Staying at Bristol Harbour Hotel is a sound investment: the hotel occupies what was once the Lloyds and Midland bank HQ, in the historic city centre. Banker-seducing lures here include an outpost of award-winning restaurant the Jetty (housed in the grand old former banking hall), some of the comfiest beds we’ve ever woken up in, a nifty spa in the vaults and cocktails that are worth every penny. In case you need another nudge in the direction of your cheque book, the West Country afternoon teas aren’t bad, either…
11am, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £98.10, including tax at 5 per cent.
Rates usually exclude breakfast (£16.95 a person, daily, for a full English fry-up, plus Continental options).
The man to thank for the Bristol Harbour Hotel’s handsome building is renowned 19th-century architect (and Bristolian) William Bruce Gingell, who was inspired by Sansovino’s 16th-century Venetian library.
At the hotel
Free WiFi throughout. In rooms: TV; desk; on-the-house sherry or gin in glass decanters; Nespresso coffee machines; minibar; bath products by the White Company.
Our favourite rooms
Reap the benefits of the building’s bountiful curves by opting for one of the Corner Suites, which have enough space for a mini-army of bankers, plus a freestanding bathtub, a super-king-size bed and a shower that’s as refreshingly drenching as a tropical rainstorm.
You’ve probably never swum in a bank before, but now’s your chance: the spa has a lap pool and a hydrotherapy pool (plus a host of other treats).
Be rubbed, scrubbed, primped and preened in the Bristol Harbour Spa, set in the basement vaults (admire the original cash drop and safe door). The spa has a steam room, sauna, seven treatment rooms and a range of rituals featuring fragrant Espa unguents. Access is £25 a person, and for over-16s only.
Itty-bitty swimwear for the spa (yes, you too, Mr Smith).
For a £2.50 tray-charge, have breakfast brought to you in bed. (No crumbs on the pillows, mind.)
Little Smiths aged between three and 16 are welcome, but the hotel doesn’t come with family frills. The restaurant has a children’s menu and on-loan highchairs; staff will heat up milk. Extra beds (£20 a night) and cots (£15) can be added to rooms.
Stake out one of the big banquettes for privacy and people-watching.
Best of British, to match the menu. Brogues and brocade are a good start.
Set in the former banking hall, the Jetty has civic grandeur by the vault-load: lofty ceilings, tall windows, hits of cobalt, glossy parquet floors, a marble-topped bar and bespoke banquette seating, for example. The menu is as assured as the styling, thanks to chef Alex Aitken, who also oversees crowd-pleasing Jetty outposts in Devon, Cornwall, Chichester and beyond. As is natural, given Bristol’s watery position, there’s plenty to please fish- and seafood-lovers: highlights include a trio of octopus – featuring carpaccio, grilled and slow-cooked occy – and stone bass served with a herb-crusted mini shellfish pie. Canter through courses by opting for the Catch Mini-Gastro set menu, which will woo you via five different dishes. Attention, cake-fiends: the Jetty’s afternoon teas are popular for a reason…
Set to open in early 2017, the Gold Bar is bound to be a smart spot for accomplished cocktails (there will be 12 tipples to choose from, each with a name that riffs respectfully on the building’s banking heritage).
Dinner is served until 10.30pm at the Jetty. At the Gold Bar, thirsts are slaked until 1am, Thursday–Saturday; 11pm, Sunday–Wednesday.
A slimmed-down version of Jetty’s menu can be ordered around the clock.
Bristol Harbour Hotel sits slap-bang in the city’s centre, an anchor’s throw from Bristol Bridge. Some of the city’s best shops, bars, galleries, restaurants and museums are all among the hotel’s near neighbours.
Bristol Airport is nine miles away, offering direct flights from a bunch of European destinations (including Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna and Zurich) and various spots around the UK (www.bristolairport.co.uk). The hotel doesn’t offer transfers, but you can easily catch a taxi from the airport.
Bristol Temple Meads station is a 10-minute drive from Bristol Harbour Hotel. Londoners can hop to Bristol on a direct train from Paddington within two hours; there are also speedy connections to Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham and other UK hubs (www.gwr.com).
If you’re coming by car, set your Sat Nav for ‘BS1 1HT’ and be prepared to pay for public parking. There are two car parks close by; Nelson Street is usually £21 for 24 hours, but the hotel can arrange 20 per cent off.
Worth getting out of bed for
Stroll around Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, admiring the collections – which include some Banksy’s, natch. It would be rude not to acknowledge Bristol’s iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge: learn about its history on a free guided tour. If the idea of a giant shopping emporium with hundreds of brands makes your pulse quicken, flex your plastic at Cabot Circus, which also houses restaurants, bars and a cinema. Prefer the idea of rummaging for vintage treasure in independent boutiques? Pick up old-new threads from Loot, near Bristol Coach station, which has an impressive stash of menswear, womenswear, retro Nikes, accessories and more; add to your record collection at Rough Trade on Nelson Street or add to your library at Dreadnought on St George's Road. If you’re here in August, remember to look up at the skies: the city hosts Europe’s largest meeting of hot-air-balloon enthusiasts. Go for a stroll around peaceful Queen Square, admiring the elegant Regency architecture and immaculate lawns.
The Ox on Corn Street serves some of Bristol’s best steak; its fragrant Sunday roasts, imaginative sides and playful sweet treats are nothing to sneer at, either. Expect comfort food, done to best-of-British perfection. Steak sauces include charred-chilli romesco and green peppercorn; you can also drench your cut in garlic, chorizo or anchovy butter. Admire active types notching up laps while you sit back and relax at Lido Restaurant, Spa & Pool, sandwiched prettily between gracious Georgian terraces. In addition to the unusual mealtime views, Lido serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with afternoon tea and tapas in between. Not to be confused with the spa brand of the same name, Cowshed is a carnivore’s dream: the on-site butcher prepares juicy steaks and more at this laid-back restaurant on Whiteladies Road; the knowledgeable staff are more than happy to chat with fellow meat lovers. Find more meatiness at the singular Clifton Sausage, where humble bangers and mash gets the gourmet treatment. Alongside toad-in-the-hole and sausage platters, there are fish dishes and steaks too.
Milk thistle is reputed to be good for your liver; Milk Thistle on Colston Avenue might not be. This stylish little cocktail bar – sister to prohibition-style Hyde & Co – has walls as dark as squid ink and an impressive selection of house libations, alongside the classics. Try the Pioneer – Bruichladdich whisky, lemon juice, cocoa liqueur, fennel cordial and egg white – or one of the seasonal concoctions. Get your swank on at Red Light, a swish Union Street speakeasy with a payphone entrance (you’ll see), table service and dim-to-the-point-of-disrobing lighting.
I arrive in Bristol in the middle of a heatwave – the kind of temperatures that make us feeble Brits lose our minds and fight in the streets. When I get out of a taxi outside the Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa late one Sunday evening, there’s a bit of a set-to kicking off outside a bar down the road. The hotel is an old converted bank set right in the centre of the city – a charming and convenient location, but one that makes me wonder just how relaxing this short break will be.
One step through the hotel’s front doors, and my fears are allayed. With its cool white interior, the bijou lobby already feels reassuringly soothing, an impression that intensifies as the concierge accompanies me to my room. It’s silent up here, even though, as I discover from climbing onto the cosy window seat and peering through the shutters, my room faces the street where I was standing two minutes earlier. It’s not the only impressive feat of engineering in my superior double room. It’s compact with space given over to the right things. A subtly curved dresser increases the walking room, and beautifully frames the room’s centrepiece: the biggest bed I’ve ever seen. It could comfortably fit three, but tonight I have it all to myself.
Everything is pristine, elegant, calm, with a heady freshness. After washing up in the spacious bathroom, I settle under the seasonally appropriate duvet with a small nightcap. Although there’s a traditional minibar hidden in one of the fitted wardrobes, there are also two complimentary pitchers full of gin and sherry on a table by the bed. This unexpected generosity is also potentially lethal, but remembering the hardcore walking tour I’ve planned for tomorrow, I limit myself to one and fall asleep easily (thanks to the effective yet mercifully silent air conditioning).
For my money, Bristol is the best city in the UK. Its distinct boroughs offer something for everyone: there’s mainstream shopping in Cabot Circus, and independent havens spanning Park Street. Bijou Clifton Village teems with boutiques and fancy eateries, while just a 15-minute walk away, Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft offer bohemian art, food and clubs. While I’m angling to try the Harbour Hotel’s breakfast, I can also name about eight brunch spots that I also want to visit during my stay – earthy Katie and Kim’s, where almost everything comes with their addictive tarragon pesto, the Primrose in Clifton, Papadeli’s on Whiteladies, not to mention the stalls in St Nicholas’ Market, which faces the hotel. In the end I settle for a local institution, the Park Street branch of the Boston Tea Party, which has six outlets in the city.
Bristol sings in the sun and invites all-day wandering, from the sparkling harbour to the verdant Downs. My mission is a little dingier – investigating the city’s spectacular array of second-hand record shops. My finds justify the dusty fingers and tickly nose, and dinner and wine with a friend at Clifton’s Bosco Pizzeria feels well-earned. As I climb into bed later, I’m already in mourning for my last night in its crisp, vast embrace. I’d sleep in until check-out if it weren’t for my early morning spa appointment.
To eat pre- or post-massage? I’m sure there’s sound advice on the subject, but impatience gets the better of me on Tuesday morning, and I bolt to the dining room – aka the Jetty – an hour before my treatment. It’s stunning. Clean and glassy, with the romantic warmth of a Mediterranean coastal salon. The deep blue window panels and booths offer an immersive touch. Breakfast is served in blue and white Cornishware by attentive staff. Conscious of not wanting to lay on the massage table with a full belly, I sadly eschew the kippers and avocado and opt for the continental, which is full of innovative twists: decadent homemade granola, prunes stewed in Earl Grey, sweet mini pastries.
I wish I could eke out breakfast, but I want to squeeze in a dip in the pool before my massage. I had been wondering where they were keeping this spa – next to the Jetty is a vast, beautiful function room – until I’m led below ground. The space is wowing: a warren of discrete and intriguing rooms off a cool grey corridor. After a peek into the steam room and sauna, I head straight for the water. The arched ceiling is low, the lights dim and flickering, and there’s nobody else around. The water in the compact pool feels silky and smells great, and there’s just about enough room to do lengths – plus, the powerful jets offer a good opportunity for resistance swimming. After tumbling around for a while, I decide to get into the relaxation mindset via a spell in the luxurious Jacuzzi, which would doubtless fit eight people, though I have it to myself.
I’m thankful that the masseuse comes to retrieve me otherwise I’d be here all day. She leads me down another corridor, past an apt David Hockney print (and a gym that I half feel guilty for ignoring) and into the therapy room. The massage is sublime – just as brutal as I’d requested – so much so that I struggle to stay awake so I can enjoy it in at least a semi-conscious state. Once time’s up, the therapist leads me to a relaxation room, where I string out my final minutes at the hotel before I have to dash back upstairs and stuff my suitcase. Outside, the heatwave pounds on, and a sweaty two-hour train ride back to London awaits, but the Harbour Hotel’s spell feels like a protective forcefield.