Touted as the happiest place in Britain, one of the most inspiring cities in the world, and most-recently named the kindest city in the United Kingdom, Bristol’s list of accolades are seemingly endless. With so many singing the praises of this southwest-England sweetheart, visitors often arrive with high expectations and, rest assured, they are not leaving disappointed.
Spend a few days in Bristol—taking in the views of its iconic suspension bridge, dining in the cafés of well-heeled Clifton Village, hunting down Banksy street art in the Stokes Croft neighbourhood and wandering the shoreline of the 210-year-old floating harbour—and you’ll encounter a city with an infectiously positive vibe, and an endearing, stubbornly individualistic personality.
“In Bristol, there is strong community support for local independent businesses—it’s such a friendly city,” says Sinéad Sweeney, owner of Bristol Trading Post. “It’s so vibrant and diverse, and there is so much going on!”
Originally from Manchester and having studied in Dublin, Sweeney says she found her home when she arrived in Bristol a few years ago. Her shop, an array of art, textiles and jewelry, sits inside the Clifton Arcade alongside a mishmash of independent art galleries, cafés and florists.
A few doors down, an independent grocery store heaves with customers: Reg the Veg is a Clifton institution that dates back to the 1950s and, while Reg no longer runs it himself, it remains a family business helmed by father-and-son duo John and Thomas Hagon and Thomas’ partner, Bess Swingler.
Clifton is “the jewel in Bristol’s crown,” says Delphine Horsley, owner of Portabella, a colourful Italian clothing boutique in Clifton Village. “This is where Bristolians come to be tourists,” she says. “They come for the views, the cafés and the bridge.”
The bridge Horsley is referring to is the impressive, 155-year-old Clifton Suspension Bridge that spans the Avon Gorge and the River Avon. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the world’s most influential engineers.
Clifton’s streets are lined with Georgian townhouses, and there’s hardly a chain store in sight. But it’s not just this neighbourhood that thrives with boutiques, restaurants and even a Victoria-era heated lido (an outdoor swimming pool), the whole of Bristol is littered with creative people converting their passions into viable businesses. On the Christmas Steps, the name of a street and its atmospheric set of wonky stone stairs in the city centre, board game café Chance & Counters has seen exceptional success.
“It’s a testament to Bristol and how people here are willing to try anything,” says Dicky Duerden, the café’s wonderfully titled Head of Games. “You could open up your own artisan knot-makers, and people would go, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot, absolutely.’”
The café, which started with just 250 games and a single location, now has an outpost in Cardiff, Wales as well as in Birmingham, and there are more than 900 games on the shelves in its Bristol shop, alone. They’re booked-up most nights, Duerden says, so it’s best to reserve at least a week in advance to get a spot.
For intriguing tipples, locals head to Weber & Tring’s—also on the Christmas Steps—where French-born owner Sarah Tring runs blend-your-own-gin classes and has a leafy garden, the perfect spot for sipping, out back.
Or, for craft beers, try Left Handed Giant Brewpub, on the water in Finzels Reach, which was launched thanks to funding donations from hundreds of locals and investors. Within weeks of opening, the pub was overrun with customers and the owners had to adjust distribution in order to ensure supply.
For food, Bristolians flock to establishments such as Bravas in Cotham, where the authentic tapas menu is inspired by the travels of its owners, Kieran and Imogen Waite. There’s a queue for dinner most nights, Kieran says, but it’s okay because, just down the hill, Pasta Loco is serving equally exciting European fare.
You can find Middle Eastern feasts in Bambalan, right in the town centre—best enjoyed after a tense game of ping pong on its terrace—and refreshing, healthy bowls of salad, stew and curry at Bowl of Plenty.
The one thing all these places have in common is they’re independent and owned by inventive locals.
But this city is not just in love with its indie traders. Independence is a huge part of Bristol’s identity. It was, rather defiantly, on a different time zone to London right up until the mid-1800s. Bristol was once a whole 10 minutes behind the capital. It made train travel between the two cities an often-confusing affair. When Brunel’s Great Western Railway was established to link London to the ships setting sail for New York City from Bristol’s docks, the city was forced to fall in line. A nod to its resistance can be seen on the clock face of the Corn Exchange near St Nicholas Market, where a red minute hand shows the current Greenwich Mean Time and a black minute hand keeps historic Bristol Time.
To delve deeper into the ambitious mind of Brunel, spend a day on the SS Great Britain. Docked at Spike Island, in the middle of the harbour, this impressive passenger steamship has been turned into an interactive museum where you can see how passengers slept, where the crew cooked luxurious banquets, and even witness the enormous cogs turning inside the engine room.
Designed by Brunel and launched in 1843, the ship was incredibly advanced for her time, especially considering her size and power—at more than 320 feet long, she had a 12-knot, 1,000-horsepower engine. The Being Brunel exhibition next to the ship offers intriguing insights into the engineer’s wild aspirations and obsessive nature. It’s easy to understand how Bristol today has been influenced by his sheer ambition.
Nearby, the city’s disobedient edge is also evident in the displays at the M Shed museum on the recently redeveloped Wapping Wharf. Head to the first floor, and you’ll find an exhibition that details some of the city’s most rebellious moments, including photos of workers’ union protests and stories about Bristol’s own Occupy demonstrations—part of the worldwide movement highlighting social and economic inequality.
With a strong history of defying central powers and a population unafraid of speaking its mind, it’s hardly surprising that Bristol birthed one of the world’s most famous street artists: Banksy. World-renowned for his social and political commentary through original stencil art, this anonymous artist has made the most significant impact here in Bristol. The Mild Mild West, Rose Trap and Girl with The Pierced Eardrum are just a few of his works that can be found scattered across the city.
These pieces have inspired hundreds of young artists to take to the city’s walls with spray cans and stencils. In recent years, artists and the city council have been working together to map out a network of designated walls on which graffiti can be legally created, and street art is now celebrated throughout the city centre almost every year during Upfest, billed as Europe’s biggest street art festival.
“One of the things I say to young people,” says Rob Dean, an artist and musician who has spent years documenting the murals found across the city on his Where The Wall street art tours, “is that no matter what you want to achieve, no matter how far-fetched it seems, Banksy proves with hard work and determination, anything is possible.”
It seems that, with such a thriving food, culture and arts scene, the city’s locals are standing by that message, making Bristol a truly compelling place to explore.