showcasing the best of the south west

Bristol: the Coolest Town in the West?

Towns go in and out of fashion and Bristol is unquestionably having its moment right now. Fashionable back in the nineties as the spiritual home of progressive music - think Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, Goldfrapp - it has once again become a central hub for avant-garde art and a meeting point for the ethically minded.

Banksy chose Bristol for his first retrospective, while the RWA's groundbreaking new show Unnatural Natural History has been a massive sell out.  It's probably the greenest city in Britain too - the Soil Association, Triodos Bank and the Environment Agency all have their HQs here.

It has some of the most cutting edge art spaces in the country (the newly revamped Royal Academy, the hipper-than-thou M Shed) and some of the best restaurants Zazu’s Kitchen, The Tobacco Factory and Greens' Dining Room.

Everything is here from the most holistic, lentil-crunching yoga to shopping at Harvey Nicks. The key is the lifestyle - you've got a city that can encompass hippies, hipsters, wealthy Cliftonites and skaterheads. And it's the geography too - leave the city and it's not long before you're surfing in Devon, swilling cider in Somerset, hiking in Pembrokshire. Yep, we reckon it's officially paradise.

There's nothing like hearing from those in the know so we asked five well known Bristol bods to let us in on their favourite places.

Lottie Storey, Bristol blogger (oyster-pearl)

A public building with a difference. Traditional from the outside, Bristol's biggest library holds a secret interior almost as spectacular as its neighbour, Bristol Cathedral. The marble staircases and vaulted ceilings lend a dramatic, Harry Potter-ish air to proceedings, while the Art Nouveau foyer is tiled in turquoise mosaic. Chandeliers and a glass-block roof ensure a bright reading environment, and the whole places smells of paper - a rare perfume these days.
College Green
The Ethicurean Barley Wood, Wrington
A few miles outside the city lies a secret garden. A beautifully maintained Victorian walled garden is home to The Ethicurean, a restaurant run by two chef brothers fast gaining a reputation for their exceptional menu with virtually zero food miles. The garden isn't just beautiful - alongside the formal borders sits the original greenhouse, the vegetable patch and a few polytunnels, and it is here that most of the produce used by the kitchen is grown. Winner of the Observer Food Monthly prize for Best Ethical Restaurant in 2011, the team are working on a cookbook. Expect local, ethical, seasonal recipes with a gastronomical twist.
'Swearing, hooting, shouting or shrieking shall not be tolerated' - one of the house rules at the Milk Thistle, Bristol's hippest cocktail bar. Instead you can expect a more sophisticated vibe at this doorbell bar, with some of the most incredible cocktails imaginable. If you're a fan of Bugsy Malone you'll love the unmarked door, the spyhole, and the general ceremony of it all. Make mine a Perfume Fizz, please barman.
Once a year, on a September Saturday, many of Bristol's most interesting buildings open their doors to the public for Doors Open Day. Don't miss the historic Redcliffe Caves, the Clifton Rocks Railway, or the Concrete House - one of Bristol's only examples of Modernist architecture.
Various locations
Just over that famous bridge lies Leigh Woods, a 490 acre pocket of green that makes a welcome breath of fresh air when city life becomes too much to bear. Take a walk through the shady groves (chock-full of bluebells in springtime), build a den using fallen branches, or emerge at the cliff edge to view Avon Gorge from a breathtaking angle.
Willy Wonka in miniature, this place is the perfect lesson in being small and perfectly formed. Guilbert's have been hand-making chocolates in Bristol for over one hundred years and their location on Small Street can be detected by nose alone. Suppliers to all the big-name London shops, their Rose & Violet Creams are the best I've tasted (and I have undertaken years of considerable research).
A proper Bristol institution, this modest chain began in Montpelier a decade ago, gaining an enviable reputation among the city's vegetarians for its hearty renditions of classic curries served authentically on tin plates. Now in four locations and with a big festival presence, the menu has broadened to include fish and chicken, plus a whole host of street-food accompaniments. And for those who love an Indian takeaway, you can join the Tiffin club and become proud owner of a metal tower of dishes to be refilled whenever it takes your fancy.
A fantastic new neighbourhood restaurant, the Old Bookshop is fast becoming a favourite with Bristolians making the journey south of the river to sample the generously-portioned, cheap eats and the esoteric decor. The menu is tapas with no regard for geography - frites et fromage sit alongside spring rolls and risotto steamed in vine leaves. But the result is pure, greedy heaven. Saturday night is gig night, so check the website to find out if you'll be enjoying rockabilly or jazz. Just don't try to play the trumpet chandelier.

Becki Biggins, Jazz Singer

My favourite drinking place is Hyde & Co, just off the triangle - an awesome speakeasy decked out in vintage boudoir style. For atmosphere and proper beer, I love The Albion in Clifton, and my local, the Downend Tavern (they have a skittle alley).

Before I lived in Bristol, I'd come over from London, and Andy would take me to Rocotillo's Diner (1 Queen's Row, BS8 1EZ) again on the Triangle.  Amazing milk shakes and some artery-blocking food. For proper food, it has to be The Cowshed on Whiteladies Road.

I know it's a shopping centre, but I just love Cabot Circus, particularly Quakers Friars.  It never feels too busy, even in the lead-up to Christmas, and to top it off, the cinema is modern and spacious.

I'm partial to the odd afternoon tea, particularly if it's served on proper china, and I have to recommend Cox & Baloney on Gloucester Road.  They have evenings where you can swap your vintage clothes, and even do knitting classes!

One of my hobbies is making bunting, and for that I need material. Fabric Land, the fabric superstore is wonderful, as it's got a huge selection of different kinds of fabrics, as well as just about every bit of haberdashery I'll ever need.  And it's good and cheap.

I'm just off swimming with a friend of mine, who is a member of the Lido.  I've been there once before, and it is just the epitome of elegance and Britishness - two of my favourite things.  Hopefully we'll swim, have a nice long jacuzzi and then have afternoon tea in their bar.  The restaurant is also wonderful and, if we're feeling in need of some TLC, we can also book in for a massage.

My boyfriend, Andy, is always trying to coerce me into going climbing and, although this is probably more in the style of his top 10 than mine, I have to say that I love the Avon Gorge.  There's nothing like the feeling when you scale a rock face, and to have the double bonus of the view of the valley AND an ever-present ice-cream van at the top (on Circular Road, on the Downs).  He'll be really surprised I've included this one!

Simon MacDonnell aka Papa, chef and owner of Papadeli in Bristol, (the uber-foodie Papadeli Cafe is housed in the RWA).

I love neighbourhood restaurants – and one of my favourites is Green’s Dining Room on Zetland Road.  2 brothers and their wives run this cosy bistro – food is consistently good and there’s always a warm welcome.

On a summer’s day, the Lido in Clifton is just the place – eat brilliant food while basking the water’s reflections. This is also a superb place for a massage – the masseuse here always get it right and listening to the water lap against the pool sides just perfects the whole experience.  Finish off with a cup of Lahloo rosebud tea – just wonderful.

For a perfect for a lazy day picnic it’s got to be Tyntesfield – just on the outskirts of Bristol – a beautiful National Trust owned property, with stunning kitchen garden & grounds.

My two boys, Tomos and Sam never seem to tire of @Bristol Science Centre.  They spend hours there experimenting on the equipment, watching planetarium shows and getting excited by  scientific explosions.

Bristol’s a thriving place for innovative ideas & speakers – I always love going to the Festival of Ideas to hear interesting and inspirational speakers at St George’s – most recently I went to see Harry Belafonte – a legendary figure that I’ll never forget.

Bristol is an amazing place for theatre – we are absolutely spoilt for choice.  The Old Vic shows are great – favourite are the productions by the Knee High Theatre Company for their hilarious and thought provoking shows.  The Tobacco Factory always has something worth seeing from the sublime to the controversial.  Their children’s shows are not to be missed!

I love walking up to the University of Bristol’s Botanical Gardens near the Downs.  They moved all the plants there some 6 years ago and it’s just a beautiful place to wander around.  I particularly love the Triffid- like pitcher plants that digest whole mice! I’ve never had much time to get into gardening, but walking around here makes me want to start!

Sitting on a balcony, sipping a cold beer makes me feel like I’m abroad – the Royal Academy on The Triangle has a brilliant balcony – having a café there, I don’t get much time to sit up on the balcony – but I always send friends there as it’s the best balcony in Bristol.

I’m not a great one for shopping – my treat is to buy food, and having a deli, I’m lucky enough to be able to do that on a daily basis!  If I do need to shop I love Park Street or Gloucester Road – lots of interesting things to look at interspersed with many opportunities for a coffee break.

On a sunny day (not so numerous at the moment) we’ll drive up to the Quantocks and have a picnic.  I spent my teenage years in Churchill, North Somerset, walking the hills, so love going back there to my favourite haunts.

Mandi Mckeown, Canpaign Co-ordinator for charity International Tibet Network (free Tibet)


St Werburghs City Farm Cafe Just down the hill from our house, this was a life saver when we first moved here with two kids and didn't know a soul! Great food, good value, kids play area, next to a farm (and, importantly, pub!!).

And talking of pubs we love Farm Pub though it's not for the faint hearted..….the outside is spray-painted by graffiti artists, the inside is the place for a lock-in....

Boiling Wells along a bit from the Farm and Pub is this amazing woodland site.  Bit of an oasis.

The Canteen housed in 'the democratic republic of Stokes Croft'. Music, food, drink and a very big vibe - oh and table tennis....

Maitreya Social is definitely my favourite place for food, a lovely lovely lovely vegetarian restaurant

Colston Hall It's been done up recently and has a bit of a Royal Festival Hall feel with free music and loads happening all the time.

Leigh Woods - nicest city woods ever! Now has a kids play area made of mmmmm woody things!

Ashley Allotments might sound weird but nothing quite beats it…..going since the Second World War, home to some of the best tended plots and most fascinating characters you're ever going to meet

One-Stop-Thali-Cafe Best thali in the UK! There are a couple now, the one in Montpelier is nice to go to as a couple or with mates (very garish, modern Indian decor and sometimes bands). With kids the one in Easton is better.

The Tobacco Factory is great for everything. Theatre, comedy, kids theatre, food, drinking....we love it here

Bristol Lido - great anytime of day or night.  Membership is quite steep (nor do we live near enough) but we tend to go for the Swim & Dine £35 package for birthdays.

Watershed - Doesn't get much better as an independent cinema.  Great films, always.  Special director talks sessions and kids workshops during the holidays.

Cube Cinema - For a bit more 'madness' in cinema The Cube is run by a bunch of artists who wanted to run a cinema-cum-artspace-cum-creche-cum-communitythingy. We saw Kid Carpet there who did a kids do and had all the 3 to 9 year olds moshing on the stage!!!

Royal Academy of Arts West of England Lovely Pappadeli Cafe and a great space to see local and national art. It has brilliant kids' workshops including Scribble and Draw once a month and cooking stuff.

@Bristol Mini science museum.  Best bit is an Ardmaan Cartoon making area upstairs

Andy Torbet, extreme adventurer, ice-climber and TV presenter (Coast and a new series Operation Iceberg coming soon on BBC2)

I’m a country boy at heart having been brought up in the Highlands of Scotland and preferring wild, remote places to cities.  But Bristol is the first city I have ever thought I could be happy living in.  I know people who moved here for work, some came for university and never left and some are born and bred here and I don’t know one single person who doesn’t love the place.  Here, for me, are just a few reasons why:

The Avon Gorge – as a climber to have a huge, South-facing cliff with a massive range of engaging routes right inside the city, with spectacular views of the River Avon and a view of the iconic suspension bridge is a true gift.  The fact that there is often an ice-cream van parked at the top is no bad thing either.

Stoke Park – the area of hills on the West side of the M32 between junctions 1 and 2 is great when I’m trying to keep my legs, core and shoulders fit for mountaineering as I can wonder around for a few hard hours with a heavy rucksack on from my house in Downend.  There is also a great view from the Purdown BT Tower out over the city, especially on a clear night.

The M32 - admittedly not an obvious choice for a man who prefers the open, wild and remote parts of the world.  But I live in the North part of Bristol and having my own motorway that takes me across the city and into Cabot Circus from my door in under 10 minutes is a blessing.  Most cities have to be fought through to access the main motorway (in our case the M4 or M5) from the centre but we have the M32.  Granted I tend to avoid it during rush hour…

MyLife – based at 42 Pembroke Road this is where I come for training advice.  I have a number of chronic spine, knee and leg injuries from past projects and 10 years in the Army.  But I need to maintain a level of fitness for the activities I undertake and being fit can, and has, saved my life so it’s important to me.  MyLife caters for everyone one from first-timers to members of Team GB. I see Andy Wadworth, the owner and chief trainer, himself an accomplished athlete, that matters to me – I need to have faith in the, often hard, training I ask for and it’s always easier to respect the man demanding unpleasant things of you when you know he won the Xterra World Triathalon Championships with a broken ankle.

Festivals - we seem to have festival around town and especially the harbourside and around @Bristol every other weekend. From nature to organic food, the harbourside, wildlife films and even a zombiefest.

Bristol to Bath Cycle Path – a well maintained and safe route, through some lovely countryside from one great city to another.  It also works the other way which is handy (dare I say re-cycling…ok, that’s a little desperate).  There is virtually no gradient along its length and it takes me a gentle 90 minutes to get from my house to Bath centre, less than by car at certain times of day.  And parking is significantly less stressful.  It also passes a number of refreshment stops in the form of quaint tearooms and riverside pubs.  It also passes through, and has a special exit for, number 7.

Bath Ales Factory Shop – I’m a real ale sort of chap and like to drink the local stuff.  How fortunate then that I’m only a couple of roundabouts away from the Bath Brewery.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Gem.  We have fairly regular parties in my house so I am called upon to visit the factory shop to purchase boxes and barrels of their finest products.  It works out an absolute bargain and what man doesn’t like the idea of having a pub in his house?

Severnside and Clifton Sub Aqua Clubs – these are the big scuba diving clubs in Bristol and are two of the biggest in the UK which speaks for the massive adventure, expeditionary, climbing, diving and caving and outdoor sports community in the city.  Severnside meet at their club house in Cambria Yard on a Monday at 2100 and Clifton at the Grain Barge on Hotwells road on the Wednesday at 2100.  They are very open and friendly clubs who are active in promoting the sport and assisting in city projects like the scouts and Harbour Festival.

Undercover Rock and The Climbing Academy – when the rain pours (which admittedly never happens in Bristol – ever) and I can’t hit the Gorge I head either to Undercover Rock or The Climbing Academy.  Undercover Rock, the indoor climbing centre at St Werburghs church, is the choice when I have a friend to hold my ropes as routes are 12 metres high.  During the day when I’m on my own I head to The Climbing Academy to go bouldering where the routes are only a few metres above soft mats.  It’s like the difference between doing a 12 mile run or sprint training…accept vertically.  The fact they’ve both got cafes and serve nice cakes is not a factor.

Museums – it seems that locations like the M Shed and Bristol Museum try hard to put on some of the best national and local exhibitions going.  The Banksy exhibit was queuing down Park Street and the Museum always has the Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners – a must see for me.  Best of all it is free and therefore available to all.

Perhaps the big draw for me is Bristol’s position as the gateway to some great outdoor places like the North and South Devon coasts, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Cornwall and over the bridge to the Wye Valley, Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons.  But within this city, 7th largest in the UK, we seem to have the events and facilities of somewhere much larger and the community spirit of somewhere smaller and more tightly knit.


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