Home » United Kingdom » Bristol


City Centre:

There’s masses to see and do and you’re never that far from the water, which gives a trip round town a distinctly nautical air. The River Avon divides the north and south of the city and the floating harbour branches off from the River, flowing right into the heart of the centre. One branch flows up past the Arnolfini and Watershed, towards Colston Avenue – the true heart of the city, and site of recent (and controversial) renovations involving bold, modernist concrete, metal and water features. Along the harbour are moored small crafts and longboats – a great place for a stroll and particularly lovely in the summer when Bristolians like nothing better than to sit on the quayside, legs dangling over the edge of the water, enjoying a pint or a coffee from one of the cafes here. Make sure you visit nearby King Street, with all its old pubs and the Old Vic (the oldest working theatre in Britain) and take your pick from a number of musuems and galleries, such as The Georgian House, The Red Lodge, City Art Gallery and Museum and the fascinating Harvey’s Wine Cellars. Call in at the Tourist Information Centre in the new Millennium Square. Not only can they give you loads of information about what to do on your visit, it’s also the site of the three most recent tourist attractions to hit the city – Imax Cinema, Wildscreen and Explore, all well worth a look.

Shopping areas:

There’s two main shopping areas in the city. The first is Park Street; a steep hill, lined with trendy clothes shops, cafes, bars and record and book shops. On your way up you’ll pass the Cathedral on your left, infront of College Green – where people congregate in summer to lie on the grass and where young skateboarders practise all year round. At the top of Park Street, the road branches off into two, creating the area known as “The Triangle”. You may notice that everyone looks distinctly younger – there are many university buildings around here and the pubs and cafes are very studenty. If you were to carry on in this direction you’d enter into Clifton and Cotham.
For all the big name shops, go to Broadmead – a grid of streets, all lined with various stores, plus the Galleries Shopping Centre – an indoor mall, with all the usual outlets. If you head along nearby Corn Street, you’ll find plenty of evidence of Bristol’s history. Make time for the wonderful and old-fashioned St Nicholas Market inside the Corn exchange buildings and Broad Street, with it’s mixture of the old and the new. If you cross-over Colston Avenue and walk along Lewins Mead, you will come to a set of winding, steep, stone steps on your left. These are the Christmas Steps, which were paved in 1669, at the bottom of which are a doorway of a medieval hospital and a group of restored timber buildings, one of which houses the (reputedly) best fish and chip shop in Bristol. Winding upward, past various craft shops and cafes, the steps cross over a road and bring you out at the foot of St Michael’s Hill, which takes you up past many university buildings and into Cotham.

St Michael’s Hill:

A small area, consisting of just one long hill, but well worth a look. Just five minutes from the city centre, as you walk up the steep hill you’ll get a real taste of the laid-back lifestyle that attracts people to this city. The architecture is beautiful; the pubs (such as Highbury Vaults and The White Bear) are old-fashioned and traditional; the shops are quirky (Highbury Antiques) and the cafes/restaurants are relaxed and often spill out onto the pavement (Pizza on the Hill and St Michael’s Cafe for example). Populated with many students and hospital staff from the nearby University and hospital buildings, it’s a great little area with a definite buzz.


Continuing on along St Michael’s Hill, brings you to Cotham – the area between Whiteladies Road and Redland, with beautiful old houses and leafy residencial streets. Again, it’s very much a student area and is full of cafes, pubs and great shops! Check out the masses of charity shops for a bargain, or speciality shops selling kites, aromatherapy oils and trendy clothes. There’s a large natural and alternative health clinic on Cotham Hill and a couple of great health food shops – definitely an eco-conscious feel in the air…


Next to and similar to Cotham is Redland – full of very big houses, some of which hold families and many of which house students. It’s a cheaper (but not so you’d really notice) version of Clifton and is a very sought after area to live in. It’s got some great restaurants, Red Snapper and Samurai to name just two and is home to one of the city’s most popular locals, the Shakespeare. It meets the Downs, the large grassy common at the top of Blackboy Hill, which is a great place to go running or walk your dog – not the safest of places at night though.


You can’t leave Bristol without visiting Clifton – it’s gorgeous and is where people (locals and tourists) flock to when they want a taste of grandeur and refinement.
Clifton Village is perhaps THE most sought after place to live in the whole city – it’s rich and it shows. The butchers stock venison and game, the clothes shops are for wealthy ladies-who-lunch and the pubs and cafes are mostly full of the city’s moneyed, and rich students. An absolutely beautiful area, full of enormous Georgian houses with iron balconies it’s home to the famous Suspension Bridge. Just walking around here is a pleasure and there’s some great shopping to be had – don’t miss Clifton Arcade.
Attached to this ‘village’ is Clifton, which encompasses Whiteladies Road and thereabouts. Apparently the name is nothing to do with Bristol’s slave-trading past, but refers to an old nunnery here, whose inhabitants wore white habits (no-one has yet offered me a convincing explanation for Blackboy’s Hill however, which is the top end of this street!). All along this stretch, which is also refered to as “The Strip” there’s masses of groovy bars, pubs and restaurants, plus a cinema and loads of students – the main drag for those young, pretty and with money in their pockets.

Montpelier and St Paul’s:

Also close to the city centre, this is the favoured residence for the city’s bohemians! Of interest is Picton Street, a pretty but slightly shabby narrow street with a good health food store, a natural health clinic, a couple of cafes, including the Bristolian and Cafe Tasca and one of the best restaurants in the city, Bell’s Diner. It shares a border with the notorious St Paul’s – home of the magnificent St Paul’s Carnival, an annual street-party of increasing popularity and nation acclaim, which celebrates cultural and community development within the African and Caribbean community here, usually attracting around 100,000 revellers over two days. It’s also home to the St Nicholas House pub, which was run, until his recent demise, by Britain’s first black Mayor and hosts regular sound systems of reggae, hip hop and two-tone etc.


To the north-east of the centre, this area is characterised by its multi-culturalism, in fact it’s even got its own festival – Respect in the West – which celebrates its diversity. It’s home to a large number of Bristol’s Indian, Bangledeshi, Afro-Caribbean and Somalian community and houses one of the city’s few Mosques and various Halal butchers. Not to mention the largest stockist of Indian foods in the South West – Bristol Sweet Mart. A great and somewhat neglected area, well worth exploring, with some cheap and tasty cafes/restaurants (try The Eastern Taste on busy St Mark’s Road) and friendly pubs.

South Bristol:

Finally, crossing over the river into the south of the city, you come to Southville and Bedminster. Previously thought of as a cultural wilderness, these areas are experiencing a bit of a renaissance at present and are definitely worth exploring. The Tobacco Factory Theatre and art space opened last year and is now home to two theatre companies, and there’s some great pubs hidden away – try the acclaimed Albert for a spot of folk and jazz.

History of Bristol

The city has precious few relics of its long voyage through time, some have been lost accidentally through lack of interest and brash phases of urban planning, others with malice aforethought – such as during the Blitz. But there are still plenty of sites which, like windows on the past, allow the mind’s eye an insight into how things used to be…

As with many ancient settlements, Bristol owes its origins to a river that literally as well as metaphorically runs through its heart. Fully 250,000 years ago, for instance, during one of the warmer interludes in the Ice Age, people were exploiting the abundant wildlife both in and around the River Avon. One of several clusters of flint tools found locally, and used by these palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, has been discovered on the riverbank at St Anne’s. Other, more famous archaeological remains are on view at Cheddar Showcaves.

There are important prehistoric monuments of a later date at Stanton Drew, and archaeologists believe that the Bluestones of Stonehenge were transported from Wales by water, along the River Avon during the Bronze Age.

The Celts erected carefully positioned and well-defended forts to oversee the passage of trade using a ford of the river between Clifton and Stokeleigh. It is possible that these state-of-the-art Iron Age strongholds acted in concert to block the river against joint enemies.

Following the Roman occupation, a port was established at Sea Mills (or Abonae, as the thriving town was called). Sea-going vessels would import wine, olive oil, and fruit from far-flung extremities of the Empire. The Avon would be used to carry the goods inland towards Bath. Although eclipsed by Bath’s Roman remains, the villa at Kingsweston is one of several around Bristol, which is particularly well-endowed with high-status villas.

Bristol owes its name to the Saxons who called it Bricgstow, which translates as “the place of settlement by the bridge”. The bridge was particularly important as it was the lowest dry crossing point of the Avon. Modern-day Bristol Bridge (Bridge Street) is built over the foundations of the medieval stone structure, which eventually replaced the Saxon wooden bridge. The Saxon town itself was situated on the spur of high ground nestling between the Avon and the river Frome, and incorporated what is now Castle Park.

Owned and commercially developed by the crown (nearby Kingswood, for example, was the king’s hunting grounds), this emerging harbour town was far enough inland to offer an element of safety from marauding Viking raiders. Early in the 10th century there was so much traffic in the port that Bristol began to grow rich, and a royal mint was established here. From the 11th century, the slave trade contributed much to the prosperity of the town.

Little more than the foundations are left of the late 11th century Norman Motte & Bailey Castle that was erected on Castle Park. Part of the 12th century keep however has been excavated and remains exposed.

In fact, the legacy of the Norman Conquest has left few substantial tangible remains in Bristol, the best known being the Chapter House of
Bristol Cathedral.

In 1497 Bristol sealed its place in global history as the port from which John Cabot sailed on the voyage that discovered North America. Although he may not have been the first European to set foot there (the Vikings probably beat him to it by several centuries), his venture started the process that led inevitably to the colonisation of the New World.

Cabot, an Italian, had left Venice to seek finances for his long-dreamt-of expedition and, although King Henry VII allowed him royal consent, it was the merchants of Bristol who put up the money. The Matthew was built in Bristol and rode the Atlantic to weigh anchor in the “New Founde Lande” – Newfoundland. To mark the 500th anniversary, in 1997 a replica vessel made the same round trip, to international acclaim. This new Matthew is currently a major attraction berthed adjacent to the SS Great Britain.

Bristol merchants grew increasingly rich and powerful as is shown by the splendour with which they endowed certain churches such as
St Mary Redcliffe – which once stood by the quayside.

Relics of Elizabethan times can be found at the Red Lodge, and there are historical records of the queen’s visit to the city during which sailed in a convoy of three resplendent galleys along the Avon Gorge to view the nationally important merchant seamen plying their overseas trade.

In the Civil War, being a merchant rather than an aristocratic centre, the memory of King Charles I’s onerous taxes meant that Bristol declared for Parliament. There are remains of defences near Cabot’s Tower on Brandon Hill.

Nevertheless, the subsequent years of Puritan rule proved equally distasteful to the urbane well-heeled who hoped to enjoy the privileges of their status here on Earth. King Charles II actually came to Bristol after his famous escapade in the “Royal” oak tree, looking for a boat to ferry him to safety. Two notable buildings surviving from the 17th century are the Llandoger Trow and Ye Shakespeare, both now public houses, and the Christmas Steps offers another perspective on this era.

By the beginning of the 18th century Bristol was the 3rd wealthiest town in Britain and a port second only to London. A certain triangle of trade was particularly profitable: the enterprising merchant could export trinkets and alcohol to the west coast of Africa; ship native slaves to West Indies and mainland America; and import sugar, rum, and tobacco from the plantations to Britain.

With wealth came refinement, and the wealthy merchants lived in luxury exemplified by the Georgian House. Eventually, people realised that something really had to be done about the dreadful dirt roads that made socialising such a tiresomely dirty affair. This increased awareness occurred, incidentally, not long after the slave-trade was finally prohibited (1807). So, early in the 19th century John McAdam was given charge of improving Bristol’s road network.

He reconstructed them between drainage ditches, and with layers of compacted stones, each of uniform size. His system was soon applied throughout the country and is still commemorated today (with the addition of tar as a bonding agent) in the word tarmac.

Brunel was a redoubtable Victorian innovator in the field of transportation who, apart from designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and surveying the Bristol to London railroad, built the SS Great Britain- the world’s first ocean-going propeller-driven ship.

However, as ships grew larger the city’s ancient docklands grew increasingly difficult to access along the winding Avon Gorge. A grand scheme to divert the tidal river made the Harbour only accessible at high tide but improved anchorage facilities. Even these enhancements though, proved too little too late, and trade ebbed away – particularly to the port of Liverpool.

Although always predominantly a merchant port, the city had built up enough of an industrial base (the Black Castle, for example, is a spectacular testament to local smelting) to see it through the worst of the rigours of the 1930s Depression. However, these same industries (particularly the aeroplane works), attracted the attentions of the Luftwaffe in WW2 and, on the night of June 25th, 1940 when the first air raid struck, war came home to Bristol.

Many ancient landmarks were swept away in the Blitz, some leaving picturesque ruins such as the fascinating Temple Church.

Relatively modern buildings such as the “sky-scraper”office-block Castlemead, which overlooks and dominates Castle Park, signified a new era in the city’s history: that of a thriving regional administration centre. The city’s various attractions are continuing to draw important new developments by national companies keen to relocate to Bristol.