Ask your average Bristolian for their absolute favourite place to drink and they’ll likely reel off a list of bars and pubs so long you can’t remember a thing. They’re really not trying to be difficult: Bristol is a city that treasures its drinking culture, and it’s genuinely hard to choose between the exceptional watering holes scattered from North to South.
Though bars open and close at a pretty high rate in these parts, there’s a good handful of old faves still knocking around, while up-and-coming brewers and world-class mixologists shake up the scene along newly throbbing drinking drags. Boozy bucket list need updating? Whether you’re more into beer, cider or cocktails, these are the 19 bars in Bristol you totally shouldn’t miss.
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Best bars in Bristol
As secrets go, a secret room within a secret bar is probably as secret as you could get. Hyde & Co may be just off the Clifton Triangle, one of Bristol’s busiest nocturnal thoroughfares, and surrounded on almost all sides by kebab shops, but if you didn’t know it existed, you might walk by it blissfully unaware of the delights within. Cocktails dominate but are most certainly not the only drinks here, with bottles of Wild Beer and Burrow Hill cider both making the short journey from Somerset.
From the talented family behind hit Bristol restaurants Pasta Loco and Pasta Ripiena comes this dinky delicatessen that turns into an excellent aperitivo bar come evening. Tucked down St Stephen’s Street, La Sorella serves reasonably priced and thoughtfully sourced wines alongside well-balanced aperitifs including tip-top negronis and G&Ts. Though teeny-tiny and not open all that late – it shuts at 9.30pm on a Saturday – it’s the perfect first stop on a night out.
Red Light advertises its presence on Union Street by, well, a red light emanating from a graffiti-covered doorway. Pick up the payphone, press the button and… presto. Billing itself as a late-night drinking den with an air of 1950s panache, Red Light has a cocktail list that pairs customisable classics with new creations. True to its location, it’s about quality, not crowd-pleasing. All in all, Red Light is a great, late-night hidey-hole, and an ideal place to escape the boisterous antics of Park Street.
It’s likely that even some of the drinkers in the White Lion pub next door might not know that the Milk Thistle contains four floors of decadent excess. If you don’t like wood panelling and taxidermy, look away now. Each level has a different function, with a ground floor cocktail bar, first floor private members’ lounge and various function rooms including private dining with chefs from sister restaurant The Ox. If you’re here with a group of friends, try the Milk Thistle punch or selection of Trappist beers made by monks in monasteries across Europe.
Set in the Old Vic’s newly stripped-back foyer, this theatre bar is a show-stopping prospect. Now you can rub shoulders with thesps and foodies alike as you sip an expertly prepared spritz before a show. Or, if you’re lucky enough to snag a table on Sunday, you can sort your sore head out with a oak-smoked vodka Bloody Mary. Other cultural institutions should take note: this is how you get a whole new audience through the doors.
If you like rum, you’re in luck at the Rummer – although the shared syllable is just a coincidence. With more than 400 premium spirits from around the globe, it may well be the largest collection in Bristol. Recent addition Cap Savanna Rum comes from La Réunion in the middle of the Pacific. An espresso martini and roaring log fire can also warm the cockles on a cold winter’s night or a day spent exploring the stalls at nearby St Nick’s Market.
Look above the counter at Small Bar and after the list of IPAs, stouts, blonde beers and the like, you’ll see an extra category: crazy shit. Don’t expect anything less than 10 percent here, with prices up to £4 for a half – and be thankful that you can choose to drink whatever unusual delight you’ve ordered in a bespoke one-third glass. An indication of this place’s popularity since it opened towards the end of 2013 is that it has become one of the after-work venues of choice for Bristol’s chefs, waiters and baristas – a good sign if ever there was one.
Let your competitive spirit take over at Kongs. If vintage arcade games such as stone-cold classics Street Fighter II or PacMan aren’t your style, give your wrists a workout on the table football table or don your coolest headband at the table tennis table where a ricocheting shot could end up behind the bar. Lagers are not frowned upon here: there’s an international selection that includes Sierra Nevada from the USA, Affligem from Belgium and Birra Moretti from Italy. Ciders on tap are Thatchers Gold and Symonds.
Beer. Beer everywhere. There are literally hundreds of choices in the ‘Emp’. Don’t be fooled by the small bottle shop on street level. Three vaulted cellars downstairs play host to more beer than anywhere else in Bristol. An ever-changing selection comes from various international brewers as well as closer to home, often in the shape of Wiper & True and Ashley Down, who share premises in St Werburgh’s. Belgian beers are celebrated every Wednesday, with 10 percent off and 250 bottles to choose from.
This dinky watering hole is tucked away at the bottom of its steep, cobbled namesake. Co-owned by independent music mag Crack, the Christmas Steps hosts cutting-edge dance music in the beer garden, but is just as good for a classic pub roast. For a true taste of Bristol, sample the house ales: Arbor Ales’ Crack Hops, an IPA, and Crack Gold, a golden easy-drinker from Twisted Oak. If you’re heading down after work, come quick – it doesn’t take long for this place to get rammed.
Those commuting home through Castle Park now face a new challenge: getting past this magnificent boozer without stopping for a half (or three). Left Handed Giant is an acclaimed Bristol brewery who’ve opened their first bar-pub across the water from the park at sharp-looking development Finzels Reach. The eye-catching bar was crowdfunded by 1,500 online backers, proving the beer-maker’s cult status, and you can taste all of their brews here while admiring the city go by.
Braces and bourbon are the two lingering impressions of The Bootlegger. The braces are sported in a dashing shade of red by the bartenders, while the bourbon is just there to be drunk. The Bootlegger has the unique distinction of being a speakeasy-style bar in Bristol that isn’t hidden behind a doorbell or a payphone. Live music from chaps and chapesses strumming away at double basses bigger than themselves evoke 1920s New Orleans, but there are also DJs here who bring the music policy more up to date.
Whisky is the drink of choice at The Woods, a near-legendary after-hours drinking den just off Park Street. When other bars start battening down the hatches for the night, Woods is just coming alive – unlike the butterflies, moths and assorted animal skulls that make up most of the decoration on the walls. The Woods is split into three distinct areas. Prop up the bar downstairs, nestle down in the chesterfields upstairs or head outside to a small courtyard area. There are some 50 Scotch malts to choose from, alongside selections from America, Ireland and Japan.
A quirk of the licensing laws means that it has to be table service at the Strawberry Thief, so wait to be shown to your spot by a waitress in a crisp linen shirt and navy blue apron. It makes for a slightly sterile atmosphere, but then the beers are the stars of the show here. And what a selection. Peruse the substantial drinks menu made up almost entirely of Belgian bottled beers, then sit back and be presented with your choice usually served in its own branded glass.
Order a drink underneath the trombones, trumpets and tubas fashioned into a light, then take a seat next to the time machine. The Old Bookshop is nothing ordinary and features almost as many animals as Farthing Wood – but of the stuffed variety rather than the living, breathing kind. An open-minded music policy has seen appearances from the likes of Bristol jazz chanteuse Beth Rowley and bands with more members than you think could possibly fit on the tiny stage inside.
Call it the Galli – everyone else does. ‘Gallimaufry’ is a hodgepodge, jumble, a confused medley. All very apt terms to describe this Bishopston bar that, since opening in 2012, has swiftly become one of the go-to bars in an area of town not short on drinking choices. This is a bar with a quirky and artistic vibe well-suited to the ever-eclectic Gloucester Road. Keeping it independent and local, as is the way around here, this bar always has at least two beers from Bristol breweries in, as well as a variety from further afield which change regularly.
If cider is a West Country institution, then the Apple is its spiritual home. Come summer and its outside seating area is invariably packed. Come winter and hunker down for the night with a drink of mulled cider in hand under a heater or a blanket. If you think the floor beneath your feet is moving, it might not just be the cider talking – the Apple is located on a former Dutch barge now moored permanently at the end of King Street. It’s fermented apple juice all the way, and what a selection. With names like Tractor Fuel, you’d be wise to line your stomach.
Tucked down the Bath Road in the creative hub that is Paintworks, Bocabar is a real jewel in this end of town’s crown. The space is vast and open, which is hardly surprising given it’s the top floor of a warehouse space used for events. However, despite its size, it somehow still manages to feel cosy. This is probably down to the mish-mash of rustic furniture, curios, fairy lights, rugs, artwork and toys; kids are very welcome here and the space is perfect for buggies.
Team Love are a typical Bristol success story, veering in various directions but always staying true to their primary goal – giving people a bloody good time. From its roots promoting one-off nights, Team Love now organise festivals such as Love Saves the Day in Bristol and Garden Festival in Croatia, as well as programming stages at Glastonbury and sound systems at St Paul’s Carnival. It might not be easy to distil all of that into a single venue, but The Love Inn is a pretty fine effort.