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Best of Bristol, England: Food, Festivals, Art, and History

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With world class festivals, an historic past, and a unique culture, our former hometown of Bristol, England has a lot to offer visitors. However, this fun quirky city is often unfairly overlooked as a UK travel destination. So this travel guide aims to fix that. We believe, if you knew some of the best things Bristol has on offer, it would definitely be on your travel list.  

In addition to exploring the city, Bristol makes a great base for any trip to the UK’s southwest. It’s close to Stonehenge and the picturesque Cotswolds. The stunning Cheddar Gorge is only a 40-minute drive away. A day trip to the Welsh Brecon Beacons for its waterfall walk is only an hour and a half. Most famously, it is only 15 minutes by train to the historical Roman city of Bath but offers significantly cheaper accommodations.

Let us show you some of the best of Bristol, and why you should consider spending a little more time here.

Best of Bristol Pinterest Pin

The attractions mentioned in this post do not sponsor us; we just enjoy them and hope you do too.

As Bristol is an easily walkable city, consider staying in the center. Here are a few of the best areas within Bristol’s city center to stay in.

Stay in Clifton

Clifton is a great location to explore Bristol. It’s one of the prettiest areas of the city with adorable shops and unique restaurants close by. However, parking is a challenge and very few hotels offer on-site parking. 
  • For the best view in town, check out the Avon Gorge Hotel. It’s worth splurging on a room with a view of the gorge or getting that view with a nice dinner at the restaurant.

Stay in the Harbourside or Millennium Square

One of the busiest areas of the city is Bristol’s Harbourside. With lots of shopping and restaurants, there is always something going on in this area.

  • The Bristol Hotel on Prince Street has a parking lot next door and very nice rooms. It’s a bit on the pricey side any time of year, but the location is fantastic.
  • The ibis Bristol Center is also in a good location but offers smaller, more budget friendly options.

Stay in Redcliffe or Near Temple Meads

Bristol Temple Meads Train Station looks like a stone castle
Bristol Temple Meads Train Station

This is the most convenient area to stay in if you’re planning lots of day trip from Bristol as it’s right next door to Temple Meads train station. Also, prices in this area tend to be cheaper than other parts of the city. Hotels normally have paid parking options.

Visit the Clifton Suspension Bridge

One of Bristol’s most defining features is the Avon Gorge which runs along the west side of the city center. Strapped to the top of the gorge is Isambard Brunel’s engineering marvel the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The bridge charges £1 for cars but is free for pedestrians and bikes.

View of Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge

Overlooking the bridge is the Clifton Observatory. Head inside the observatory to find one of only three camera obscuras in the UK. You can also access the Giant’s Cave on the side of the Avon Gorge via a 130-step passage. We feel the view is better from the top, but it is relatively inexpensive to visit.

Afterwards, head down to the Clifton Suspension Bridge viewpoint on Brunel Lock Road. It’s at the bottom of the gorge but offers an even better photo of the bridge in all its glory. It’s also a perfect spot to try and catch the hot air balloons drifting over the city during Bristol’s International Balloon Fiesta (our favorite UK festival).

Take a Boat Trip Along the River Avon

Another fantastic way to see the gorge and suspension bridge is by boat. There are several boats that run tours from the Harbourside to the Avon Gorge. One is the historical replica of the sailing ship The Matthew.

Other options are the smaller but extremely cute river steamers or canal boats used by Bristol Packet Boat Trips. These companies also offer shorter tours of the historical Bristol docks.

Bristol even has its own ferry service where you can hop on and off at various spots through the city center. It’s a fun cheap way to get around.

The Matthew sails down the busy Bristol Harbour

Enjoy World Famous Street Art

Bristol is the hometown of the elusive street artist Banksy. Their work can be found all over the city.

My favorite Banksy mural is called “The Mild Mild West,” next to The Canteen on Cheltenham Road. While Jeremy’s favorite is “Well hung” on College Green. However, it was struck by paintballs ages ago, but you can still see it.

Street view with graffiti in Stokes Croft including Banksy's Mild Mild West

The city has embraced its association with its notorious resident painter, and has become home to hundreds of stunning pieces of street art. The city is literally an outdoor art gallery with an ever-changing collection. In addition, almost every year Bristol hosts UPFEST, Europe’s largest street art festival.

Though you will find graffiti in many parts of the city, some of the best spots for graffiti viewing are on Cheltenham Road in Stokes Croft, Quay/Nelson Street in the center, and North Street in Bedminster. Happy graffiti hunting!

Graffiti Mural on Building in Bedminster, Bristol

Be Amazed at Bristol's Free Festivals

One of the best things about Bristol are the festivals and most of them are free! Summer is filled with events but there are a few we never missed.

  • Bristol International Balloon Fiesta – Four days of free fun and it makes for amazing photos. It usually takes place around the first full week in August and is a spectacular display of color.
  • UPFEST – Mentioned above, this festival of street art is the largest in Europe. Basically, they spend the summer painting Bristol with new murals to accompany the live paint festival that takes place almost every August. 
Close up of hot air balloons lit for the Nightglow event during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
  • Bristol Harbourside Festival – This celebration of Bristol’s maritime heritage takes place around the third weekend in July. There are several stages spread across the city with music and dancing, in addition to a craft market, a circus, and a boat show.
  • Honorable mentions include the St. Paul’s Carnival, the Foodies Festival, and Bristol Walk Fest.
Ships line the busy Bristol Harbourside as tourists explore the navy ship on display during the Bristol Harbourside Festival

Browse Bristol's Museums

M Shed

The M Shed is a well put together historical archive which showcases the people and places of Bristol. It discusses how immigration, and the events of history shaped the city you see today. 

You learn about Bristol’s role in slavery as a maritime city, its bombing during WWII, the impacts of advancements in engineering, and its role in aviation history.

Since street art has also had a huge influence on Bristol, M Shed is a good place to catch some of Banksy’s work such as his Grim Reaper which was formerly on the side of the Thekla’s hull.

Old green double-decker bus displayed at Bristol's M Shed Museum

M Shed is a challenging place to describe as it is truly a unique museum. We lived in Bristol when it was curated and first opened. They reached out to residents asking for their story and for any memorabilia that can help bring the city and its neighborhoods to life.

It is amazing the artifacts and history they uncovered. As a tourist you rarely get to deep dive into the culture of your location. Take advantage of the free admission (donations welcomed) and learn a bit about the fantastic city of Bristol.

Large crane in the foreground. Bristol Harbourside in the background

Photo Tip

Head to the top floor of the M Shed for a fantastic view over the Harbourside.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery – Another freebie (donations welcomed). Housed in a beautiful Edwardian Baroque building, this museum is part natural history, part archaeology, and part art gallery. They have some of the best-preserved dinosaurs found in Britain, an array of rare and extinct wildlife from around the world, Egyptian artifacts, Roman artifacts, paintings from the Old Masters and of course, keep an eye out for Banksy’s “Angel Bust”.

Brunel's SS Great Britain

Brunel’s SS Great Britain was always a favorite with our friend and family visitors.

Walk back in time as a passenger of this 19th century vessel. Walk the deck, explore the engine room, cabins, dining areas, cargo areas, kitchens (all alive with sounds and smells), and the banquet room. Don’t miss the old video playing just before you head outside to the ship, it shows how the ship was salvaged from the Falklands and brought home to Bristol.

Purchase tickets in advance for a discount.

Brunel's SS Great Britain docked to be explored by visitors as one of the best things to do in Bristol


The Arnolfini hosts a changing program of contemporary exhibitions. Here you’ll find music and dance performances, poetry readings, lectures, and interactive displays. Honestly, you never know what exhibits you may find so check their website.

On the bottom floor is a specialist arts library and bookshop along with a little cafe. On a sunny day it is a popular place for locals to grab a drink at the cafe and sit outside on the benches to watch the boats drift down the river.

View of Bristol Harbourside with Arnolfini sign in the foreground

Aerospace Bristol

Aerospace Bristol – Bristol has played a huge part in the world’s aerospace advancements, including the co-development of the supersonic passenger jet the Concord. The Concord took its final flight on November 26th, 2003, and now is the centerpiece of this museum in hopes of inspiring and preserving Bristol’s aerospace heritage. In addition to the Concord, there are a ton of planes made locally over the last century on show.

Explore Bristol's Markets

St. Nicholas Market

St. Nicholas Market is the main market in the city center. It is mostly indoors, and the vendors sell everything from hot sauce to jewelry. If you are looking for a unique souvenir of your trip, stop by Beast Clothing for something with a bit of local Brizzle speak on it.

Behind the main indoor market is the real gem of this area, a covered food market with small shops selling to-die-for lunches. We can recommend pretty much all the restaurants on this strip. 

Jeremy eating a chicken and lamb wrap from Matina at St. Nicholas Market

The Moroccan place in the center is great for a sit down. Eat a Pita is well worth the long line. Caribbean Wrap is consistently a hit. Pieminster is easy to grab on the go. One of our favorites is Matina’s Mediterranean food where the wrap is made with fresh naan bread.

The market then continues with some other food shops, an import store, the Treasure Island candy store, a used bookstore, record store, and a few other fun places to look through.

The market runs seven days a week most of the year and has additional stalls set up on Corn Street at various times during the week.

Tobacco Factory Sunday Market

The Tobacco Factory Sunday Market is also worth a mention. It runs from 10 – 2:30 and has about 40 vendors selling various crafts and foods. If you managed to acquire some Bristol Pounds (yes, the city has its own currency), this is one of the places to spend them, all vendors at the market accept them.

Take in the View from Cabot Tower

This 1890’s tower is located in Brandon Hill Park near Jacob’s Wells Road. It’s a pretty park with a few small gardens and a pond. It’s very hilly so wear proper shoes. The tower is open from daily and is free.

Stairs leading up to Cabot Tower in Bristol

If you have been paying attention, we have already given you two great spots for free views above the city (Clifton Suspension Bridge and the roof of M Shed) and because Bristol is so spread out, this one has a completely different scene.

Be a Kid Again at We The Curious

Formerly called At-Bristol, We The Curious explores the boundaries of science with interactive displays and experiences. Though this is a fantastic place for kids, it is a great experience for adults too. The experiments challenge your way of thinking and pique your curiosity. It’s a lot of fun and takes about three to four hours to go through.

Oh, and that big giant mirrored ball in Millennium Square is the UK’s first 3D planetarium. Check the We The Curious website for showings.

The planetarium. A giant mirrored ball in Millennium Square in Bristol city

Grab a Pint at Bristol's Harbourside

Bristol’s Harbourside is home to the M Shed, Arnolfini, Brunel’s SS Great Britain, We the Curious, the Bristol Aquarium, and a heap of restaurants and bars.

In the summer, the Harbourside comes to life with many events taking place in Millennium Square and the Lloyds Amphitheatre. It’s one of the best areas in the city to join the locals for a pint as you wind down from a busy day of sightseeing. However, the later it gets in the evening some of the popular bars like V-Shed and Pitcher & Piano get very busy and turn into more of a drinks-only atmosphere.

Grab a Bite to Eat Too

Some good places to eat in the area include:

ZA ZA Bazaar – Even for American standards this is a massive buffet. They have everything from Chinese food, to Tex-Mex, Indian, Italian, Thai, BBQ, etc. It’s the best place you can go if you have a group with varying preferences. They have a set price depending on the day and time. Lunch offers the best value but be sure to vacate by 4:45 so you are not charged the dinner prices.

Signage for ZaZa Bazaar buffet restaurant on the Bristol Harbourside

Steak of the Art – Not directly on the waterfront, but this unique gem is one of the best tasting places in the area. In the front is a small ever-changing art gallery which you can buy pieces you like. Besides the food, the highlight of this place is the eccentric decor. Don’t miss seeing the Alice and Wonderland carved booth, it’s a phenomenal piece of work.

The Bristol Stable – If you are in the mood for pizza, this is your best bet. They often have good lunch specials and an assortment of ciders.

Pero's bridge connects the Bristol Harbourside area as locals sit on the edge of the river enjoying the sunny day

Get in Some Shopping

Bristol has some of the best shopping areas in the southwest of England. From large malls to quaint streets lined with boutiques. 

Large Chain Stores

At the end of the High Street areas of Broadmead and The Horsefair in downtown, is Cabot Circus. An indoor/outdoor mall area with restaurants and a large movie theater. They even have a few big American names such as Victoria’s Secret and Hollister.

Looking for something to eat? There are plenty of nice restaurants in Cabot Circus, but a 10-minute walk away is Cafe Amore (14 Nelson St, Bristol).

One of our favorite cafes a friend introduced us to years ago. We were thrilled to see it is still just as yummy and cheap! It doesn’t look like much from the outside but it’s a great spot for a lasagna, a very large panini, or grabbing a coffee with a friend.

Statue of man drawing looking out over top level of Bristol's Cribbs Causeway Mall

Cribbs Causeway is Bristol’s main mall. It’s very similar to the malls you see in the US. You will need to take a bus or drive outside of the city center to get there. It is also close to the Aerospace Bristol mentioned earlier.

Boutiques and Smaller Stores

If you prefer a more boutique feel to your shopping and are up for a little walk, start at the top of Queen’s Street where it intersects with Whiteladies Road. Here you’ll see the University of Bristol’s famous Victoria Rooms.

When you finish taking photos, follow Queens Road toward the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Shops and restaurants line the street. At the spectacular Wills Memorial Building Tower, turn down Park Street for a ton of more shops and restaurants.

Following the road to the bottom will drop you at College Green and the Harbourside where many of the attractions are.

Alternatively, you can tie a trip to Clifton Village into your visit to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. From The Mall (it’s a street) wind your way through the little streets to Clifton Arcade (on Boyce’s Ave).

View up Bristol's Park Road to Wills Memorial Building Tower

So when are you going to visit Bristol? Let us know in the comments some of your favorite things to do in Bristol or what you are most excited about doing while you are there.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Emma Smith

    Your writing is great. Cleared all my doubts about Bristol which were in my mind as I was also planning to go there this year.
    Thank you so much for this. Kudos to you..

    1. Nicole

      Thank you, appreciate you reading the site. I do hope you get to visit this year.

  2. Elger Routh

    I’ve always wanted to visit Bristol but have no idea why because I knew absolutely nothing about it until reading this post. I think I was right in wanting to visit though because it sounds like an awesome city!

    1. Nicole

      Bristol is quite the cool city. It even has it’s own international airport, making it super easy to get to. I think you’ll really enjoy it one day! Thanks for reading.

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