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WHY GO NOW?
The de facto capital of the West Country is nearing the end of an ambitious restoration project, which has transformed the run-down city centre and harbour district. And in spring, there's enough elbow room for everyone.
Trains, operated mainly by Cross Country (0844 811 0124; www.crosscountrytrains.co.uk) and First Great Western (08457 000 125; www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk), arrive at Temple Meads station (1), which is connected to the heart of the city, a mile to the west, by buses 8 and 9. Coaches operated by National Express (08717 818181; www.nationalexpress.com) pull in at the Marlborough Street bus station (2).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Once Britain's largest inland port, Bristol developed around the rivers Avon and Frome. The Harbourside has been spruced up and rebranded with a capital "H", and the Old City has been capitalising on its maritime heritage.
To the west, the merchants built their elegant houses in the hilly University district and Clifton, which adjoins open downland and is crowned by Brunel's suspension bridge (3), spanning the Avon Gorge.
Pick up a free map from the main tourist office (4), in the same building as Explore-at-Bristol (0906 711 2191; www.visitbristol.co.uk), in the heart of Harbourside. It opens weekdays 10am-5pm; 10am-6pm at the weekend. Or you can download a series of MP3 audio tours on its website.
Bristol's finest boutique hotel, the Hotel Du Vin (5), occupies former sugar warehouses at Narrow Lewins Mead (0117 925 5577; www.hotelduvin.com). It contains 40 individually designed rooms and suites. There is a bistro, as well as a billiards room and a humidor. Double rooms start at £145; breakfast costs £7.50-£11.50.
The Mercure Brigstow Hotel (6) at 5-7 Welsh Back (0117 929 1030; www.mercure-uk.com) pays homage to Bristol's origins: in Anglo-Saxon, "Brigstow" meant "the place of a bridge". It is set on the waterfront overlooking the city's oldest bridge, but everything else about this 116-room hotel is boldly modern. Doubles start at £129, including breakfast.
In the bohemian West End district, the Berkeley Square Hotel (7) at 15 Berkeley Square (0117 925 4000; www.cliftonhotels.com) squeezes 42 rooms into a row of former townhouses in a Georgian square. Quirkily furnished but eminently comfortable, double rooms start at £70; breakfast is extra.
TAKE A VIEW
Half a mile west of the city centre, pathways wind past a nature conservation area towards the top of Brandon Hill Park. At the summit is the Victorian landmark of Cabot Tower (8), which commemorates John Cabot's voyage from Bristol in 1497, which led to the colonisation of Newfoundland. The 105ft tower, with its spiral staircase, is closed for repairs at present, but the spectacular views from the top of the hill are still worth the effort.
Close to Brandon Hill Park are the fashionable shops of Park Street and Whiteladies Road. The Bristol Guild on Park Street (9) showcases high-quality jewellery, glassware, toys and furniture made by local craftsmen and women. The boutiques of Clifton Village (10) are both exclusive and expensive. For things you can't buy everywhere else, the indoor and outdoor stalls around Corn Street comprise St Nicholas Markets (11). This is the place for distinctive gifts, handmade jewellery and clothes.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
St Nicholas Markets (11) have a fine assortment of snacking options. One stall specialises in Portuguese pastries, another serves Raclette – melted Swiss cheese with potatoes and gherkins (£4). The Bristol Sausage Shop does a tempting sandwich with onions for £2.50.
TAKE A HIKE
... through the Old City, which has lost almost all of its original wall but still has water on three sides. Start at the Georgian Corn Exchange (12), now the centrepiece of the city's indoor market. Walk along Corn Street, noting the four bronze pillars, or "nails", where merchants used to complete their transactions by paying cash "on the nail", and the clock with two separate minute-hands set 11 minutes apart, to distinguish London time from Bristol time at the start of the railway era, pre-GMT.
Reaching the riverside, follow cobbled Welsh Back (13) and turn right into King Street. This 17th-century street has a cluster of well-preserved old buildings. They include the striking, timber-framed Llandoger Trow pub (14), where Daniel Defoe is said to have met Alexander Selkirk, who inspired him to write Robinson Crusoe. Immediately to the left is the largest of Bristol's Georgian squares, Queen Square (15), now restored after the removal of a dual carriageway. From the north-west corner of this beautiful open space take Marsh Street, which leads you back to the city centre.
The Watershed Media Centre (16) at 1 Canon's Road (0117 927 2082; www.watershed.co.uk) is one of the successes of the new-look Harbourside; it stages digital media events and arthouse movies. The attractive first-floor café/bar, complete with waterside views, is an ideal evening rendezvous point.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Brunel gets everywhere in Bristol. One of his lesser-known creations is a boathouse at The Grove. It is now the location for the Severnshed (17) (0117 925 1212; www.shed-restaurants.com), a classy restaurant with a range of fish dishes. Don't be misled by the tongue-in-cheek house special of "Shed fish and chips with Yorkshire caviar" (£9.75): the Yorkshire ingredient turns out to be mushy peas. The Shed has an outside terrace for summer dining, and serves up live jazz on Sunday evenings.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Of Bristol's many fine churches, two stand out. The Anglican cathedral (18), opposite College Green (0117 926 4879; www.bristol-cathedral.co.uk), began life as a Catholic monastery around 1140. It was upgraded by Henry VIII in 1542, and substantially enlarged in the 19th century. Notable features include its richly carved Norman chapter house and the Night Stairs, which connected the original church with the monks' dormitory. In parts they have been worn flat by generations of monks who scurried to pray every three hours – even during the night. The cathedral opens every day between 8am-6pm; on Sundays the main service is at 10am.
With its towering spire dominating the south-east skyline, St Mary Redcliffe Church (19) at Redcliffe Way (0117 929 1487; www.stmaryredcliffe.co.uk) is the largest parish church in England. Handel composed various works on the organ, mariners used to prayed here for a safe voyage, and it was eulogised by the first Queen Elizabeth on her only visit to her premier port. It opens between 9am-4.30pm Mon-Sat, and 8am-8pm on Sundays, when the main service starts at 9.30am.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Make tracks to the Mud Dock Café (20) at 40 The Grove; (0117 934 9734; www.mud-dock.com), a laid-back Harbourside venue that boasts a cycle shop on the ground floor.
Despite its hilly terrain, Bristol is one of Britain's most cycle-friendly cities, and Mud Dock's decor includes an assortment of bikes suspended from the ceiling. The café offers brunch every day between 10am and 3pm: smoked salmon, scrambled egg and toast, served before noon only, is £5.95. Speedy service is guaranteed: if your meal doesn't arrive within 20 minutes, you don't pay.
TAKE A RIDE
Journey around the harbour, and westwards to the SS Great Britain (21) and beyond, on one of the numerous ferries – both covered and open – that are used for sightseeing by visitors and commuting by locals. There are embarkation points at various points along the way. The single fare from the centre to Brunel's maritime masterpiece is £1.20, while a more extensive cruise to the many points of interest, with an on-board commentary, costs £4.25.
The aforementioned SS Great Britain (21) at Great Western Dockyard (0117 926 0680; www.ssgreatbritain.org) is Bristol's pride and joy – and deservedly so. Painstakingly restored and imaginatively presented, the world's first iron-hulled steamship sits proudly in a dry dock, with the pock-marked, flaking hull protected from further corrosion in a special chamber that's as dry as the Arizona desert. Above the illusory waterline, visitors can tour the deck, some cabins, the engine room and the first-class dining room, which are still pretty much as they were on the Great Britain's maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1845.
In the following decade, the ship was refitted with sails to carry emigrants to Australia and troops to the Crimea, and she went round the world 32 times before coming to grief in a storm off Cape Horn in 1886. The salvage operation that brought her back from the South Atlantic to Bristol in 1970 is well-illustrated in the dockyard museum that forms part of the visitor's tour. It opens 10am-5.30pm daily (closing an hour earlier between November and March), admission £10.95 – which permits free visits for up to a year. It also provides entry to a replica of the Matthew, the flimsy-looking sailing ship that carried John Cabot to North America just five years after Columbus's first voyage.
A WALK IN THE PARK
There are few fairer sights in England than Brunel's great bridge (3) over the Avon Gorge, suspended 275 feet above the water. The legendary engineer was only 24 years old when he designed it, but financial and political difficulties delayed its construction, and he died five years before it was completed in 1864. There are free guided tours every Sunday at 3pm, starting from the toll booth at the Clifton end, and a visitor centre ( www.clifton-suspension-bridge.org.uk) on the far side, where you can find out more about its history and the remarkable man who designed it.
From the bottom of the gorge, which you reach down a zig-zag path, it's an awesome sight, and it's equally impressive from the Observatory (22), a 19th-century tower that looks down on the bridge from Clifton Down. But the lazy way to wax lyrical about it is from the open terrace at the back of the White Lion pub, a short walk from Clifton village (10).