48 Hours In: Bristol

This historic harbour city is about to be invaded by giant decorated dogs – which is just the excuse you need for a visit, says Fred Mawer

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

This Monday, 80 five-foot-tall fibreglass sculptures of Gromit, Aardman Animations' charismatic canine, will appear around the streets and landmarks of Bristol as part of a new art trail. The dogs will be decorated by a wide range of artists, designers and celebrities, ranging from Quentin Blake to Cath Kidston and Joanna Lumley, and will remain on display until 8 September (gromitunleashed.org.uk).

On 6 July, there's also St Pauls Carnival, a raucous, colourful, Caribbean-themed extravaganza (stpaulscarnival.co.uk), followed by the Bristol Harbour Festival, an annual celebration of the city's maritime heritage, which sees hundreds of vessels on the water (26-28 July). Finally, the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, from 8-11 August, is Europe's largest annual hot-air balloon event (visitbristol.co.uk).

Touch down

Bristol Temple Meads (1), the main railway station, is a 20-minute walk or short bus ride (services 8 or 9; singles £1) from the city centre. It is served by First Great Western and CrossCountry trains. Bristol Parkway station (2), is less conveniently situated to the north of the city, but is served by buses 73 and 74 (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).

National Express coaches (08717 818178; nationalexpress.com) arrive at Marlborough Street (3) bus station, while Megabus (0871 2663333; uk.megabus.com) docks at Colston Street (4).

Bristol Airport (bristolairport.co.uk) is eight miles south-west of the centre and served by easyJet, BMI Regional and Flybe. Flyer Airport Express Link buses (flyer.bristolairport.co.uk; £11 return) take around 30 minutes to reach town.

Get your bearings

Bristol's chief focal point is the Harbourside. This is a revitalised area of the River Avon focused on the Floating Harbour that contains many of the city's top attractions, as well as waterfront bars and restaurants, and the tourist office (5) (0906 711 2191; visitbristol.co.uk; 11am-4pm daily; Saturdays from 10am) .

A short walk north and east from the Harbourside lies the compact Old City, with a lively market, ancient pubs and the elegant Queen Square (6). Rising west of the centre is the Georgian suburb of Clifton, Bristol's most desirable neighbourhood. From the city centre up to Clifton Village it's a fair old climb: consider hopping on bus No 8 or 9 (firstgroup.com/bristol).

Check in

The Hotel du Vin Bristol (7) at Narrow Lewins Mead (0844 736 4252; hotelduvin.com) is Bristol's most stylish hotel. It occupies a sugar refinery dating from 1738. The bedrooms come with indulgent bathrooms and there's a highly rated bistro. Doubles from £109, room only.

Facing St Nicholas Market, Brooks Guesthouse Bristol (8) (0117 930 0066; brooksguesthousebristol.com) opened in 2011 and has since established itself as one of the city's best B&Bs. The 22 bedrooms are compact but attractive, with plantation-style shutters on the windows. Doubles from £80, including breakfast.

YHA Bristol (9) at 14 Narrow Quay (0845 371 9726; yha.org.uk/hostel/bristol) is a superior hostel converted from an old harbourfront grain store. Family rooms for four from £60; double rooms with shared facilities from £42; dorm beds from £20pp, room only.

Day One

Take a hike

Make a circuit around the scenic Floating Harbour, the tidal-free 19th-century port. Start at the Arnolfini (10) which was once a tea warehouse and is now an arts centre with free exhibitions (0117 917 2300; arnolfini.org.uk). Follow the quayside along the north of the harbour, past the amphitheatrical Lloyds building and beyond. You soon come to the jetty for Number Seven Boat Trips' cross-harbour ferry (0117 929 3659; numbersevenboattrips.co.uk; weekdays 7.30am-6.15pm; weekends 10.30am-5.30pm; 80p).

The very brief ride deposits you outside the SS Great Britain (11) (0117 926 0680; ssgreatbritain.org; daily 10am-5.30pm; £12.95). Brunel's magnificent liner is housed in the dry dock where she was built, and you can walk under a glass "sea" to inspect her revolutionary iron hull, and tour the decks, where Victorian life on board is imaginatively recreated.

Resume following the quayside back along the harbour's south side until you reach the four vast grey cargo cranes – the last of dozens that once lined the docks in the 1950s.

Cultural morning

Cranes stand in front of the M Shed (12) (0117 352 6600; mshed.org; Tuesday-Friday 10am-5pm; weekends 10am-6pm; free), a former goods shed that opened as Bristol's engaging local history museum in 2011. On the ground floor, you can learn about the city's diverse neighbourhoods, while upstairs you can find out about the involvement of Bristol merchants and plantation owners in slavery, and the riots that broke out in 1980.

Lunch on the run

At lunchtime, hungry office workers and shoppers tuck into Caribbean wraps, tagines, falafel and much more, in the mini cafés and stalls that line the Glass Arcade of St Nicholas Market (13). A £4.20 pie (gravy 30p extra) at Bristol's own Pieminister – filled with British meat and veg – is highly recommended.

Window shopping

Park Street (14) has a concentration of Bristol's more quirky independent shops. Drop in on Weapon of Choice (No 8b; 0117 929 1865; weaponofchoicegallery.co.uk), for limited-edition prints by Bristolian street artists, and Upstairs at BS8 (No 34; upstairsatbs8.co.uk), which sells locally made clothes, jewellery and trinkets. Park Street's classiest shop is Bristol Guild (No 68-70; 0117 926 5548; bristolguild.co.uk), an emporium of designer kitchenware, furniture, toys and gourmet food.

An aperitif

The Apple (15) (0117 925 3500; applecider.co.uk) is a Dutch barge moored at Welsh Back, east of Queen Square. It has seven tap ciders (its own, Old Bristolian, is so strong it's only served in halfs; £2).

Dining with the locals

The new Grillstock Smokehouse (16) (grillstock.co.uk) at 41 Triangle West, offers American barbecue fare, such as pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken and ribs (from £8 for a plateful).

The award-winning Thali Cafe (17) (thethalicafe.co.uk) has five Bristol branches, including 1 Regents Street in Clifton Village (0117 974 3793). Indian dishes include delicious vegetarian and meat thalis from £8.50.

 

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

Bristol's handsome cathedral (18) at College Green (0117 926 4879; bristol-cathedral.co.uk; daily 8am to evensong) is mostly Gothic in style but its highlight is the Norman chapter house, with walls covered by intricate, geometrical carvings. Sunday service is at 10am.

Take a view

At the top of Brandon Hill park sits Cabot Tower (19) (daily 8am to 30 minutes before dusk), built in 1897 to mark John Cabot's voyage from Bristol to America 400 years earlier. Climb its spiral stairs for a 360-degree view over the city and the hills beyond.

Out to brunch

The laid-back, family run Primrose Café (20) (0117 946 6577; primrosecafe.co.uk) is a Clifton Village institution at the entrance to Clifton Arcade. It has a big outdoor terrace and its wide-ranging Sunday brunch menu (9.30am-3.30pm) covers fry-ups and treats such as waffles with bacon and maple syrup (£5.50).

A walk in the park

It's a short walk from Clifton Village to the Clifton Suspension Bridge (21). This elegant landmark, spanning the deep Avon Gorge, was designed by Brunel, but not completed until five years after he died in 1859: learn more at the information centre on the far side of the bridge (0117 974 4664; cliftonbridge.org.uk; daily 10am to 5pm; free). From here, it's five minutes' walk west to the entrance of Ashton Court Estate (22), a rolling, 850-acre country park with trails through glorious meadows, mature woodland and deer enclosures.

Take a ride

The Bristol Ferry Boat Company (0117 927 3416; bristolferry.com), which departs from the city centre from 10.15am to 5.15pm, provides scheduled waterbus services around the Floating Harbour, with stops near Temple Meads (1) station, by the M Shed (12) and SS Great Britain (11), and further west in Hotwells. Fares start at £1 for one-stop trip, rising to £4.80 for a round trip.

Icing on the cake

Bristol is famous for its street art and some of the most striking works can be found in Stokes Croft. On a wall on Stokes Croft Road, at the junction with Jamaica Street, a memorable 28ft mural of a breakdancing Jesus (23), by Cosmo Sarson, has recently appeared. It's just along from Banksy's provocative The Mild Mild West, of a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police. Eye-catching murals also adorn the dreary buildings along Nelson Street (24) in the city centre – the results of a large-scale street art project.

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