Bristol fashions a smart new image

Costa Rica

Bristol, proud old seafaring city in the West Country, is sprucing itself up as a bright new waterfront destination. The writer found plenty to applaud, including the triumphs of a Victorian engineering genius, a very sweet hotel, a lively new science and technology centre, and a deep green restaurant. (Photo - SS Great Britain, by the author.)

Steam Sensation.

The SS Great Britain is one of the UK’s finest visitor attractions. The great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel built her, the world’s first iron-hulled, steam-powered ship, on this exact spot in Bristol docks in 1843. After a famous career as luxury transatlantic passenger liner, then globe-circling cargo ship, she languished in the Falklands for years as a sorry hulk, until she was rescued and towed back home in 1970 by a band of visionaries. Now she is being restored. You walk underneath the great vessel in the dry dock, then visit the impressive exhibition centre, where they tell the ship’s story from heroic beginnings, through world travels, to successful preservation. Then stroll out on deck, and see for yourself how people worked and voyaged on this British marvel.

Classy Clifton

The Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge (built 1854) is another great legacy of to the engineering genius Brunel. I took the 8A bus from the city centre (buy the all-day bus ticket), and crossed to see the (free) bridge exhibition on the far side. Take in nearby Bristol Zoo, if you have time. I sauntered back through graceful Clifton Village, a gorgeous network of classy Georgian crescents, squares and terraces, interspersed with independent shops, antique dealers, chic boutiques and one-off cafes. Coffee #1 (33 Princess Victoria St) served me first-rate, inexpensive coffee and a delicious panini. You could take a bus back to town, or -- as it's downhill all the way -- walk down steep Park Street, full of interesting shops, restaurants and cafes, via the Museum and Art Gallery, and majestic Bristol Cathedral.

Sweet Dreams.

What a fine example of the “let’s find a new use for this sad old building” philosophy. Instead of flattening this derelict 18th-century city centre sugar warehouse, the developers turned it into a Hotel du Vin in 1999, preserving original brickwork, exposed beams and girders. I found it just along from steep, quaint old Christmas Passage. The big image in the lobby of this Anglo-French run place is a copy of the Picasso 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, behind a great sweeping open staircase, alongside the original 120 feet high chimney. They put me in one of the slightly racy suites at the top, full of deep leather armchairs, with 'his and hers' adjoining baths on a mezzanine floor. I preferred the shower. Downstairs, more delectable leather sofas to slump into in the Sugar Bar. There's good brasserie food in the restaurant, with an impressive wine list for such a small place, all served with a strong French accent.

High tech explore

The name is Explore @ Bristol. But that doesn’t do justice to this fascinating and entertaining 21st Century science and technology centre, handling subjects as big as the universe. I enjoyed it enormously, two solid hours of exploring how space research affects our lives, playing with light and mirrors, feeling the force of a gyroscope, investigating magnets, and testing the theory that bubbles released from the ocean floor may have caused Bermuda triangle boats to sink. I inspected the massive landing gear of the Airbus A340, caught up on the latest DNA advances, and took part in one of the interactive reaction tests. The reward for all this serious stuff was the chance to play virtual basketball, without a ball.

Water feature.

The River Avon, Bristol's seven mile link to the sea, is the water that made the city rich. Cabot and other explorers, and intrepid Bristol merchants helped open the world to the city, before shipping moved away. Today the port is back, as the base for Bristol’s bold resurgence. New homes, restaurants and cafes, the Arnolfini Gallery and the excellent Watershed Cinema line the revived Harbourside. Bristol Ferry runs a regular boat service throughout the city stretch of the Avon. It’s an excellent, and lazy, way to see this fine hilly city, dense with history. Head down river (from the city centre) for the SS Great Britain. Up river, you pass St. Mary Redcliffe. Queen Elizabeth I considered it 'the fairest parish church in England.' And on to Temple Meads station, next to the Museum of Slavery.

Eat Green.

Bordeaux Quay opened in 2006 in a converted warehouse on the city centre dockside, where ships once unloaded wine from France. Its theme is deep green. Bullet points in its bid to cause minimal damage to the environment include flushing toilets with rainwater from the roof, solar power to heat water, serving tap water, filtered and chilled, in reusable glass bottles, and reducing food miles by sourcing as many ingredients as possible in the West Country. There is a brasserie (typical dish: sun dried tomato, courgette and basil tart) and a restaurant.

The writer travelled with First Great Western.

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