The South West’s biggest city is a gem, but knowing where to start your explorations can be tricky – we take three separate city tours to give you some guidance.
Tour 1: Bristol street art tour
John Nation points up at the wall and explains that the artwork splashed across it – a naked man dangling comically from a windowsill – has boosted the building’s worth by a life-changing sum of money. Over the course of the next two hours, and with the visual aid of a prismatic parade of different spray-can creations, he’ll explain how street art has come to shape Bristol in all manner of unlikely ways. If you thought murals were mindless, think again.
John would be hard to top as a guide. As a local youth worker of some 20 years’ standing, he was one of the people behind a city scheme which saw young people encouraged to express themselves through art. He knows exactly who Banksy is (though he’s predictably coy with the details) and has a lifetime’s worth of inside info on Bristol’s urban art scene. “Yes, I might have dabbled myself when I was younger,” he says, smiling. “But the street artists working today range in age from about 16 to 55.”
The two hours take us from the city centre up to Stokes Croft – arguably the sharpest of Bristol’s cutting-edge districts – and give a primer in the basics of street art, from the anti-graffiti paint used by the council to the sometimes subtle differences between legal and illegal artworks. The real joy of the tour, from an outsider’s perspective, lies in the diversity. We see works that are eight storeys high and works that barely reach above ankle-height. We see works that have been in place for decades and works that have been there “since last Tuesday.” We see works that have been commissioned by restaurants, pubs and even churches.
Street art is nothing new in Bristol. According to John, it first found its way to the city thanks to the US hip-hop influences that started permeating the local culture in the early 1980s. But the scene has since grown into something huge, receiving more focus in Bristol than anywhere else in the country. And while Banksy figures in the tour – how could he not? – the man of mystery is just one of many figures you’ll learn about. Highly recommended.
How much? From £6 – £10.50.
More info: wherethewall.com
Tour 2: Maritime Bristol
The harbourside is a gift for daydreamers. Let your mind wander as you stroll past the old taverns and you can almost hear pirates bawling out shanties as they unfurl their tropical sea charts. Not many cities have a maritime history as layered as Bristol’s. Its sheltered inland location meant that for many years it was the second largest port in the country, behind only London in terms of the sheer volume of ships, sailors and cargo. The docks were alive with rum and ivory, glassware and beads, press gangs
Various tours exist for those wanting to find out more. We opt for the self-guided Treasure Island Trail (there’s a downloadable app with commentary – bring headphones), then follow it up with visits to two of Bristol’s biggest waterside attractions, city museum M Shed and game-changing ocean liner SS Great Britain.
First the trail, which leads listeners to eight different spots around the harbour, giving an introduction to the city’s maritime past and highlighting local links with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island (in the book, Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins and the crew set sail from Bristol). It leads down cobbled streets, along historic quays and past centuries-old inns, one of which was frequented by Blackbeard himself.
No account of Bristol’s history would be complete without acknowledging its involvement in the slave trade, and M Shed accordingly pulls no punches. Heart-breaking displays from the era take their place in a trio of extensive galleries looking at different aspects of life in the city, from its early beginnings as a Saxon settlement to its current status as a heavyweight of alternative culture.
M Shed takes its name from the harbour building it occupies – a former dockside transit shed – and a five-minute walk along the quay leads to another big-name maritime attraction. When it was launched in 1843, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain became the largest ship on the world’s oceans, and the first to use an iron hull. It sailed more than a
million miles in its lifetime – mainly on transatlantic voyages and carrying migrants to Australia – and now sits back in the dock where it was constructed.
More than 175 years after it was built, it remains a thrill to walk its decks, stroll through its first-class saloons and gawp at the narrow bunks that were used by its lowest-paying passengers. Bristol’s history is a chequered thing, but the SS Great Britain, at least, calls for nothing but admiration.
How much? Treasure Island Trail app £1.99. M Shed free SS Great Britain from £10 – £17.
More info: longjohnsilvertrust.co.uk bristolmuseums.org.uk ssgreatbritain.org
Tour 3: Bristol craft beer tour
There are more than 20 breweries in and around Bristol, which tells you all you need to know about its penchant for a pint. The craft beer wave hasn’t so much reached the city as been swollen by a flotilla of zeitgeist-surfing brewers. It also has quality pubs by the barrel-load, ranging from traditional taprooms to hip-as-you-like hophouses. All of which makes the prospect of a beer-themed tour of the city a mighty appealing one.
The award-winning Bristol Hoppers offers two different self-guided beer tours, both of which take in four different pubs. So what is a self-guided beer tour? The concept is actually a simple one – after booking, you’re given a starting pub, where an envelope is waiting for you behind the bar. It contains instructions for where you’re headed next, as well as tokens for seven drinks (generally half-pints and third-pints). Best of all, it puts your choice of pubs in the hands of the people who know the city’s beer scene best.
We choose the ‘Cross-Harbour Tour’, which begins at the on-trend Three Tuns and also includes guided diversions to nearby street art and a spin across the harbour in a tiny ferry. It would be giving the game away to name the second, third and fourth stops, but expect a CAMRA-lauded neighbourhood local, a modern bar-cum-brewery where you’ll have a tasting paddle, and a brilliantly mazy little pub full of typewriters, trumpets and taxidermied badgers. In short, exactly what you’d
How much? £18 – £19.
More info: bristolhoppers.co.uk