25 March 2012

48 Hours in...Bristol

The train prices to Paris and even Edinburgh were too expensive this week and so we ended up in Bristol for our mini-city-break. The last time I went to Bristol was in 2001 on a university open day and I liked the place enough to make it my safety choice (not that an AAB offer was much of a safety net), but looking back, all I really remember of that day is my trip to TopShop. Anyway, after a quick Google search, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the city offered several nice-looking independent coffee bars and even a couple of secret speakeasy cocktail bars--my main requirements for any holiday destination--and overall, I was impressed. Here are some of my recommendations:

View Bristol Roving in a larger map

Places to stay
There are many different hotel and B&B options but we wanted to stay somewhere central but reasonably priced and narrowed it down to the Bristol Hotel and the Brooks Guesthouse, opting for the latter, in the end, as it seemed a more personal, friendly sort of place. Brooks used to be a youth hostel before being converted into a small but chic and tastefully decorated B&B. Our room was small but comfortable and reasonably quiet given its city centre location (and given the end-of-term celebrations that seemed to be going on outside). Once we'd figured out how to turn the main lights on, we were all set. The shower could have been slightly bigger, but overall, the room was nice and thoughtfully put together. The staff were very friendly too and breakfast included a long list of options and specials--I had a bacon sarnie one day and scrambled eggs and bacon on the other, but we were also encouraged to help ourselves to fruit, granola parfait and freshly baked blueberry muffins. Oh, and there is free WiFi and a laptop for guest use--one of the things that put me off the Bristol Hotel was the WiFi charge.

Places to drink
As I mentioned, I managed to track down two New York-style cocktail bars in Bristol. One, Hausbar, was that little bit too far away so we went to Hyde & Co, on Berkeley Crescent. There were no other customers when we arrived at about 7.30 on Thursday night but they were playing good music and the ambiance was cosy and cool; there were a few others there by the time we left. The drinks list was fairly extensive and creative--my drink isn't on the online menu but was strong, fruity and not too sweet (I don't think the Knickerbocker was on the menu we got and I would definitely have ordered that). The special of the day was the Hotel California so one of us had to order that, of course, but not me, given its cider content.

Hyde & Co
Places to eat
A quick Google search brought up a number of different restaurants but we decided to go to the Cowshed, a purveyor of steak on the hill up towards Clifton. Even on a Thursday, the earliest we could get a table was 8.30, although this suited us fine and gave us time for a pre-dinner aperitif. The Cowshed looks like it used to be someone's very grand, high-ceilinged living room and basement, and it probably was. The restaurant was nearly full and bustling. Although there were other options, we couldn't not have steak and my fillet steak was great and perfectly medium to medium-rare. The fries were chunkier than the "skinny" description on the menu suggested but very tasty, and although I do object to paying extra for a condiment, the BĂ©arnaise complemented my steak nicely. We passed on the puddings, though; there were a few tempting options but some crazy mark-ups: £8.30 for a chocolate torte and accoutrements? I think not. That aside, the Cowshed is a really nice independent restaurant.

Fillet steak at the Cowshed
On Friday night, we left dinner a little late and weren't sure where to try. We might have gone to Bistro du Vin but we had had steak the night before. Equally, although the menu at Bordeaux Quay looked quite promising, we weren't convinced by the ambiance, based on the restaurant's website. Thinking pizza might be a good option, we came across A Capella, which earned high praise from the Guardian, but it turned out to be too far out of town. Finally, we settled on No 51 Stokes Croft, which also sounded like a good bet for pizza. I was somewhat dubious when we showed up and there was a club-style bouncer and a bar/club set-up downstairs. The upstairs restaurant was quieter and cosier, though, and with music from the Blues Brothers soundtrack and from Mr J. Cash. The pizzas were actually very good: big, thin and crispy and with good quality tomato and mozzarella. Unusually, I chose a prosciutto, rocket and parmesan topping, which I promptly ate straight off the pizza before making a start on the base. So, that told me!

Places to caffeinate
We had a few coffee joints on our shortlist, assuming that our choice would probably depend on our location. We ended up having a macchiato and a sandwich at 194° Fahrenheit on a sunny, pedestrianised street in Clifton. The coffee was good, although not world-class--there was too much milk in my double mac, although the non-coffee-snob part of me doesn't really mind this. The other main candidate on my caffeine list was Coffee #1, which has a number of outlets in the region, including one in Clifton. We had a quick peek inside and it had the feel of a friendly, neighbourhood coffee shop but with the bonus of a great coffee machine (La Marzocco). Sadly, we didn't have time to test out the coffee but I would definitely want to stop by next time I'm in town.

Macchiato at 194F
Places to see
OK, so we didn't end up doing that many touristy things. We walked along the harbourside, which was pretty funky and high-tech, and we walked up to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which provided some great views by day and by night. We also went to the camera obscura in the Clifton Observatory, next to the bridge. I'm not sure I've ever been in a camera obscura before and it was great fun being able to watch the view of the bridge--and to spy on people outside, of course! Other than that, we wandered a lot and watched the Hunger Games film (review to follow), at the Showcase cinema, rather than at the Watershed, sadly.
Clifton Suspension Bridge by night

Overall, then, Bristol impressed me. If you're looking for a cool place for a short city break, I would definitely recommend it. I didn't end up doing any shopping, unusually for me, but from what I saw of the shops, it looks like it would be a good shopping destination too.

Because it wouldn't be a holiday without a leap - this is taken in Millenium Square, near the Harbourside

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