Bristol is the United Kingdom’s eighth most populous city (approximately 421,000) and the most populated city in South West England, making it a core city in England. It received a Royal Charter in 1155 and was granted county status in 1373. From the 13th century, for half a millennium, it ranked among the top three English cities after London, alongside York and Norwich, until the rapid rise of Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester during the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century. Bristol borders the counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire and is also located near the historic cities of Bath to the southeast, Gloucester to the north and Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, to the northwest. The city is built around the River Avon, and has a short coastline on the estuary of the River Severn where it flows into the Bristol Channel.
Although often overlooked as a tourist destination, Bristol has a lot to offer of its own and is an excellent base for exploring the West Country, with relatively inexpensive accommodation compared to some of the main ‘tourist traps’ (such as nearby Bath) and a huge choice of bars, restaurants and shops. It is one of the most culturally vibrant cities in England, hosting a wide variety of visual arts, theatre, speciality shopping and live music.
In recent years, young people have flocked to Bristol thanks to the city's stunning and brilliant music scene - the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and Roni Size have contributed some of the most outstanding back catalogue of albums in the history of British music - not bad for a city which even in the early 80s was considered a backwater of the British music scene. Indeed, in 2010 Bristol was voted Britain's most musical city. The success of the Bristol music scene goes back to 1991 when Massive Attack released their magnficent opus "Blue Lines" which included the soaring "Unfinished Sympathy" and social critques such as "Safe From Harm" and "Daydreaming". "Blue Lines" was partly recorded in Bristol, at the Coach House studios in Clifton (now sadly defunct). Never has any album in British music captured the atmosphere and vibe of a specific city such as "Blue Lines" - particularly the track "Lately". This track, with vocals by Shara Nelson and a bass groove sample from "Mellow mellow right on" by Lowrell so perfectly captures the atmosphere of a summer's evening in Bristol - particularly on the Clifton Downs - that with its warm, laid back vibe is practically a signature song for the whole city.
Bristol is a large city with various areas in its centre; a map is helpful to get to know the layout. The free map given away at the Tourist Information Centre at the Harbourside is excellent for this. At Bristol's core is the Floating Harbour - a stretch of water that snakes along the city-centre which looks like a river in places but which is actually a dock. For centuries the Floating Harbour was where ships docked, bringing trade and prosperity to the city. It was created by diverting the River Avon in the early 19th century to the New Cut to the south, and by using various locks to create a non-tidal dock. Today, the industrial shipping has mostly gone and the Floating Harbour is a home for leisure, pleasure craft, upmarket waterfront apartments, and the occasional visiting sailing ship.
It's easiest to think about city locations as where they are relative to The Centre, or Central Promenade (it's called "The Centre" as it used to be the "Trams Centre", until Bristol's tram system was scrapped in the 1940s after bomb damage. Now it's more of a Bus Centre.). The Centre is a broad avenue running north-south with fountains and trees and shops, and traffic, reaching the Floating Harbour at its southern end. The Centre is a major interchange for most city bus routes - you can ask a bus driver for a ticket to "The Centre" from anywhere in the city and you'll get back there.
To the east of The Centre is the core of historic Bristol - the Old City. Here major streets include Queen Square, King Street, Baldwin Street, and Corn Street. It has wonderful Victorian and Georgian buildings, historic and charming pubs, and many places to shop, drink and eat. To the north-east of the Old City is Bristol's main shopping area - Broadmead, centred on the Broadmead itself and related streets such as the Horsefair, Union Street and Penn Street as well as The Galleries shopping centre. At the east end of the Broadmead is the major new shopping centre at Cabot Circus and a related development of more boutique shops at Quakers Friars. If you go east of Cabot Circus and across the dual carriageway you get to the less affluent area of Old Market, while if you go north of it you get to the St. Paul's area, which is a hotbed of culture but is best visited during the day.
To the north of The Centre are areas occupied by the city's hospitals, the bus station at Marlborough Street, and the University of Bristol.
To the west of The Centre is the Harbourside area, much of which has been a scene of heavy urban regeneration since 2000 and includes parts of what used to be called Canon's Reach. Here you'll find eateries in converted warehouses, Millennium Square with its attractions such as At-Bristol, and offices and smart apartments in new developments. It's a great place to spend time by the water. It continues to the south of the Floating Harbour at the M Shed museum of Bristol life, along to the SS Great Britain.
To the north-west of The Centre, and up Park Street, you head for the West End with its smart independent shops, the City Museum and other attractions, and if you keep going along Queen's Road you get to the upmarket Clifton area, known for its suspension bridge and elegant Georgian architecture.
The Tourist Information Centre can be found in the Watershed, a converted warehouse just off The Centre, just on the west side of the inlet of the Floating Harbour (St. Augustine's Reach). Walking south down The Centre, where the dock begins head to your right and under the colonnade. The Tourist Info Centre is a little way along.
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