The biggest city in the southwest of the UK, Bristol is a buzzing cultural metropolis with the quaint Cotswolds to its north and the lush, green countryside of Somerset to its south. Also, a hop, skip and a jump from the UNESCO Heritage Centre of Bath, which basks in its Georgian history, Bristol has a rich history of its own, largely focused on its maritime trade and exploration links.
Last year it held the title of European Green Capital, the only UK city to do so to date, thanks to its efforts regarding green travel, energy and lowering waste. Bristol is known for its openness towards new ideas and was even called “a city of fun” by the judges, giving you an idea of how exciting a place it can be to visit!
Best time to visit Bristol
Bristol has something to offer all year round, but our favourite times to visit have to be in Spring and Summer when the streets come alive with the city’s festivals.
A great way to learn more about the city is by taking part in the Bristol Walking Festival, which takes place throughout May. Over the month a variety of walks take place across the city and its environs covering themes such as the old city, pirates, cemeteries, waterways, multi-faith and health and stress. It’s a great way to meet some locals and get off the tourist trail!
The harbourside turns into a giant party every July for the Bristol Harbour Festival, when different spots along the river are turned into themed areas. Find free music shows alongside thronging market stalls and food courts, a dance village, a children’s zone and even a circus area. If you want to see the city at its best, then make sure your visit coincides with this event!
Then there’s the Grillstock festival, held usually around the start of July, which combines smoky barbecue with the sounds of the best Americana bands. But if your visit doesn’t coincide with this weekend of ‘meat, music and mayhem’, worry not – you can sample Grillstock’s own famous slow-cooked barbecue by visiting their restaurants in either Clifton or St. Nick’s market.
Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta – especially the Night Glow event where tethered balloons are lit up in time with music. Taking place every August, you can find out more at http://www.bristolballoonfiesta.co.uk/.
Top Things to Do in Bristol
There’s something for everyone in Bristol, whether you’re into culture, shopping, history or food. Some of the main attractions include the family-friendly interactive science hub At-Bristol, where you can get hands-on with tons of experiments teaching you about our bodies, flight, movement, food, and the world. Upstairs you can visit the planetarium as well as get artistic in the Aardman-sponsored animation area, where you can create and save your very own short films.
Next door to At-Bristol is the city’s aquarium and not far up the road, in Clifton Village, animal lovers will also enjoy a trip to Bristol Zoo Gardens, which holds the title of the world’s oldest provincial zoo. During the summer months it holds special ‘twilight’ openings and outdoor movies – well worth a visit if you get a chance.
Clifton Village is one of the city’s prettiest, and most affluent, areas, and is a great place for a bit of shopping or a bite to eat. Discover Clifton Village is a great resource for visitors, listing all the wonderful boutiques and locally run restaurants and cafes you might like to check out, but it can be just as much fun to just let your feet do the work and simply see where you end up.
After you’ve had your fill of food and shopping the suburb still has more to offer. A must visit, there’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, which straddles the Avon Gorge. You’ll also find the Clifton Observatory with its Camera Obscura, and, if you’re lucky, you might be visiting during one of the few times a year that the Clifton Rocks Railway is open the to public.
Historic Bristol and the Harbourside
If history’s your thing, Bristol has a number of decent public museums. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery holds a wide range of collections including Egyptian, southwest wildlife, art, and natural history as well as an interesting programme of temporary exhibitions throughout the year. Down on the harbourside, the M Shed tells the story of Bristol, its industry, and people. Visit the Georgian House to discover what a local sugar plantation and slave owner’s home would have looked like and pop into The Red Lodge Museum to find over 400 years of history behind one little door.
There is also a lot to explore regarding the city’s maritime past. Recently renovated is Underfall Yard, a historic 19th Century working boatyard. A newly opened visitors centre tells its story and those who venture down to the harbourside can take a guided tour of the workshop and sluice room.
One of the most popular attractions by the river has to be Brunel’s ss Great Britain. When this ship was launched back in 1843 it changed history, as Brunel designed a large ship made of iron, powered by steam and driven by a screw propeller. You can now walk under the ship, through a museum and then explore the vessel itself, restored to look as it would have when it worked as a passenger liner. New this year, brave visitors can even ‘Go Aloft!’ and climb the ship’s rigging!
There are numerous boat tours on offer in and around Bristol’s floating harbour, but we particularly recommend a trip with Bristol Packet Boat Trips. Combine sailing with some food on a lunch or cream tea cruise or a trip to Beese’s Tea Garden. Or head further afield on a trip down the Avon Gorge where you pass underneath Clifton’s famous suspension bridge before heading down towards Pill and Avonmouth.
Discovering the Arts in Bristol
When it comes to the arts, Bristol is the place to go! The city has a thriving theatre scene so it’s well worth checking out a show, for example. This year (2016) the Bristol Old Vic marks its 250th anniversary, making it the oldest working theatre in the UK. Other top venues around the city include the Bristol Hippodrome, Tobacco Factory Theatres and lots of comedians and musicians take to the stage at Colston Hall.
Home to the famous graffiti artist Banksy, it’s unsurprising that Bristol is known as one of the UK’s most creative cities. Street art is found all over the city, especially in the cultural hub of the Stokes Croft quarter, and a rising number of companies now offer walking street art tours. One such company is Where The Wall, whose tour guides – often artists themselves – take you on a walk around the city, revealing the stories behind some of its most beautiful street art.
Bristol is also a mecca for shoppers. As well as Clifton Village’s independent shops – many of which accept Bristol’s own currency, the Bristol Pound – there’s Cabot Circus, which offers the best in high quality stores like House of Fraser, Fossil and Harvey Nichols. And, of course, in December, the festive atmosphere is in full swing with amazing decorations and Christmas markets all over the city.
Finally, if you’re after something a little bit different, you might want to check out one of the UK’s first trampoline parks. AirHop Bristol is made up of over 50 interconnected trampolines and also has slam dunk and dodgeball zones. And, if you need a bit of sit down after all that activity, why not try Chance & Counters – Bristol’s first dedicated board games cafe that recently opened after a successful Kickstarter campaign. Find it on Bristol’s iconic Christmas Steps.
Where to Stay in Bristol
If money is no object, why not stay in Bristol Zoo’s onsite lodge and have breakfast with the gorillas? But if this luxury experience will break your budget, don’t despair – Bristol has a great selection of wallet-friendly accommodation options.
There’s the usual suspects regarding budget hotels – such as Premier Inn, Mercure, Holiday Inn etc, but for a quirky stay why not book one of the retro rocket campervans on the roof of the Brooks Guesthouse Bristol?
Hostel-wise visitors have a wide selection with prices ranging from a money-saving £15-20. Bristol YHA is housed in a refurbished warehouse, the Full Moon Backpackers Hotel is found in the artistic hub of Stokes Croft and then there’s the multicultural hostel Homestay Bristol and the funky Rock n Bowl Hostel, found above a retro bowling alley in the city centre.
Find and book these hotels on our favourite accommodation search website: Booking.com
Another great alternative for accommodation in Bristol is Airbnb, where private rooms start at $20 and offer a unique way to experience the city from a more local perspective.
Don’t have an Airbnb account yet? Sign up now and receive a discount to put towards your first Airbnb stay!
Where to Eat and Drink in Bristol
If you’re feeling a tiny bit peckish, you might want to head to Za Za Bazaar. This massive all-you-can eat banquet has food from all over the world, cooked freshly in front of you. Whether you’re into Italian, Tex Mex or Thai, you’ll find what you’re in the mood for at one of its country-themed food stations.
A Bristol institution, Pieminster serves up pretty much the best pies ever. Fact. Meat-eaters, vegetarians and those on a gluten-free diet are amply catered for with delights such as the classic ‘Moo’ steak and ale pie, Saag Pie-neer and a range of slow-cooked hot pots with a potato topping. All at a decent price with a wide range of beer and cocktail drink options to enjoy alongside.
Recently opened Pho is the place to go if you’re after freshly prepared Vietnamese food, but if you’re after a tasty chunk of cow then you can’t do better than The Ox; one of the city’s most popular steak houses. And for a sweet treat, gelato bar Swoon can be found near College Green opposite Bristol Cathedral, bringing a taste of Italy to Bristol.
Finally, if you’re looking for somewhere special for a drink then why not check out Bristol’s secret bars. Hyde and Co and the Milk Thistle are stylised around the prohibition era, and these speakeasies are low-lit secret hideaways where you can get the most amazing cocktails!
Looking for more restaurants to try while in Bristol? This Timeout guide “The best restaurants in Bristol” will give you plenty of ideas.
How much time do you need in Bristol?
The city itself has enough to keep you busy for a weekend break, but Bristol can be a great place to base yourself for a week-long holiday and explore the further southwest.
Bath and many of Somerset’s prettiest towns are less than an hour away, plus you could also make it a dual-centre trip and spend a few days in nearby Wales, exploring the cosmopolitan city of Cardiff or heading further round the coast to the scenic Gower peninsula.
For other ideas, you can check out the following itineraries:
About The Author: Ladies What Travel
Focusing on part-time travel, old friends Emma and Keri head up a team of bloggers whose mission is to help you make the most of your weekends and annual leave.
With a love of affordable luxury, wildlife and afternoon tea, the Ladies What Travel team can be found exploring the UK and beyond, offering advice on the best places to visit and how to live your free time to the fullest! You can followLadies What Travel on their blog as well as on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.