Bristol, England: A Seafaring City Looks Forward and Back
Bristol is a lively, thriving city with plenty of culture, history and a river in its center
By Max Hartshorne
Bristol, England, is famous for many things…it was once one of England’s largest seaports, home to a thriving trade in humans, sugar, and rum.
Located in southwest England, today Bristol is England’s eighth-largest city and its a popular ‘city-break’ destination for people all over Europe. The city’s 445,000 residents are diverse, and like in many British cities, immigrants have made their mark here.
EU’s Green Capital
Bristol is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and The Sunday Times named it as the best city in Britain in which to live in 2014 and 2017. Bristol also won the EU’s European Green Capital Award in 2015.
What I liked about the city was how much there was to see and do. Just the ‘you’ve gotta do this’ part of my itinerary was packed, and attractions like the SS Great Britain, the new Cargo container shop area and the cool neighborhood of Clifton beckoned.
I was lucky to have a local guide, Bristol-based travel blogger Heather Cowper, who joined me when I was in town to show me the newest additions to the cool new area built entirely of cargo containers, on the river Avon.
Cargo on Wapping Wharf
I’ve seen this in other cities like Las Vegas–and the idea makes so much sense I’m surprised there are not more of these. Containers from ships make the perfect-sized shop and require no building, just cosmetic remodeling. In Vegas, the businesses that start up in these little spaces only have a four-month lease, so it’s safe to experiment.
In Bristol’s recently-built container park, Cargo, we found a wide variety of businesses–including a fledgling bike manufacturer, a cidery, bakeries, cafes, high-end restaurants, and shops selling everything from pies to noodles.
There’s also a top-notch fish and chips shop here, Salt and Malt, where I met Martin Booth, a longtime Bristol resident, and editor of the popular local news and arts website, Bristol/247.
I asked Martin about what was going on in Bristol and he mentioned the recent trend on changing the names of some of the city’s buildings and schools named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist and wealthy man who made most of his money on the slave trade. Everyone is not in agreement, but like in the US with our Confederate monuments, it’s a hot topic of late.
Bristol’s Top Restaurants
But Booth was more keen to share news about the many breweries–12 at last count–that have sprung up in the city. He said that while the city is brimming with top-notch restaurants, one of four Michelin-starred establishments in Bristol is Casamia, which remains the top place in the city according to devoted foodies.
Many people, Booth said, have moved to Bristol from London because it’s so much cheaper to live there.
There is a tw0-hour high-speed train and there’s talk that Channel 4 might make the move from London in coming years. BBC’s Natural History Unit and the team who animate Wallace and Grommit are already in Bristol.
The city is home to many culture vultures, Booth said, and museums like the Arnolfini, right next to the Avon River, and the Watershed offer fine arts, cinemas and a conference space in converted warehouses.
I very much enjoyed an evening at the Old Market Assembly where I saw a spirited and hilarious performance of Seiriol Davie’s “How to Win Against History,” after a splendid dinner up in the balcony.
The Wardrobe Theater is a cozy space for about 100 tucked into the back of this club, with music in the main room. Highly recommended!
Banksy and the Gang
Perhaps one of the most famous people ever to come out of Bristol is someone who I can’t show a photo of–the famous street artist Banksy. Nobody knows what he looks like–and that’s part of his mystique.
I joined about 10 other people and we took an extensive tour of Bristol’s street art, which is impressive not only because you can see actual Banksy works, but for the many other artists that he spawned.
One pretty cool aspect of the tour is that it’s led by an artist who shows some of his own work on city buildings. The tour winds its way through a graffiti-covered alleyway and past many buildings where cranes had to be used to create the gigantic images.
It starts on College Green and ends in the Stokes Croft part of the city.
Brunel’s SS Great Britain
If there is one tourist attraction that you absolutely must not miss in Bristol, hands-down it would be the impressive Brunel’s SS Great Britain, a 1000-foot long windjammer built in 1848 that was rescued from the Falkland Islands in 1970 and towed 8000 miles back to its home port of Bristol.
The ship was built as a steamship, and then converted into a sailing vessel, and had a long and storied history sailing all over the world.
The ship, which is built into the former drydock where it was built next to the Avon River, is actually not in the water, so visitors can tour the bottom and see how it is preserved.
The restored ship cabins with mannequins show the life of sailors aboard the vessel, and it’s a fascinating two-hour tour that shows you every aspect and the marvelous history of the ship.
The story of how the ship was towed from across the world and the day that it sailed up the Avon River, beneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which was also designed by Brunel, makes for a wonderful story.
Where to Stay in Bristol
Bristol has a fabulous signature hotel, The Bristol Hotel, which offers comfortable rooms and is located right in the center near the river. This hotel offers everything you’d want including a generous buffet breakfast and free fast Wi-Fi. The view of the busy harbor makes you feel like you’re right where the action is!
Dining in the City
I chose a very interesting place to have dinner on my first night–it’s Europe’s largest restaurant, and it offers just about anything one could imagine having for dinner. It’s ZaZa Bazaar, described as a “world banquet and bar,” and it’s HUGE!
Located right on the harborside, we enjoyed Chinese, then Japanese, then a whole bunch of different Indian foods, as well as a huge assortment of desserts. It’s like a department store, with many diverse cuisines, and chefs of all stripes waiting to serve you something different.
Theater and Film
Bristol is famous for its many theatre companies, from the famous “Old Vic” to the contemporary shows put on by Wardrobe Theater at Old Assembly Hall. Check out the website that Martin Booth edits, B/247 to find out all of the interesting events in the arts you can find in Bristol.
During my visit, there was an African film festival going on as well as many other plays and shows throughout the city.
Find out more about Bristol at Visit Bristol.
Read local blogger Heather Cowper’s guide to Bristol.
This story was written with assistance from Visit Bristol, but the opinions are the author’s own.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.