Hot air balloons flying over the Clifton Suspension Bridge during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

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Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
2019 Guide

The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is our favorite UK event. It is Europe’s largest annual hot air balloon festival, it’s free and takes place every year from Thursday to Sunday on the second weekend of August.

The first year we lived in Bristol we didn’t know about the festival. We were having dinner on our balcony when a ton of special shaped balloons floated overhead. That Saturday we went to the Nightglow event and were hooked ever since.  

Let’s jump straight into what you can experience at the festival, some tips for the best photos and making the most of your time.   

Quick Overview

When: Noon Thursday (August 8th, 2019) to Sunday 8 pm (August 11th, 2019)

Where: Ashton Court Estate in Bristol, UK

How much: Free entry / Parking requires a fee

What to do: The Nightglow and Mass Lifts are the main attractions. There are also musical performances, acrobatic flyovers, food stalls, rides, and other events.  

How long: The festival is highly weather dependent. Plan to attend the full festival to ensure you see at least one Mass Lift and one Nightglow.

Top Tip: Thursday’s Nightglow is significantly less crowded than Saturday. 

If you have extra time in Bristol check out the best things to see and do.

The Nightglow

In our opinion, the Nightglow is the star of the festival. At 9 pm on Thursday and Saturday, roughly 20 balloons put on a dazzling display choreographed to music. The crowd often gets into it waving glow sticks and lit phones and singing the chorus to popular songs. It is quite the experience.

Hot air balloons light up during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta's Nightglow event

All the events take place in a large field. For the Nightglow event, we try and sit on the southwest side (furthest side to Ashton Court Mansion) as there is usually a bit more space. Plus the field slopes for an amphitheater feel, making it much easier to get a good view. However, the fireworks usually take place in the field over, so trees obscure the view and crowds make it difficult to get there quickly from this side. We have never minded the trade-off.      

Get to this event at least 1.5 hours early. Saturday is busy most of the day. Most folks claim their spots when they come for the 6 pm mass ascent. The crowds are much smaller on Thursday but it gets busy earlier than you think. Most locals head to the festival shortly after work. It is possible to bring beach chairs to sit on as you wait. However, no matter how you get to the festival there is a bit of a walk over hilly terrain. We recommend bringing a light-weight waterproof picnic blanket. Once the event starts, everyone stands.

Close up of hot air balloons lit for the Nightglow event during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Mass Lifts

Picture dozens and dozens of hot air balloons of all different colors, shapes and sizes ascending to the air and drifting over the city. This is the event most dependent on weather, but if all goes well, it is spectacular to watch. There are morning lifts at 6 am and evening lifts at 6 pm.

Man stands among giant hot air balloons being inflated at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Yes, the morning lift is super early but this is truly the best time to see it. With the golden sun and a lot less people, getting great photos is easy. Though there is a small fence around the launch site so spectators cannot go too close to the balloons. There is also a different feel to the morning event which we like. The mornings are very casual. It is easy to walk around and get different views. It is also easy to talk with some of the balloon crews as they wait for their turn to start setting up. In the evening, it is often crowded and the crews are usually too busy to engage.

The lifts are slightly staggered for safety. You will see several balloons getting ready at a time. It is quite interesting to watch how they roll out and then start filling the balloons. Once a balloon has lifted, another will take its place and start preparing for its launch. It takes about 1.5 – 2 hours for all the balloons to launch.

Balloon shaped as a trophy cup takes off from the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Special Shapes

Keep a lookout for the special shaped balloons. There is always an interesting assortment of characters and shapes. Their main event happens with the Thursday 6 pm mass ascent however you will also see a few included in the other Mass Lifts. The special shapes tend to lift off after most of the larger balloons have launched.

Stuart the Minion hot air balloon floats across Bristol

Every year the participants change so you never know what you might see. Some of our favorites from prior years have been Stuart the Minion, the Palletways Dragon, Scottish Football Associations Challenge Cup, and the Princess. My personal absolute favorite has always been the UP balloon which looks like it is made of a thousand small balloons.  

Also keep a look out for the miniature balloons. They don’t take off but are always a favorite of the kids.

Hot air balloon designed to look like the movie UP with thousands of small balloons

Where to Watch the Mass Lifts

At the Festival Grounds

We recommend watching from the festival grounds at least once to get the full feel of dozens of balloons taking off around you. Again this is best done for the morning launch, especially if you do not like crowds.

You can only see the tethering events and Nightglow from the festival grounds. 

Many colorful balloons take off from the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Around the City

The tricky part is where the wind will take the balloons, so viewing from the city can be a gamble. Most of the time, they will float slightly north near the Clifton Suspension Bridge then make their way southeast over Redcliffe. You will find many locals picnicing in the park on the east side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, or enjoying drinks on the balcony of the Avon Gorge Hotel.

Balcony of Avon Gorge Hotel as hot air balloons float overhead

Keep in mind, the launches are often delayed and sometimes canceled due to weather. Be patient and check the festival’s twitter account @BristolBalloon for updates. It is also worth noting, for safety reasons the Clifton Suspension Bridge closes on Thursday and Saturday evening of the festival between 6 pm and midnight. Make sure you are where you want to be before it closes as it is a long way around.

If you are looking for a great shot of the Clifton Suspension Bridge with the balloons, there are two excellent spots if the wind is kind.

  1. The park at the Clifton Observatory. This gives a fantastic overlook of the bridge and usually you can get the balloons in the background. Get there and set up early as this is a common spot for local and visiting photographers.
  2. The Clifton Suspension Bridge Viewpoint on Brunel Lock Road is a lot less known. It gives a fantastic center of the river viewpoint of the bridge. Which is a bit more unique compared to the Clifton Observatory view and just as beautiful. There are also a few other nearby outcroppings that make for good angles. I personally like to use the one next to the lock.
  3. Bonus: Brandon Hill is another area you can try that the balloons usually float near. If Cabot Tower is open, you can head up to the top for a unique perspective. You are unlikely to get a shot with the bridge but it does make for amazing views as they make their way over the city.
Hot air balloons float above Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol

Other Attractions at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride

There are several companies that offer flights at the festival. Taking a flight during the festival is slightly more expensive than flights at other times but how often do you get to experience a lift with so many balloons at once. These flights sell out quickly and are contingent on weather. If your flight gets cancelled you will not be able to re-book on another flight in the festival but your voucher is usually good for a standard flight for about 12 months. Check with the balloon operator on their policies before booking.     

Red Virgin hot air balloon

Musical Performances

Bristol is known for having a bustling music scene. Bristol’s festivals are great at showcasing the local talent and up-and-coming musicians. Head over to the Fiesta Bandstand throughout the day to enjoy the show.

Performances are scheduled:  

  • 2 pm to 8 pm on Thursday and Friday
  • 12:30 pm to 7:30 pm on Saturday
  • 1 pm to 6 pm on Sunday

Arena and Aeronautical Events

The festival usually only publishes their full schedule of events the day before or the day of the festival.  These events usually include aeronautical acrobats, wing walkers, and parachuting displays. As the festival nears, you can check on the Official Bristol International Balloon Fiesta‘s website or Twitter account (@BristolBalloon) for updates. Alternatively there are programs available for purchase at the festival.

Also, keep an eye out for the Red Arrows who annually show up for a loud and colorful flyover.

Two Breitling planes perform aeronautical tricks with women wing walkers on top
Nine of the UK's Red Arrow jets in formation streaming red white and blue smoke behind

Fairground

There are several ticketed fairground rides mostly aimed at young children such the Helter Skelter slide, a merry-go-round, bumper cars and the very popular ferris wheel. There are vendors, a few trade stalls doing free samples and even an archery area.

Jeremy drawing a bow as practicing archery

Getting to and from the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Drive and Park

We do not recommend driving to the festival. Traffic around Bristol on the Thursday and Saturday evenings of the festival is horrific. Parking is also very limited and still requires a 10-minute walk over grassy hills from the car park to the festival field. If you do plan on driving, it is highly recommended to book your tickets early on the Official Bristol International Balloon Fiesta’s website.  

A few important points about the parking;

  • Last entry to all parking lots is 5 pm
  • Parking tickets are non-refundable, even if the main event is canceled due to weather
  • Once parked you cannot leave and return on the same ticket
  • Do not use GPS.  As you approach the area follow the festival signage to your ticketed parking lot.
  • Plan lots of extra time to get there and be patient leaving. There are a lot of cyclists and pedestrians, including children and it is very dark leaving the venue.
  • The Clifton Suspension Bridge closes from 6 pm to midnight the Thursday and Saturday of the festival.  

Accessibility

Despite the terrain, the festival does its best to accommodate those with disabilities. There is a disabled parking lot closer to the festival with a gently sloped paved walkway. There are very limited spaces so book ahead of time. A valid Blue Badge must be provided when booking and when arriving on site. Follow signage to Gate 6.

Once in the festival, there is a disabled viewing area at Gate 3. The festival also rents mobility scooters and wheelchairs which can be pre-booked online through Event Mobility.

Shuttle Bus

One of the most convenient ways to get to and from the festival is by bus. First Bus run shuttles from Bristol Temple Meads Train Station along the City Center (Metrobus Stop C2, Colston Ave across from the 4.500 miles from Delhi restaurant).

Patience and giving yourself more time to get there is the key. Lines will go quicker than you think but they are very long. There are a ton of buses running for the event and they have some bus lanes to use, but they also get stuck in some of the festival traffic.   

From the festival, Buses pick up and drop off at the Blackmoors Lane roundabout. It is another 20 minute walk slightly uphill from there to the festival. Follow the signs and the crowd.

  • 4:30 am to 10 am Friday, Saturday and Sunday – every 20 minutes
  • 10 am to 11:30 pm Thursday and Saturday – every 10 minutes
  • 10 am to 9:30 pm Friday and Sunday – every 10 minutes

Tickets are purchased on the bus or the mTickets app (Select Bristol then Special Events)

  • Single £3
  • Day Ticket £5 (£4 advanced purchase on mTickets app)
  • Groups (up to 5 Adults) £15 (£12 advanced purchase on mTickets app)
  • Children 15 and under ride free with the purchase of an adult ticket

Tip: Bring a flashlight (torch) or use your phone light as walking back to the bus can be very dark.   

Taxi and Uber

There is a designated drop-off and pickup location, usually located in the Long Ashton Park and Ride lot. This may change, but it is always well signposted during the event so have the driver follow the signage.

Make arrangements early as most drivers will not work the festival due to traffic.

Bike or Walk

From the city it is a relatively easy trek. The Festival Way bike trail gives a nice traffic free path. It runs from Queens Square in the city center to the festival grounds at the Ashton Court Estate, then out to Nailsea. Bikemap has a good map of the route. There is bike parking at the Ashton Court Mansion and the fallow deer park.

Another popular route is over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but again keep in mind that the bridge closes on Thursday and Saturday evening of the fiesta.

We used to live close to Temple Meads Train Station so we would sometimes hop on the shuttle but usually we would use the Festival Route to walk it. It’s about an hour walk (from Temple Meads) but it is a nice walk along the river and we would usually stop at the The Ostrich pub for a quick pint before continuing the walk.   

Eating and Drinking at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

There are tons of stalls selling the typical festival food for typical festival prices.

Alternatively, as long as you do not bring glass or cans, you can bring a picnic unless you are in the Members Area. Keep in mind though, no matter how you are getting to the festival you will still have a decent walk to get there. We recommend keeping it as light as possible.

Usually we would just eat on site, but occasionally would bring sandwiches and just get drinks and goodies once we are there.

Where to Stay for the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Bristol gets very busy for the festival. Hotels book up quickly and rates rise significantly the closer it gets. We recommend booking at least two to three months in advance.

Bristol has a pretty good public transportation system. If you are only staying in Bristol or popping over to Bath for a day, there is no need to rent a car. If you will have a car for your trip, parking in the City can be challenging. Hotels that offer parking often charge extra.

Unless we plan on staying at a Hilton (as they guarantee their lowest price only on their website), we usually use Booking.com for our hotel needs. They have an easy to use interface and usually the best prices available.

Here are some Bristol City Center areas you may want to consider for your trip to the festival.

Clifton

If you want to walk or bike into the festival grounds or watch from the Avon Gorge area, Clifton is a good location. Parking is a challenge in this area and very few hotels offer an on site option.   

Redcliffe and around Temple Meads Train Station

Shuttle buses leave from Temple Meads making this a very convenient spot to be based for the festival. Prices in this area also tend to be cheaper than other parts of the city. Hotels normally have paid parking options. To walk to the festival from here takes about an hour.  

We can recommend the DoubleTree by Hilton on Redcliffe Way as the location we use when visiting Bristol. We also used to arrange friends and family to stay here when visiting. 

Harbourside and Millennium Square

Easy to catch the shuttle from Colston Ave. or follow the Festival Way bike trail to the festival.

Weather

Weather is the bane of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. Hot air balloons need near perfect conditions to go up. Clouds and rain are not as much the issue as wind. Even if conditions on the ground seem fine, there may be strong gusts at 1,000 feet.

The Mass Lifts do get delayed all the time, even occasionally canceled. This can even happen a few launches in a row. Be patient and plan to attend as many days as you can so you are not disappointed. It is much more rare for the ground events, such as the Nightglow, to cancel but it can happen. Plan accordingly.

Large yellow Sun Rise hot air balloon floats among the clouds

How to Dress for the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Average August temperatures in Bristol range from 70° F (21° C) during the day to 57° F (14 °C) in the evenings. Make sure to check the weather before heading out and bring a jacket with you or dress in layers to be comfortable. If you are going up in one of the balloons, you may want to wear something a tad heavier as it is colder at higher elevations.

Do you have additional tips that would be helpful to others? Leave your insights in the comments.

Want to know more on what to see and do while in Bristol? Check out our Best of Bristol post.

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