Why Bristol Is My New Favourite City In the UK

Whenever we visit the United Kingdom, we basically spend all our time in London. Lauren’s family lives there, as do many of our friends. With so much going on, if you’re going to pick one city in the UK to hang out, it’s an obvious choice.

This time around, though, we decided to mix things up. There’s so much more to any country than its capital, and there were large chunks of Britain that neither of us had ever seen. So how to decide where to go?

I started by Googling ‘best city in the UK’, and discovered that for the last few years, Bristol has been winning all kinds of dubiously-researched distinctions for its liveability. Neither of us knew anything about it, but when we discovered there was a direct two-hour bus from Heathrow Airport, our minds were made up.

We’d spend a few days there, before heading further north to visit friends and hike Hadrian’s Wall. It was worth a look, right?

Holy shit. It was worth more than a look.

By the time we left, just four days after we got there, I was smitten. The city deserves every single one of those awards, its top placement in every badly-written “best of” article. It’s absolutely fantastic, and we both fell surprisingly hard for it.

Bristol is now, officially, my favourite city in the UK. Here’s why.

The Hiking

Leigh Woods, Bristol

I’m all about the hiking these days, so anywhere with good places to walk was always going to appeal. Bristol’s totally got that covered.

There are dozens of trails close by in the Cotswolds, including a 100 mile long-distance path that starts in nearby Bath. The whole southwest of England is teeming with National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty, many of them with fantastic hiking, and that’s before you even cross over the bridge to Wales.

As I discovered, though, you don’t even need to leave the city to get a good stroll in. Leigh Woods, just over the other side of the Clifton suspension bridge, was a lovely place for a wander.

We met my brother at the central train station on a glorious sunny day, walked up to Clifton and enjoyed a leisurely coffee, before heading over the bridge and around the woods for a couple of hours. We may have then spent an equal amount of time lazing around in the huge beer garden at the White Lion, overlooking the bridge and river gorge it crosses.

And yes, there was cider involved. As there should be at the end of any hike.

 

The Great Views

Clifton suspension bridge view

When reading up on Bristol beforehand, all the articles seemed to comment on its steep hills. Being based in Lisbon at the moment, I’m not so convinced by the ‘steep’ bit, but hills there definitely are.

With hills, come views. Great views, in fact. The most well-known are from Cabot Tower, on Brandon Hill, and of course the famous one from the Clifton suspension bridge. They were both exceptional, there’s no doubt about it – but there were plenty of other vistas that just seemed to randomly creep up on me.

Even from somewhere as mundane as the top of the Ashley Vale allotments, where I found myself one afternoon after putting a little too much faith in Google Maps, there were sweeping views out over the city and surrounding countryside.

If a few hills are what it takes to get outlooks like that, I’m happy to walk up them every damn day.

 

The Food Scene

Breakfast at the Bristolian

Oh man, can we just take a minute to talk about the food? As I was sitting down to write this post today, I saw a news article talking about the latest edition of the Good Food Guide in the UK. The city with the most new entries outside London? Bristol.

I wasn’t shocked.

We ate ridiculously well there, and that’s coming from someone who’s basically eaten their way around the planet for the last few years. The days of infamously-bad English food are well and truly gone, at least in the south.

We had such a good breakfast on the lovely outdoor terrace at The Bristolian that we had to go back the next day, and then enjoyed brunch at Australian-themed Ceres so much, we got up early on our last day just to make sure we could fit in another one before heading to the coach station

The burgers at Atomic Burger were massive and delicious, the ever-changing menu at recently-opened The Cauldron was exceptional, the tacos at Cargo Cantina were remarkably legit (and I’m fussy about my tacos). Hell, even the damn kebab shop a few steps from our accommodation was super-tasty.

There was a great little weekend selection of food trucks beside the water (momos for the win!), and the restaurants made from converted shipping containers at Wapping Wharf kept drawing us in every time we wandered past.

The biggest problem with our time in the city? It didn’t include enough mealtimes. Especially breakfasts.

 

The Cider Scene

Cider, Bristol

I’m a sucker for cider. Well, I’m a sucker for good cider. And if there’s one thing that’s not hard to find in the UK, it’s good cider. Bristol was no exception.

Let’s start with the Bristol Cider Shop. The name alone got me in the door. The array of delicious ciders I’d never heard of kept me there. Apparently everything they sell is made within fifty miles of the shop, and discussing exactly what kind of cider you’d like can take almost as long as drinking it. I like that kind of place.

Even away from the specialised outlets, though, it wasn’t hard to find good, non-mass-produced ciders all over the city. Most decent pubs had a rotating craft cider on tap, and restaurants always seemed to have a local, oddly-named selection or two on the drinks menu.

I couldn’t find a bad one. Trust me, I tried.

 

The Independent Stores

Angry Daves

About a million years ago I lived in the UK for a while, and the disappearance of independent stores is something that’s saddened me every time I’ve returned.

Sure, chain stores were around back then, but even the high streets still had plenty of family-run butchers and clothing stores, restaurants and cafes. They’re all gone now, replaced, almost entirely it seems, by Costa Coffee outlets. I used to live in a flat above a small appliance store on the outskirts of London, owned by my grumpy old landlord and his wife who looked like they’d been there since Victoria was on the throne. I just checked the address on Google Maps, and it’s now a chain discount store. That says it all.

Bristol, at least in parts, doesn’t seem to have fallen victim to this in the same way. I’m sure you can get a grande frappe soy mochawotzit at Starbucks if you’re so inclined, but it’s not your only option.

The Stokes Croft neighbourhood, especially around Cheltenham Road, has a good, if odd, mix of independent businesses, so much so that the chain stores stick out awkwardly, as if unsure of their place. Patches of the downtown area are the same, especially around the Christmas Steps (bonus: Angry Dave’s, the most perfectly-named shop on the planet). One-off cafes, bars and restaurants abound.

I love that.

 

The Riverside Area

Sailing and SUP, Bristol

Bristol’s harbour has been the commercial heart of the city since at least the 13th century, but since the 80’s, the city has invested squillions of pounds into turning it into a destination in its own right.

And it’s worked.

Sure, we were there in the middle of summer, which meant seeing the harbourside at its best. The sun glistened off the river, brightly-coloured houses almost glowing on the hills above. Boats of all shapes and sizes cruised past, or bobbed quietly at their moorings.

The riverside bars were full of people making the most of the good weather, and we regularly joined them. Our walk around Spike Island ended up taking several hours, broken up by cocktails and snacks, buskers and basking in the sun.

Kayakers and standup paddleboarders got their cardio workouts, as tiny yachts tacked backward and forward nearby. Houseboats covered in plants and flowers had me seriously reconsidering my decision to live in an apartment – although the new riverside complexes looked pretty damn appealing as well.

Attractions almost seemed to fight with each other for attention. Museums, an aquarium, the world’s first ocean liner. A science centre, and not to be outdone, a contemporary arts centre on the opposite bank.

The best bit, though, was those shipping container restaurants at Wapping Wharf. Small restaurants with simple, well-executed menus, sitting in the sun overlooking the river, are pretty much what heaven looks like to me. We ate fish and chips and tacos, drank mezcal cocktails and crisp cider, and all was right with the world.

I’m sure it costs a small fortune to live harbourside in Bristol. On those long, perfect summer days, it’d totally be worth it.

 

The Outdoor Vibe

Easy access to nature gets more people using it. With all that nearby water and countryside, Bristol should be an outdoorsy kind of place, and so it seemed. As well as all those sailors, paddleboarders and kayakers on the river, walkers and hikers were everywhere.

Picnickers and sunbathers thronged city parks, enjoying the long summer evenings. Joggers ran past all the time, and on a Saturday morning, there were almost more people taking cycles on and off the trains at Temple Meads than regular passengers.

The 13-mile railway path between Bristol and Bath is apparently super-popular with cyclists and walkers, especially since you can jump on and off it all through the eastern parts of the city. It’s firmly engraved at the top of the list for my next visit. And there will be a next visit.

 

The Street Art

Painted pub wall, Bristol

Bristol’s kinda famous for its street art — after all, it’s where Banksy came from. I hate tagging and other mindless vandalism, but love good street art, and in Bristol, it’s everywhere.

As well as several Banksy pieces, there seemed to be other street art around every corner. Many of the artists seemed to have got more official work, too, with pubs and other commercial spaces decorating their walls with colourful murals.

For me, good street art makes a city feel more lived in, less sterile and boring. On that basis, Bristol is anything but dull.

 

The Locally-Sourced Thing

On a related note, certain parts of the UK seem to have a real local pride. I saw a lot of it in Cornwall on a road trip a couple of years back, and Bristol felt much the same. So many restaurants proclaimed where their ingredients came from – almost always in and around Bristol, and in some cases, literally the local neighbourhood.

We were staying in St Werburghs, a little northeast of the centre. To be fair, it was very much the hippie part of town, but still. When a restaurant lists where its food comes from, and half of it’s basically on the same street, that has to be a good thing. In a world being destroyed by climate change, you can’t really have fewer food miles than that unless you grow everything in your backyard.

Speaking of growing things yourself, that neighbourhood was full of allotments, and people were out tending them every time we walked past. The Farm Cafe, a super-popular restaurant in the area, sits literally in the middle of the urban farm that supplies its menu.

Even as a non-hippie, I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

 

So that was my Bristol experience. Like anywhere, it’s not perfect – the public transport system is apparently pretty terrible, and like anywhere in the south of England, prices are on the rise. Still, at least for a visitor, any imperfections are easily overlooked. For me, at least, the good bits far, far outweighed the bad.

In just four days we fell hard for this city. We’re already planning our return.

 

Have you spent any time in Bristol? What did you think of it?

 

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9 Reasons Why I Fell In Love With Bristol

 

2 Responses to “Why Bristol Is My New Favourite City In the UK

  • Hi Dave,

    Thank for the interesting post, lots of great ideas if I go to Bristol in the near future.

    Small question related to what seems to have been a trip with lots of food: have you managed to keep your weight down after your Whole 30 experience? I’m in the middle of it and wondering how I’ll be able to not put everything on again once I start eating normally again.

    Would you mind sharing your experience?

    Thanks!

    Jean

    • Hi Jean,

      Good question! I’ve managed to keep my weight down over the past year or so since my Whole 30 — I’m about 5kg lighter now than I was when I finished it — but I’ll admit it’s not easy when I’m traveling every few weeks, and I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had a home base to return to for lengthy periods in between.

      I’m strict about my diet when I’m at home — I’ve cut out dairy entirely, because I discovered it wasn’t doing good things for me at all, and I don’t keep bread, pasta etc in the house, so only eat it very, very occasionally. When I travel, I’m still as strict as I can be about dairy, but give myself more a bit more leeway with other stuff, because it’s basically impossible (and not at all enjoyable!) to eat otherwise. We try to stay in Airbnb’s or with friends/family when we can, though, so I can still make a healthy breakfast at least.

      Even so, I usually find I’ve put on a couple of kg by the time I get back after a few weeks of travel, so it’s back to healthy eating and gym until the next round of travel comes along!

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