The Saturday City: Bristol

One of the great things about running a travel website is that you get to meet other travelers. While in England this summer, I received an offer to explore the English city of Bristol with Heather.

Around England, I’d explain my route through the country and people would universally go, “Bristol? There’s not much there.” Needless to say, I had low expectations.

I’m not sure what Bristol people were referring too, however, because I found a hip college town with amazing eateries, great ethnic food, wonderful things to see, and great parks to relax in.

Bristol is like the English version of Seattle. Most travelers seem to use it as a base for trips to Bath, and never fully explore this city, giving it only a brief glance before heading back to London. This is a mistake.

With a population of around 400,000, Bristol is the largest city in southern England after London and the largest shipping port in England. It received a royal charter in 1155 and, until the rise of Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, was one of England’s largest cities. Bristol suffered extensive bombing during World War II and a subsequent steep decline in its manufacturing industry.

The port of Bristol grew up in medieval times because of its location near the rivers Avon and Frome. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, this area was turned into the enclosed Floating Harbour by the construction of locks. With the advent of larger ships, though, the Avon Gorge became too much of a liability, and commercial shipping moved downstream to more modern docks at Avonmouth and Portbury.

The city is no longer an industrial center, but rather a vibrant college town. The University of Bristol dominates the city, and the students provide a lot of income and jobs for the community.

Spending the day walking around, I found the city pretty easy to navigate. Almost everything was within walking distance from somewhere. And if it wasn’t, the city has an easy-to-use bus system that can take you anywhere you need to go.

The waterfront area has a nice collection of restaurants and art galleries. It’s been cleaned up in recent years and has become a local hot spot. It’s a very fashionable area, and you could see the renovation was not completed. More condos were being built, more restaurants going up, more galleries in the works. I suspect this will be a very upscale place within the next few years.

What I really enjoyed the most about Bristol were all the parks. Bristol is filled with great parks. I particularly liked Castle Park. Castle Park is located near the river and features a bombed-out church from World War II. The church has been left in ruins as a monument to the destruction of the war. Around the church are beautiful gardens and grassy fields where locals gather for lunch. I sat there during lunchtime and watched the park fill with office workers enjoying the fresh air while they ate. It was a great place to people-watch.

The main natural attraction in Bristol is the Avon Gorge, which features the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Built in the 19th century, this bridge is free to walk across and provides excellent views of the surrounding countryside. There is also an observatory tower next to it. Right next door are the Clifton Downs. The Downs are simply a huge open space. During the summer months, people are out there playing sports, catching some sun, picnicking with their loved ones, or just napping. The Downs offer views of both the gorge and the suspension bridge. Best of all: the Downs face west, making for excellent sunsets.

I thought Bristol, with its old industrial-turned-Bohemian charm, made for a great place to spend a few days. There were historic houses to visit, a few good museums, and some wonderful parks. Its image as an industrial center still lingers on in most of England, making it a place few go or want to explore. But that works out for the rest of us. For while everyone else heads off to Bath, we can have the city of Bristol to ourselves.

I suspect one day the word will get out, but, at least for now, Bristol remains a hidden gem and a city that is well worth a visit.