The largest city of southwest England, Bristol (pop. 382,000) is a city of contrast. Posh and working-class at the same time, Bristol has the highest rate of car ownership in England, but also its highest homeless population.
Bristol's strategic positioning 10km from the estuary of the River Avon (Brycgstow, its Old English name, means "the place at the bridge") contributed to making it the 3rd largest English city by the 14th century, and the country's largest port during the early colonial period.
In 1497, Genoese navigator John Cabot sailed from Bristol to discover New Found Land. In the 1700's, Bristol played a central role in the triangular trade, where European manufactured goods were exchanged for African slaves, which in turn were sold for tobacco and sugar in the Americas.
In the mid-18th century Bristol was England's second biggest city after London (it now ranks as England's 8th most populous city), before being overtaken by the fast-growing, new industrial cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.
Bristol was severely damaged by WWII bombings, and the post-war reconstruction have scarred its former beauty. The Clifton district is one of the lucky survivors, boasting the longest Georgian terrace in the country and often compared to neighbouring Bath.
In the 19th century, local engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge, as well as another of the city's major sight, the SS Great Britain, the world's first iron-hulled screw-propelled ship.
Nowadays, Bristol is known for its aeronautic industry (the British Concorde supersonic airplane was assembled in Filton, in the outskirt of Bristol), its youth culture, and Brizzle dialect (e.g. adding a final "l" sound to words that end with a vowel). It also has the best nightlife in the South-West.
Bristol is an expansive city for its size. It is difficult to define the centre, split between the shopping streets of Horsefair and Broadmeads in the North-East, the main train station in the South-East, the upmarket quarters of Clifton and Hotwells to the West, or St Nicholas Markets and the wide Hippodrome in the middle. Public transports could be more convenient for tourists, so that means that you will have to walk a lot (and on hilly grounds) to cover all the sights. Except if you prefer to take the City Sightseeing Bus (adults £8 for a 24h ticket).
The good news for travellers on a tight budget is that Bristol is rich in free attractions. Apart from its numerous churches and city-sponsored museums, you can visit historical houses such as the 16th century Red Lodge and the 18th-century Georgian House (see below).
Temple Meads Station might well be one of the most impressive building in town. Its neo-gothic architecture give it a pretence of medieval castle, only accentuated by the long crenelated wings running along the alleyway. Bristol's most notorious museum, the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, is housed in the West wing of the station.
Locked between Temple Meads Station, the floating harbour and the River Avon, the 89m-high lean spire of St Mary Redcliffe is another well-known landmark. It is one of the largest Parish Churches in Britain and was described by Queen Elizabeth I in 1574 as the "fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England".
In the middle of town, the St Nicholas Markets are a good place to hang around and have a cheap bite. Crossing the Hippodrome, you reach the attractive, though not gigantic Bristol Cathedral. It was first established as the Abbey of St Augustine in 1140, and is noted for its choir and stained-glass windows. It is surrounded by a nice park, the gothic city library and the majestic semi-circular Council House. Also worth a look are the Lord Mayor's Chapel, just north of the cathedral.
Continuing westwards, you will reach Park Street climbing uphill. Here you have the choice of continuing straight to the University Tower, which houses the City Museum & Art Gallery, go to the Red Lodge to your right, or the Georgian House, Brandon Hill and Cabbot Tower to your left. If time allows, have a look at all of them.
At the top of the hill you can go south through Berkeley Place, until reaching the city docks where are anchored the Victorian steamship SS Great Britain and a much smaller replica of Cabbot's ship, The Matthew. The former was conceived by Brunel in 1843 and can be visited at the harbour. It was the forerunner to all modern ships and carried some 15,000 emigrants to Australia, before being damaged in 1886 in the Falklands, where it remained until 1970.
All visitors to Bristol should see the elegant western suburb of Clifton. It is famed for its Georgian architecture, such as the Cornwallis Crescent and the Royal York Crescent, the longest of its kind in the UK.
The nearby 75m-high Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon is also the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.Construction started in 1836 and was not completed until 5 years after Brunel's death, 28 years later. There is a camera obscura housed in an observatory on Clifton Downs, which commands great views of the bridge. Other good outlook are the 58m-long Ghyston Cave, which also houses a 15th-century chapel, or from the banks of the Avon River.
The northern part of Clifton is home to the very well maintained Bristol Zoo Gardens, home to gorillas, various small monkeys, Brazilian tapirs, Asiatic lions, Giant tortoises, seals, penguins, and numerous other small animals.
South of Clifton is the Hotwells district. The area on both sides of the city dock has recently been redeveloped into an cosy residential zone and is ideal for strolls by fair weather.
The city council (detailed info and opening hours can be found there) manages the following museums, which are all free :
- City Museum & Art Gallery
- Bristol Industrial Museum
- Georgian House
- Red Lodge
- Bristol's Blaise Castle House Museum
How to get there
There are trains between Bristol and London Paddington (1h50min, £23.20), Bath (20min, £4.60), Cardiff (40 to 55min, £7.50), Gloucester (50min, £7.80), Exeter (1h to 1h30min, £16.90) and Portsmouth (2h25min, £24.80). Trains bound for several destinations in Wiltshire and Somerset require a change at Bath.
National Express buses has buses to London (2h30min, £14.50), Bournemouth (3h30min, £13.50), Oxford (2h40min, £12) and Birmingham (2h, £15.50).
Note that Flightlink bus No 200 goes to Heathrow (2h, £26.50) and Gatwick (3h30min, £30) airports. There are short-distance buses to Bath (No X39, 332 and 339, 50min, £3.90) and Wells (No 376/976, 1h) among others.
Bath can also be reached from Bristol by bicycle following a cycle-path of a disused railway along the Avon River.
Train timetables & reservations