By far, our favorite UK event is the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. Every second weekend of August, hundreds of colorful balloons fill the sunset sky in Europe’s largest annual hot air balloon festival. The best part is the festival is free to everyone. Amazing, right?
One evening, on our first year in Bristol, while having dinner on our city-center balcony, about fifteen special shaped balloons floated right over our heads. We figured something special was happening and needed to find out what it was. Luckily, we caught the Nightglow event that Saturday evening and we’ve been hooked on this festival ever since.
In this guide we give you everything you need to know to make the most of Bristol’s Balloon Fiesta. We’ve included info on what to do at the festival, tips for grabbing the best photos, and some of the best areas to stay when visiting Bristol. Let’s jump straight in!
When: Noon Thursday (August 11th, 2022) to Sunday 8:00 pm (August 14th, 2022)
Where: Ashton Court Estate in Bristol, UK
How much: Free entry / Parking requires a fee – Taking the bus and walking in are the cheapest options
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, check out our post on best things to see and do in Bristol.
The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta does not sponsor us; we just love this festival and thought you would too.
Be Dazzled by 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. Often the crowd will start waving glow sticks and lit phones and singing the chorus to popular songs. It’s like a concert with balloons!
All the events take place in the large field at the Ashton Court Estate. For the Nightglow event, we try and sit on the southwest side (furthest side to the mansion). We find 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’ve never minded the trade-off.
Get to the Nightglow at least 1.5 hours early to get a good spot.
Saturday is busy most of the day. Typically, folks claim their spots for the Nightglow event when they come for the evening mass ascent.
The crowds on Thursday are much smaller, but it gets busy earlier than you’d think. Most locals head to the festival shortly after work.
Bringing a beach chair to sit on as you wait is possible. However, no matter how you get to the festival there is a walk over hilly terrain to get into the grounds. Whatever you bring, you’ll have to carry.
Instead, we recommend bringing a light-weight waterproof picnic blanket to sit on while you wait. Once the event starts, everyone stands.
Up, Up, and Away with Bristol Balloon Fiesta’s 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 event is most dependent on weather, but if all goes well, it is spectacular to watch. Usually, morning lifts are at 6 am and evening lifts at 6 pm, if the weather doesn’t delay them.
Yes, the morning lift is super early, but this is truly the best time to see it. With the golden sun and less people, getting great photos is easy.
Also, the morning event just feels different to the afternoon event. It’s more casual. With none of the crowds, walking around to get different views is easy.
Plus, we love speaking with the balloon crews as they wait their turn to set up. Evenings are crowded, and the crews are usually too busy to engage.
Launches are slightly staggered for safety. Several balloons will get ready at a time. Watching how they roll out and start filling the balloons is its own treat.
Once a balloon lifts, another will take its place and start preparing for its launch. It takes about 1.5 – 2 hours for all the balloons to launch.
Keep an Eye Out for Special Shaped Hot Air Balloons
Every year there’s always an interesting assortment of special shaped balloons.
Typically, they launch 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, but it really depends on the weather.
The participants change every year, so you never know what you might see.
Some of our favorites from prior years include Stuart the Minion, the Palletways Dragon, Scottish Football Associations Challenge Cup, and the Princess.
My absolute personal favorite of all time is the UP balloon, which looks like it is made of a thousand small balloons.
Also, keep a look out for the miniature balloons around the launch field, especially on Thursday night. They don’t take off but are always a kid favorite.
Where to Watch the Bristol Balloon Fiesta’s Mass Lifts
Get a Front Row Seat at the Festival Grounds
We recommend watching from the festival grounds at Ashton Court Estate at least once to get the full feel of dozens of balloons taking off around you. Again, morning launch is best, especially if you do not like crowds.
You can only see the tethering events and Nightglow from the festival grounds.
Watch the Balloons from Around the City
Viewing from the city can be a gamble. The tricky part is knowing where the wind will take the balloons.
Most of the time, they float slightly north near the Clifton Suspension Bridge, then make their way southeast over Redcliffe. Picnicking in the park on the Clifton Suspension Bridge’s east side or enjoying drinks on the Avon Gorge Hotel balcony are popular spots for locals.
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.
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. It is a long way around.
Photographing the Mass Lifts from the City
If you are looking for a great shot of the Clifton Suspension Bridge with the balloons, there are two excellent locations if the wind is kind.
- The park at the Clifton Observatory gives a fantastic overlook of the bridge. Usually, you can get the balloons in the background. Get there early to set up as this is a common spot for local and visiting photographers.
- The Clifton Suspension Bridge Viewpoint on Brunel Lock Road is a lot less known. This viewpoint of the bridge from the center of the river is more unique than the Clifton Observatory view and just as beautiful. A few other nearby outcroppings also make for good angles. I personally like to use the one next to the lock.
Bonus: Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill is another area to try. Balloons usually float nearby but, if they don’t come this way, you are likely to miss the balloons altogether.
If Cabot Tower is open, head to the top for a unique perspective. You won’t get a shot with the bridge, but it does make for amazing views as the hot air balloons make their way over the city.
Other Attractions at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
Several companies offer flights at the festival.
Taking a flight during the festival is slightly more expensive than flights at other times. Though, 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 should be good for a standard flight for about 12 months. Check with the balloon operator on their policies before booking.
Attend a Musical Performance
Bristol is known for having a bustling music scene and 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 typically run from:
- 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
Keep an Eye on the Sky for Aeronautical Events
Typically, the Bristol Balloon Fiesta only publishes their full event schedule the day before or day of the festival. Events include aeronautical acrobats, wing walkers, and parachuting displays.
As the festival nears, you can check the Official Bristol International Balloon Fiesta website or Twitter account (@BristolBalloon) for updates. Alternatively, there are programs available for purchase at the festival.
Also, the Red Arrows show up annually for a loud and colorful flyover.
Play a Game at the Fairground
Several ticketed fairground rides, mostly aimed at young children, are in the fairground area. They include rides like the Helter Skelter slide, a merry-go-round, bumper cars, and the popular Ferris wheel.
Every year is a little different, but often there are food stalls, and a few trade stalls doing free samples. Sometimes even archery makes an appearance.
Eating and Drinking at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Lots of stalls sell 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, no matter how you are getting to the festival, you will still have a decent walk to get there. We recommend carrying as little as possible.
Usually, we would eat on site, but occasionally would bring sandwiches and just get drinks and goodies once we were 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.
Here are some Bristol City Center areas you may want to consider for your trip to the festival.
Top Pick - Clifton Area
Whether you want to walk or bike into the festival grounds, or watch from the Avon Gorge area, Clifton is the perfect location. However, if you have a car, parking is a challenge and very few hotels offer on-site parking.
- Avon Gorge Hotel has the best view in town. Rooms are pricey and book out quickly. If you’re lucky to find one available and have the extra cash, splurge on a room with a view of the gorge.
Second Pick - Harbourside and 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.
Plus, shuttle buses stop on Colston Ave., making it an easy place to get into the festival. It’s also easy to access the Festival Way bike trail, which is a 45-minute walk to the festival.
Third Pick - 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.
- The DoubleTree by Hilton on Redcliffe Way is the location we use when visiting Bristol these days. We also used to arrange for friends and family to stay here when visiting us.
Getting To and From the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Drive and Park
We do not recommend driving to the festival, especially for evening events. Traffic around Bristol on the Thursday and Saturday evenings is horrific.
Parking is very limited and still requires a 10-minute walk over grassy hills from the car park to the festival field, except for the accessible parking lot.
If you plan on driving, book parking early on the Official Bristol International Balloon Fiesta website.
A few important points about the parking.
- Make sure to note the last entry time for the parking lot you are assigned.
- 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. Cyclists and pedestrians, including children, walk along the road and it is very dark when leaving the venue.
- The Clifton Suspension Bridge closes from 6 pm to midnight the Thursday and Saturday of the festival.
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.
Spaces are limited so book ahead. A valid Blue Badge must be provided when booking and when arriving on site.
Once in the festival, there is a disabled viewing area; however, you need to pre-book access on the official website.
The festival also rents mobility scooters and wheelchairs which can be ordered online through Event Mobility.
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. Tons of buses run 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 – about 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
Purchase tickets on the bus or via the mTickets app (Select Bristol then Special Events).
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 and road closures.
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.
Bike parking is available at Ashton Court Mansion and the fallow deer park.
Another popular route is over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but again, the bridge closes on the Thursday and Saturday evenings of the fiesta so plan accordingly.
We used to live close to Temple Meads Train Station and would sometimes hop on the shuttle. Though, usually we would just walk the Festival Route. It’s about an hour walk from Temple Meads, but it is a nice walk along the river. The Ostrich pub always made a great spot for a quick pint before continuing the walk.
Watch the 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 rarer for the ground events, such as the Nightglow, to cancel but it can happen. Plan accordingly.
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, wear something a tad heavier as it is colder at higher elevations.
We hope you enjoy the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta as much as we do. If you have any questions, drop us a comment.
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