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Chilled-out Bristol is the United Kingdom's favorite quick getaway, and it's time more Americans got in on the fun.

David Landsel
April 13, 2018

Bristol is the sunniest and warmest of the United Kingdom's largest population centers, all things being relative; historically a vital link to the New World, the city has a long-held tradition of looking outward, rather than back in. The landscape is dramatic—hills on hills on hills. There's an attractive old harbor, protected from the elements by the narrow Avon Gorge. Within minutes of the center, you can lose yourself in the gorge's wide-open spaces.

The architecture of Bristol is cheerful, nearly exuberant—rows of terraced homes are often painted in bright colors, or at the very least, white. Everywhere you go, there is street art, there are independent shops and cafes, there are signs that things are just a little different here; the presence of two universities surely doesn't hurt. Bristol, home to world-renowned street artist Banksy, the birthplace of electronic outfit Massive Attack (and plenty more since) notable for its aerospace and tech sectors, feels young, alive—happy, even?

Britain is not widely known as a place to come looking to hang around with the sort of chilled out folks you might hope to find on the West Coast of North America, and certainly not nowadays. Pop into Bristol, however, and you'd be forgiven for feeling as if things are well, a little different here, and that is because they are. No wonder it has become one of the country's most desirable destinations. No wonder it is consistently ranked among the best cities in Britain for living. Life is, well, it just feels a little easier in Bristol, a bit more mellowed out. And to think, London is just two hours away by train.

But who needs London, really, at least that's kind of how it feels, once you're here—ask the people who know these things and they'll tell you, quite gladly, that Bristol is, at the moment, home to the most exciting restaurant scene outside of London. It is the spirited, work-life-balanced West to London's go-go, work-addicted East, it is a place crawling with good food, at every price point, and now is a terrific time to get here and try it for all yourself. Here, an eating-centric guide to four completely distinct sections of one singular city, a place more Americans should be visiting, but aren't. Not yet, anyway.

Harbourside

Bristol-wise, you'd be hard-pressed to find a dining destination more popular right now, both with locals and visitors; adjacent to a vast converted transit shed that houses a museum (free) that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Bristol, from its historic relevance to the slave trade to modern contributions the city has made to the arts, you'll find the focal point of much of the excitement. Cargo, a two-phase project which placed an impressive number of very good restaurants in tiny but perfectly-formed spaces in a stack of old shipping containers, is a fantastic introduction to Bristol's scene—everything in here ranges from very good to terrific, it's just a question of where you start. There's Box-E, a 14-seat seasonal modern British restaurant, there's also the vegetable-centric, small plates spot Root. Alex Hayes' tiny Squeezed turns out one of Bristol's best burgers, MasterChef finalist Larkin Cen is doing modern Chinese at Woky Ko, while gluten free fish and chips at Salt and Malt more than satisfy any cravings for the traditional. Around the corner, the pedestrianized Gaol Ferry Steps—leading out to the River Avon—is another focal point, with an almost continental vibe (must be all that sidewalk seating). Try the sourdough pizza at Bertha's, or post up at Little Victories for coffee and cakes. And while the suburb south of the river (accessed via pedestrian bridge) might feel like the turnaround point, forge ahead and you'll find Birch, an affordable and intimate neighborhood joint that happens to be one of Bristol's most talked-about restaurants, thanks to a firm commitment to local produce and regional culinary tradition. (They've even got their own small farm, out on the edge of town.)

Old City

If the scene along the harbor sounds exciting, that's because it is, but don't get stuck there, because there's so much more, starting just a short walk away. Past the restored grandeur of Queens Square, past the iconic Llandoger Trow pub (dating back to 1664), and up a flight of stairs, the city's St. Nicholas Markets comprise an entire district within a neighborhood, a photogenic maze of passageways, pubs, craft sellers and (most important) good food. Ranked one of the best large markets in the country, things come from here—there's the pioneering Source Café, a farm-to-table original, the now-exported (but still best sampled here) Pieminister, offering a pleasant (but still quite affordable) upgrade on a British classic. While you're spoiled for things to eat pretty much every day, things amp up even more on Tuesdays and Fridays, with the addition of the Street Food Market, where everything from Tibetan momos (from a family recipe) to Japanese bowls turn a busy street corner into one of Bristol's best lunch destinations. Wherever you end up eating, save room for a slice of cake at Ahh Toots, then head around the corner, where multi-roaster cafe Full Court Press is one of Bristol's most serious (and most welcoming) places for a coffee, which is saying something, particularly with the excellent Small Street Espresso just a block away. (Try both.)

Stokes Croft & Montpelier

One busy intersection away from the Primarks and Debenhams and all the other usual suspects in Bristol's lively shopping precinct, the city's truly countercultural side begins to reveal itself, beginning in one of those sad sunken piazzas that once seemed like a great way to use the middle of large traffic roundabouts. Referred to colloquially as The Bearpit, it's just across from here that you'll find the utterly charming Flow, which does seasonal, plant-focused small plates (right?), setting the tone for your foray into the glorious, street art splashed, stubbornly anti-corporate hangout of Stokes Croft, butting up against Montpelier, recently trumpeted in the national media as the coolest neighborhood in the country, outranking its London competitors. But we're jumping ahead, because there's so much to see (and eat) in Stokes Croft—pop into the boho Arts House Café, sip craft beers and eat pizza to a soundtrack of live music at The Crofter's Rights, grab lunch with the creative crowd at Banksy mural-adjacent Canteen, or go full hippie at Café Kino, a vegan hangout that's also a not-for-profit cooperative. Just off the main drag, next to an arts space called the People's Republic of Stokes Croft (about sums it up), the critically-acclaimed Jamaica Street Stores is drawing people who's university days are far behind them for West Country produce-focused small plates on a menu that's at least fifty percent vegetarian (and often raw). Meat lovers, no fear—they do a good Sunday lunch, too. Wandering into Picton Street and up toward bite-sized Montpelier Park offers an immersion in the Montpelier section, home to some great little cafes (Monty's) and a lot of charming homes; next to the Montpelier train stop, don't miss Flour & Ash, for pizzas.

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Clifton

A privileged location, perched just above the dramatic Avon Gorge and its Brunel-designed suspension bridge, not to mention an embarrassment of Georgian architecture, should be enough to get you out to this historic suburb (walking distance from the center of town, if you don't mind the gradual climb up and then back down again), but Clifton's real surprise is its wealth of great hangouts, sprinkled throughout the area's multiple (and distinctive) commercial districts. While most visitors end up in the bridge-adjacent Clifton Village section, those in search of the best eats should first head to the area around Clifton Down station; here, you'll find Kuch, a smart spot for Persian cooking, while nearby, there's terrific tapas at Bellita. In the neighboring Chandos Road area of Redland, there's Wilsons, a bright little spot for simple, seasonal cooking and an impressive list of natural wines. No place, however, quite sums up Bristol's sunny personality like The Lido, a Victorian-era swimming club that's been beautifully restored—come here to splash around, but mostly come here for the restaurant, or the poolside tapas bar. Hedonistic? Just a little. In London, something like this would be members-only—in Bristol, this is open to the public, year-round. One thing's the same—to guarantee access, best to book ahead