If you had to choose three words to describe the Caribbean island of Aruba, what would they be? My three words would be; Warm, Colourful and Cosmopolitan. Of course, you’d expect it to be warm, being in the Dutch Antilles and close to the coast of Venezuela. You’ll be welcomed with unfailing warmth too – not for nothing has Aruba adopted the slogan of “One Happy Island’. There’s colour not only in the houses painted blue, yellow, pistachio and pink, but unexpectedly in the street art murals that we found in San Nicholas, created for the recent Aruba Art Fair.
This was my first visit to Aruba and I discovered an island that is well developed for tourism, with plenty of hotels and apartments concentrated along the sandy beaches west of Oranjestad and a sophisticated restaurant scene. There’s also a cosmopolitan mix of cultures, with most locals speaking several languages; typically Dutch, English and Spanish as well as their own language of Papiamento.
Tourism is an important part of the island’s economy and with visitors outnumbering the locals, it took me a while to put my finger on what makes Aruba unique and different to its Caribbean neighbours. My week in Aruba took me from designer shopping malls to the prickly beauty of Arikok National Park, from the white sand beaches of the south to the black volcanic rocks and crashing waves of the northern shore. Here are some of the favourite memories and experiences I took home from Aruba.
1. The white sand beaches of the southern shore
Well you can’t come to the Caribbean without talking about the beaches. It’s the white sand beaches and all-year-round sunshine that keep visitors coming back, to escape the cold weather back home. While we were there, a hurricane was battering the Florida coast, and while Aruba had escaped with just some rain showers, storms out at sea had washed piles of seaweed onto the famous white beaches. Admittedly we weren’t seeing them at their best, but by the end of the week the beaches had been practically cleared of storm debris and were back to normal.
One of the beach spots I enjoyed most was in front of the Moomba Beach Bar where we spent the afternoon paddleboarding and also had a delicious seafood lunch on the verandah restaurant at Nos Clubhuis. It’s part of Palm beach, a broad strip of sand, backed by hotels and apartments, with plenty of places to stop for a snack and drink and also a centre for watersports.
Eagle beach, right in front of the Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort where we were staying was another favourite, with two of the famous fofoti (also known as divi divi) trees growing on the beach, a popular spot for wedding photographs. Since the beach was just across the road from the hotel, I was able to enjoy it at all times of the day, from the pastel pink sunrise to the golden sunset. As dusk fell, the hotel set out tables for its beach restaurant, Passions on the beach, where we had an elegant dinner looking out to sea with the sand under our toes. Baby Beach, close to San Nicholas is another popular beach, especially for families and there is hardly any development around the beach, but I found the view of the refinery in the distance somewhat detracted from its charm.
2. Aruba’s wild northern shore
My favourite beaches were actually on Aruba’s wild northern shore, where there is hardly any development at all. The waves here are pretty rough so it’s inadvisable to swim unless you take local advice or are there for the surfing. You need a car, preferably a 4 wheel drive, to visit this part of the island but there are also plenty of jeep safaris that will take you around to see the beaches and main sites.
Our tour took us first to Ayo rock, a cluster of boulders that looks as if a giant dropped a random pile of rocks in the middle of the countryside. It’s free to enter the fenced enclosure that surrounds them and look at the cave paintings nearby. Most visitors probably just stop to take their photo from a distance but there are trails that lead up through the boulders. I would have headed off from the group to explore them more fully but had a sudden ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ premonition that I might get lost wandering among them.
We continued by car to the Bushiribana ruins of an old gold mine which you can climb up onto for a view over the sea. Gold was discovered here in 1824 and this was the site of the old smelting works built in 1872 but only in use for a decade before it fell into disrepair. On the same stretch of coast is a rock arch known as the Natural Bridge, although the larger of the two arches collapsed in 2005, and I found the wild landscape and waves crashing on the shore more of an attraction than the sea arch itself.
3. Aruba’s sophisticated restaurant scene
As I love to try local flavours when I travel, I was impressed by Aruba’s varied and sophisticated restaurant scene. We were visiting during Eat Local restaurant week when many of the island’s restaurants have good value menus with lunch at a set price of $15 and dinner at $30 or $40. I mainly chose the seafood options, with plenty of grilled fish such as Mahi Mahi served with Pan Bati, the local pancake style bread. At Nos Clubhuis I loved my starter, a bowl of chunky ceviche and at Driftwood, decorated with fishing nets and driftwood, we would have been served the fish that we’d caught while Deep Sea Fishing, but sadly we came back from that fishing trip empty handed.
While there were plenty of different eating options in Oranjestad and Palm Beach, one place that stuck out for the local character with Charlie’s Bar in San Nicolas. The bar had been run by three generations of Charlies, was stuffed full of paintings, memorabilia and bric-a-brac, much of it contributed by customers over the years and served an excellent plate of giant shrimp for lunch. For elegant poolside ambiance, we ate at White Modern Cuisine, situated in the Gold Coast Clubhouse, where the chef uses local seafood but incorporates Asian flavours in some of the dishes.
For healthy daytime snacks we stopped at CRAFT at Palm Beach where the coffee was excellent and I ordered a fruit bowl as a late breakfast after our yoga session. At Garden Fresh Cafe, where I had an Asian Delight wrap and Blueberry Booster smoothie for lunch, I could practically feel the pounds falling off my waistline as I walked through the door.
Finally if you need a place to stop for breakfast, or a snack as you drive around the island, I’d highly recommend the Huchada Bakery in Santa Cruz. With yellow walls and blue painted shutters it has the ambiance of a traditional Aruban house and serves the tasty Aruban breakfast snack of pastechi (filled pastries), as well as coffee and fresh juices.
4. The coloured houses of Aruba
As we drove around the island I noticed how Aruban houses were often painted in bright colours – yellow and blue were especially popular but I saw many other rainbow shades. On our final evening we had the pleasure of dining with a local family who showed us around their traditional style house. At the front of a typical Aruban house, runs a long room that is used to greet guests, while the family living room and bedrooms are behind this in the main part of the house. The back or front of the house is normally oriented towards the prevailing winds to allow natural air conditioning as the wind can circulate from one side to the other.
In Oranjestad much of the architecture is modern but there are a few older houses painted in vivid colours, with ornate plasterwork to decorate the windows and doors. I enjoyed walking along the road beside Fort Zoutman and into the main shopping area behind the Renaissance Mall where the Dutch colonial style had been used above the shops in pretty pastel shades.
5. History and culture around Oranjestad
While in Oranjestad, it’s worth looking beyond the branded fashion stores to discover something of Aruba’s history. The Archaeological Museum is housed in a most photogenic set of old buildings, which were built in the late 19th century, and it’s free so worth popping in. You’ll learn about the melting pot of nationalities that went to make Aruban society, from Amerindian to Spanish colonisation, overlaid with Dutch and English trading influences.
Also in the centre of Oranjestad, on a street that once formed the original waterfront, is the Historical Museum, housed in Fort Zoutman. The fortress was built in 1796 for defence against English attack and the tower was added in 1868 as a lighthouse, later becoming a clocktower. We attended an evening display of music and dancing called the Bon Boni festival which is held here weekly and I enjoyed the museum’s exhibition about traditional weaving which changes a couple of times a year. Did you know that the weaving of straw hats was an important source of income for many families in the past? On show were colourful artworks inspired by the theme of weaving by contemporary local artists like Vanessa Paulina who we later met in San Nicholas.
6. Street art in San Nicholas
Further down the coast from Oranjestad is San Nicholas, Aruba’s second largest town with the island’s oil refinery. If you’re looking for a more authentic Caribbean vibe you’ll find it here, but since the oil refinery closed in 2009, there’s also a feeling of a place that has seen better days. One thing that is putting San Nicholas on the map again is the street-art that covers many of the buildings, as a result of this year’s Aruba Art Fair.
We met with artist Vanessa Paulina who has been commissioned to create a mural on one of the buildings and took us into the art centre for a painting workshop. I chatted to Tito Bolivar, the Aruba Art Fair organiser and owner of the ArtisA Gallery (stands for Art is Aruba) about the project which took place for the first time in September 2016.
As well as inviting local and international artists to work on the murals, the three day festival included stalls for local artists to sell their work, an exhibition in the art gallery, a music and dance festival and a culinary competition where teams of chefs created an original desert inspired by a piece of art. Being from Bristol, where Street Art is a big deal I really loved all the fabulous murals around the town and would definitely recommend visiting San Nicholas to see them for yourself. While in San Nicholas, you might also consider popping into Charlie’s Bar for lunch, for even more local colour.
7. Getting active on the water
If you enjoy watersports you’ll find no shortage in Aruba and the first thing I spotted when we arrived on Moomba beach was someone being shot scarily high above the water on a Jetpack attached to the Jetski. We were there to try our hand at paddleboarding, a first for me, under the expert instruction of Denis from Aruba Surf & Paddleschool. Dennis showed us how to start by kneeling on the board and then slowly stand up while keeping our balance to avoid an undignified dunking. The paddling and balancing required a surprising amount of core strength and I’m sure that if I did it long enough my body would become lean and toned like all those bikini girls in the brochures. For now I was just concerned about not falling in, and managed to make it a decent way out before turning back towards the safety of the beach.
We also tried Deep Sea Fishing while we were in Aruba and the idea of spending an hour or two catching our dinner sounded like a good one in theory. However, I have to admit that it was not my favourite activity as the constant swell just made me feel queazy and I spent most of my time hardly daring to move from the back of the boat. Much more pleasurable was the early morning yoga session on the beach with the graceful Maria from Cacao Yoga. While I was useless at the yoga poses I did enjoy gazing alternately through the leafy branches above us or out to the ocean beyond.
8. Tasting the edible plants of Aruba
One of the highlights of my week on Aruba was meeting Frank Kelly, a.k.a. Taki the Forager. We found him on one of the wild north coast beaches, for a deliciously refreshing cocktail made of avocado and basil topped up with sugar, water and a splash of lime – and of course an optional slug of rum. Cactus tempura is one of Frank’s specialities, but for us he produced a colourful basket of flowers picked locally, to tickle our taste buds.
We munched and sniffed our way through a selection of flowers including peppery moringa which can be used to make a super-food smoothie, fragrant kawara that was used back-in-the-day to perfume your house, and frangipani that could be used to give champagne a fragrant kick. As well as sharing the foraging skill that he learned from his grandparents, Frank is a graffiti artist, bodyboarder and creator of cool pop-up events on Aruba and Bonaire. “I like to be unplugged” he told us, admitting that he barely used any social media to promote his talents, ” I like to stay close to nature, to go barefoot and just have enough for the day.” As if to prove the point, Frank plunged into the crashing waves and returned to the beach minutes later with three different kinds of seaweed, including Dulce and Agar that’s used as an alternative to to gelatine. If you’re visiting Aruba and want to book a foraging session with Frank, he can be contacted through his Facebook page – search for Taki Aruba
Aruba is also a big grower of Aloe Vera, known for its healing and cooling properties. You’ll see the spiky plants all around the island and if you snap off one of the fleshy leaves, they ooze a yellow sap that is used for healing on wounds and burns. Look out for the Aruba Aloe shops around the island that sell a range of Aloe based lotions and cosmetics or visit the Aloe Vera factory and museum for a fascinating insight on how the plant is used.
9. Hiking in the Arikok National Park
For my visit to the Arikok National Park in the north-east corner of the island, I had to be up early before the heat of the day became too much. I was met by my enthusiastic guide, Stanson at the large visitor centre where there were exhibits and information about the flora and fauna to be found in the park. Stanson took me along the Cucucu Arikok circular trail, a well marked gravel path bordered by stones which meandered through a landscape of spiky cactus and thorny trees. To be honest, it would have been difficult to get lost, but Stanson’s knowledge and enthusiasm about the plants and trees was infectious. Without him I’d never have spotted the edible pink berry hidden in the top of a small, round cactus, or known about the tree that bears fruit after a rainstorm, making it a magnet for giant iguanas.
Along the path we passed overhanging rocks with native cave paintings of iguanas and birds that were thought to be painted by Shaman, while in a trance connecting with the spirit world. At the furthest end of the path before we circled back was a white adobe house, a recreation of an old Aruban dwelling that had been preserved to show the construction techniques and way of living. A bat flitted over our heads, nesting in the rafters, which Stanson explained would provide a polination service for the plants on Aruba.
While our two hour walk was undemanding, there are plenty of more challenging trails in the park, some of which require climbing and abseiling to complete. If we’d had more time I’d have loved to have continued along the trail to the coast, where there’s a large natural pool enclosed by rocks, locally known as Conchi, where you can swim.
10. Stay at Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort
During my week in Aruba, I stayed at the Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort, a delightful hotel that’s just across the road from Eagle Beach. The hotel is family owned and was built 25 years ago in traditional style with Dutch gables, painted in the warm yellow that you see everywhere on Aruban buildings. I was extremely comfortable, sharing a suite with two bedrooms and a first floor balcony looking towards the sea, furnished in traditional Caribbean style with dark wood furniture, brightly coloured walls and citrus shades of lime, lemon and tangerine.
The outside areas of the hotel were beautifully maintained with paved areas, trees and immaculate planting, with a welcoming pool area and the shady Mango restaurant, where we had breakfast. The hotel is ideal for couples who want to relax by the pool or on the beach, while having a well located base for exploring Oranjestad and all the other sights of Aruba.
The staff could not have been more friendly and helpful and they even have a dedicated Romance Co-ordinator to help you organise your beach wedding or celebration event. The Fofoti trees opposite the hotel are a favourite for wedding photos and the Passions on the Beach restaurant where we ate one evening is an incredibly romantic setting to have a cocktail and dinner as the sun sets over the ocean.
I recommend visiting Aruba for the warmth of the all year round sunshine and the safe and friendly atmosphere. You’ll enjoy the island’s Caribbean colour, vibrant painted buildings, the creativity and street art of San Nicholas. Taste your way through the cosmopolitan food scene with fabulous local seafood and international flavours with a mix of cultural influences. As our yoga teacher Maria told us, “Whatever kind of holiday you want, whatever kind of life you want to live, you can find it on Aruba”.
Visitor Information for Aruba
Thanks to Aruba Tourism for hosting my week’s stay in Aruba to discover the island.
More articles from the Caribbean
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Our Explore Canada Road trip had taken us from Toronto to Montreal, but now we were at journey’s end. Dropping Monty the RV (our recreational vehicle, named after our final destination) back at the Cruise Canada depot, we headed into the city, to enjoy our final day exploring Montreal. In one short day, we fell in love with the charming bilingual Montrealers, discovered something of the city’s history and ate our way through Montreal’s lively food scene. Of course we didn’t see everything, but all the more excuse to return – so here’s our version of a perfect day in Montreal.
Like most visitors to Montreal, we started our day in the old quarter of Vieux Montreal, wandering along Rue Saint-Paul, where funky clothing boutiques mixed with stylish cafés. Meandering through cobbled pedestrian streets, we reached the tourist hub of Place Jaques Cartier, an open square that looks towards the port on one side and the Town Hall on the other.
Spotting an open gateway at the side of the square, we ducked through explore and found a haven of calm in the Governor’s garden behind Chateau Ramezay. The walled garden was laid out as an 18th century style potager, with flowers, vegetables and medicinal herbs, in formal beds enclosed by box hedges. The garden here today is only a small part of the garden that once surrounded this grand house and would have been used as a source of food and healing, as well as genteel relaxation by the first colonists of ‘New France’.
After soaking up the peaceful atmosphere, we visited the house of Chateau Ramezay, which was built in 1705 by the Governor of Montreal. Despite being one of the oldest and most historic buildings in the city, the the house fell into disrepair at the end of the 19th century and was only rescued from demolition by the efforts of an antiquarian society. We very much enjoyed our visit to the house with its beautiful panelled rooms and interesting displays that told the story of Montreal’s colonial past.
If you go: Chateau Ramezay: 280 Rue Notre-Dame Est, Montréal. Entrance Adults $11, Garden Free.
Bagels and brunch in the Jewish neighbourhood
From Vieux Montreal, the Boulevard Saint Laurent took us north through some of Montreal’s most interesting neighbourhoods, such as Plateau and Mile End which were home to the Jewish, Portuguese and Greek communities. While many of the old residents have moved out, you’ll still find the ethnic flavour in some of the city’s best loved food institutions. Now there’s a hip and trendy feel as the neighbourhoods have become gentrified, with cool bars and cafés catering for creative types working for the software and video game companies that have replaced the garment industry.
Bagels are big in the Jewish neighbourhood with the specialist bakeries of Fairmount and St-Viateur found within a few blocks of each other. There’s a friendly rivalry with New York over whose bagels are best, although they are quite different to the Montreal bagels, which are baked in a wood fired oven with a sweet maple glaze and more compact texture than their puffy cousins from NYC. We stopped by both bakeries where I can confirm that the warm-from-the-oven bagels are equally delicious, although for visitors I’d favour St-Viator which has a larger shop where you can easily see the bakers at work and the bagels piled high, making it easier to take photos.
We stopped for brunch at Beauty’s (93 Mont-Royal West), a classic Jewish diner with blue banquettes and an open kitchen, where they serve smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, as well as sandwiches, pancakes and salads. The restaurant opened in 1942 and is now run by the third generation of the Sckolnick family, with grandfather Hymie who is in his 90s still coming in each day to keep an eye on things.
In the same neighbourhood is Schwartz’s Deli (3895 Boulevard St-Laurent), another Montreal food institution known for their smoked meat sandwiches. At lunchtime the queues stretch down the street, but there are no frills here – you’ll get a mountain of tender smoked salt beef that’s barely contained by the soft fresh white bread and garnished only by a squirt of mustard.
Discovering Montreal’s street-art scene
Coming from Bristol where we have murals by some incredibly talented street artists, I had to stop for a look at some of the street art in Montreal. Every year in June they hold the Mural festival when a parking lot off Boulevard Saint-Laurent is taken over by music and artists creating new works from high up on their cherry-pickers.
The festival is now in its fourth year and started as a way to encourage regeneration in the area and provide a showcase for some of Montreal’s talented urban artists. Founder André Bathalon told me “our goal is to bring people to the area and they take from it what they want. They might enjoy the mural on the wall but if they want to learn more about the artists, the techniques or particular styles, they can also do that – it’s accessible 24-7 and its free.”
In the area we saw work by local artist Roadsworth whose large scale pieces cover roads and pavements, and Italian Pixel Pancho whose mural was one of the key pieces from this year’s festival. It reminded me so much of the building size pieces that are created in South Bristol for our Upfest festival. Check in at the MURAL offices (3527a Boulevard Saint-Laurent) to pick up a map of the street art locations, book a 2 hour street art tour with Spade & Palacio or find some of the best urban artists on show at Station 16 Gallery. There’s also the Under Pressure festival in August which has been going for 20 years and focusses on graffiti artists.
Colourful fruit and veg at the Jean-Talon Market
Heading a little further north on Boulevard St Laurent, we reached the Little Italy neighbourhood and the Jean-Talon Market, the largest fruit and veg market in the city. The market is a riot of colour, especially in summer when the freshest local produce is on display. This is a shopping paradise for foodies and chefs and it’s all beautifully presented with each heirloom tomato, rosy radish and even humble potato polished to perfection.
The punnets of strawberries and soft fruit looked so sweet and tempting and I enjoyed chatting to producers of specialist products like the ice cider that’s made in Quebec. Since the climate here is too cold for vines, the first French settlers planted apple orchards instead, pressing apple juice and making cider. Like ice wine, the fruit is picked after a frost to intensify the flavours and made into a sweet cider with a concentrated flavour that’s perfect served with blue cheese or fois gras. Of course, thinking of my Christmas menus, I had to buy a bottle to bring home!
If you go: Jean-Talon Market: 7070 Avenue Henri-Julien, Montréal – there is parking but it’s oversubscribed to best to take the metro to Jean-Talon stop.
Discovering Montreal’s food truck scene
The late afternoon found us returning to the Entertainment District of Montreal where the Just for Laughs comedy festival was joining forces with the BouffonsMTL food truck festival. Food trailers were arranged around an open courtyard and featured many of Montreal’s top restaurants, who offer street-food versions of their signature dishes at affordable prices. Montreal restaurateur Jorge da Silva works with Michelin star chef Carles Abellan at Tapas24 and told me how he liked to bring his most popular dishes, such as the Cartalan-style paella to the festival, as a way of meeting food lovers and reaching out to a new clientele.
“Montrealers are so proud of their cuisine, when I travel everyone knows Montreal for the food. You have your food institutions but you also have your star chefs. They are competing but all offering something different and in a nice environment, so that’s where the friendship comes in with all of us.”
We enjoyed a dish of the paella, yellow with saffron and packed with juicy prawns and mussels, finishing with an ice cream from Monsieur Cremeaux, owned by TV chef Martin Juneau. Although I’d have loved to have tried the signature dish of fois gras poutine from the Au Pied de Cochon van, by that time I just had no more space to eat another mouthful.
The BouffonsMTL takes place in July but there are many food festivals in Montreal, so look out for the Montreal a la table restaurant week in November and First Fridays at the Olympic Village where food trucks gather on the first Friday of each month from May. You’ll also find lots of different food trucks at individual locations around the city during the summer months.
Maple Syrup: the sweet taste of Montreal
Québec province produces over 90% of the maple in Canada, so this was top of my list to bring home from Montreal as a souvenir of the trip and pour over my pancakes for that authentic Canadian breakfast. We found a great range of maple syrup and other maple products at Delices Erable & Cie 84, rue St-Paul Est in Vieux Montreal. I loved that they allow you to taste everything on sale, with maple fudge, ice cream and cakes at the take out counter or to eat in their cafe. There are also excellent maple products at Marché Bonsecours, a domed heritage building full of stores selling unique gifts and crafts from Québec, an essential destination for the stylish shopper in Montreal.
A culinary adventure in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood of Montreal
As evening approached we followed a whim and a recommendation, jumping in a cab for a 10 minute ride to the Little Burgundy District, one of the trendy up and coming neighbourhoods we’d read about. The place we’d been recommended, Joe Beef, was shut but we spotted a taco bar across the road called El Gordo and loved the casual but buzzy atmosphere with a pared back industrial decor, perked up with colourful glasses and Mexican murals. They have an Italian restaurant and pizzeria next door called Gepetto’s which also looked super-popular. Here’s what we ate: A flavoursome gaspacho with tomato and watermelon $8, a tasy and colourful advocado and tomato salad $12 and a plate of Tacos each 3 for $8-12 washed down with a mojito $10 and beer $6.
If you go: El Gordo 2518 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest. Montreal
The night is still young in Montreal
Using the metro to return to Vieux Montreal, we took one last wander around the old city where many of the buildings were lit up at night. At Place d’Armes, the Notre-Dame Basilica was beautifully illuminated with details picked out in turquoise and midnight blue and a street musician strumming a guitar in the warm night air.
The City Hall that we had seen earlier opposite Chateau Ramezay was bathed in pink and nearby we noticed a film of rebellious beavers being projected onto the old stone walls of a building in Place Jacques Cartier. It seems that the ghosts of the past come back to haunt corners of Old Montreal as part of the Cité Mémoire project where dream-like tableaux are projected onto the buildings near where the stories happened. Download the Montreal en Histories app for a guided walking tour of all the different sites around Vieux Montreal – there’s free wifi provided too at information points along the route.
Where to stay in Montreal
For our last night in Montreal at the end of our Canada RV trip we stayed at the Le Centre Sheraton Montreal Hotel in the heart of downtown Montreal. The hotel is located on a busy avenue in the business district and our room gave us a morning view over the Montreal skyline towards Mont Royal, the park that offers panoramic views over the city.
The hotel is large (825 rooms) with comfortable, modern bedrooms and ideal for business or leisure travellers who like staying at an international hotel with a wide range of services and amenities. The hotel was a 30 minute walk or 10 minute cab ride from the waterfront and heart of Vieux Montreal. As is the norm in Canadian Hotel there is an additional charge for breakfast unless you book a Club bedroom in which case you have access to the Club Lounge where complimentary buffet breakfast is served as well as snacks and drinks throughout the day.
If you go: Le Centre Sheraton Montreal Hotel, 1201 Boulevard Rene-Levesque West, Montreal
I hope that I’ve tempted you to visit Montreal, which was certainly one of the highlights of our RV trip. There’s so much to see here that I’m sure you will find whatever makes your perfect day in Montreal.
Read More about Canada’s cities
Information for Visiting Monteal
You can find more information to plan your visit to Montreal on the Tourism Montreal Website, the Quebec Original Website and also on the Explore Canada Website covering all the things to see and do in Canada.
Our RV (Recreational Vehicle) for the two week Explore Canada Road Trip was provided by Cruise Canada.
To compare prices and book for hotels in Montreal, visit the HotelsCombined website where you can find the best prices from a range of different booking sites.
On a sunny afternoon in Bristol the harbourside is buzzing. Locals with an after-work pint in their hand spill out onto cafe terraces or soak up the sunshine with their legs dangling over the harbour wall. At the weekend families gravitate to the harbour, dipping into the free museums and galleries or watching the boats on the water, while the creative types hang out over brunch in one of the numerous cool cafes.
Once the heart of Bristol’s industry and commerce, the harbour has been reinvented as the city’s playground. As a local of Bristol for over 20 years I’m here to take you on a walk around the Bristol’s harbourside to share some of the cool places that I enjoy. So let’s start at….
1. Millennium Square
Built in 2000 to celebrate the turn of the century, Millennium Square is a place to hang out, bring the kids for a picnic, watch sporting events on the big screen or move on to one of the many bars nearby for a drink with friends. The veg beds run by Edible Bristol are full of lavender, herbs, yellow sunflowers and a few miniature apple trees. Take a seat next to statues of Bristol’s literary figures like Thomas Chatterton and William Tyndall, not to mention Archibald Leach a.k.a the suave Hollywood star, Cary Grant who was born here.
Mobile getting a bit low? No problem! The energy tree has small solar panels at the end of its branches and there are USB points where you can plug in and recharge. On the other side of the square is a water fountain for you can fill up your bottle – all part of the initiatives that went into making Bristol a European Green Capital. Possibly the best loved spots in Millennium Square are the water features – shallow pools where children splash, pillars with water rippling down them and pools where it spills over the rim. On a sunny day they provide hours of good clean fun that won’t cost you a penny.
Where to Stay? For a modern base in the city with 24 hr reception check out Ibis Bristol Centre which is right on the square or for classic luxury, the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel is just a few minutes walk away on College Green.
And if you’re in Millennium Square with the family, why not pop into…
2. At Bristol Science Centre
This hands-on science centre is great for kids and teenagers, with handles to turn, buttons to press, things to build and something to see, smell, touch wherever you turn. On the ground floor it’s all about us and our bodies – test how high you can jump or fit your body’s organs into the body like a jigsaw puzzle. On the other side of the room you can turn the Heath-Robinson style water wheel or make a miniature parachute fly. There’s a whole area devoted to food and where it comes from – you can compare what a sumo wrestler and a farmer in the Andes eat for breakfast.
Upstairs a big section is all about animation, based on the Wallace and Gromit films created in the city by Aardman Animations. You can also blow giant bubbles and find out how astronauts wash in space, which leads us neatly into the shows in the Planetarium – that’s the big silver ball that you see outside in the square. Check out the At Bristol Website
From Millennium Square we’ll cross Pero’s bridge, with horn like weights that balance the bridge when it occasionally opens to let the large ships pass through. It’s named after the Pero, the slave servant of 18th century Bristol merchant John Pinney, who built a home just off Park Street that’s now open as the Georgian House.
Just before the bridge there’s a covered arcade of bars and restaurants where you’ll find the tourist information centre. Next door the Watershed Arts centre has an upstairs cafe that overlooks the water and is popular with creative entrepreneurs who hold informal meetings across their open Macbooks.
On the other side of Pero’s Bridge is a favourite place to catch the evening sun, sitting on the harbour wall with a drink in your hand. Bring your own or buy your drinks from The Grain House run by the YHA or the Arnolfini bar.
Where to Stay: The Bristol started life as a motel and is actually a listed building for the 1960s concrete facade but inside the rooms are stylish and welcoming with fab harbour views. Those on a budget should check out the YHA Bristol with shared dorms and private rooms – you can’t get a better location for the price.
Once on this side of the harbour it’s worth a stop at…
3. Arnolfini Arts Centre
The Arnolfini is one of my favourite contemporary art centres, housed in one of the old stone warehouses and because it’s free I always like to pop in and see what’s going on. Once I saw a group of dancers twisting silently with only those wearing headphones hearing the music they were dancing to. Another time I hopped from one upturned log to another around a room filled with just a few inches of water. The ever changing exhibitions always provoke and question, but don’t expect to find pretty pictures in here. I often pop up to the second floor just for the pleasure of looking back down across the whole harbour at the window by the loos.
Out on the quayside sits John Cabot or Giovanni Caboto, a Genoese explorer who has given his name to a number of parks, towers and shopping centres across the city. In 1497 he sailed from Bristol in The Matthew, a surprisingly small ship to cross the Atlantic all the way to Newfoundland. The replica of the original ship now sits on the other side of the harbour – more of that later.
If you’re inclined you could turn left after the footbridge for a quick detour to Bathhurst Basin where there’s a small marina. It’s mainly a residential area but The Ostrich Inn, once a haunt of sailors and slave merchants, is a fine place to sit outside with a drink on a sunny day. The Michelin star restaurant Casamia recently moved here with the same team opening Pi shop next door serving gourmet pizza overlooking the water.
Where to Stay: The Mercure Holland House is a convenient 5 minute walk from this end of the harbour close to St Mary Redcliffe church, with modern rooms, an indoor pool and is well placed for Bristol Temple Mead.
Retracing your steps, our next recommended stop is the free museum at …
I have memories of when this old warehouse in Bristol’s docks was the Industrial Museum and once attended an amazing play about the life and times of the harbour where the doors onto the quayside revealed a banana boat which formed part of the performance.
Now M-shed is a fantastic free museum that shows off the varied, vibrant and multicultural life of Bristol through exhibits on the ground and first floor and special exhibitions on the second floor. The ground floor covers life in Bristol, our diverse neighbourhoods, transport and a taste of Bristol during the blitz. The vintage double decker bus is always popular with families climbing on board and if everyone seems to be gazing at the floor it’s because they are trying to find their own house on the street map of Bristol.
Upstairs on the first floor it’s all about the people of Bristol and the commerce of the city. See the metal tables or ‘nails’ where merchants did their business, leading the expression ‘Pay on the Nail’ and learn about Bristol’s slave trade on which the wealth of the city was built.
One of my favourite views is from the second floor balcony where you look out across the harbour and get a birds eye view of the cranes that are part of the museum’s industrial heritage. Sometimes you’ll hear them speak out and tell their story.
A little further along the quayside, you’ll find another part of Bristol’s history in …
5. The Matthew
I mentioned earlier about John Cabot, who Bristolians like to claim as their own but who was actually from Genoa and sailed to Newfoundland in his ship The Matthew. Sadly the original Matthew is no longer around, but a replica was made in 1997 to sail across to Newfoundland and mark the 500th anniversary of the original voyage. The ship is now based in Bristol harbour and if you see her moored close to M-Shed you can generally go on board and have a look around.
It’s difficult to believe that a ship this small would have made it across the Atlantic – the life of a sailor in those days was certainly a pretty perilous and uncomfortable existence! It’s free to go on board for a look around and they also run regular 1 hr sailings around the harbour as well as special fish & chips or afternoon tea trips. Check the Matthew website for upcoming events.
By now you may be ready for a stop at one of the many …
6. Cool coffee shops
Bristol Harbour abounds with places to stop for a coffee, snack, after work drink or delicious meal and there are plenty of independents that you won’t find on every high street. I’ve made a bit of a list below of all my favourites so that you can find a great place to stop wherever you are in your walk around the harbour. In the spirit of full disclosure I haven’t necessarily eaten at all of these but have selected those I would happily try based on their style, menu and reputation.
Around Millenium Square
The area immediately around the square is mostly the province of chain restaurants which are popular with the after work crowd for a beer and bite to eat. These are larger establishments and you’ll often find happy hour or other offers, so best to walk around and see what catches your fancy. I also like the upstairs cafe at The Watershed for lunchtime or early evening meetings as they serve tasty, healthy food and you won’t feel self-consious getting out your laptop, plus there’s a great view over the water.
Around Anolfini and M-shed
Arnolfini Cafe – The cafe for the free contemporary art gallery that I already mentioned serves coffee, cakes and sandwiches, salads and charcuterie platters. They have a section of tables by the water if you want to eat outside or grab an after work drink. Open 10am – 8pm
Mud Dock Cafe – I haven’t been here for a while but it’s best known for the cycle shop on the ground floor and roof terrace above that overlooks the harbour. It’s always packed on a sunny day, serving coffee, brunch, tapas from 10am-6pm then dinner until 10pm.
The Ostrich Inn – A taste of the old Bristol of sailors and pirates who frequented the inn in the 18th Century. Inside it’s traditionally atmospheric although the seating space isn’t huge, but comes into its own in the summer where there is loads of outdoor seating overlooking the water.
Pi Shop – The Michelin star Casamia restaurant recently moved to the new General development beside The Ostrich Inn, and they’ve also opened Pi Shop next door. Run by the same team it serves sourdough pizza made in a wood fired oven and home-made ice cream with a casual ‘Napoli meets Bristol’ feel and some outdoor tables overlooking the water.
From M-Shed to SS Great Britain
Just behind M-Shed is Wapping Wharf, which as I write is nearing completion with many of the restaurants now open. Once it’s all complete there will be even more food vendors operating out of shipping containers in the Cargo complex, but to tell you about what’s there already…
Pizzarova * – serving take-away pizza freshly made in their wood-fired oven in the shipping crate which you can eat on the tables outside or on the wooden benches just opposite beside M-Shed. I tried one of their pizzas which was good value, tasty and I liked their easy going approach of letting your choose whatever combination of toppings and the price is the same.
Wild Beer – If you’re looking for an after work or any time beer, the freshly opened Wild Beer offers around 20 draught beers from their own Somerset brewery among others, together with a connoisseur’s version of fish and chips.
Mokoko Bakery and Cafe * – serving an delicious selection of cakes and pastries with a few quiches to order with colourful salads. You can eat them inside, on the outdoor tables or buy to take away with an excellent coffee.
Better Food – It’s local, organic and ethical at Better Food which is half an enticing grocery store and half a cafe selling organic lunches, fresh juices and teas and coffees. In this and their other Bristol stores they stock local producers and artisans, to support a ‘shop local’ philosophy.
Brunel’s Buttery – a short walk along from Wapping Wharf is Brunel’s Buttery, the die-hard Bristolian’s favourite, serving steaming mugs of tea, bacon butties and cones of chips from a small brick kiosk halfway between M-Shed and SS Great Britain. All the seating is outside and the seagulls will swoop down for anything you don’t finish.
Around Underfall Yard
The Cottage Inn – a local’s favourite on Baltic Wharf, this Victorian stone pub has an outdoor terrace by the water for a pint of local ale on a sunny evening accompanied by some classic pub grub.
Pickle Cafe at Underfall Yard * – One of my ‘new’ discoveries this small cafe is inside the Underfall Yard visitor centre and offers stylish breakfast specials and sandwiches, with a tempting selection of cakes and excellent coffee. There are a few tables inside but it’s mainly one to sit outside on a sunny day right beside the harbour.
Between Underfall Yard to Millennium Square
Spoke & Stringer *- Right opposite SS Great Britain (you can get the ferry across) this is possibly my favourite harbourside cafe. It’s connected to the shop next door selling lifestyle surf and bike gear, with a couple of Harley Davidson’s parked outside and a thriving Instagram account to hammer home the style credentials. The food (brunch dishes by day, pintxos by night) is both delicious and beautiful and it’s fun to be inside or outside – but outside is a real suntrap and you get the view of the SS Great Britain and harbour.
* The ones marked with a star are my personal tried and tested favourites
Now you’re fully refreshed, we’ll walk along the harbour to reach Bristol award winning harbourside attraction…
7. SS Great Britain
I love the stories behind the SS Great Britain. Launched in 1843 as the first iron steam ship it was designed by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the man behind the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Temple Mead Station. The ship ended its days as a rusty hull in the Faulkland Islands and was brought back to Bristol in 1970 to start a lengthy restoration process on the journey to becoming the splendid visitor attraction, with all flags flying, that you see today.
If you start your tour below the water covered glass that surrounds the ship you can see the hull below the waterline and pass through the museum with plenty of interactive exhibits explaining the maritime history surrounding the ship. Once on board you’ll find out what life was like for the different classes of passengers who sailed in her. While the first class passengers enjoyed elegant dining, you’ll also see the cramped bunks in steerage that would have reeked of stale ale and sweaty laundry. The sights, sounds and even smells of life on board have been recreated, right down to the rats running around (luckily enclosed) and the cow on deck to provide fresh milk.
For the daring there’s the chance to Go Aloft in the ship’s latest activity where you climb up the rigging to the crow’s nest and then inch your way along the yard-arm – rather you than me! For more information check the SS Great Britain Website.
From here you can easily take a detour to Spike Island creative hub which provides a work and exhibition space for artists and small creative businesses. They often have exhibitions and the Spike Cafe serves organic dishes and drinks.
And there’s a Banksy too! It’s not so easy to find if you didn’t know it was there, but if you find your way to the streets at the back of SS Great Britain, you’ll find it off Hanover Place close to The Orchard Inn, painted on the back of the Dockside Studios. It’s actually marked on Google Maps. Search for Banksy’s ‘The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum’.
From here walk along the harbour-side path until you reach the end of the harbour and …
8. Underfall yard
The pumping station for the Bristol floating harbour is another authentic part of the city’s industrial heritage that has recently been restored to make a fascinating visitor attraction. It’s a working shipyard where beautiful wooden boats are brought to be work on – take a peep into the door of the big shed to see the hull of a ship taking shape.
The new visitor centre which is staffed with enthusiastic volunteers has a room sized map table of the harbour and hands on activities that show the engineering that went into keeping the harbour free of silt, so ships could enter and Bristol’s trade continue uninterrupted. Ask to have a demonstration of the Human Accumulator where you and your friends are lifted slowly up to provide enough force to turn the sluice paddle. The visitor centre also houses the highly recommended Pickle Cafe for coffee, cakes and sexy sandwiches with names like Hot Chick and Killer Courgette. More information on the Underfall Yard website.
You’ve made it to this far to the end of the floating harbour, so you may like to walk a little further to the Create Centre which is mainly open on weekdays. The centre features events and exhibitions related to the environment including a purpose built eco home to give practical ideas for greener living.
If you don’t fancy walking all the way back to Millennium Square you could take …
9. A Boat trip around Bristol Harbour
There are a few different options to get to around the harbour by water – it’s the original and best way after all. Bristol Ferry Boats provides a regular service throughout the day around once an hour, taking visitors and commuters from City steps at one end of the harbour (just beyond Pero’s bridge) to the Pump House at the other (by Underfall Yard). If you’ve just shlepped all the way along the route I’ve described and can’t face the walk back then getting the ferry by Underfall Yard (Nova Scotia stop) will save your legs.
They also run public trips around the Avon Gorge or along the River Avon that will give you an enjoyable few hours on the water spotting wildlife or seeing the harbour’s iron bridges and architectural features. Bristol Packet Boat trips run similar regular tours around the harbour and have a kiosk just beside SS Great Britain where you can see what’s on and buy tickets for their next trip.
For a short ferry ride that crosses the harbour at a convenient point, hop on the 7 Boats ferry by SS Great Britain which takes you to the landing stage near Spoke and Stringer on the opposite side for 90p one way. No timetable – it just goes constantly back and forth so you’ll never wait long for the next one.
If you’ve taken the short cut by ferry from SS Great Britain to the other side, it’s not too far to walk back to Millennium Square, past a lovely reed bed which makes a habitat for ducks and other wildlife.
But if all this walking seemed a bit tame to you, perhaps you’d like to try…
10. An adventure out on the water
Stand up paddle boarding is the latest craze to reach Bristol harbour and you’ll often see a few people paddling around the harbour. SUP Bristol run regular weekeday evening and Saturday sessions where you’ll be shown how to paddle safely and spend a few hours having fun on the water.
If you’d rather try a canoe, The Adventurous Company offer guided trips around the harbour in an open Canadian style canoe that takes 2-3 people. Finally Cycle the City offer daily guided cycle tours around the harbour on a comfortable and stylish Pashley bicycle and also hire bikes (need to book in advance) from No 1 Harbourside which is by the Watershed and Tourist Information Centre.
So now we’ve made a circle around the harbour and are back where we started at Millennium Square. Of course it would be rash to suggest that you can do justice to all the places I’ve mentioned in one day. Instead I’d enjoy the walk and just stop at one or two that catch your imagination, fortifying yourself with a few coffee and lunch stops along the way. If you’d like to make a weekend of it and combine your day in the harbour with some of Bristol’s other fine neighbourhoods, my recommendations for places to stay are below.
Where to stay around Bristol’s Harbourside
I’ve mentioned all of these hotels in the article, but here they are again ranged from budget to luxury.
YHA Bristol – for budget travellers with shared dorms and private rooms – you can’t get a better location for the price.
Ibis Bristol Centre – a modern base in the city with 24 hr reception check right on Millenium Square.
The Bristol – started life as a motel and is actually a listed building for the 1960s concrete facade but inside the rooms are stylish and welcoming with fab harbour views.
Mercure Holland House – close to St Mary Redcliffe church, with modern rooms, an indoor pool and well placed for Bristol Temple Mead station.
Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel – classic luxury, a few minutes from the harbour on College Green.
Visitor Information for Bristol
For more information on what to do in Bristol and what’s on when you visit, check the Visit Bristol website