Why Bristol is the coolest city in Britain

Greg Dickinson

written by
Greg Dickinson

updated 09.07.2021

Earlier this year a deafening “clink” of cider glasses reverberated around Bristol when the city was voted as Rough Guides’ Top UK City of 2017, shrugging off London, Oxford and Edinburgh for the top spot in the list.

It wasn’t a hard decision. The city’s first-rate nightlife, thriving creative and tech industries and proximity to the great outdoors made it an obvious choice. Think London, but smaller and (dare we say it) cooler – or at least more committed to its offbeat counterculture, and with an enormous gorge cutting an improbable chunk through part of the city.

Bristol frequently gets voted as one of the UK’s most liveable cities, too. But for the 7,516,570,000-odd humans who don’t have the honour of living there, here are five reasons why Bristol should be your next UK city break.

1 -There are some weird and wonderful places to sleep

Sleeping in a “bedroom” in a “building” is so 2016.

Arguably taking the glamping craze to its logical conclusion, the visionaries at Canopy & Stars have converted one of the Harbourside’s iconic 1950s cranes into a treehouse. The ingeniously designed Crane 29 offers sweeping views of the harbour and prime people-watching opportunities from a window-side hammock, while the rainforest walkway and wooden furnishings make this a truly unique stay with green credentials to boot.

You will be serenaded to sleep by the buzzing chatter of the city centre and awoken by the dawn chorus, led by the shrill trumpeting of seagulls.

A permanent, but no-less eccentric option are the retro Rocket caravans that have been airlifted to the top of chichi Brooks Guesthouse, just by St Nicholas Market. There are four of these aluminium vans, each kitted out with pocket-sprung mattresses and cosy bathrooms to a design spec that meets the high boutique standards of the guestrooms downstairs. Eating breakfast in the whitewashed courtyard is a pure delight.

2 - You can lose your tandem bike virginity

In 2008, Bristol was named Britain’s first “Cycling City”, and its reputation as one of Europe's most bike-friendly destinations continues to grow. As well as having a cycling lane on just about every street – including some Dutch-style segregated lanes – the city is home of the cycling charity Sustrans and is the hub of Britain’s national cycling network.

So if you’re ever going to lose your tandem bicycling virginity, it should probably be here.

The friendly, family-run Bristol Tandem Hire has a range of high-spec tandem bicycles for hire. They offer up local knowledge on the best low-traffic routes around the city, plus a quick and necessary tutorial on how to keep your balance (and relationship/friendship) on track while on the bike. They also offer the option to take a hamper on your ride, with picnic rug and all.

Consider starting your tandem adventure at Queen Square before heading to the M Shed and west along the waterside; Pickle café offers a good stop-off for a coffee. Crossing north over the Cumberland Basin, cycle along the valley floor of the Avon Gorge before climbing up into Clifton. Here you can pedal around leafy Clifton Down before crossing Brunel’s suspension bridge into the Ashton Court Estate, with its herd of semi-tame red and fallow deer.

3 - There's a new foodie quarter: Wapping Wharf

Unlike some of the similar pop-up shipping container retail yards plonked in cities across the UK and across Europe, the Cargo development in Wapping Wharf fits in perfectly with the area’s maritime heritage.

Opened in October 2016, Cargo 1’s lauded foodie offerings – Root, Pigsty, Woky Ko and Box-E – were joined in May 2017 by 18 new outlets in neighbouring Cargo 2.

One of the most exciting is Salt & Malt, the second branch of Michelin-starred chef Josh Eggleton’s Chew Valley restaurant. Expect locally caught cod cooked in a crisp, gluten-free batter (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) and a blackboard of daily fish specials.

Wash it down with a cider tasting experience at the Bristol Cider Shop at Unit 4, during which you will try everything from scrumpy to perry via cider brandy, and learn about how proper cider is made.

4 - You can float above the city in a hot-air balloon

Every August Bristol hosts the International Balloon Fiesta, a four-day event which sees 150 balloons fill the sky. This event, held at Ashton Court Estate, is a sight to behold from the ground (and free), but you shouldn’t miss the chance to take to the sky yourself.

Long-running company Bristol Balloons leads hot-air balloon flights between March and October. Setting up the balloon is all part of the experience, before slowly ascending to the sky for a true perspective of Bristol’s geography and verdant surrounds – with a glass of something bubbly in-hand to celebrate the occasion.


© ChonKa/Shutterstock

5 - Bristol is the home of British graffiti

Banksy might be the most famous of Bristol’s graffiti artists, but his tongue-in-cheek stencilled works are only the tip of the city’s technicoloured iceberg of street art.

Just by walking the city you'll encounter plenty of great works painted onto the city’s walls. But to better understand the context, you should consider booking onto a guided tour. Where The Wall's informative tour begins in the city centre with Banksy’s Well-Hung Lover (subject to a paintball gun drive-by in 2009).

The See No Evil event in 2012 left an exhibition of expansive artworks – such as ROA’s signature black-and-white creature and Pixel Pancho’s mechanical beast – on the buildings around Nelson Street. Make time to properly explore the extensively graffitied Stokes Croft – Bristol’s artistic hub – where a community group named The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft works to safeguard the unique, diverse character of the once-neglected area.

Explore more of Bristol with The Rough Guide to Bath, Bristol & Somerset. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance.

Top image: Bristol Cityscape © Sion Hannuna/Shutterstock

Greg Dickinson

written by
Greg Dickinson

updated 09.07.2021

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍