City Guide


Accommodation for students in Bristol

Introduction to Bristol

Bristol – or ‘Brizzle’, as it is affectionately known by the locals – is a young and vibrant city. However, at first sight it might not seem so. Its elegant cafés and restaurants, the neat streets and the often quite expensive shops seem to indicate otherwise. It will take you a very short time, let's say just a brief walk on a sunny afternoon or a glance on the streets on a Friday or Saturday night, to realise the city is packed with students, with over 50,000 studying at the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England in 2016/17 (source: HESA Student Record 2016/17). With a population of around 450,000, Bristol is England's sixth most populous city, and by far the biggest in the South West.

Firstly, let's take a few steps back into history. The town of Brycgstow (old English for ‘the place at the bridge’) was in existence by the beginning of the 11th century, and under Norman rule acquired one of the strongest castles in southern England. The River Avon in the city centre has evolved into Bristol Harbour, and from the 12th century the harbour was an important port handling much of England's trade with Ireland.

In 1247, a new bridge was built and the city spread out incorporating the suburbs. During this period, Bristol became an important manufactory and a shipbuilding centre. In 1497, the city was the starting point of Caboto's voyage to North America. During the 17th century, thanks to development of the British colonies in North America, the city benefited from a quick growth in size, population and trades, among which a big portion was constituted by slave trade. Starting from 1760, Bristol found itself competing with Liverpool for the supremacy of the textile industries. With the war against Napoleon's France and the abolition of slave trade in 1807, the development of Bristol as a powerful harbour city came to a halt, but the industries recovered quickly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the population kept growing at a high rate during the whole 19th century.

Due to the presence of Bristol Harbour and the Bristol Aeroplane Company, the city was a target for bombing during World War II and was easily found as enemy bombers were able to trace a course up the River Avon from Avonmouth using reflected moonlight on the waters into the heart of the city. Between 24 November 1940 and 11 April 1941 there were six major bombing raids, and in total Bristol received 548 air raid alerts and 77 air raids, making it the fifth most heavily bombed British city of World War II.

Key attractions


Clifton Suspension Bridge – spanning the beautiful Avon Gorge, is the symbol of the city of Bristol. The first competition in 1829 was judged by Thomas Telford, the leading civil engineer of the day. Telford rejected all the designs and submitted his own but the decision to declare him the winner was unpopular and a second competition was held in 1830. 24-year-old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was eventually declared the winner and appointed project engineer – his first major commission. The foundation stone was laid in 1831, but the project was dogged with political and financial difficulties and, by 1843, with only the towers completed, the project was abandoned. Brunel died prematurely aged 53 in 1859, but the bridge was completed as his memorial and finally opened in 1864. Designed in the early 19th century for light horse drawn traffic, it still meets the demands of 21st century commuter traffic with around 12,000 motor vehicles crossing it every day.

Wills Memorial Building – the centrepiece of the University precinct. It was funded by the Wills family, who made their fortune in tobacco, and opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1925. The view from the top of Wills Tower, some 68 metres above Park Street, is unparalleled and tour guides give a unique insight into the history of the building.

St Mary Redcliffe – the grandeur of the Parish Church of St Mary Redcliffe has been admired through the ages. On a visit to Bristol in 1574 Queen Elizabeth is reputed to have declared it to be the fairest, godliest and most famous parish church in England. The scale and beauty of the building gives the impression that it was intended to be a cathedral, yet its purpose, like all Parish churches, has always been to serve as a gathering place for the Christian community to worship God. The church is open daily for all to visit, reflect, pray, join in formal worship or simply 'be'.


Bristol Cathedral – the Cathedral stands at the heart of the city and is situated on College Green near to the University. The Cathedral was founded as an abbey in 1140 and became a cathedral in 1542. It is one of the world's finest examples of a medieval 'hall church', and extends a warm welcome to everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, faith, political persuasion or denomination.


The Millennium Square – with its fountains and sculptures, provides a place of respite for pedestrians at the centre of Bristol's bustling harbourside.

The Downs – an area of public open limestone down land, the Downs consist of two separately named parts; Durdham Down to the northeast, and the generally more picturesque and visited Clifton Down to the southwest. In the past they have been used for farming and quarrying; their current use is for leisure, with walking, team sports and sightseeing (especially at the Avon Gorge cliff edge) being well-established Bristolian pastimes. There are also occasional temporary attractions on the Downs, such as circuses and the annual Bristol Flower Show.

Arnolfini – a centre for contemporary arts based on Bristol’s harbourside in the heart of the city. Offers exhibitions, film, live art, dance, music and literature, with free entry to the galleries.