More insider guides for planning a trip to Bristol
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
That Bristol has a superb restaurant scene is now a given, but its drinking dens and nightlife options are also something to be reckoned with too, as is its renowned live music scene. From classic pubs (such as the well known Coronation Tap cider house in Clifton) to speakeasies and romantic cocktail bars – the city has an abundance of excellent haunts. As for music, there is everything from classical performances at revamped St George’s Bristol concert hall, major acts at the O2 Academy or Colston Hall (currently undergoing a major refurbishment) and DJs at Lakota, to all manner of bands in bars, dives and long-running venues – including on a boat in the harbour. Here are 10 of the best…
The Milk Thistle
Hard to find – there is a tiny nameplate by the door and you press a buzzer to get in – this is an absolute gem. A former merchant house dating back to the mid-19th century, it’s set out over four floors and styled as a speakeasy and awash with wood panelling, oil paintings, red leather chairs, stained glass and taxidermy. Head to the main bar (the Parlour) and try one of 150 cocktails (such as the powerful Bourbon-based Boulevadier), or maybe a plum sake, or ask to go down to the tiny downstairs Vault for whiskies and pure spirits. Booking is essential on Friday and Saturday.
Contact: 0117 929 4429; milkthistlebristol.com
The Old Duke
You’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing much has changed at The Old Duke, named in homage to Duke Ellington, in the 50-odd years they have been putting on New Orleans-style jazz. It’s a formula that works, making this such a special pub with its black and white flooring, pictures of jazz legends and old music posters. In the main, the small stage hosts jazz in various forms (Friday evening and Sunday lunchtime are favoured jazz-head sessions) but there’s also blues and rock. A range of changing beers and ciders is on tap, including the local Gem from Bath.
Contact: 0117 401 9661; theoldduke.co.uk
The Gold Bar at Bristol Harbour Hotel
Hotel bars are great for (sometimes) avoiding the crowds and for finding tip-top mixologists. The Gold Bar at the Bristol Harbour Hotel (set in a grand Victorian Grade II-listed building) is no exception. It’s an elaborate spin on what it claims is a “speakeasy” style, but it’s more a romantic and slinky hideaway bar awash with vivid floral colours and fabrics, colourful artwork (giant playing cards, a movie poster for Attack of the 50ft Woman) and velvet banquette chairs and stools. There is a DJ on Friday nights; the Nespresso martinis ought to be tried.
Contact: 0117 203 4445; harbourhotels.co.uk/bristol
Perfectly capturing the mood of Stokes Croft, The Canteen bar is chilled and affordable with canteen-style tables crammed in front of the stage (there’s live music every night – afro-beat, reggae, hip-hop and the like). Open from 10am, the mood changes throughout the day, ramping up for the evening sessions. The long bar stocks a vast ranges of beers and ciders (Bristol Beer Factory and North Street cider among them) plus wine; they do a good Bloody Mary too. The sustainable food menu is delicious – pulled chicken burger or beetroot and goats cheese risotto, perhaps. Banksy’s Mild Mild West artwork looks down over the entrance.
Contact: 0117 923 2017; canteenbristol.co.uk
Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Hidden down an alleyway, you walk through an old telephone box to get to the delightfully compact and very British HMSS. It all seems very hush-hush and discreet in keeping with its loose James Bond image – there’s a caricature of Sean Connery on the wall – although a Seventies disco theme is also present too (via a glitterball and the music). Sit at the bar, high tables or large cornered sofa and peruse “Winston’s Illustrated Travel Guide to the British Isles” – a witty and very cool cocktail menu; try the bourbon-based Angel of Mercy.
Contact: 0117 973 3926; hmssbristol.com
Sister bar of the award-winning Dark Horse in Bath, Crying Wolf quickly made a name for itself. The sultry theme is British nature and woodland – lots of local, handmade oak furnishing, rich green or red colouring and antler-style chandeliers. The drinks menu also emphasises local produce with English spirits and liqueurs (Cotswolds single malt, Somerset Ice Cider); among the beautifully made cocktails there’s a house-spiced Rum Espresso. Expect well crafted soul and rock and roll music on the ground floor; soon there’s likely to be a turntable downstairs, where the vibe is more eclectic.
Contact: 0117 946 7767; cryingwolf.co.uk
The mural of Rapunzel in a hoodie on the outside of the pub by street artist Nick Walker adds a witty 21st century touch to this 200-year-old pub. From the tiny snug at the front, to the wood-panelled main bar with its alcove seating, working train set running along the wall, bar billiards and large walled garden, Highbury Vaults is at once cosy and traditional with around six beers and ciders on tap including, Gem and Addlestone cider; plus guests ales. There are rolls on the bar, old school-style, but you can also tuck into the likes of wild boar sausage stew and chilli con carne.
Contact: 01179 733203; highburyvaults.co.uk
Bristol Beer Factory
A den for beer lovers, the Bristol Beer Factory screams independence (like much of the city; the brewery also supplies a handful of other venues) and serves a range of lush beers with names such as Fortitude and Rockstar Breakfast. Set in an old brewery dating back to the 1860s, the convivial, if sparsely decorated Tap Room is furnished with wooden tables and leather sofas from where you can sample a selection of up to 16 cask, keg or bottled ales. For true aficionados every other week they offer tours of the brewery combining history, brewing facts and drinking. The bar also stocks a great cider by North Street.
Contact: 0117 947 1298; bristolbeerfactory.co.uk
East Mud Dock
This German-built, former cargo ship has, since 1984, been one of the city’s favoured music venues for hosting up-and-coming bands: Frank Turner, Calvin Harris, Foals, Florence and the Machine all played here in their early days. There’s an unprepossessing small bar on the top deck, but head down to where the music is on the deck below. It’s dark and atmospheric with black walls and a long bar (everything from cocktails to tinned craft beers); the view of the stage is pretty good from any point but, drink in hand, squeezing your way to the front is more fun.
Contact: 0117 929 3301; theklabristol.co.uk
Just down from Wapping Wharf, the whitewashed Louisiana, a former sailors’ hotel with its distinctive balcony is something of a landmark; Coldplay, Muse, Super Furry Animals and Placebo have all played here. The ground floor is more like a trendy canteen than a pub but with a good range of beers, lagers and ciders – try the Orchard Pig – and the Sunday roast is recommended. Head to the small, 140-capacity upstairs room and revel in the sweatily intimate intoxication that the music generates. A great place to catch emerging indie bands.
Contact: 0117 926 5978; thelousiana.net