Being ever so slightly ashamed to admit this, the only thing that I had ever known about Bristol, England was that the British TV Series Skins takes place there. That was about it. However, this is not the reason as to why I decided pay Bristol a visit, nor should it be yours either, if you’ve seen the series. Or at least it shouldn’t be your main reason.
It appears to me as though this city is often forgotten by my fellow travelers or not known about at all. The locals definitely agreed when shocked to see Americans traipsing about her streets. She may be forgotten, but she’s worth a visit because she shows you a different side to the country. That image of your mind of what English culture is like does not fit here, my friends.
My boyfriend joined me for my trip through England, mostly to celebrate my birthday but also to cross some traveling off his long list of of travel destinations as well. The day of my birthday, we met up in London, him from the United States, myself from my first week of traveling through Ireland and Scotland. When he arrived, the tube was having problems, and we ended up missing our bus to Bristol. After having been on a 12-hour ferry/bus ride (where I always have problems sleeping), I was already having a rough start to my 24th birthday, and missing our bus was just the icing on the cake. Needless to say, I was not happy. I couldn’t even force myself to be for my birthday. However, being the amazing man that he is, he got us on a train from London Paddington to Bristol last minute. He’s truly the best.
After having taken a wonderful nap through the English countryside, I was determined to make my birthday better. I was in England with my best friend after all.
Bristol was a great start into easing ourselves into the English culture, mostly because it was nothing like we expected it to be, and I don’t know about my fellow travelers but I love to be surprised when I travel. I want my expectations to be shattered so that my eyes can be opened up into what the world is actually like.
After we checked into our hotel (I usually rough it when I travel. I was a little spoiled for my birthday), we roamed a bit around the city before the birthday dinner reservation he had made for me (Again, spoiled).
That which will probably shocks you the most about Bristol is the fact that it doesn’t feel anything like England at all, at least not like anything that you would probably expect England to feel like.
You will be taken aback by the roughness of the city, but its roughness denotes its charm. Of course, it rains most of the time in the British Isles. Though it was indeed April, April showers bring May flowers doesn’t really apply here. April showers pretty much bring all the showers all year round and then some more.
Bristol, she’s a city with a rough edge but a fascinating history. She’s well aged. She’s gritty, with graffiti around most corners. She also calls herself home to a university, which allows her to feel young despite her age. The vibe here welcomes young travelers. I promise you that.
For history: At first look, Bristol does not appear to have much well-noted history hidden amongst her buildings, but you must only look deeper.
The first building that you must venture to see in this forgotten city is the Bristol Cathedral, located right next to the College Green, where many scenes from Skins was filmed. This cathedral, outside of being completely free, is very much a cliché: gorgeous and breathtaking. This particular cathedral is slightly different than most cathedrals across Europe. It is its own thing. With halls that off-shoot of the main cross shaped atrium as with most cathedrals, you feel like you have been dropped into medieval times, admiring the stained glass windows of saints and the like. There’s a garden that once you step out into it in the rain, you feel like you’ve been dropped into a fairy tale. Of course, it helps if you have your significant other with you to romanticize it all. I felt at peace here. You will, too.
Bristol also served as a main port for the slave trade in the 1700s. You can learn much about this period of time in history from the side of a sugar plantation and slave owner by visiting the Georgian House Museum, a Georgian styled home once owned by sugar plantation and slave owner John Pinney, located near Brandon Hill. Free for visitors, you don’t have to pay a cent to look into the life of a slave owner and his family. You have the opportunity to peruse through each room of the house, learning about the different purposes each room served, and what the daily life of this family was like, about what the daily life of a slave owner and trader was like. It appears hauntingly normal. It’s both fascinating and terrible, and it’s definitely worth a visit to learn more about this time in history from the side of the owners and traders.
For Beauty and Play: Outside of College Green, there are many parks and green areas to sit and enjoy each other’s company. The parks might even whisper in your ear a bit about Bristol’s history.
Castle Park contains the ruins of an abandoned church: St. Peter’s. It takes you by surprise as you stroll through with a loved one, and you can’t help but to stare. What happened to this place? There are barely any signs, and the locals seemed to be used to the old gal hanging out. What’s her story? That’s part of the city’s charm. You can’t ever be too sure.
You might find yourself strolling about in Brandon Hill, or rather, climbing Brandon Hill, to the top of Cabot Tower, to overlook the whole of Bristol. Being completely free to enter, this tower allows you the privilege to completely overlook Bristol as a whole. You get to see what she looks like on the outside, knowing now what you have seen on the inside. This particular day, it might even be foggy, overcasting a soothing, calm shadow over the city, to allow you to just soak it all in.
If seeing the city from up above tickles your fancy, delight in seeing it from another angle at the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Located on the western side of the city crossing over the River Avon, this bridge gives you a fresh perspective of Bristol, viewing it from a far end, almost like you are truly looking from the outside inward towards the city while you soak in the river and the nature, feeling like your floating from the middle of this bridge. Free for walkers and bikers, you are bound to feel at peace here as well and feel your stomach drop ever so slightly as you glance down at the river.
Not too far of a walk, you can enjoy another park. The park located next to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Clifton Downs, comes with a history, one about which you can read. Though currently an open park where people are free to roam and dogs are free to play, this park was once a part of the Clifton Manor during the Middle Ages, and you can learn about what purposes the grounds served during such times.
For shopping: Another thing that I love much about Bristol are the plethora of unique shops and boutiques.I’m all about the locally owned, vintage, and thrift shops. If vintage British clothing from the 60s and 70s peaks your interest, then I suggest ducking into Urban Fox, a vintage clothing store, located about a two minutes walk west of Castle Park. Everything here is truly vintage and of good quality. Plus, it gives you even more of a peek into retro British culture.
Near Urban Fox, you can also pop into St. Nicholas’ Market, housed in the Exchange building with a variety of different stalls selling all sorts of products. This is a great place to get a new hat. Many of the vendors sell a variety of different hats to choose from. If you don’t typically wear hats, I suggest branching out and trying something new. You are in Europe experiencing a new culture after all.
For Eats and Drinks: Sometimes there is nothing better than letting your inner child out. It’s nice to take yourself back to that and just relax and play. Playground Coffee, located north of Queen Square and west of Castle Park, this adorable and playful coffee shop will get you smiling. You get to indulge in delicious coffee and mouth-watering pastries while swinging on a swing. What is better than that? Swings were always my favorite part of going to a playground. Have no shame. You swing on that swing. Be a kid again.
Taste the local flavor through Clifton’s famous cider house, The Coronation Tap. Located in the Clifton neighborhood of Bristol, on the west end just east of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, tucked away in a residential area full of townhouses, this cider house has some of the most delicious cider that has ever kissed my taste buds. Well-known for Exhibition, their world-renowned cider, this pub definitely has a local feel, as well as a few other cider choices. Enjoy one with the locals, but don’t overdo it. That alcohol percentage sneaks up on you!
You cannot be in England and not have local fish and chips at least once. Recommended by a local, Catch-22, located right next to College Green, has the basics and deliciously so. Either take it to go or order in. They have a variety of fried fish on their menu for not too bad of a price. Plus, who doesn’t love a good literary pun?
Hang out where the University students of Bristol play, or drink rather, at The Berkeley, a pub located across the street from the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery located on the University’s campus. This pub serves as a hot spot for local uni students, which allows you a taste of local life. Blend in and observe the local university culture and enjoy a cold one. Not only is this place a hot spot for seeing what Bristol life is like, but for all of my fellow craft beer nerds out there, you can try some of England’s craft beers, an industry that is still in its baby stages in Europe.
Lastly, if you are feeling rather fancy and have some cash to burn, spoil yourself at Wilks Restaurant, a high end restaurant located north of the University’s Campus in a residential area. With different menus to choose from, this French restaurant is a pure delight. Though not for budget travelers, it’s definitely worth a visit if you can afford to splurge. Each dish is cooked to perfection and served to you along with wine, if you so choose, at appropriate intervals with an explanation of its contents given by the servers. Each bite feels like heaven. You’ll definitely feel like a fancy pants here, as the servers, delightfully French, treat you as though you are the only customers in the whole restaurant. The restaurant also appears to have been established in what used to be an old house, which gives it a lovely, homey feel. This was where my surprise birthday dinner was, and I literally felt like royalty.
Though at first glance Bristol doesn’t tend to turn heads, she’s a delight if you take the time to get to know her and explore her streets. She may be forgotten by my fellow travelers, but this little fact means that she’s not overrun by tourists. Of all the cities in England, you get the best feel for local culture here. She’s definitely a must visit. Go play around in Bristol.