The Ultimate Bristol Suburb Guide: Clifton
In a city where each neighbourhood has its own distinct character, Clifton still manages to stand out. Sitting on the base of an Iron Age fort, this exclusive suburb is the opulent centrepiece of Bristol — where Georgian streets are lined with chic boutiques, cosy cafes, and architecture that exudes class and style.
The lower part of Clifton, known as Hotwells, borders the harbourside, and the suburb then stretches all the way up the precipitous Clifton Vale, through Cliftonwood where colourful terraces overlook the city, all the way past the bustling hub of the Clifton Triangle, and on towards Whiteladies Road, which leads into the neighbouring suburb of Redland.
Within this charming small section of the city, some of Bristol’s most treasured landmarks and attractions are to be found. These include Bristol Zoo, which at 184 years old is the fifth oldest in the world, to Clifton Observatory, and of course the iconic Clifton suspension Bridge.
Looming above the Avon Gorge, Bristol’s most famous bridge was described by designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel as “My first love, my darling”. Unfortunately, the engineer died five years before his love could be seen in its full glory, and it was finished by his colleagues as an act of memorial.
Still intact today, the bridge is a testament to Bristol’s engineering heritage, and, unlike so many similar Victorian bridges, has retained structural integrity over its lifespan. Despite being designed for horses and carts, the bridge remains mostly unchanged with no need for reinforcements despite the millions of motorists that now use it every year.
Glimpsed against the surrounding hills, the bridge is a spectacular sight; either at night when it is lit with ambient lighting, or during the day, where panoramic views can be enjoyed of Bristol’s surrounding area. At the edge of Clifton, the bridge is also a doorway to Clifton Down, and, across the Avon Gorge, the rolling hills of the Ashton Court Estate.
Those interested in the rest of Brunel’s engineering legacy can find remnants dotted around Clifton — at the Clifton Rocks Railway, a disused funicular running in a tunnel through the rocks that was once used for BBC radio, and down at the harbourside, where Brunel’s original swing bridge can still be seen (although it has long since been replaced by a modern concrete alternative).
Long before Brunel was born, the stage was already set for Clifton to become a spectacular suburb. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bristol was thriving as a colonial port, and when wealth poured in from the new world, Clifton was enriched with profits from tobacco and the slave trade.
The Georgian architecture lining the streets is testament to the decadence of the era, and later helped make Clifton fashionable with nobility as a summer spa town. Today, the Spa at Hotwells has long since been demolished, but several stunning architectural examples remain — like Royal York Crescent which was once thought to be the longest terrace in Europe, and the Clifton Lido, which after full restoration in 2008 became a great spot for all-year-round swimming. On the modern side, the hexagonal Clifton Cathedral is a classic example of Brutalist architecture.
Underneath the iconic suspension bridge flows the Avon— a tidal river that hosts ships moving to and from Bristol harbour. A murky brown colour, the river doesn’t look like much of an ecological site, but the gorge on each side is home to 27 rare plants, including several species of flowers — like the Bristol onion and Bristol rockcress — that are not found anywhere else in the world.
Sitting above the gorge on a summers evening, falcons, kestrels, and barn owls can be spotted hunting. And, if you stay a little later, bats can be seen foraging in the moonlight.
As the area is largely inaccessible (apart from climbers who can occasionally be seen scaling the rocky crag), wildlife has managed to thrive, but just over the hill is an area of land that throngs with human activity — Clifton Down is popular with dog walkers, footballers, sunset watchers, and those seeking escape from the city on this large expanse of meadows and lawns.
Indeed, walking through the downs, one could almost be forgiven for forgetting they were so close to the city centre. This area of protected parkland stretches all along the gorge, giving great views out towards the coastal port of Avonmouth, and across the river to another area of natural beauty — Leigh Woods, where you can find more of Bristol’s unique flora, including the Bristol Whitebeam.
Cafés and Curiosities
Weary from your exertions, there is no need to venture too far for refreshment. Though not immune to the influx of generic chain stores, Clifton retains an abundance of characterful cafes and eateries.
The private roof garden at Primrose Café on Boyce’s Avenue is the perfect place to while away a sunny afternoon, refreshed by tea, coffee, and their famous homemade cake. Should you tire of tea, the café sits on the edge of the Victorian Clifton Arcade, which offers good exploring for anyone interested in vintage clothing, jewellery, or retro-styled shopping.
As evening draws in, a large selection of atmospheric restaurants open their doors. Clifton offers a wide range of cuisine, to suit both deep and shallow pockets. From the stylish Noa, which serves contemporary Japanese cuisine in immersive surroundings (think Manga lounges and themed dining areas), to Sri Lankan Street Food right on the Clifton Triangle at the Coconut Tree — a local chain which has sister branches in nearby Cheltenham and Gloucester.
If that all sounds a bit exotic, get yourself some good British grub (with a twist) at the Clifton Sausage. A short walk from the suspension bridge on Portland Road, this independent restaurant offers traditional meals like bangers and mash, made with the finest ingredients and served with a touch of class.
Then, to polish off your Clifton experience, what could be more fitting than a pint of cider at The Coronation Tap — a centuries-old ciderhouse and a Bristol institution, which serves an impressive selection of scrumpy from its central location on Sion Place.