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20 Bristol Secrets & Hidden Gems You Must Discover!

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Despite living in Bristol for many years now, we’re still discovering secrets and hidden gems in Bristol – and thus, many more reasons to love our hometown.

If you’ve already read our ‘Secrets of Devon’ and ‘Secrets of Cornwall’ blogs, then you’ll know we’re total suckers for interesting legends and historical facts – and we hope you are too!

So, without further adieu, here are all the little known Bristol secrets and hidden gems we’ve discovered so far…

Incredible Bristol Secrets & Hidden Gems Of Bristol

A Tale Of Two Timezones

Perhaps our favourite of all the Bristol secrets we’ve discovered is that the city once ran on its own timezone, which was a whole ten minutes different from London time.

It was the introduction of train travel in 1840, which prompted the people of Bristol to fall in line with London.

If you visit Bristol today, you can see a clock outside the Exchange building on Corn Street, which shows the two timezones.

The red minute hand shows the correct Greenwich Mean Time and the pink minute hand shows Bristol’s old timezone.

Bristol exchange clock

Bristol’s Lost River

While it’s a well known fact that UK cities are often built near and around rivers, you might be surprised to hear that Bristol is also on top of a river!

The oft-diverted River Frome is 20 miles long and is often nicknamed Bristol’s lost river as some of it flows underneath the city, completely hidden from view!

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s not just Bristol that has lost and forgotten rivers! 

According to the National Geographic: “​In some cities, more than 70 percent of streams have been paved over. In many cases, city residents don’t even know that there are buried waterways under their feet.”

Could your hometown also have a river flowing underneath it?

RELATED: Did you know that ‘Avon’ comes from the Celtic word ‘Afon’ meaning river. So Bristol’s famous River Avon actually means ‘River River’.

The Secret Of Bristol’s Docks

It’s not just lost rivers that lie beneath your feet in Bristol but also docks!

Where the Cascade Steps and St Augustine’s Parade is now, this used to be the heart of Bristol’s thriving docks.

If you have a look at this etching from the 1850s, you can clearly see the docks and river that used to flow through the city:

Etching of the old Bristol harbour
Etching of the old Bristol harbour | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Maybe this is why there’s a pub called Drawbridge next to the Hippodrome theatre?

Nevertheless, this part of the docks was completely filled in between 1892 and 1938. 

Head to the M Shed in Wapping Wharf to learn more about Bristol’s fascinating maritime history.

Original design for  improving the harbour of Bristol
Original design for improving the harbour of Bristol | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bristol’s Secret Speakeasy

Hidden away behind unmarked doors, The Milk Thistle on Colston Avenue is one of Bristol’s worst kept secrets. 

Inside, you’ll find leather armchairs, dark wood panelling and unique cocktails to rival even the very best saloons and drinking dens of the 1920s and 30s.

While speakeasies today are a fun way to escape from the modern day for a few hours, they were once essential if you wanted to drink in public with your friends when prohibition was rife around the world.

The Oft-Forgotten Banksy Murals

As Bristol was once the birthplace and childhood home of Banksy, you can find lots of famous murals across the city as part of your own self-guided walking tour.

But don’t forget to look out for the hard-to-find Banksy murals such as Blowpop Records on Cave Street. 

Blowpop Records

This small stencil mural was originally designed as album artwork; of which, there are less than 100 surviving copies… and one lone street art version right here in Bristol.

Which oft-forgotten Banksy murals have you found?

Bristol’s Pioneering Chocolatiers

If you’ve ever wondered where chocolate bars or Easter eggs come from in the UK, then you might want to sit down for this one. 

They’re both thanks to Bristol’s pioneering chocolatiers!

In 1847, Fry’s Chocolate led by Joseph Fry invented the first solid chocolate bar, which was later mass produced as Fry’s Chocolate Cream in 1866. 

Up until then, chocolate was only taken as a drink and often only for medicinal purposes.

And then in 1873, Fry’s also produced the UK’s first chocolate Easter eggs!

The Hotel & Spa Housed Inside An Old Bank

Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa on Corn Street

One of our favourite hotels in Bristol (Bristol Harbour Hotel & Spa on Corn Street) holds a most interesting secret indeed!

As with a lot of buildings in this historic part of Bristol, the hotel has been modified from its original purpose.

It was once a bank and the bank vaults are now home to a most beautiful spa!

Fancy staying in a former bank? You can check prices and reviews now.

Bristol Harbour Hotel Facade

A City With Its Own Currency

While the UK’s currency is the Pound Sterling (GBP), Bristol also has its own currency!

With an aim to encourage residents to “shop local” and make the local economy greener, fairer and stronger, the Bristol Pound is made by local people for local people and can only be used within BS postcodes.

The Quirky Eco Houses Of St Werburghs

The Quirky Eco Houses Of St Werburghs, Bristol

St Werburghs is a small residential neighbourhood close to the M32, which offers something really unique for those who pass through here.

Walk along a street called The Yard and you’ll see 39 houses, which are all unique and designed and built from scratch by their owners.

While some have been made to look like house boats, others have princess turrets and wavy windows.

The Quirky Eco Houses Of St Werburghs, Bristol

And they’re all as eco-friendly as they are unique!

No wonder this fun neighbourhood was the winner of the 2016 South West Energy Efficiency Champion Award and 2017 Best Neighbourhood in Britain Award!

The Quirky Eco Houses Of St Werburghs, Bristol

The Real Reason Behind The Christmas Steps Street Name

Found in between Bristol’s city centre and harbourside is a small row of independent shops and boutiques with a very picturesque name: Christmas Steps.

But the name has a very interesting history indeed!

In medieval times, this cute Bristol street was once called Queene Street before becoming known as Knyfesmyth Street, owing to all the tradesmen and businesses that were once found here. 

Back in the middle ages, the pronunciation would have made the word more in line with how Christmas sounds today.

However, others suggest the name of the street comes from the nativity scene found in a stained glass window of The Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne, which lies at the top of the steps.

The Hidden Vaults Inside Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge

As part of the Clifton Suspension Bridge’s design, vaulted chambers were added to each end of it.

There was no known access to them so they weren’t discovered until as late as 2002 – and completely by accident!

You can now join tours of the vaults to see a part of Bristol that very few before you have seen.

A Postbox Turned Library

All throughout the UK, things like telephone boxes and postboxes are being repurposed into free locally owned libraries.

Head to the corner of Clyde Road and Redland Road in Bristol and you’ll find the Little Clyde Library, which was once a postbox. 

How novel!

Bristol’s First Freakshakes

Freak Shakes at The Beehive Coffee House

Freakshakes, aka milkshakes capable of inducing sugar comas, have taken the world of social media by storm for years. 

Although they’re thought to have been invented in Canberra, Australia, Bristol’s first freakshakes came from The Beehive Coffee House in Downend. 

This unassuming little tearoom is known across the city as the place to go for epic freakshakes.

They even have a ‘Freak of the Week’ and limited edition shakes like the time they sold a Harry Potter inspired one, which people (understandably) went crazy for!

A Charming Bakery Hidden Inside A Victorian Railway Arch

Staying with the theme of bakeries as Bristol hidden gems, Hart’s Bakery near Temple Meads station is another one to add to your list!

Hart's Bakery in Bristol

It’s housed inside an old Victorian railway arch and is a wondrous place full of fresh bread, homemade cakes and meaty sausage rolls… all locally sourced of course!

Inside Hart's Bakery in Bristol

The Trees That ONLY Grow Near Avon Gorge & Leigh Woods

Another of Bristol’s little known secrets is the story of the Bristol whitebeam (Sorbus bristoliensis) tree. 

This unique flowering tree is endemic to the UK but wild ones only grow in the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods area of Bristol… hence its name.

A Hotel Turned Spy Lair

Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel

Another Bristol hotel with a secret past is Mercure Bristol Grand on Broad Street.

During WWII, this hotel was once the base for a network of spies who worked for the British government. 

Hotel employees would pass encrypted notes to the spies, which provided them with crucial information about where they were required to travel to using covert trains operating out of Temple Meads.

Georgian Society Were A Superstitious Lot

If you wander along Royal York Crescent in Clifton, you’ll stumble across a secret from the Georgian era: that this society was incredibly superstitious. 

These popular sought after houses were built between 1791 and 1820 and there is no number 13 – only numbers 12a and 12b in between 11 and 14.

Is Bristol Home To Buried Treasure?

Another of Bristol’s most interesting stories is that the city is said to have once been home to the infamous pirate: Captain Blackbeard. 

It’s also said that Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island was inspired by Bristol, while the Llandoger Trow pub is said to have been the inspiration for the Admiral Benbow Inn in the novel.

With all that said, could there be secret buried treasure in Bristol? Maybe it’s hidden deep within Bristol’s lost river?

Do Fairies Live in Bristol?

If you wander around Nightingale Valley in Brislington (something of a hidden gem in the city), you’ll come across an ancient bricked-up London Plane tree.

Bricked-up London Plane tree in Nightingale Valley, Bristol

While the logical part of me says the bricks are to stabilise and protect the tree, my imaginative side leads me to believe this is where fairies live. Just kidding… kind of!

In 2020, the tree was measured as being 7.45 metres wide and as tall as 33 metres.

The walk itself around Nightingale Valley is lovely and you’ll easily forget you’re still in a bustling part of the city. But discovering this incredible tree is nothing short of magical!

The Tokens That Give You Unlimited Access To Shows At The Bristol Old Vic Theatre

Here’s an interesting one that’s come to light recently.

According to this BBC News article, 50 minted tokens from the year 1766 allow the owners unlimited access to shows at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. And they’re still valid today!

The tokens were created for the theatre’s original shareholders and it’s believed 20 of the tokens have survived over the years. The inscription reads: “The Proprietor of this Ticket is entitled to the sight of every performance to be exhibited in this house”.

One of the tokens is now being sold by Henry Aldridge & Sons auction house in Devizes. And a spokesperson for the Bristol Old Vic has said: “If it is indeed authentic, we will honour our policy and provide free tickets to the owner.”

Isn’t history fascinating?!

If you’ve enjoyed discovering these Bristol secrets and hidden gems then you should also check out James MacVeigh’s book: Secret Bristol.

Did you like hearing about these Bristol hidden gems and secrets? Share this post around now!

18 Bristol Secrets & Hidden Gems Of Bristol You Must Discover!
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Justine Jenkins

Justine is one half of the married couple behind the Wanderers of the World travel blog. She lives in Bristol, UK and has travelled extensively within Europe and beyond since 2013. After her trips, she shares detailed travel itineraries, helpful travel guides and inspiring blog posts about the places she's been to. When she's not travelling overseas, you'll find her joining her husband, Scott on various day trips, weekend getaways and walks within the UK, which she also writes about on Wanderers of the World. Aside from travelling and writing, she also loves reading, crafting and learning about nature.

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