I’ll be honest: I wasn’t too fussed with visiting Bristol while planning our United Kingdom trip. Brighton had been my big personal priority, and the rest of our trip was mostly about visiting friends around the country — with one of Ian’s besties living in Bristol, it was pretty much automatically added to our itinerary. (Though it must be noted that, for reasons beyond my comprehension, male friends rarely use the term “besties.”)
By the time our too-short visit was up, Bristol was hot on Brighton’s heels for my favorite city in the UK.
It was definitely the city I most craved more time in. With a late arrival, an early departure, and a day trip to Bath we really only had one day to explore the city Lonely Planet England refers to as “a hub of culture and creativity.”
We did, gratefully, have three nights in what turned out to be one of my favorite Airbnb finds ever, an apartment in the industrial-chic Paintworks Lofts.
We fell in love with this beautiful flat and were pretty tempted to just move in. It was super light and bright and airy and we loved discovering all the thoughtful details the hosts had provided, including a nice selection of teas as well as coffee and breakfast cereal.
Paintworks is a really unique little corner of Bristol and we loved the artsy vibes of the area. Our neighbors were working art galleries and design studios, and there were some super fun options for a bite within a stone’s throw of our door. Bocabar was perfect for late night pizza and cocktails in a loft-like-but-cozy space the night of our arrival, and The Tube Diner across the street, made up of two airstreams parked together and some seating strewn between them, was just right for a quirky lunch.
The apartment was actually two bedrooms, and while we invited a couple of friends to take the second one, no one took us up on it (do we smell?) so we had plenty of space. Whether you’re heading to this particular apartment or any other in the whole wide world, don’t forget to use my discount link for $40 off your first booking!
Art lovers will know Bristol as the home of Banksy, perhaps the world’s most infamous –and anonymous — street artist. The top item on my Bristol wish list was a street art walking tour, which I planned to take solo while leaving the boys in a pub somewhere.
But when I couldn’t find one running on the day we planned to explore the city, our friend Sean offered to give us a DIY version. Now, I don’t think Sean would be insulted to hear me describe him as a man more likely to be found getting into a bar brawl than browsing an art museum, so with one eyebrow arched to maximum suspicion levels (just kidding, I can only dream of someday achieving the physical miracle of raising just one eyebrow), I agreed.
Our first stop was the bohemian, Brooklyn-esque neighborhood — in a city one might already describe as “Brooklyn-esque” — of Stokes Croft. Sean picked us up from Paintworks and after ditching his van back at his apartment, we pretty much spent the next twelve hours exploring Bristol on foot. I nearly collapsed by the end of it, but dang if we didn’t get a pretty extensive first peek at Southwest England’s largest — and recently voted most liveable — city.
Our DIY Banksy tour, cobbled together from blog posts, old maps and Sean’s fuzzy memory, was a true adventure full of laughs and wrong turns and rehydration stops in pub. Over time, we slowly worked our way from Stokes Croft down to the Harbourside, and soon I was feeling downright lucky that I hadn’t been able to catch one of the official tours after all. Along the way, some of my favorite pieces were in fact the non-Banksys we stumbled on by new street artists following in his footsteps.
Around every corner, we passed some new offbeat cafe or quirky gallery that had me stopping in my tracks and saying to no one, “I want to come back here.”
Walking down “The Christmas Steps” was another highlight — I felt like I was on the set of Mary Poppins (sorry, can’t stop won’t stop with the movie set comparisons in England, apparently) and loved popping into the Bristol Cider Shop along the way. We’d actually looked into doing one of their cider tastings, though unfortunately we weren’t in town on a Friday when the are held.
Hitting the harbor, we could feel the weight of two centuries of history as a busy commercial port. Today, you’re more likely to find tourists boating or even stand up paddling around Bristol than you are to see heavy cargo behind loaded and unloaded, but it remains a bustling heart of the city.
While we didn’t have time to check out the Harourside’s many museums and other attractions, we did stop to have a snack and watch the world go by.
Sean led us to Mud Dock Café, a gem we wouldn’t have stumbled on without him. With a bike shop downstairs and a focus on locally sourced ingredients on the menu, I could understand how this place was a local favorite. Three ciders and a ploughman’s board of cheese and charcuterie were just what we needed to refuel for the rest of our city tour.
We were having far too good of a time enjoying the waterfront breezes, so we made our next stop was The Apple, a floating cider bar in the heart of the city. Um, what’s that you say? You can scarcely imagine a more perfect drinking establishment? Me neither!
With over forty different ciders to try, I was in boozy heaven. With cider sangria, cider cocktails and more on tap, it’s a mystery why anyone would want to drink anything else, but wine, beer, and spirits are available. The UK is where I first fell in love with cider, which has been a true savior to me as a non-beer drinker over the years. Practically surrounded by cider farms, I quickly learned that Bristol is considered the unofficial cider capital of England. (If you hear some wheels turning right now, it’s me, scheming a plan for a return trip to Bristol to do a grand cider tour of the surrounding countryside.)
After a prohibition cocktail at the dark and mysterious Milk Thistle speakeasy, we wound our way back towards Stokes Croft for dinner at Thali Cafe, a hip and colorful Indian restaurant Sean suggested. I couldn’t be happier to come full circle and end the day in my favorite corner of the city.
I seriously regret not taking more photos of this incredible restaurant — it was the most beautiful Indian restaurant I’ve ever stepped foot in, and the food lived up to the hype set by the decor. It’s become so popular they actually have a few locations around the city now — I wouldn’t have minded trying multiple on a longer trip.
We ended the evening at The Canteen, a community-run cafe and live music venue that had some of the most hilariously hipster graffiti covering it’s bathroom walls I’ve ever seen. I was gone for so long reading the walls and doubling over with laughter that Ian started to worry I’d fallen in.
There’s no question: I’ll be back in Bristol. While clearly as one of the largest cities in England it’s no hidden gem, we definitely felt we’d stepped off the tourist hamster wheel for a bit and explored a part of the UK that we both admitted we could even picture living in someday. While that might be logistically unlikely, I undoubtedly have many visits ahead.
And there’s so much to see when I do! I left aching for an afternoon lounging at the pool at The Lido in chic Clifton, a cider tour of the countryside, a night at the Sunset Cinema open-air theater in Ashton Court, a SUP tour of the harbor, or a visit to the Bristol Balloon Festival.
If you’ve been to London and loved exploring Soho or you’ve visited New York and couldn’t get enough of Brooklyn, give Bristol a try next time. This alternative, artsy city just might surprise you.
Next stop: Going back in time in Bath