After enduring four rainy, cold days in London, I arrived in Bristol a bit waterlogged. However, when I exited the train station, the sun shone, the sky was blue, and the air warmed. I took this as a fortuitous sign regarding my upcoming stay in Bristol and Bath.
As the largest city in western Britain, Bristol is a historic inland port and is located just across the channel from Wales.
The River Avon snakes through the city and empties into the sea a mere 7 miles away. As a result, Bristol is filled with bridges and boats and is easily walkable.
The city’s seafaring traditions go back to 1051, and by the 14th century, ships from Spain, Portugal, and Iceland were arriving with goods to trade.
It was also a departure point for ships sailing to the New World. Their rich nautical history can be seen by visiting the Harbourside area.
And the best way to get a great tour of the city is to take one of the brightly painted ferry boats that make 17 stops, allowing a visitor to hop on and off to explore.
While in Harbourside, I recommend a stop to tour Brunel’s SS Great Britain—the world’s first ocean liner. The grandeur and classic elegance of the liner is a far cry from today’s mega-ships.
In this area you can also visit the Bristol Aquarium and Science Centre.
The ferry boats also travel under the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge. Designed by engineer Isambard Brunel to transport light, horse-drawn traffic, the bridge was started in 1831 and finished in 1864, five years after Brunel’s death.
Today, more than 12,000 vehicles cross it daily. Visitors can walk, jog, or bike across the bridge for free, and there’s a lovely view of Bristol from its lofty perch, but it should be avoided if you’re afraid of heights!
On the west side of the bridge is the Clifton Observatory, which also offers scenic views of the city and the bridge. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic, and many families and couples took advantage of the warm sunshine the day I was there.
One of the things I enjoy doing when visiting a new city is taking a day to wander around. My aimless travels brought me to Bristol’s Old City, and I discovered St. Nicholas Market.
The maze of shops has been in existence since 1743. I nosed around the small stores and spent extra time in Stanfords, a travel and map bookstore—heaven!
The scent of roasting beef filled the alleys, and many locals sat at tables eating lunch.
The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery was another one of my finds. It has free admission so you can stop in for a few hours. The collection is a bit of a hodgepodge with paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese ceramics, Egyptian antiquities, and collections of locally produced glass and pottery.
The museum gained attention in 2008 when it exhibited the works of the elusive Bansky (a graffiti artist whose work grew out of the Bristol underground scene).
Located 13 miles southeast of Bristol is Bath. An UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bath is another walkable city. Known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, Bath was founded upon natural mineral hot springs, which bubble at a rate of 250,000 gallons a day.
The Romans built the baths in A.D. 75 and dedicated it to the goddess Sulis Minerva. They believed the water was a gift from the goddess Minerva and had healing powers.
Supplicants would throw items into the springs as gifts or payment for miracles. Visitors can see these items in the museum as well as take a tour through the excavated site of the Temple of Sulis Minerva.
I highly recommend visiting the baths and taking the audio tour. Throughout the pump house, baths, and museum there are numbers for audio commentary, which includes historical details.
A few audio stops included comments from the well-known travel writer Bill Bryson. If you want a hands-free trip, you’ll need to bring your own headphones for the audio device.
In the main bath area, you are welcome to pull off your shoes and dip your feet into the water. Although the green color isn’t inviting, the temperature is comfortably warm.
At the end of the tour, there is a fountain where you can sample the water, which contains 42 minerals. I didn’t enjoy its harsh, metallic taste.
There are a number of other places to visit while in Bath. The Jane Austen Centre is dedicated to the famous author and her novels. Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and the city inspired her writing, especially the novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Those who wish to experience life in the Regency period can immerse themselves by dressing up in period costumes and having tea in the Regency Tea Rooms.
The Bath Abbey is located on the main square and worth a visit. The abbey is known as the “Lantern of the West” due to its abundance of windows.
Another of Bath’s famous citizens, Beau Nash, who was a flamboyant dandy and leader of fashion, is buried in the nave of the abbey.
Speaking of fashion, the Museum of Costume in Bath has one of the best collections of costumes and fashion in all of Europe. Clothing, shoes, lingerie, and accessories from the 16th century up to present day can be seen at this museum, including the infamous ultra-sheer green Versace dress worn by Jennifer Lopez at the 2000 Grammy Awards.
While in Bath, book a tour to Stonehenge. Located an hour away in Wiltshire, England, Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument and the most iconic landmark in Europe.
Built around 2500 B.C. in the late Neolithic period, Stonehenge comprises standing stones arranged in concentric circles. It’s an amazing engineering feat because the heavy stones were moved from miles away.
To get a sense of just how heavy these stones are, there is an interactive display at the new visitor’s center where you and a group of your friends can try to move a stone the same size and weight—try being the key word.
Stonehenge is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can see it from the road or hike into the surrounding fields, but a fence keeps you from getting close. I strongly recommend buying a ticket and listening to the audio tour. Some people are disappointed that they can’t walk among the stones. Due to soil erosion, it is not permitted.
However, you can go within 15 feet, and there is a walkway that encircles the site. I enjoyed being able to view the stones without other people in the way. It added to the mystery and heavy importance of the place.
There are many theories about why the ancients (not the Druids) build Stonehenge. The authors of Stonehenge Decoded claim it is an astronomical observatory capable of predicting eclipses.
In 2008, human cremation remains dating back to 3000 B.C. were found around the stones, and this led to the theory that Stonehenge was a monument to the dead.
No matter the reason for its existence, visiting Stonehenge was the highlight of my tour. And the weather remained beautiful! )))