Get off the beaten track in Bristol for history, culture and food

Is London sold out this summer? Or have outrageous dynamic pricing (£4000 worth of Bruce Springsteen tickets, anyone?), staggering admission prices at Madame Tussauds and – gulp – 8 pints squeezed your budget like a pimple? Don’t bang! We have an alternative: the alternative of the alternative, Bristol, less than two hours by train from London.

Adorned with iconic architecture and bursting with creative anarchy, this historic port city is closer to Cardiff than London (40 km as the crow flies). It features churches from the 12th century and chic waterfront developments, has the potential to dethrone the status quo (the Greens have the most seats ever on both Bristol City Council and the Welsh Parliament, Senedd Cymru) – and it’s ideal support if the Big Smoke only has a little space.

Bristol has been nicked by the River Avon and scrawled in vibrant street art. Bristol was home to engineering giant Isambard Kingdom Brunel, infamous nautical naughty boy Blackbeard and now the greatest graffiti artist of this generation – Banksy. Full of ethical integrity, smashing bass music and oh-we-have-to-go-again restaurants, Brizzle is still accepting bookings for 2022. Here’s what to do in a city that does Rare sold out.

Fawn over the Clifton Suspension Bridge from Observatory Hill © Gary Rayner / 500px

Skip Tower Bridge and instead cross the Clifton Suspension Bridge

There are many ways to interact with Bristol’s most famous attraction, the Clifton Suspension Bridge – cross it by bike/Birkenstock/E-Scooter/Car (£1) – but for the complete, dazzling experience, visitors should crawl across Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first engineering project from Observatory Hill.

Victorian engineering at just 24 years old wonder child was commissioned to design this 414m long gorge-spanning link some 76m above the River Avon, which would become the tallest and longest bridge in the world at the time.

Brunel’s original plans for pylon-style towers, Egyptian sphinxes and decorative cast-iron panels foundered on money worries, contractor bankruptcies and other misfortunes, but engineers William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw completed the traverse as a fitting ‘farewell’ to the most exceptional architectural genius of the time. The bridge is now to South West England what the Opera House is to Sydney: a big, bold, ambitious architectural statement – ​​to photographers and postcard sellers, at least.

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Visit the SS Great Britain Museum and see the working parts of the ship ‘under water’ © Joyce Nelson / Shutterstock

Cutty Sark sold out? Climb the rigging of the SS Great Britain

Not that Brunel’s legacy couldn’t be followed elsewhere in Bristol. The revolutionary, 1.50 m tall engineer – who often wore a 20 cm high cylinder – not only wanted to build gigantic bridges; he also loved boats. Permanently moored at the Great Western Dockyard is another of his engineering marvels: the SS Great Britain.

This handsome iron hull was launched in 1843 and was the largest passenger ship in the world when built. It made waves back then when it ditched the paddle wheel and instead traveled the route from Bristol to New York City with a propeller. Today it’s floating in a glass “sea” – spoiler: it’s a dry dock – where visitors can get a glimpse of the ship’s working parts underwater. There is enough to keep you entertained for hours here. Worth paying extra to climb the rigging.

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The M Shed museum showcases Bristol’s history and cultural significance over the past two millennia © Nigel Jarvis / Shutterstock

Missing the Museum of London? Go to M Shed instead

This former quayside warehouse has been turned into a free museum, charting Bristol’s history and cultural significance over the past two millennia – while making a laughing stock of most other urban menageries. From Stothert & Pitt’s gray cranes, which still roam the City Docks like herons, to characters from the hit TV animation Wallace & GromitThe M Shed is so busy that Brunel once said he’d eat his hat if you ever got bored.

The institution doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Bristol’s past either, amplifying stories like the Bristol Bus Boycott (a protest against racist policies that discouraged non-white people from working on the buses in 1955) and the city’s role in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. In M Shed, the statue of Edward Colston, a wealthy trader of enslaved people with connections to the city, was put on temporary display after protesters tore it from its pedestal and tossed it into Bristol Harbor in 2020.

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CARGO, in Wapping Wharf, is a new food and drink store on Bristol’s waterfront © lou Armor / Shutterstock

Swap Canary Wharf for Wapping Wharf

Colston’s statue isn’t the only thing torn up by the waves – Nazi bombs did a good job destroying the Great Western Railway warehouses that once stood on the River Avon. Since 2013, developers have built some offbeat facsimile replacements as homes, shops and offices, creating Bristol’s newest neighbourhood, Wapping Wharf. Construction is still ongoing, but East Spike Island is now becoming a magnet for food cravings thanks to CARGO – a cluster of independent shipping container restaurants stacked like LEGO.

If you need something to eat, try Squeezed, which sells freshly made, award-winning burgers that are as tall as skyscrapers. Thick chunks of beef, slowly melted cheese, gently sautéed shallots, and hints of delicious aioli will leave any diner empty-fingered. No wonder they sell out early. When that happens, sister restaurant Dog Town whips out laden hot dogs tying the knot with slushies and shakes, like some sort of street-food shotgun wedding. But be warned, their jerk nori fries with salted skin can lead to revelations like, “Why haven’t I had these before?” “How much do houses cost in Bristol?” “Can I kidnap the chef?”

Pass Peckham and be swept away by (the People’s Republic of) Stokes Croft

While we don’t recommend napping by the chef, we can suggest driving to Stokes Croft, a radical stretch of tarmac stretching north from the Bearpit roundabout. Pulsating Bristolian rebellion, heavy reggae sound systems and some of the UK’s best street art – find Banksy’s Mild Mild West at number 80 a teddy bear throws a Molotov cocktail at the riot police – the ideas and ideals of this staunchly anti-homogeneous paradise spill generously over the neighborhoods of Kingsdown and St Pauls.

Stokes Croft makes Bristol Bristol. For a taste, check out the fine English bone china for sale at The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (like the mugs with the Queen’s face and the words: ‘I Eat Swans’), check out a £1 -Film or live music with a home-made Coca-Cola at The Cube and mopping up Ethiopian tibs (a tender beef stew in a rich, flavorful tomato sauce with injera, a thick, sour fermented flatbread) at Real Habesha Restaurant or a box of slow-cooked Caribbean goat curry and rice from Bikkle Island. Both are on Stapleton Road.

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People walk past a famous Banksy graffiti in Bristol © 1000 Words / Shutterstock

Explore the real National Gallery: Bristol’s street art scene

In Bristol, every corner is a canvas. Each building is a potential portrait spot. Guerrilla graffiti king Banksy is undoubtedly the street art star to spot with his hometown masterpieces Hung lover in Park Street, depicting a naked adulterer clinging precariously to a window frame and The girl with the pierced eardrum – a playful spray-up by Johannes Vermeer The girl with the pearl earring except with an earring safety alert. Since the pandemic, she now also wears a face mask.

But don’t think that you have to do all the hard work to find the best job. Bristol Street Art Tours offers a 2-hour tour of Stokes Croft, giving any aspiring Banksy a chance to make their mark too.

Spend your money on Gloucester Road, not Oxford Street

Once the longest stretch of independent shops in Europe – until supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and coffee shop franchise Costa moved in – Gloucester Road is where you can pump up your souvenir savings. Start at That Thing (officially on Cheltenham Road, but part of the same street) that sells sequined holiday wear, before looking to Fox + Feather for fashionable clothing and homeware.

Gloucester Road also has a decent selection of goodies: Bakers & Co for sourdough croissants made from stone-ground bran; FED for seasonal rainbow-colored salads, freshly baked quiches, and great coffee; plus El Colmado for Spanish deli picnic treats like thick sticks of bellota chorizo.

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