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The Christmas Steps in Bristol is the cities answer to The Shambles in York, a spectacular hidden alleyway that looks like Diagon Alley from Harry Potter!
As you descend down the flagged steps, you’ll find antique shop signs creaking with the wind, whirligigs and old oil lanterns that line the streets. Hanging above you will be some twinkling fairy lights for a magical touch once the sun goes down.
Today, this area forms part of Bristol’s Art Quarter which is a labyrinth of creative streets and boutiques. But, if you go back in time, this lane has a captivating history to uncover with hidden gems that time has forgot.
Inside this quirky tiered street, you’ll also discover a wealth of ancient buildings, independent art galleries, a cinema and cosy pubs.
You’ll find plenty to do, so why not explore a different street for a change? Here is a complete guide for the Christmas Steps Bristol and why you must visit!
Why is it called the Christmas Steps?
This is a heated dispute and there are many theories about how this quaint area got its curious name. You see, the name hasn’t always been the Christmas Steps and it has been called many things over time.
It’s been called St Michael’s Hill Steps, Queen Street Steps an even Lunsford’s Stairs. Presumably, after Colonel Henry Lunsford who fought and died here in the Civil War. There is a commemorative plaque dedicated to him. It officially changed from Queens Street to the Christmas Steps in 1775.
Many people say that it’s named due to the Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne. There is a stained glass window that can be seen which portrays a scene from the Nativity of Jesus. There have also been many wealthy merchants who lived in the city with the name ‘Christmas’ who were aldermen.
But, the most common theory is that it was so-called due to nearby Christmas Street. But, this too has had many different names and used to be called Knyfsmythe Street for Cutlers at the time.
So, I guess we’ll never know the exact reason for its festive name and it will forever remain a mystery!
The fascinating history of the Christmas Steps
Before this place was “steppered, done and finished” in 1669, this area used to be quite treacherous to walk up and down, especially in the winter and at night.
It was a slippy, muddy causeway leading down St Michael’s Hill to the Frome Bridge and St Bartholomew’s Hospital at the bottom. This chantry, almshouse and church was founded around 1227 by the Barons de la Warre.
By 1497, a wealthy merchant called John Foster became the local High Sheriff and Mayor for Bristol. He created The Chapel for the Three King of Cologne with the Almshouse at the top of the hill.
In 1643, Colonel Henry Lunsford was a Royalist Officer serving in the Civil War and he was killed at the top of this lane during the Siege of Bristol.
Steppered, done and finished
It was John Blackwell, a previous Sheriff of Bristol, who made the improvements out of his own pocket. He installed the two paved sloped pathways and three sets of flagged steps in the 17th century. You can find the plaque to commemorate this event at the top of the hill and it was opened by the Mayor at the time. It stands above the carved Sedilia seats.
St Bartholomew’s Hospital was then home to Bristol Grammar School and then it switched hands to form a school as part of Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital until 1847. Various improvements were made to widen the street and create more accessible steps in 1855.
Around this time there were many popular pubs here including The Gaiety which then changed to the Three Sugar Loaves, referencing Bristol’s dark past with connections to the slave trade. Plus, there were even some brothels in this maze of ancient houses.
Despite a brief decline in tourism, this area is now seeing a renaissance by becoming part of the vibrant Bristol Art Quarter. This Grade II listed street now has many popular independent shops, art galleries and pubs!
Is Christmas Steps haunted?
I love a good ghost story and the Christmas Steps has a few juicy ones. I mean a place this old is bound to have a few spirits who roam around, right?
In the 17th century, before the steps were built, there used to be a gallows that would hang convicted traitors from the top of St Michael’s Hill.
The locals would have a constant reminder of the consequences of breaking the law by the screams of convicts being led to their death. The stench would also last for days as the prisoners were left to hang there as a warning. It is said that those criminals still haunt the streets.
Apparently house number 17 is thought to have been built on an old cemetery and the residents feel a presence and tingling up their spines. Plus, figures dressed in black who have joined them for dinner!
There have also been sightings of a young Victorian girl sitting in one of the steps who is thought to have drowned in the river. So be careful roaming here at night.
Things to see and do at the Christmas Steps
Although its past paints a pretty gruesome picture, today the area is enchanting, vibrant and full of independent spirit.
There is so much to see, do and discover in this forgotten street that makes it worth a visit. As well as the wealth of antique shops, galleries and pubs, you also have some historical gems to find.
Here’s a complete list so you don’t miss anything;
1. Pop inside the Art Galleries
Well, it isn’t called the Christmas Steps Art Quarter for nothing! You’ll find a wealth of art galleries and supplies shops along this row.
There is ‘That Art Gallery’ and ‘Art Rabbit’ or the Christmas Steps Gallery. What you may not know is the Art Quarter actually covers a labyrinth of eight or so streets in the area, so there will be plenty more to find.
You can pop in and see a range of historic and contemporary paintings with a focus on the local area and beyond.
If art is your thing, why not pop along to the Artisan Market which takes place on the first Saturday of every month all year!
2. Visit the cosy Christmas Steps Pub
One of the highlights of my visit to this area was the Christmas Steps pub that sits at the bottom of the hill.
This used to be a famous pub called The Gaiety until it switched names to the Three Sugar Loaves which references the sugar trade and refineries here in Bristol.
It has now switched hands and is a popular cosy pub which has plenty of the original features. There are many nooks and crannies to hide into and the tables have a special atmosphere at night time as they are lit by candlelight!
There’s also a log fire, candlelit chandeliers and a jukebox that plays classic hits floating through there air. Or, you can sit outside in amongst the historic buildings.
As well as serving up some pub favourites on their menu, including tasty vegan options, it has its own range of local beers and ales called ‘Crack’. This curious name is influenced by a local music magazine.
I had dinner here with a friend and I would highly recommend it. Click here to see their page.
3. Play board games at Chance & Counters
Chance & Counters is a board game café that has a lovely back story of three friends who met at university.
They were addicted to board games and always drunkenly talked about opening up their own café. One day, they decided to club together to make it a reality and opened their doors here in 2016. Now, they have a board game café empire with a few dotted around the country!
After you’ve tucked into some of their delightful pub grub (with Vegan options) you can play some popular games with a pint of their locally brewed craft beer or cocktails.
There are more than 850 games that are located on the premises including classic and brand new board games if you fancied a challenge.
This place is packed out almost every night of the week, even in winter. So, if you are set on it, they recommend booking in advance.
4. Go shopping in the maze of streets
I love how Bristol supports its independent businesses, helping them to thrive and there are plenty to choose from here which makes it such a unique shopping experience!
From Weber & Trings (SO Harry Potter!) that sells a different type of potion in their off-licence, to a stamp shop, Karen Reilly’s Bridal Wear and Trevor Jones’ Brass & Woodwind; there are lots to choose from.
Remember, the Art Quarter has eight streets to explore, so don’t forget to veer off the Christmas Steps into the maze of boutiques.
Colston Street has the book shop Bloom & Curll or the herbal Urban Fringe Dispensary. Or, Perry Road is where you’ll find a whole range of antique shops with a fabulous treasure trove of curiosities!
5. Watch a 20th century flick
20th Century flicks is an awesome film buff hangout that is hidden away right here on the steps.
They have a whopping 20,000 DVDs and 3,000 VHS videos (yes!) to hire which is almost like a film library!
As well as their massive movie archive they have two small cinemas available for screenings. With only 29 seats for hire, it’s the cities smallest movie house.
This is perfect for those that are passionate about film studies, have a film club or you can simply watch with your friends. But, you’ll need to book in advance as screening sessions book up fast. There is a range of snacks onsite like popcorn and drinks etc. Don’t forget to say hi to their starlet cat, Poppy!
Talking of films, The Christmas Steps are no stranger to this area being used as a location. ‘The End of the Bridge’ was shot here in 1947. It was a short 40 minute film where the steps had their 15 minutes of fame!
6. Find the Nativity scene on the Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne
John Foster had a huge influence in Bristol in the 15th century. He was a High Sheriff and Bristol Mayor as well as a being a representative in parliament for the county.
As a wealthy merchant, he often travelled to Germany for trade and it’s almost certain that he would have seen seen the shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral.
This inspired him to create his own chapel at the top of St Michael’s Hill, way before the steps had been ‘steppered’.
He called it the Three Kings of Cologne Chapel and it was based on the Biblical Magi of the Three Wise Men of the East.
Although you cannot go inside the chapel today as it’s private, you can still admire the building from the outside.
You’ll see three busts of the Magi as well as some beautiful stained glass windows which have scenes from the Nativity. Many people believe this is where the street got its name!
7. Check out Bristol’s Hogwarts – or Fosters Almshouses
Right next to the chapel, is a curious house that looks like it could give the wings of Hogwarts a run for its money!
You’ll find spires, winding staircases, a manicured gardens as well as beautiful brick tilings in this little gated community.
This is another creation of John Foster who founded this as an almshouse in 1483. Traditionally, almshouses were to provide accommodation out of charity.
In 1553 Dr George Owen, who was physician to Henry VIII added an endowment to the premises. Further renovations were carried out in the 19th century, it’s now a Grade II listed building.
It was briefly run by Bristol Charities as a retirement home but it’s now its private residential apartments. You cannot enter and it has a locked gate. But, it’s definitely worth taking a photo of the fantastic architecture from outside!
8. Make sure to find these other hidden secret spots while you’re here!
- A 13th-century building here used to house Bobby’s Fish Bar which was the oldest chippie in England. It stood here for well over 100 years until it closed recently.
- Much of the St Bartholomew’s Court has been changed over time. But, you can still find a beheaded statue of the Virgin Mary inside. Supposedly, this was chopped by Oliver Cromwell. Generations of people used to rub her feet for good luck!
- There are a series of Sedilia seats that have been carved out beneath the Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne. It still has not been proved when these were first created.
- There is a plaque dedicated to Colonel Henry Lunsford. He was killed here during the Civil War in 1643.
- Look out for two strange figures and a plaque above one of the shop buildings. These were removed from the Merchant Venturers Hall in Marsh Street!
- There is another plaque commemorating the creation of the steps and this is where you’ll find the “steppered done and finished in September 1669” statement.
- One to find online, you can listen to a song by Mogwai. A Scottish post-rock band who named one of their songs ‘Christmas Steps’ after this very street!
How to find the Christmas Steps Bristol
The Christmas Steps are open 24/7 for a wander, but the best time to visit would be when the shops are open during the day! At night, this place also transforms into a lively area with the two pubs at the bottom.
I walked here on foot from Park Street by strolling along Park Row. Alternatively, it’s really easy to access from the likes of the Waterfront near the harbour, St Nicholas Market on the lively Corn Street, The Lanes and also Broad Street.
One thing I will say is this place is STEEP. So, have a good pair of walking shoes and come prepared for a bit of panting to get to the top.
If you’re heading here by bus there is a stop at the bottom of the hill that has bus First Group and Stagecoach bus services.
The nearest car park would be the pay and display Trenchard Street Car Park.
Places to visit near the Christmas Steps Art Quarter
After you’ve finished exploring the Art Quarter, there are plenty of things to do for art and history lovers nearby.
The Red Lodge is a great little museum where you can find out what lies behind that curious red door. Set in a historic family home you can uncover 400 years of history. Check out their state rooms, knot garden and their hidden well!
Another great museum located on Park Street is the Georgian Museum set in a historic Home. You can see what life was like for those with sugar money. It quite literally rotted the teeth of the city and uncovers Bristol’s dark past with the slave trade. A must see to learn the true history of Bristol.
Park Street is also one of my favourite streets. You’ll find plenty of vintage stores, record shops, second hand books, art shops and amazing restaurants and bars like the Instagrammable Florist Café. Click here to see all the Instagram spots in the city.
Plus, the Norman Bristol Cathedral with its immense architecture and the Bristol Art Gallery and Museum. Head down to Bristol Harbour to see the SS Great Britain parked in the dry dock or enjoy the maze of colourful houses in Cliftonwood.
Why not head up to Cabot Tower?! This is the highest point in all of Bristol located in the centre. From this lookout you can see 360 degree views of city and beyond and it’s free! Click here to read my complete guide.
Where to stay in Bristol
- Hotel Du Vin – Located just seconds away from the Christmas Steps and set inside an 18th century building, this hotel is a charming, luxury property that has cosy rooms for rent. Click to book.
- The Berkeley Suites – a luxury apartment with a hotel twist in the centre of Bristol, The Berkeley Suites are located off Park Street in an old Georgian Building. Each apartment has it’s own private visual art gallery and kitchen amenities! Click here book and to read my full review.
- Full Moon Backpackers – A cool and friendly backpackers located in St Pauls and near Stokes Croft, the street art capital of Bristol! You can meet some friends here to go exploring. Click here for rates.