With Bristol’s airport continuing to grow and low cost carriers bringing flights from destinations across Europe, Bristol has a ton of tourists going through it on a regular basis.
Bristol is a great base to visit Stonehenge or explore the picturesque Cotswolds. The stunning Cheddar Gorge is only a 40 minute drive away. A day trip to the 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. Bristol is the best place to base your trip to the southwest UK.
The challenge is, we feel Bristol is unfairly overlooked as a UK travel destination in its own right. Okay so we may be a bit biased as we called Bristol home for several years. However, we think you will also fall in love with this quite unique city.
Let us show you some of the best of Bristol and why you should consider spending a little more time here.
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.
Overlooking the bridge is the Clifton Observatory. The stunning observation point is not the only attraction. Inside you will find one of only three camera obscuras in the UK, which is a lot of fun to have a play (£2.50). 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 at £2.50 (£4 for a combination ticket) if you want to check it out for yourself.
The views from the top of the bridge are breathtaking. Afterwards, head down to the Clifton Suspension Bridge viewpoint on Brunel Lock Road at the bottom of the gorge for 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).
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.
World Famous Street Art
Bristol is the hometown of the elusive, street artist Banksy. His (or her) work can be found all over the city. My favorite is a large mural called “The Mild Mild West” next to The Canteen on Cheltenham Road. “Well hung” on College Green is Jeremy’s favorite, unfortunately it was struck by paintballs ages ago but you can still see it.
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!
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 – We truly love this festival. It’s four days of free fun and makes for amazing photos. It usually takes place around the first full week in August and is a spectacular display of color.
- 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.
- UPFEST – Mentioned above, this festival of street art is the largest in Europe. The official festival is taking a break in 2019 but in its place, UPFEST Summer Editions will live paint a section of the city in building size murals.
Honorable mentions include the St. Paul’s Carnival, the Foodies Festival, and Bristol Walk Fest.
M Shed – This well put together historical archive showcases the people and places of Bristol. It discusses how immigration and the events of history has 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 formally on the side of the Thekla’s hull.
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 will 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 this fantastic city.
Top 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 – Always a favorite of our friends 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 your tickets on their website for a 5% discount.
Arnolfini – The Arnolfini hosts a changing program of contemporary exhibitions. Such as music and dance performances, poetry readings, lectures and interactive displays, but 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.
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’s a ton of planes made locally over the last century on show.
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. 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 freshly made naan bread.
The market then continues with some other food shops, an import store, the Treasure Island candy store, a used book store, 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.
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 8:15 – 6:15 daily and it is free.
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.
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 to the take the 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.
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 numerous 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.
Some good places to eat in the area:
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., 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.
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 purchase 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.
Bristol has some of the best shopping areas in the southwest of England. From large shopping complexes 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.
Cribbs Causeway is the city’s main mall. It’s very similar to the mall’s 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 pretty 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. This is 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 (street) wind your way through the little streets to Clifton Arcade (on Boyce’s Ave).
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.