Tales of an ancient mariner, a view from a bridge, and trendy quayside dining. Charlotte Hindle laps up the old and new

WHY GO NOW

From the explorer John Cabot to the band Portishead, the city on the Avon has been one of England's most vibrant for five centuries. Today, Bristol is rediscovering its maritime heritage and celebrating its multi-culturalism; notably next Saturday, when St Paul's Carnival takes place.

BEAM DOWN

The ideal way to arrive is at the magnificent Temple Meads station . As you leave, on the right is Isambard Kingdom Brunel's original station building ­ the oldest surviving large railway station in the world. Direct train services from most parts of Britain, from Penzance and Plymouth to Edinburgh and Glasgow, are run by Virgin Trains. You can travel from London Paddington on First Great Western, from London Waterloo on Wales and Borders, and from Brighton, Portsmouth, Southampton or Cardiff on Wessex Trains. Call 08457 48 49 50 for times and fares. The bus station is more conveniently located, on the north-east edge of the city centre. National Express (08705 808080: www.nationalexpress.com) runs coaches from many parts of Britain.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Temple Meads railway station is south-east of the city centre. The River Avon runs west from here and south of the city centre. Some of the city was destroyed in the war, and replaced by artless new buildings, but much remains. Many attractions are on the quaysides. The helpful Bristol tourist information centre is in the middle of the new @tBristol complex , open 10am-6pm daily in summer; in winter, 9am-5pm from Monday to Friday, 11am-4pm at weekends (0906 711 2191 ­ 50p per minute; www.visitbristol.co.uk). To the north-west, Park Street, the steep shopping street, leads towards the university and Clifton, a villagey area that deserves the cliché "leafy".

CHECK IN

Two options at opposite ends of the spectrum: the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel on College Green (0117-925 5100; www.marriott.com) is a four-star Victorian pile, with fairly large, comfortable rooms. A weekend special (Friday and Saturday nights) offers a double room for £110 per night, including breakfast. Bristol Backpackers occupies a grand old newspaper office at 17 St Stephen's Street (0117-925 7900; www.bristolbackpackers.co.uk). A dorm bed costs £13 per night; most Saturday stays require a two-night minimum (ie you must stay Friday or Sunday as well). Away from the crowds, the Victoria Square Hotel in Clifton (0117-973 9058) is surprisingly opulent for a double-room rate of £65, including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

Start at the Centre , the name given to the large dollop of open space in the middle of the city. Follow the left-hand bank, Narrow Quay to the superb, free Arnolfini gallery (0117-925 3876; www.arnolfini.demon.co.uk), open 10am-7pm from Monday to Saturday, noon-7pm on Sundays, with late opening until 9pm on Thursdays. By the statue of Cabot take a quick detour across the bridge to the excellent Industrial Museum to find out about Bristol's role in Concorde. Like all the city-run museums, it is free (0117-925 1470); open 10am-5pm daily except Thursday and Friday. Back on the north bank, you reach a pair of trendy restaurants, Riverstation and Severnshed . Turn a sharp left across Queen Square, and then head north into King Street. A couple of handsome almshouses are slotted between the eating and drinking establishments. At the water, turn left along Welsh Back, past a monument to merchant seafarers . Cross the main road and climb the steps up to All Saints Lane, which runs through the middle of St Nicholas Market . Emerge on to Corn Street, once the commercial centre ­ now full of banks turned into pubs and restaurants. Go left; Corn Street turns into Clare Street, which leads back to the Centre .

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Of all the high-speed eating options, the most worthwhile is the cafe at the Arnolfini , an airy, friendly corner location with good-value sandwiches and panini, plus a dozen varieties of herbal tea.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Feeling young? If so, aim for @tBristol which comprises "Explore", a hands-on introduction to science, and "Wildwalk" ­ an amble through evolution from simple cells to Bristol Rovers supporters, via an indoor coral reef (the "spotted grunt" is a particularly colourful tropical fish, not a football fan) and a butterfly-rich hothouse. The complex (0845 345 1235; www.at-bristol.org.uk) opens 10am-6pm daily, with last admission at 5pm. Entrance costs £7.50 for Explore, £6.50 for Wildwalk, or £12 for both on the same day. For something more artistic try the City Museum and Art Gallery on Queen's Road (0117-922 3571) open 10am-5pm daily, free, with a good collection of French impressionists. Down the hill, the Georgian House is the 18th-century home of a sugar merchant who made a fortune thanks to slavery (0117-921 1362), open 10am-5pm daily except Thursday and Friday.

WINDOW SHOPPING

For something different, seek out the twee shops and innovative fashions on Christmas Steps , check out the craft stores on Leonard Lane , or rummage around in St Nicholas Market which opens 9.30am-5pm daily except Sunday.

AN APERITIF

You will not be short of drinking opportunities in Bristol. Amid all the designer bars, a couple of decent, ordinary pubs stand out: the Smiles Brewery Tap in Colston Street (0117- 921 3668), where bitter has never been better; and, out in Clifton, the Coronation Tap on Sion Place (0117-973 9617), where cider is the order of the day. But if you are impossibly trendy, you will end up at deck[one], the bar and deli at Riverstation on The Grove (0117-914 4434) ­ an old police station.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

If you stay on at Riverstation , you can eat well ­ if expensively. The same goes for Severnshed (0117-925 1212), a former boatshed on the Avon designed by Brunel. Between noon and 7pm from Monday to Friday, the "777" two-course menu provides dishes such as duck and noodle salad followed by Thai vegetarian curry for a fixed price of £7.77. Elsewhere, Corn Street and Park Street are full of options.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The location of the parish church of St Mary Redcliffe looks unpromising, but the reality is surprising. This soaring church (0117- 929 1487; www.stmaryredcliffe.co.uk) has ancient roots. Look out for the whalebone reputedly brought back by Giovanni Caboto, who became adopted by the city as John Cabot and sailed to Newfoundland in 1497; a stained-glass window of him and his vessel, Matthew, can be seen high up in the south transept. The most unusual exhibit is the Chaotic Pendulum, a Heath Robinson-like creation that is a genuine scientific experiment in randomness.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Brown's at 38 Queen's Road (0117-930 4777; www.browns-restaurants.com) is part of a chain, but this imperial venue is the pick of the bunch, modelled on the Doge's Palace in Venice and used to house the city's Art Gallery until it moved next door. On Sundays from noon it shows more signs of life than most of the city.

TAKE A RIDE

The Bristol Ferry Boat Co (0117-927 3416; www.bristolferryboat.co.uk) runs waterbuses roughly hourly between Temple Meads station and the Centre , and downstream to the SS Great Britain . An all-day pass costs £5. The steamship Great Britain (0117-929 1843; www.ss-great-britain.com) is yet another Brunel creation: the world's first iron-hulled, steam-powered passenger liner, open 10am-5.30pm daily. Admission is £6.25, including a visit to the Matthew, a replica of Cabot's ship.

A WALK IN THE PARK

In a city with plenty of open spaces, Brandon Hill Park is particularly fine since it rises 260 feet above sea level. At the summit is a 105-foot tower, created in memory of Cabot. The foundation stone was laid in 1897, on the 400th anniversary of the Genoese mariner's voyage to North America. Unfortunately, the tower is currently closed to visitors.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

By now you are well on the way to the Avon Gorge, most picturesquely reached via Clifton Village. Stop off at the Clifton Suspension Bridge visitors' centre (0117-974 4664; www.clifton-suspension-bridge.org.uk) on Sion Place , which opens 10am-5pm daily, admission £1.90. Then continue along the road to see the bridge itself , Brunel's crowning achievement. Pedestrians and cyclists can cross free; motorists pay 30p.

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