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Travel & Holiday

Many faces of Bristol

The British city is bustling with shops, cafes and natural charms, and is known as the Green Capital
The Sunday Times - July 18, 2011
By: Nicholas Yong
| More
Many faces of Bristol The Wills Memorial Building in Park Street is a striking landmark in the city centre. -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MATTHEW ZHENG

Bristol is England's sixth most populous city.

With a population of just over 430,000, the south-western English city has a history dating back to Roman times. In more recent times, it has been known as an education hub and hometown of anonymous graffiti artist Banksy.

'The best thing about Bristol must be the various sides of the city that are so remarkably different from one another,' says Mr Matthew Zheng, a graduate of the National University of Singapore who is there studying for a second undergraduate degree.

Within close proximity are a waterfront area with floating restaurants, the Clifton Suspension Bridge with panoramic views, and scenic jogging routes, he says.

Mr Zheng declares: 'It is the multi-faceted character of the city that has captivated my heart.'

BEFORE YOU GO

Tell us one little-known fact about the city.

Bristol is known as the Green Capital of the United Kingdom, and was its first cycling city. To further boost its green credentials, many of the city's attractions, restaurants, cafes and accommodation options have received awards for their commitment to sustainability and green tourism. Bristol also boasts over 450 parks and green spaces, proportionately more than any other UK city.

The best time to visit is...

Late spring-high summer, which is between late June and late August. By late June, all traces of winter's chill should be gone, but one can never bet on the weather. This is also the time when the city is the most beautiful, as flowers are in full bloom.

The long hours of sunlight - the sun rises at 4.30am and sets at 10pm - will also allow more hours of sightseeing than your body would be grateful for.

You should never visit during...

Winter, which is at its worst between late November and early February. Heavy snowfall used to be unusual as the city is near the coast, but it is becoming increasingly common in recent years.

The best sights of Bristol lie at the top of steep slopes, which you will not want to climb when they are covered in sleet or snow, making them dangerously slippery.

The limited sunlight, if there is any at all, is only between 9am and 4pm, and apart from binge-drinking in pubs, there is not a lot to do at night.

What is one item you must take along?

A camera. The breathtaking views are worth capturing. Horizons stretch over hills, houses, rivers and farmlands.

Also, carry with you a windbreaker and umbrella. Bristol is know to have strong winds that bring cold air even in summer. Passing showers are also common.

GETTING AROUND

The best way to explore the city is...

The city has no train or tram system, only cars or buses. Day passes for the bus are available for £4 (S$7.80).

But roads are windy and narrow, especially in the city centre where they form bottlenecks.

Flea mart finds

Travelling on foot is recommended, as traffic can be heavy during peak hours such as lunchtime and evenings, and you could probably arrive at your destination faster when you walk.

There are also many hidden attractions such as food or flea markets, quaint cafes or pubs and shops which are not far from one another, and these will most certainly be missed if you travel by bus. But be warned, there are many steep slopes.

Which places in the city excite you?

Different locations have different characters. When I feel like getting away from it all, I head for Brandon Hill Nature Park or the park overlooking the Clifton Suspension Bridge with a coffee in hand, for the stunning views.

To get my sports fix, I like jogging along the River Avon to Ashton Court Estate or to Leigh Woods to experience nature. I am also a part of the canoe club, which allows me to go paddling in the river by the docks, but the waters can be quite icy.

The Floating Harbour, or Watershed, has lovely restaurants, some converted from boats, and bars that line the shores where many boats are docked. Having dinner there makes for a perfect romantic evening with a loved one.

An independent cinema, the Watershed, shows European films, with a fantastic cafe adjoining it serving local ciders and dishes.

Visiting the SS Great Britain and a ship aptly named The Matthew of Bristol will reveal the significance of Bristol as one of England's historically most important ports.

What's the weather like?

Average temperatures during summer months (June to September) range from a low of 12 deg C at night to 23 deg C in the day. These drop to a low of 2 deg C and go up to 7 deg C during winter.

But this does not reflect the recent changes in weather patterns, where lows of minus 10 deg C have been recorded during winter in the past two years. Summer highs have also gone over 30 deg C.

Changes in weather can be sudden and fleeting due to high winds in the upper atmosphere, so it may be perfectly sunny one minute but overcast and drizzling the next.

The good thing is, weather forecasts are quite accurate and rain here can be light like mist, unlike the downpours in Singapore.

FOOD AND WINE

Your favourite breakfast is...

Westcountry Breakfast at Boston Tea Party, a chain of 10 cafes that is unique to south-west England and not available in London. Its three branches in Bristol always maintain a lovely local feeling and can get very crowded at breakfast or lunchtime.

Rocotillos along Queens Row (1 Queen's Road Bristol, Clifton Triangle, tel: +44-0117-929-7207) has also been touted as making the best breakfasts in Bristol, and is renowned for its milkshakes.

Your favourite eating place is...

The Lido, Restaurant, Bar and Pool (Lido Oakfield Place, Clifton, tel: +44-0117-933-9533) is Clifton's best-kept secret and my favourite place when I feel I deserve a treat. Outdoor pools are uncommon (due to the weather) but The Lido has one right in the city centre.

The restaurant is on the second level overlooking the pool and its classic, wooden-door changing rooms. Desserts are served on the lower level. The menu can be pricey, but you can get two-course lunches for £15 or three courses for £20. It also offers a unique 'Swim and Dine' option for £30.

Don't leave the place without trying...

The food at St Nicholas Market in St Nicholas Street, on Wednesdays from morning to early afternoon. Those with a sweet tooth will have a field day with freshly baked doughnuts and flapjacks. It also sells fresh seafood, meats and sausages.

Adjoining the main street is a daily flea market. Small stands here sell local pies and meats as well.

The coolest place to chill out at is...

The Bridge Cafe (Avon Gorge Hotel, Sion Hill, tel: +44-0117-973-8955) that overlooks the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge. Have a glass of Pimm's, the typical British alcoholic lemonade, for £4 on a warm summer's day, and enjoy the magnificent views of the gorge and landscape. Other beers and ciders cost less than £3.

CULTURE FIX

What is a big no-no in your city?

Like in most other English cities, be careful not to say 'soccer'. They say 'football'. And when shopping, don't ask for pants, that means underwear. The correct term is trousers.

What do you think Singaporeans will like most about your city?

The many different sides to it - the Watershed for romantic dinners at restaurants or bars, the parks for a peaceful afternoon, or the Avon Gorge to feel at the top of the world. With free art galleries and museums, European film cinemas, a vibrant night life, the quaint but posh Clifton Village to get lost in, historical architecture and ships to visit and the large shopping district, there's never a dull day in Bristol.

What is one place you always take your friends when they visit?

A walk to the Clifton Suspension Bridge and park. The views have never disappointed any of my friends. From the suspension bridge, you can get a complete view of the entire city area.

SHOPPING

What is worth buying in your city and where is the best place to get it?

Locally produced food such as honey and jam can be found at the Arch-House Deli (Arch House, Boyces Avenue, Clifton Village, tel: +44-0117-974-1166), a large grocer-cum-cafe on the fringe of Clifton Village. It also sells produce from other parts of Europe such as large bottles of French lemonade at very affordable prices, and offers bespoke hampers.

Almost all the major labels found in London are found in Bristol, and the great thing is you avoid the incessant crowds of London. It's true that the range of products in London would be more extensive, but the entire shopping experience here is more relaxed and enjoyable.

Head to Broadmead, Cabot Circus, The Galleries and Quakers Friars for high-end department stores such as Harvey Nichols and other labels, or to Park Street and Queen's Road for high street fashion and local shops.

FESTIVALS

Are there any festivals that travellers should look out for?

The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta which will be held this year from Aug 11 to 14. Teams from the UK and other countries bring their hot air balloons to participate in mass ascents where as many as 100 balloons are launched at a time.

This shrouds the entire city in clouds of colourful balloons, making views from the Clifton Suspension Bridge or any other lookout even more brilliant. One popular attraction is the night-glow, when balloons are inflated and glow to music after dark around 9.30pm, followed by a spectacular fireworks display.

The Glastonbury Music Festival is a mega annual open-air event. The line-up of international artists is unparalleled, with big names such as Coldplay, Beyonce and U2. The event lasts the entire weekend, and festivalgoers must be prepared to camp, bringing their own tents, sleeping bags and booze. It was held last month this year, but there will be a break next year before returning in 2013. Glastonbury is under an hour's drive away from Bristol.

FURTHER OUT

Are there things to see or do outside the city?

The city of Bath lies less than 30 minutes away by train from Temple Meades station. The city is known for its beautiful stone-walled city architecture, not to mention the historic Roman Baths.

 

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