Daniel Scott discovers markets, museums and music in a port city that has inspired talents from Brunel to Banksy.
With a history dating back a thousand years, Bristol was once Britain's second most important port (after London), thanks to its location on the River Avon, close to the broad Bristol Channel in England's south-west. It was from Bristol that John Cabot set off, in 1497, to discover America and during the 18th century the port was heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade. More than 2000 slaving ships sailed from Bristol carrying goods to Africa to exchange for at least 500,000 slaves, who were transported to the Americas.
Bristol's harbour remains the heart of the city. Its main attractions are located around the central "floating harbour", created in the 19th century by installing lock gates on the River Avon.
Culturally, Bristol has been named Britain's most musical city, generating more musicians per head of population than any other British city and spawning bands such as Massive Attack. The city has produced some of the world's favourite films and television shows, including Wallace and Gromit, by the Oscar-winning Aardman Animations, and Planet Earth, produced by the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit. The renowned satirical street artist Banksy is also Bristol born and bred. Among his works here are pieces fronting a Frogmore Street sexual health clinic (best viewed from Park Street) and the Thekla boat in the harbour.
Bristol's culinary scene is flourishing, too. The world's first Slow Food market began here (St Nicholas Market, first Sunday of the month), the harbourside Bordeaux Quay eateries are blazing a trail for eco-friendly food (see lunch below) and there are new Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc restaurants.
Start the day early with a cycle along the 21-kilometre Bristol and Bath Railway Path. Bristol was where Sustrans emerged in the 1970s, the charity behind Britain's National Cycle Network, which now extends for more than 20,000 kilometres. This off-road route was built in 1986 on the track bed of the old railway linking the cities and was the first section to be completed. Beginning in central Bristol, it winds through undulating, wooded countryside and crosses the Avon several times on the way to Bath. Sculptures line the path, which passes through historic stations such as Warmley, where depictions of passengers from a bygone era stand on the platform. The return trip to Bristol takes about three hours.
See bristolbathrailwaypath.org.uk. Rent bikes from Blackboy Hill Cycles, Clifton; blackboycycles.co.uk.
Back in Bristol, pop into St Nicholas Market, named in Britain's top 10 markets by The Guardian. From here, cycle uphill to the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by the renowned civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and spanning the Avon Gorge.
St Nicholas Market, Corn Street, 9.30am-5pm, Monday-Saturday; farmers market Wednesday. Clifton Suspension Bridge Interpretative Centre, 10am-5pm daily; clifton-suspension-bridge.org.uk.
Return to Clifton village for breakfast at one of Bristol's best-loved cafes, the Primrose. Take a seat in the sun trap at the end of the cul-de-sac and try poached eggs with bubble and squeak (a traditional English dish of fried cabbage and potato) or a honey-roast sausage butty.
Primrose Cafe, 1 Clifton Arcade, Boyces Avenue, Clifton; +44 (0)117 946 6577; 9am-5pm, Monday-Saturday; 9.30am-3pm, Sunday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday; primrosecafe.co.uk.
Visit the SS Great Britain, the world's first great ocean liner, now a museum. The iron-hulled steam ship, another extraordinary design by engineering maestro Brunel, was launched in 1843 to provide luxury travel to New York. It also transported 15,000 migrants to Australia between 1852 and 1875 and brought the first touring English cricket team to Australia in 1861. The museum, with a glass "sea" that allows visitors to inspect the hull's exterior, captures the sights, sounds and smells of life on a Victorian voyage.
Great Western Dockyard, Gas Ferry Road; ssgreatbritain.org; open daily 10am-5.30pm in April-November (closes 4.30pm in winter); entry £12.50 ($19) adults, £6.25 children.
Wander back to Bristol's central harbour to Bordeaux Quay, a venue with a restaurant, brasserie, wine bar, deli and bakery. Bordeaux Quay has a strong commitment to sustainable food practices and use of local ingredients. The brasserie's lunch menu includes a starter of artisan charcuterie, with wild-boar salami, finocchiona and speck (£9.50) and confit duck leg with beetroot, spinach and orange and moscatel dressing (£12.50).
Bordeaux Quay, Canons Way; bordeaux-quay.co.uk.
Bristol's new museum, the MShed, is innovative and offers a comprehensive overview of the city. Divided into three sections - people, places and life - MShed exhibits everything from Bristol's 250-million-year-old dinosaur to a "2020 vision" of its future. Notable displays include the frank detailing of Bristol's role as a slave trade port and an exhibition on "10-pound Poms" and where they settled in Australia.
MShed, Princes Wharf, Wapping Road; mshed.org; 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Friday; 10am-6pm, Saturday-Sunday; closed Monday; free entry.
With its restaurant, spa and outdoor pool set within a courtyard of Georgian terraces, Lido is a favourite summer hangout for fashionable Bristolians. Spa treatments include the usual full body, couples and hot-stone massages; worth recommending is a a one-hour Lido Cycling Massage, which focuses on the muscles of the hips, lower back and shoulders (£60).
Lido, Oakfield Place, Clifton; lidobristol.com.
Sink into a sofa at the Hotel du Vin's Sugar House bar, which serves rums from around the world. Move on to dinner at the bistro, which evokes Parisian fin-de-siecle dining, with its dark wooden furniture and candles. Try moules mariniere (£7.50) and chargrilled rib-eye steak with pommes frites and peppercorn sauce (£21.95). An alternative for dinner is the quayside Spyglass restaurant.
Hotel du Vin and Bistro, daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Spyglass BBQ and Grill, Welsh Back; spyglassbristol.co.uk; Monday-Saturday, noon-11pm; Sunday noon-6pm.
Join a Haunted and Hidden Bristol walking tour exploring ghoulish tales and the city's history. One chilling ghost story concerns the White Hart pub, the scene of a fatal brawl between two brothers in 1706. Poltergeists and orbs are regularly experienced at the pub and a hidden room was discovered under the bar, containing a table set for dinner. John Hughes is an engaging tour guide; he also incorporates Bristol's historic music scene with tales of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones visiting the city.
Tours depart from Bristol Cathedral, College Green, Fridays at 8pm, or by arrangement; £5; hauntedandhiddenbristol.co.uk.
Have a pint of West Country cider at the 17th-century Llandoger Trow pub, close to the harbour, where Daniel Defoe reputedly met Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. End the night across the cobbled street at one of Britain's top jazz venues, the Old Duke.
Llandoger Trow, King Street; +44 0870 990 6424. The Old Duke, King Street; theoldduke.co.uk. Music starts at 9pm.
Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Visit Britain.
Thai Airways has a fare to London Heathrow from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2130 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Bangkok (about 9hr), then to London (13hr 5min); see www.thaiairways.com.
There are regular buses to Bristol and trains from London Paddington (about 2hr).
The Hotel du Vin and Bistro is a stylish hotel created from 18th-century sugar warehouses, with 40 loft-style rooms retaining original features. Double rooms from £125 ($187). At Narrow Lewins Mead; see hotelduvin.com.