IHALF expected Tom Hanks to come running around the corner at any moment. We were walking through Temple Gardens, a small, open park dominated at one end by the ruins of Temple Church, founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century close to the centre of Bristol. But this is the city of Banksy rather than Da Vinci, and there was no sign of any hidden codes or a holy grail tucked under the wooden bench. Still, it was an intriguing glimpse into the past as we walked through the quirky byways near the River Avon, which cuts through the city and provides a living link with its colourful and glorious past.
Our base for our weekend short break was the Hilton Garden Inn, which fronts the main road link into the city, Temple Way, but backs onto the quiet and picturesque gardens. We found Bristol was a tale of two cities here – busy yet peaceful, ultra-modern yet proud of its chequered past, built on commerce dating back through the centuries with dark chapters including the slave trade.
The ultra-modern vibe was reflected in the newly transformed 167-bedroom Hilton Garden Inn, formerly a Mint Hotel, in the heart of the city, close to the shops, Temple Quay business district and Temple Meads station.
There was a shiny new iMac computer in our room with internet access, which doubled as a TV and media centre. The friendly and helpful staff were from around the world, yet global translated to local in the kitchen. Breakfast highlights included – at last, after many years of hotel disappointments – a chef who knows that the best scrambled eggs have to be smooth and runny. The yoghurts were made by Ubley in North Somerset, and the freshly made Belgian waffle with maple syrup and blueberries was a delight. We dined in the City Cafe, where highlights included the cured fillet of Loch Duart salmon with fennel, Brixham crab and avacado cream; trio of Wiltshire pork (loin, slow roast belly and faggot); and salted caramel panacotta, peanut brittle with malted banana and fudge.
The waterfront, once a thriving commercial harbour, is now home to a series of major attractions, including Bristol Aquarium, the science-themed At-Bristol, with 300 exhibits, live shows and a planetarium.
Nearby, on the historic dockside is the free-to-visit M Shed, formerly Bristol's industrial museum, which is hosting an exhibition of Bristol Urban Sport, until September. Ten minutes further down the river by boat taxi, courtesy of the Bristol Ferry Boat Company, is Brunel's ss Great Britain, now in a permanent berth near the converted warehouses and docks. Built in Bristol by the greatest of Victorian engineers Isambard Kingdom Brunel, when she was launched, in 1843, the iron-hulled ship was the biggest and strongest ever built. Billed as the ship that changed history, the ss Great Britain was salvaged from ignominious fate – beached, stripped and used for storage in the Falkland Islands – and returned to Bristol, where she has been restored and turned into a first-class visitor attraction. The story of the ship is brought to life as you walk below the waterline in a cleverly adapted dry dock to see the giant hull. Then you go on board, strolling through the sumptuous dining salon through to the engine room, as the sights, sounds and even smells of a voyage are recreated, from the cramped family cabins to the cargo deck and stables for the military horses.
The waterside theme continued with a meal in the Glass Boat, a restaurant anchored securely close to the city centre with huge windows offering a panoramic view of the comings and goings along the river. The emphasis is on creative cooking to offer a fine dining experience, with plenty of local produce. Seared scallops were combined with almonds, cauliflower, lemon parsley and capers for one delicious starter; the other was a perfectly balanced selection of pâté, cured meats and terrine. My partner raved about the double rabbit main – stuffed rabbit loin with rabbit hotpot.
My rump of lamb with lentils and salsa verde was perfectly cooked, followed by ginger sponge pudding and rhubarb vacherin – meringue, ice cream and poached rhubarb.
Staying in the city centre means a shopping expedition is hard to avoid. The combined delights of Cabot Circus, The Galleries and Broadmead have more than 500 stores to choose from, enough to satisfy even the most discerning browser. Just a little farther afield takes you to the alternative, studenty land of Park Street, near the university (nominated for Hippest Street in the UK by Google Street Awards), and on up Whiteladies Road towards Clifton Downs and the upmarket boutiques of Clifton.
Bristol – also the home of Wallace and Gromit – does culture in a big way, from Banksy's street art to more mainstream offerings such as the Phantom of the Opera at the Bristol Hippodrome through June, to jazz and classical at St George's and Colston halls. The city is big on nightlife, with a live music scene, cutting-edge clubs, and bars, from cosy and historic pubs such as the 16th-century King's Head, near our hotel, to sophisticated cocktail lounges. Remember, Bristol in the Nineties gave birth to the trip-hop scene, producing such acts as Portishead, Massive Attack, Roni Size and Tricky.
And there are plenty of big events throughout the year, including the Bristol Harbour Festival (July 20 to 22) and of course Bristol International Balloon Fiesta at Ashton Court (August 9 to 12). For families, there's also Bristol Zoo. Or a river trip to make the most of the sights, sounds and tastes of this vibrant city.
More details: www.visitbristol.co.uk www.bristolcitycentre.hgi.com www.glassboat.co.uk