From its maritime heart to the hilly, green suburb, this handsome harbour city is ripe for discovery
Bristol's chief focal point is the Harbourside. This is a revitalised area of the River Avon focused on the Floating Harbour that contains many of the city's top attractions, as well as waterfront bars and restaurants, and the tourist office.
A short walk north and east from the Harbourside lies the compact Old City, with a lively market, ancient pubs and the elegant Queen Square. Rising west of the centre is the Georgian suburb of Clifton, Bristol's most desirable neighbourhood. From the city centre up to Clifton Village it's a fair old climb: consider hopping on bus No 8 or 9 (firstgroup.com/bristol).
Take a hike
Make a circuit around the scenic Floating Harbour, the tidal-free 19th-century port. Start at the Arnolfini which was once a tea warehouse and is now an arts centre with free exhibitions (arnolfini.org.uk). Follow the quayside along the north of the harbour, past the amphitheatrical Lloyds building and beyond. You soon come to the jetty for Number Seven Boat Trips' cross-harbour ferry.
The very brief ride deposits you outside the SS Great Britain (ssgreatbritain.org; daily 10am-5.30pm; £12.95). Brunel's magnificent liner is housed in the dry dock where she was built, and you can walk under a glass "sea" to inspect her revolutionary iron hull, and tour the decks, where Victorian life on board is imaginatively recreated. Resume following the quayside back along the harbour's south side until you reach the four vast grey cargo cranes – the last of dozens that once lined the docks in the 1950s.
Cranes stand in front of the M Shed (mshed.org; Tuesday-Friday 10am-5pm; weekends 10am-6pm; free), a former goods shed that opened as Bristol's engaging local history museum in 2011. On the ground floor, you can learn about the city's diverse neighbourhoods, while upstairs you can find out about the involvement of Bristol merchants and plantation owners in slavery, and the riots that broke out in 1980.
Lunch on the run
At lunchtime, hungry office workers and shoppers tuck into Caribbean wraps, tagines, falafel and much more, in the mini cafés and stalls that line the Glass Arcade of St Nicholas Market. A £4.20 pie (gravy 30p extra) at Bristol's own Pieminister – filled with British meat and veg – is highly recommended.
Park Street has a concentration of Bristol's more quirky independent shops. Drop in on Weapon of Choice (weaponofchoicegallery.co.uk), for limited-edition prints by Bristolian street artists, and Upstairs at BS8 (upstairsatbs8.co.uk), which sells locally made clothes, jewellery and trinkets. Park Street's classiest shop is Bristol Guild (bristolguild.co.uk), an emporium of designer kitchenware, furniture, toys and gourmet food.
Dining with the locals
The new Grillstock Smokehouse (grillstock.co.uk) at 41 Triangle West, offers American barbecue fare, such as beef brisket, chicken and ribs. The award-winning Thali Cafe (thethalicafe.co.uk) has five Bristol branches, including 1 Regents Street in Clifton Village. Indian dishes include delicious vegetarian and meat thalis from £8.50.
Go to church
Bristol's handsome cathedral at College Green ( bristol-cathedral.co.uk; daily 8am to evensong) is mostly Gothic in style but its highlight is the Norman chapter house, with walls covered by intricate, geometrical carvings. Sunday service is at 10am.
Take a view
At the top of Brandon Hill park sits Cabot Tower (daily 8am to 30 minutes before dusk), built in 1897 to mark John Cabot's voyage from Bristol to America 400 years earlier. Climb its spiral stairs for a 360-degree view over the city and the hills beyond.
Out to brunch
The laid-back, family run Primrose Café (primrosecafe.co.uk) is a Clifton Village institution at the entrance to Clifton Arcade. It has a big outdoor terrace and its wide-ranging Sunday brunch menu (9.30am-3.30pm) covers fry-ups and treats such as waffles and maple syrup.
A walk in the park
It's a short walk from Clifton Village to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This elegant landmark, spanning the deep Avon Gorge, was designed by Brunel, but not completed until five years after he died in 1859 (cliftonbridge.org.uk; daily 10am to 5pm; free). From here, it's five minutes' walk west to the entrance of Ashton Court Estate, a rolling, 850-acre country park with trails through glorious meadows, mature woodland and deer enclosures.
Take a ride
The Bristol Ferry Boat Company (bristolferry.com), which departs from the city centre from 10.15am to 5.15pm, provides scheduled waterbus services around the Floating Harbour, with stops near Temple Meads station, by the M Shed and SS Great Britain, and further west in Hotwells. Fares start at £1 for one-stop trip, rising to £4.80 for a round trip.
Icing on the cake
Bristol is famous for its street art and some of the most striking works can be found in Stokes Croft. On a wall on Stokes Croft Road, at the junction with Jamaica Street. It's just along from Banksy's provocative The Mild Mild West, of a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police. Eye-catching murals also adorn the dreary buildings along Nelson Street in the city centre – the results of a large-scale street art project.