Where to Go? Bath versus Bristol
Bath versus Bristol… These two dramatically different cities are only 11 minutes apart from each other by train. Both boast tourist attractions, tempting restaurants, and a variety of accommodation options. Both will give you a sense of a certain part of England. As with any decision made while traveling – there is rarely a wrong choice. If you haven’t been to either, definitely take the time to check them both out.
When I was choosing which city to stay in, I received completely contradictory perspectives from locals. The younger people I spoke to said Bristol was super cool and funky. They likened it to a smaller version of London with lots of places to go out at night, vintage shops, and the large university. Other people however said Bath was THE place that Brits from the south went to vacation. There were lovely places to stay, and lots of sights to see. But – even they said it was tremendously expensive. Judging from those assessments, this extreme introvert figured Bath would be the way to go.
If you have a choice of which city to visit, there are some key differences that you can consider.
Bath and Bristol are on the west side of England, quite near to Wales. In fact, it’s only a little over an hour by train from Bath to Cardiff! From London, trains to Bristol run relatively frequently, and travel time is about 90 minutes. Almost inevitably you will have to go to Bristol, and change trains to go to Bath. Location-wise there is very little difference between the two cities. Both Bristol and Bath have rivers that run through them. If it’s a water-side destination you’re seeking, you can’t go wrong either way.
On the whole, Bath is rather more pricey than Bristol when it comes to hotels. I had wanted to stay in Bath. But when I looked for a hotel on relatively short notice I couldn’t find anything for less than $500CDN. That being said, if one was to book ahead, there are AirBnBs and some hostels and hotels that would offer better deals.
Bristol was marginally more affordable for someone traveling on a budget. I used my Bonvoy points to book at the Moxy Bristol, a modern member of the Marriott family of hotels. Paying cash for one night, and using points for the other, I got away with the whole deal for $179CDN for two nights. The location however left something to be desired (perhaps reflective of the low price!). While the hotel was conveniently located near the large shopping centre, Cabot Circus, it wasn’t the prettiest area of town. Nor was it the best for someone traveling on foot. There was a shortage of restaurants, and most of the tourist sites required quite a hike to a different neighbourhood.
The hotel itself was cute, modern, and new. The gym was small but well-equipped. There was a breakfast option, but at 15£ per person, I opted to eat at a cafe instead.
If I were to stay in Bristol again, I would book a hotel nearer the old city, to take advantage of the restaurant scene, and the more interesting, historical areas of the city.
The hotel options in Bath were beautiful and there were loads of choices. From AirBnBs to boutique stays, I would have been quite happy in one of probably a dozen choices. But booking on short notice, during the Christmas market season, meant prices were way out of my budget.
Ideally, I would go back to Bath with a well-planned trip, and book ahead to stay at some of the lovely places I found while I was there.
Food & Drink
Before arriving in Bristol, I had read another blog post recommending several restaurants in the city. Unfortunately, for someone without a car, and traveling alone, most of them were out of reach of the area where I was staying. On my first night, I arrived late in the afternoon, and by the time I set out to find a restaurant, it was already dark. Options for eateries in the area were limited, unless I went to a chain restaurant in the shopping centre. I ended up at an Italian place where the food and atmosphere was good, but the service poor.
Food options in Bath appeared perhaps more limited (it has about a quarter of the population of Bristol) but on the whole they appeared well-liked, and well situated. The downtown of Bath is more compact, so it would have been easier for a solo traveler to reach the various eateries, without having to venture a long way on foot to other neighbourhoods.
Bath is well known for the Roman Baths, of course, the more modern Thermae Bath Spa, the Abbey, the Circus, Jane Austen’s haunts, and the historic downtown core.
Bristol has more in the way of art galleries and museums, and is developing their waterfront into what seemed like more of a family friendly centre: when I was there, a fairground was actively operating, and the science centre and family museum were open for business.
If you’re a solo traveler, or a couple traveling without children, I would say Bath has more in the way of culture, history, and attractions. I didn’t get to visit the Jane Austen Museum (it was closed) but that would be on my list. The architecture and outdoor spaces were lovely. Just outside of Bath are several walking trails. The city itself is small enough to be very manageable on foot, though there was also a hop on-hop off bus tour if mobility is a challenge. I visited the Roman Baths which were fascinating, and if I’d had more time would have loved to spend the day at the fully functional modern Baths – Thermae Spa.
In comparison, I found it a bit hard to find things to do in Bristol. One issue was that I spent my full Bristol day in the city on a Monday, when apparently nearly every museum and gallery is closed. If you chose to be there on any day except Monday, there are several nice galleries to visit, and of course shops and cute areas. The Old City is quite nice, as is the part of the city near the working canal. And, I was there in rather dreary December so perhaps Bristol was not looking its best.
Both Bristol and Bath had Christmas markets on in full swing when I arrived. That was probably the highlight of my time in Bristol, as it meant that going out at night felt quite cheerful and safe in the downtown core, and the lights were pretty. In general, Christmas markets that I went to England were essentially the same – at least in Bristol, Bath, and Oxford – so you aren’t missing anything by choosing to see one over the other.
Cute shops, beautiful restaurants, and historical sites dot Bath’s quaint downtown core.
Funky, modern, and full of younger people, Bristol has lots to offer families, and different neighbourhoods to explore.
So, where to go?
If it’s a choice of Bath versus Bristol, for my money, I’d splurge and stay in Bath. With Bristol only 11 minutes away, it’s an easy day trip. You can plan ahead to go not on a Monday to see the museums and the city itself.
If you’re traveling with young children though, or you’re not a massive introvert and looking for the lively nightlife, Bristol is the clear choice. Much more to do, the university makes it youthful and lively, and the vibe is cooler.
Bath is a very traditional, historic British city, with loads of sweet places to eat, cute independent shops, and major historical sites. I’m already planning my return trip to Bath, and planning to spend far more than 8 hours there this time around!