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Hattie Lloyd 21/06/23

A Weekend in Bristol

Frankly, any city that throws an annual hot air balloon fiesta is worth a visit in our book.

And aside from this year’s festival (running between 10th and 13th August), in which literally hundreds of international balloons take off across the skies, Bristol has plenty of non inflatable aircraft-related attractions worth exploring. There are crumbling old towers on ancient cliffs, colourful harbours with pop-up restaurants, a thriving theatre scene, historic markets and a new wave of excellent places to eat. Though it has a chequered past as a port city, Bristol’s also known for its fiercely radical and independent spirit, with a new generation of creatives and activists leading the way in their respective fields.

What’s more, it’s a cinch to get to from London, and with so many charming hotels to stay in, Bristol makes a perfect weekend getaway. Which, as it happens, we’ve set out in minute detail below…



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Sitting 120 miles west of London, Bristol’s just under a three hour drive away (coach seats start at less than a fiver), but the easiest option is to take a train from Paddington direct to Bristol Temple Meads. It takes 1h 40 minutes, and you can get return tickets for about £40 on the day, and even cheaper in advance.


The station itself is a pretty impressive spot to roll into, giving you the first taste of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s handiwork. Take the Station Approach exit to make a pitstop at Hart’s, an artisan bakery nestled into one of the station’s Victorian archways. Pick up a coffee (single origin, provided by Bristol’s own Extract Coffee Roasters) and a pastry (the cinnamon buns… or the potato dauphinoise danish… or the crème brûlée donuts), and slip back through the station, this time heading straight across the car park and up the Friary to the Temple Meads ferry stop.

colourful houses by pooles wharf bristol

Pooles Wharf – Martyna Bober/Unsplash

Bristol’s waterbuses go every 40 minutes from here (starting at 10am, but double-check timetables here), and aside from conveniently taking you directly to our next stop, they also happen to give you a pretty decent first peek at the city, particularly if you stay on until the boat loops back around, passing the colourful harbour-side houses of Pooles Wharf and Cliftonwood. Hop off at Wapping Wharf, a thriving creative village set in a former shipbuilding yard. It’s one of the few places where housing start-ups in shipping containers actually fits with the setting, too. As you’d expect, there’s shedloads of coffee shops, craft beer haunts with outside bench seating, yoga studios and the like, but as you might not expect, there’s also an old cargo shed (once used to store bacon & Guinness) that now houses thousands of artefacts telling the story of the city and its people.

M Shed is totally free to visit, and it’s worth spending an hour or so here to get some of the backstory on Bristol, from its dismal past ties to the Transatlantic Slave Trade to life in the city during WWII and more recent memories from local residents. The museum also stages temporary displays and interactive events, including the chance to sail across the harbour in a 1940s fire-fighting boat, the Pyronaut.

wapping wharf

Wapping Wharf

Wapping Wharf is also home to the Michelin-starred Paco Tapas (run by Decimo’s Peter Sanchez-Iglesias), but if you want to go for something more intimate, make for BOX-E (which holds, ugh, only a Michelin Bib Gourmand). It’s set in a space that, yeah, is pretty boxy, by virtue of taking up a pair of plywood-panelled shipping containers, with space for a cosy 14. Owners Tess and Elliott ditched Hackney to return to their West Country roots, and the West Country welcomed them back with open arms. Here – over a shit-hot stove called Sandra – Elliott rustles up definitively modern British small plates that you can order both à la carte, and as part of an ‘unwritten’ tasting odyssey of seven courses. Which, if it was written, might look something like “ox tongue, peas & English mustard; hake & butterbeans with smoked paprika and piquillo peppers; and vanilla pannacotta with stem ginger and poached rhubarb”.

box e bristol


From BOX-E, head back past the M Shed and cross the Princes Street Bridge. On your left is Arnolfini Arts, an envelope-pushing contemporary art gallery housed in an old warehouse. The art bookshop alone is worth a quick stop, but you’ll also find a variety of visiting exhibitions on too. The Arnolfini has a particular taste for avant-garde performance art which, whether you get it or not, is going to give you some great dinner chat for weeks after.

It’s time to visit arguably Bristol’s most famous sight, and you can either take a half hour stroll there or follow the harbour up towards The Centre, and hopping on pretty much any bus from the C2 stop there. This’ll take you up the elegant Park Street and past some of the city’s most beautiful historic buildings, including the Bristol Museum, where you’ll hop out. Take in the jaw-dropping Gothic Revival exterior but save the interior for another day (i.e. tomorrow). Instead, follow the Queen’s Road all the way around in a big loop to the picturesque Victoria Square.

clifton bristol

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This is Clifton, Bristol’s well-heeled neighbourhood with rows of beautiful Georgian houses and filigree balconies. Pick up a coffee at the Can’t Dance shack on the corner, then head straight across the park and under the archway to reach Clifton Village, a cluster of backstreets filled with market stalls and tables & chairs, lined with independent shops. Dip into the Clifton Arcade to peruse the antique stores and bookshops, stroll the terraces lining the leafy Mall Gardens, and turn right along Sion Hill to take in the view of Bristol’s pièce de résistance: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

It’s another of old Isambard’s crowning achievements, although the poor stovepipe-hatted fella never lived to see it. We couldn’t even begin to explain the engineering marvel it represents, but it’s certainly beautiful against the backdrop of Somerset’s Leigh Woods on the other side. Cross the road here to reach the Clifton Observatory, an 18th century windmill repurposed as an astronomical lookout on the cliffs. You can soak up the views from their panoramic terrace, then head up to the top to see a Victorian camera obscura – a room where a tiny hole in the brickwork casts a perfect image of the surrounding scenery onto the opposite wall. Finally, you can descend via the underground chambers built by the observatory’s last tenant, the artist William West, to discover the Giant’s Cave hewn into the cliff face, and watch the sun set across the Avon.

clifton observatory

Clifton Observatory

Retrace your steps and hop on the number 8 to get back into the old city centre, getting off at Baldwin Street and walking 30 seconds to your dinner reservation.

Marmo is another independently-run, Michelin Bib Gourmand-toting restaurant, specialising in Italian grub and natural wines. Tuck into black fig, burrata and fennel pollen on toast, swoosh girolles and freshly-made tagliatelle round speckled bowls, and flake off tender hunks of skate wing with porcini butter and capers. In a story that might sound familiar by now, ex-St. John chef Cosmo and his wife, former Luca front-of-houser Lily, escaped from London to return to the university city where they met. Despite its grand setting in a high-ceilinged, wide-windowed dining room, it feels wonderfully intimate thanks to the communal tables, colourful prints on the walls and candlelight. All those natural wines are propped up against ultramarine wall panelling at the back; the team will gladly guide you to find something special.



Resist the urge to linger, however, because you’re going to make the most of your evening by soaking up some of Bristol’s home-grown culture. The Bristol Old Vic claims to be the oldest continuously working theatre in the English speaking world, and it’s been training the next generation of Oliviers since the adjoining drama school was founded in 1946 (by, er, Olivier). The stately building stages a huge array of shows, from Shakespeare to cutting-edge new writing, comedy and spoken word – and they also offer pay what you choose tickets, so their shows are open to everyone.

artist residence

Artist Residence Bristol

From here, you can hop in a 10 minute cab or take a 20 minute stroll to your home for the night – Artist Residence. This flourishing boutique group started out in Brighton, went on to open the Artist Residence London (and Penzance, and Oxfordshire), and has now brought its signature bohemian flair to Bristol. Overlooking the verdant Portland Square, there are three floors of bedrooms set across a Georgian townhouse and an old boot factory. Each has been designed completely individually, filled with one-of-a-kind antique furnishings, unique artwork and all the little luxuries you could need: coffee machines, Roberts radios, and rainfall showers. Before hitting the hay, enjoy a nightcap in the Boot Factory bar (or in the courtyard if it’s warm), play a miniature ping pong tournament, and memorialise your victory in the vintage photobooth.


bristol old city

Martyna Bober/Unsplash

Start the day in the best way down at the Boot Factory with a plateful of brioche french toast, bacon rolls or Turkish eggs, then set off to explore the city’s historic heart.

Walking down Pritchard Street will take you through Bristol’s major shopping quarter, Cabot Circus, and lead you to Broad Weir. Climb up the walls ahead of you and follow the perimeter of Castle Park, home to the ruins of Bristol Castle. Follow the road as it curves along Wine Street to reach St. Nicholas Market. Once a Georgian exchange, this glass-roofed market hall is now a sunlit haven for independent shops and food stalls. Go crate digging in Wanted Records, pick up a second-hand book at Beware Of The Leopard, then scarf down a smokehouse bun from Low and Slow, or Japanese street food from Eatchu.

From here, head down Corn Street and stroll along the harbour-side market, picking up a cup of joe from Ka:Fei as you pass. Swing a right onto College Green to pop your head into the vast (and free to visit) Bristol Cathedral, a gothic giant that basically looks like Notre Dame from the outside, and inside is a medieval riot of vaulted ceilings and stained glass.

bristol cathedral


Head across the green to pick up a scoop from Swoon – try their pistachio gelato, plucked from the slopes of Mt. Etna, or the creamy vegan chocolate sorbet – and take it for a walk up Brandon Hill. To get there, head right up the street from Swoon, take a peek at the Banksy just after Pizzarova, then head left up Frog Lane, across the roundabout and up Brandon Steep.

The hill’s one of the loveliest green spots in the city, with wildflower meadows and winding paths, and at the top stands a fairytale tower. Climb the 108 steps inside to reach the viewing platform for breathtaking views across the city.

brandon hill

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Head down the north side of the hill and across Berkeley Square to stop in at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Free to visit, it captures the past billion years or so of the earth’s history through exhibits spanning art, nature and anthropology. Highlights include ancient Egyptian mummies, a rickety-looking airplane from 1910, a Bristol dinosaur and a Romany wagon, and artwork from Cranach to Gainsborough.

If it’s a sunny day, though, you might just want to make a beeline for your final activity. It’s under a ten minute stroll to Bristol’s frankly gorgeous lido, an open-air pool where a glass fronted restaurant extension faces onto the original Victorian changing booths with pastel striped curtains. Make sure to pre-book your slot, and over the course of two hours you can take a dip in the heated pool, hit the sauna and steam room, and relax in the hot tub.

clifton lido

It’s almost time to head back to the big smoke, but before you do, enjoy a sundowner at Propyard, a former MOD torpedo testing factory that now makes an unlikely base for exhibitions, festivals and al fresco drinks. The expansive terrace has bars and food stalls packed into old shipping containers, sprawling tents for a little shade, and plenty of seating. While you’re there, see if there’s anything to pop your head into – come July, it’ll be hosting a 20,000 sq ft light & sound installation by Squidsoup (the artists behind Four Tet’s famous colourfully-lit gigs).

Whatever you see, it’s bound to be enlightening.


Looking for more city breaks? Enjoy a perfect weekend in Edinburgh