs.
Once you are back on the river level, head back toward the city along the riverside paths.
Admire Brunel’s SS Great Britain
You will soon come across Brunel’s steamship, the SS Great Britain, which at its launch in 1843 was the largest ship in the world and is still beautiful to look at. It has been reinvented as a museum on Bristol’s maritime history and Brunel’s work, but it’s just as good to look at from across the river.
After walking all day up and down Bristol’s hills, you’ve got a couple choices. You could walk a little more through the modern city center for some shopping around Cabot Circus. Otherwise, you could take it easy, enjoying the views from the river back up to the colorful houses on the top of the hill, and take the waterbus back to Bristol Temple Meads.
Eating And Drinking In Bristol
As I mentioned, Bristol is a superb destination for foodies and offers a wide selection of dining options, from street-food stalls and relaxed little pubs to fancy restaurants and everything in between. From traditional English food -- if you are in town on a Sunday, make sure to stop for a classic Sunday roast with Yorkshire puddings -- to international cuisine, you will come across every conceivable kind of food on your walk. And since you have walked so much, you don’t have to feel guilty about indulging in it.
Here are some of my favorite places to eat.
Just opposite the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Pinkmans Bakery is perfect for breakfast, sandwiches, sweet treats, and cake. It has been voted one of the top 25 bakeries in the UK, and often you’ll find people lining up to buy the tasty sourdough donuts. Whatever time of day -- be it breakfast, lunchtime, or just coffee time -- it’s definitely worth popping in to Pinkmans.
Down by the harbor, inside a redesigned cargo container, is Pigsty. The clue is in the name, as this tiny little place specializes in all things pork. From bacon rolls and sausage sandwiches to pork belly and daily specials, you can pig out on good old comfort food. A small venue with a small menu, this place is fun, full of locals, and delivers on its part-street food, part-restaurant approach. It also serves some good craft beers and ciders.
Ivy Clifton Brasserie
I am a sucker for restaurants inside beautiful historic buildings, and the Ivy Clifton Brasserie certainly qualifies. Located near the Mall Gardens in Clifton Village, this airy restaurant with its grand bar offers casual dining in a lovely setting. You can choose from all-time favorites and daily specials, and so far, everything I’ve tried has been superb.
Looking for more days trips from London? Check out this list.