My kind of place: Mary Novakovich recommends the West Country for some of England’s finest shopping, scenery and socialising.
Bristol: truly the best of British
The UK’s Sunday Times newspaper recently voted Bristol the country’s best city to live in, citing its “great shopping, great scenery and great social scene”. They were right on all three counts, and that’s only scratching the surface.
Add to that stately Georgian architecture that rivals its busier West Country neighbour Bath, a historic city centre, a fascinating if sometimes controversial history and an atmosphere that neatly mixes the laid-back with the lively.
Bristol’s dockside, which flourished during the years of the slave trade, has been transformed into a series of restaurants, galleries, museums, shops and wide squares. Boat trips go downstream along the River Avon through its gorge towards the engineering marvel that is the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Come August, the skies fill with witty and colourful balloons during the International Balloon Fiesta.
A comfortable bed
An 18th-century collection of warehouses in the city centre has been handsomely converted to the Hotel du Vin (www.hotelduvin.com; 0044 844 736 4252). Plush leather sofas and exceptionally comfortable king-size beds add a cocooning feel to the contemporary interiors. Bathrooms come with roll-top baths and showers practically big enough to house a family of four. Doubles start at £129 (Dh797), room only. Its bistro is just as friendly and relaxed, with generous portions of French-influenced mains starting at £14 (Dh86).
Number Thirty Eight Clifton (www.number38clifton.com; 0044 117 946 6905) calls itself “luxury town house accommodation” – in reality, somewhere between an upmarket B&B and a boutique hotel. Whatever you want to call it, this Georgian merchant’s house is elegant and beautifully done up with pale-wood-panelled walls, giant bathrooms and rooms with views of Clifton Down and/or the city’s rooftops. Doubles from £110 (Dh680), including breakfast.
A much-needed refurbishment has breathed new life into Clifton Village’s Avon Gorge Hotel (www.theavongorge.com; 0044 117 973 8955), which is in an enviable position overlooking the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Unstuffy rooms in shades of pale green or mauve have views of the village or the Avon Gorge; doubles start at £89 (Dh550), room only. Breakfast is an extra £10 (Dh62) per room, not per person.
Find your feet
Bristol’s sights are spread all over the city, but start in the old town where 17th-century pubs mingle with the Georgian elegance of Queen Square. Don’t forget to look up to see works by the Bristolian graffiti artist Banksy on walls. Waterside paths surround three sides of the old town, one of which leads to the revamped Harbourside area and the Tourist Information Centre (www.visitbristol.co.uk; 0044 333 321 0101). Head up Park Street, past the university buildings, and you soon reach the attractive Georgian suburb of Clifton. A vast bus network covers the city; tickets cost from £1 (Dh6) each or £4 (Dh25) for a day ticket.
Meet the locals
One of the city’s most popular meeting points is Bocabar (www.bocabar.co.uk; 0044 117 972 8838) in the Paintworks creative quarter, about a mile south-east of Bristol’s main Temple Meads railway station. Sink back in squashy sofas while checking out the tapas menu and listening to the Friday-night DJs. In Gloucester Road, north of the city centre, head to the Gallimaufry (www.thegallimaufry.co.uk; 0044 117 942 7319), where there’s an agreeably laid-back mix of live music and British food.
Book a table
In Clifton Village, the unassuming little Wallfish Bistro (www.wallfishbistro.co.uk; 0044 117 973 5435) has taken over the premises where the late maverick TV chef Keith Floyd opened his first bistro back in 1969. Its plain interior belies its imaginative cuisine, with sublime starters such as scallops and razor clams with chorizo (£9 [Dh56]) and mains including whole Dorset crab (£14 [Dh86]).
Tucked away down Cotham Hill, off Whiteladies Road, is Flinty Red (www.flintyred.co.uk; 0044 117 923 8755), which, like Wallfish, is a deceptively simple bistro with wonderful goings-on in the kitchen. The menu changes, but could include smoked ox cheeks with white beans (£4.50 [Dh28]) or braised octopus with chickpeas and harissa (£15 [Dh93]). Many of the dishes come in both starter and main portions.
The Olive Shed (www.theoliveshed.com; 0044 0117 929 1960) in the Harbourside area is the place for informal meals or just tapas. Try the venison wrapped in pancetta with horseradish croquettes (£17 [Dh105]).
Clifton Village’s narrow streets are filled with boutiques – most of them independent – as well as antiques shops. Walk down hilly Park Street for some of Bristol’s trendiest shops, many of which are incredibly affordable. You’re spoilt for choice in the city centre – between Cabot Circus, Quakers Friars, the Galleries and Broadmead, you have about 500 shops to browse, including Harvey Nichols. Check out the stalls in St Nicholas Market in the old town for quirky finds.
What to avoid
If you’re after a quiet dinner on a Friday or Saturday night, avoid the big restaurants in the Harbourside area. They’ll be thronging with stag and hen parties.
Head to Clifton Down and explore the area around the Suspension Bridge, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s inspired creation that was finally completed five years after he died. Some of Bristol’s best views are seen from the top of the park’s observatory, and the camera obscura is one of only two in England that is open to the public.
A return flight with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to London costs from Dh4,675, including taxes, and takes about seven hours. Regular trains connect London with Bristol, which take about one hour and 40 minutes and cost from £57 (Dh350 return).
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