Things to do in Bristol, Gloucestershire
Located on the River Avon, Bristol is often referred to as the "Capital of the West Country". Famous for its historic port, Bristol's former docklands and warehouses have been regenerated to provide a wonderful waterfront area of historic attractions, cafés and restaurants while shipping is now conducted seven miles downstream at the newer Royal Portbury Docks at Avonmouth.
Although badly damaged during World War II, this maritime city has some wonderful Georgian and Victorian architecture. Characterful merchants' houses and pubs dating back to the 1650s and the remains of the old city walls can be explored along King Street, which was named after Charles II.
Visitors will find an abundance of maritime history, street art, independent shops, engineering marvels such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge and a ready supply of museums, art galleries, theatres, parks, festivals and family attractions in this pleasant city.
After dark, Bristol's nightlife keeps the Harbourside humming to the beat of underground music and reggae in one of Britain's most musical cities.
If all this has whetted your appetite to visit Britain's eighth largest city, then read on to discover the history and highlights of this lively port city and the diverse range of things to see and do there.
Areas to Explore
Bristol's Old Port, known as the Floating Harbour, is the main area for visitors. Restored wharves and warehouses house cafés, museums and attractions including the Lifeboat and Industrial Museum, the Maritime Museum and SS Great Britain.
The University District includes the City Art Gallery and Museum.
The steep-sided Avon Valley at Clifton is worth visiting to see the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Observatory and Caves, or enjoy walks in nearby Leigh Woods.
The Historic District around King Street and Queen Square was laid out in 1680 and has many historic properties displaying various architectural styles.
Things to Do
Self-guided walking tours along the Bristol Heritage Trail or the Slave Trade Trail are available for a nominal charge from the Tourist Information Centre at Harbourside. They provide a fun way to explore Bristol and learn about its fascinating history.
Historians and those with an interest in ships should not miss the SS Great Britain, built in Bristol by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843 and now preserved as a museum in the Great Western Dockyard. It was the first iron-hulled steam-driven passenger ship ever built and makes an interesting attraction.
Take a boat trip around the harbour and see the historic sights from the water – a wonderful perspective.
The Georgian House Museum on Great George Street is a fine example of an 18th century home built for plantation owner John Pinney in 1790. It provides a fascinating insight into life as a merchant and as a servant.
St Mary Redcliffe Church, built from local red sandstone, was visited by Elizabeth I in 1574 who declared it "the fairest parish church in England". This fine example of mediaeval ecclesiastical architecture is well worth visiting to see the black Purbeck marble columns, 1200 gold roof bosses, Chaotic Pendulum and the model of John Cabot's ship The Matthew. Look out for the whale bone above the north doorway which was presented to the church by John Cabot in thanksgiving for his safe return from his expedition to discover North America.
Bristol Cathedral stands on College Green and dates back to 1140 when it was founded as an Augustinian monastery. It has a Norman Chapter House, Abbey Gateway and some grotesque Gothic gargoyles decorating the extensive facade.
After walking across the world-famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, go down to river level and visit the Clifton Observatory and Giant's Cave. Housed in a former windmill, the Observatory includes England's only surviving Victorian "Camera Obscura". The nearby viewing platform has stunning views of the Avon Gorge.
Bristol On a Budget
If you want to drive over Clifton Suspension Bridge there's a small fee, but pedestrians can walk over for free and experience the thrill of being suspended 75 metres above the River Avon, which rushes though the gorge below.
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has an outstanding collection of exhibits, from dinosaurs to world-class artworks. It is free to visit and the walk around the incredible historic district nearby is also free.
Keep your eyes open for some of the artworks decorating the city by local artist "Banksy". "Love Chest" is a humourous painting on Park Street while the "Grim Reaper" rowing his canoe is painted on the side of the Thekla nightclub building in The Grove.
Pop into the Palladian Corn Exchange building to admire the clock which tells the time in both GMT and old Bristol time. Look for "The Nails", also on Corn Street, which were bronze pillars where merchants once agreed deals. There is an excellent food market to browse nearby on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Castle Park is free to walk around and explore the excavated remains of Bristol Castle and the shell of the bombed St Peter's Church.
Bristol Zoo Gardens in Clifton is one of the oldest zoos in the world and was voted "Zoo of the Year 2004" by the Good Britain Guide.
Appropriately located at Harbourside, the Blue Reef Aquarium is a stunning undersea safari featuring an underwater tunnel for viewing marine life. It includes Mediterranean sealife as well as creatures of all sizes from seahorses to sharks.
The "At Bristol" Science Centre is a fun interactive attraction with over 300 challenging displays and a Planetarium, also at Harbourside.
On a hot day, the Portishead Open Air Pool at Lakegrounds is ideal for cooling off with great views of the Bristol Channel from the sun deck.
Guided walks are not usually much fun for children, but the one-hour tour of the historic harbour with Pirate Pete is sure to be appreciated. Talks of slavery and piracy bring Bristol's colourful history to life for all ages. Finish your pirate-themed visit with a meal in the Llandoger Trow where pirates would have socialized in the mid-17th century in the company of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.
History of Bristol
Bristol's earliest history is revealed by the presence of Iron Age hill forts along the Avon Gorge. During the Roman era it was the site of the Abona settlement. By 1000AD the town of Brigstowe, which means "Place at the bridge" was founded and was soon an important trading centre with its own mint producing silver coins which were marked with the name of the town.
Bristol's prime situation on the junction of the Avon and Frome rivers led to a port being established in the 11th Century. It quickly grew as it handled much of the slave trade between England and Ireland. The original wooden Bristol Bridge was replaced by a stone bridge in 1247 which was lined with shop-houses overhanging the river. It handled the steadily increasing traffic until the 1760s when the current bridge was built.
Bristol received its royal charter in 1155 and was granted city status when it became the Diocese of Bristol in 1542. The former 12th Century Abbey of St Augustine was appointed as Bristol Cathedral.
During mediaeval times, Bristol was one of the largest towns in England along with London, York and Norwich. However the population was decimated by the Black Death which affected the city in 1348-49 and the city took almost two centuries to recover.
Conveniently located for westward-heading expeditions, the port of Bristol was the starting point for many voyages of discovery in the 15th Century, including John Cabot's exploration of North America followed by William Weston's voyage in 1499.
Trade with Spain and its colonies boosted port trade in the 16th Century, especially with the smuggling of prohibited weapons and supplies to Iberia during the Anglo-Spanish war which lasted until 1604. Trade with the American colonies ensured Bristol remained a thriving port city. It exported English metalware and glass to West Africa, carried slaves to the West Indies and then returned to Bristol carrying sugar, rum, cocoa and tobacco.
During the English Civil War, Bristol was a military stronghold for the Royalists under Prince Rupert. They ousted the Parliamentarians and built Royal Fort House as part of their massive purpose-built defences. It is still in use as part of the University of Bristol in Tyndall's Park.
During the late 18th Century, the port of Bristol began to decline. The expanding port of Liverpool and the abolition of slavery in 1807 further hit Bristol's shipping trade badly. The silting up of the Avon and the opening of the Great Western Railway connecting Bristol with London also affected its shipping, topped off with the rise of cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution which led to further loss of business.
These changing times left other landmarks such as the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, now a Grade I listed structure. Brunel also built the paddle steamer Great Western in Bristol along with the SS Great Britain which became the first steamship to make regular transatlantic crossings. The founding of the first Methodist Chapel by John Wesley also left its mark on Bristol's history.
During the 20th Century Bristol's docklands were reinvigorated with the opening of the Royal Edward Dock and later the Royal Portbury Dock further downstream in the 1970s. This allowed redevelopment of the historic docks which are now a key feature of the city's tourism industry.
The opening of the University of Bristol gave the city a further boost and it became the first institution of higher education in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men.
Aircraft production commenced in Filton in 1910, just seven years after the pioneering first flight by the Wright Brothers. New factories such as Rolls Royce and British Aerospace sprang up to keep Bristol's workforce employed. This unfortunately made Bristol a target for air raids during World War II and the city was badly damaged, losing many historic buildings and churches. The hasty rebuilding of Bristol city centre in the 1960s was characterized by tower blocks and concrete high-rise architecture. However, the pockets of historic Bristol that survived are all the more appreciated today.
- Bristol is ranked fourth most popular visitor destination in England
- It is known as the "Birthplace of America" as John Cabot set sail from the port in 1497 and discovered America. On his return, Cabot presented a whalebone to St Mary Redcliffe Church where it still remains
- The infamous pirate Blackbeard lived beside the harbour in Bristol. He once hid in a secret hideaway underneath St Mary Redcliffe Church to evade capture
- The oldest Methodist Church in the world is at Broadmead and was John Wesley's "New Room"
- Hollywood heartthrob Cary Grant was born in Bristol. His first role as an actor was at the Bristol Hippodrome
- Bristol was the only UK city nominated for the title "European Green Capital" in 2010/11
- Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry was first made in Bristol in 1847
- The supersonic aircraft Concorde was designed and built in Bristol
- Wills Cigarette Factory was once the largest tobacco factory in Europe, producing 350 million cigarettes a week
- There are 34 places in the world called Bristol, all named after this historic port city
Popular Events and Festivals
Bristol has a packed calendar of special events such as the annual Docks Heritage Weekend in mid-May which celebrates the city's relationship with ships, trains, cranes and cars.
The two-week Proms Festival in May includes orchestral and choral performances ending with the stirring Last Night at the Proms.
The popular Bristol Motor and Classic Car show is held on Durdham Downs in mid-June followed by the Festival of Nature at Harbourside.
July sees the St Paul's Carnival Parade in the St Paul's district while the Bristol Harbour Festival takes place in early August.
The International Balloon Festival in mid-August, the largest in Europe, offers the wonderful sight of 150 hot-air balloons taking flight. This is followed by the Kite Festival at Ashton Court in September.
Colston Hall is a huge concert venue in Bristol which has an ongoing programme of pop and rock concerts, comedy events and classical music performances.
Much of Bristol city centre is pedestrianized and walking is the best way to explore the main sights, museums and landmarks.
The bus station is on Marlborough Street and local First Bristol buses cover Temple Meads, Clifton, Broadmead and Spike Island as well as the city centre. The hop-on hop-off Bristol Sightseeing Bus Tour allows visitors to enjoy the city tour with a commentary and tickets include unlimited travel on the red double-decker buses for 24 hours.
Taxis are convenient for short journeys.
The city is a little hilly for cycling but there is a folding cycle hire scheme called Brompton Dock which allows visitors to hire folding bicycles which can then be taken on public transport.
Finally, the Bristol Ferry Boat stops at various quays around the harbour.
Bristol is a great venue for shoppers; in fact it serves as the main shopping centre for the whole of the West Country, offering plenty of choice. In the city centre there are many elegant streets with specialist shops, boutiques, jewellers, crafts shops, antiques and gift shops as well as some designer boutiques.
Malls include the well-established Cribbs Causeway, just north of Bristol off Junction 17 of the M5. This two-storey mall is anchored with John Lewis at one end and a huge Marks and Spencer at the other, with 133 other shops and cafés in between.
The new Cabot's Circus complex is an architectural gem with upmarket stores including a Harvey Nichols and House of Fraser.
For browsing, it’s hard to beat the antique shops and galleries at the Clifton Arcade while Broadmead is home to more typical High Street names at The Galleries and Broadmead Shopping Centre.
Entertainment and Nightlife
This thriving university city has plenty of nightlife, particularly around Clifton and the waterfront. The top nightspots are The Park, which offers understated décor and hip DJs, or the more unusual O2 Academy on Frogmore Street which has nightly entertainment. Antix Bar is a restaurant by day and a bar/nightclub after dark, offering music, dancing, drinks and food.
Theatres and concert halls in Bristol include the Old Vic, the Hippodrome which has West End/Broadway productions, and comedy at the Tobacco Factory Theatre on Raleigh Road.
If you fancy a movie, try the Showcase Cinema de Luxe in central Bristol with 13 screens and room to accommodate 3000 visitors at a time. Alternatively, the Odeon is within the Broadmead shopping district with plenty of pizza parlours and fast food options nearby.
Where to Eat
Right on the waterfront, the Bordeaux Quay has an excellent reputation as an eco-restaurant, brasserie and deli with take-out bakery. Close by, the Glassboat Restaurant is housed on a converted barge at Harbourside.
For light dining with a sense of history, Harvey's Cellars is a contemporary wine and tapas bar in the birthplace of Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry. More upmarket dining can be enjoyed at Brasserie Blanc in the Quaker Friars area. It offers French cuisine under the careful direction of celebrity chef Raymond Blanc.
Families don’t have to eat at one of the many fast food outlets in the city centre, although it's hard to say "no". Why not compromise with lunch at Frankie and Benny's in Cabot Circus which has something for everyone and incidentally has a great breakfast menu for around a fiver!
Where to Stay
Luxury: The Hotel du Vin on Lewins Mead is a boutique hotel with a fascinating history. This former 18th century sugar factory has been beautifully restored and features loft suites and a library. The Bistro is worth dining at even if you're not staying here.
Mid-priced: This Ibis Bristol Centre has excellent customer reviews and offers great value for money in a very central location near Bristol Cathedral and Floating Harbour.
Economy: The 2-star Clifton Hotel is 1.1km from the city centre, with modern basic furnishings and personal service including fresh fruit daily.
Family Choice: Just six miles from the city centre and close to Bristol airport, Colliers Brook Farm B&B has earned a Certificate of Excellence for 2013 with its family-friendly service and ameneities. The adjoining apartment is ideal for families wanting to self-cater.
As you can see, the city of Bristol is brimming with things to do. (If you're visiting as a couple, we also have lots of ideas for romantic things to do in Bristol). Easy to get to, it is ideal for a long weekend visit to appreciate its history, architecture, museums and nightlife. See you there!
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By Air: Bristol airport is 8 miles (13km) southwest of the city with good bus and road connections into the city. There are regular flights from all over the UK, Europe and Dublin.
By Road: The M4/M5 motorways connect just outside Bristol giving easy road access from London, Exeter and Birmingham.
By Rail: Bristol Temple Meads railway station has excellent rail connections with London Paddington, the Westcountry and the north of England. The station is 15 minutes' walk from the city centre. The Bristol Parkway station is north of the city and has regular train services from London Paddington, Bath and South Wales.
There are five car parks around the city centre with most spaces at the Galleries and Cabot Circus car parks. Expect to pay at least £1 an hour.
To avoid the tricky one-way system in the city centre, there is free parking at Park and Ride car parks with flat rate bus fares in 2013 of £3-4, depending on peak/off-peak times. Portway Park and Ride (500 spaces) is on the A4 northwest of the city; Long Ashton (1500 spaces) is off the A370 near Clevedon and Bath Road Park and Ride (1300 spaces) is off the A4 southeast of the city.