The Best of Bristol: What to See and Do in the Incredible Harbour City

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Bristol is a fantastic city. I mean really, truly phenomenal. Over the entire month we spent in Bristol, there was hardly a day we weren’t out exploring. We’d eat at outstanding restaurants, drink cider in centuries-old pubs, check out unique museums and galleries, and then drink some stout — in centuries-old pubs. Initially, we were going to write a full-on Best of Bristol article here, but favourite restaurants alone make up their own (soon to arrive) post. So we’ll stick to our top things to do in Bristol instead.

When we first arrived in town for a housesitting gig, our plans were to lay low. We wanted to slow down a little, save some cash, keep the dog alive, catch up on some work, and not burn the house down. Unfortunately for those plans, Bristol stepped in with all of the awesome.

SS Great Britain

This is the best museum we’ve ever visited. Neither of us, in all our travels, have been to anything that was so immersive and interactive as the SS Great Britain.

Designed by legendary engineer Isambard Brunel, this is the worlds first-ever luxury cruise ship. Now, compared with cruise ships of today, it’s far from luxury, but back in 1843, nothing came close.

The ship now sits at the former dry-dock where it was built. It’s been completely restored to original condition, inside and out. I’m not just talking a splash of paint and some furniture; there are hundreds of fine details, props, sounds and even smells. Walking through the engine room while the massive gears turn, smells of oil and grease fill the air. In the kitchen, lids rattle on boiling pots and “rats” run through the cupboards.

Also, new as of 2018, “Being Brunel” is an additional exhibit showcasing the interesting life of the genius behind the ship. Get inside his head — literally.

  • Where: Spike Island;
  • Cost: Adults – £16.15, Children – £9.50, Senior – £14.25, Children under 4 – free;
  • Note: Admission is good for unlimited visits for a year;
  • Website
Rear of a large cruise ship from 19th century

The SS Great Britain

Catch a Show at the Old Vic

Even if you don’t catch a production here, the Old Vic is still worth having a peek. Built back in 1776, it’s the oldest continually-operating theatre in the UK — some say the entire English-speaking world. The theatre itself stands behind a row of older medieval-era buildings, and in recent years has undergone significant renovations.

One of the buildings along King Street was demolished and a trendy new lobby was constructed in its place. A full class facade contrasts the neighbouring stone structures, and shows a full view of the cafe & bar in the new foyer. The rear interior wall of the lobby is actually the original exterior wall of the theatre.

If you have the chance to catch a show here, definitely go. Prices are incredibly reasonable and the intimate setting makes for a great show. Or, just stop by for lunch or dinner at the 1766 Bar & Cafe in the lobby!

  • Where: King St, in the city centre;
  • Cost: Varies per show; £5 and up;
  • Website

See the Concorde at Aerospace Bristol

The Concorde was the worlds first and last supersonic passenger jet. Introduced in 1976, it flew at twice the speed of sound. Those who could afford a ticket could fly from London to New York in under three hours. For several reasons, the Concorde was retired in 2003, making its final flight home to its birthplace in Bristol.

Aerospace Bristol is a brand new aviation museum is located in Filton, a short bus ride north of the city centre. Though I visited to see the last Concorde to ever fly, I ended up spending several hours exploring the museum. Filton has been in the aviation game since 1903 and the interactive displays cover its entire history. From the development of aircraft, through two world wars and into outer space; if you’re a geek in the slightest, Aerospace Bristol is brilliant.

  • Where: North of Bristol on Hayes Way, Patchway
  • Get There: Bus #75 from the city centre; tell the driver you’re heading to Aerospace Bristol
  • Cost: Adults – £16.50, Children – £9, Seniors – £14.50, Children under 4 – free;
  • Note: Admission is for a full year, so you can visit as often as you want;
  • Website
Man standing in front of Concorde jet at Aerospace Bristol

Checking Out the Last Concorde ever to Fly

Graffiti Tour

The Bristol street art scene is legendary. It’s the city that bred Banksy. Across the city you’ll find everything from intricate murals to shrewd and often cryptic stenciled pieces. And though you can wander the streets for days seeking out the best graffiti, your best option is to take a graffiti tour.

The benefit of taking a tour is that you’ll be guided by a local artist. Someone connected, part of the scene. A guide who knows the local graffiti culture can point out intricacies otherwise too subtle for an outsider. They can provide insights you’d never get by simply wandering the streets aimlessly.

If you’re into graffiti, or even contemporary art at all, taking a graffiti tour in Bristol should be on your list. Just don’t bother asking Banksy’s identity, even if the guide knows, they’ll never tell.

  • Where: From central Bristol to Stokes Croft;
  • Cost: £5.50 – £9.80
  • Website
Colourful blue and orange graffiti in Bristol

Brilliant Graffiti in Stokes Croft from the Tour we Took

Street Art Lessons

Head to Hamilton House, over in the vibrant and eclectic neighbourhood of Stokes Croft. On Saturdays from 2 – 3pm, the same crew that runs the graffiti tour mentioned above, hosts a graffiti workshop. Take a crash-course in stencil spraying (the style Banksy is known for), and create your own piece to take with you.

While at Hamilton House, pop into the Canteen next door. It’s a fantastic little restaurant with a chilled-out, bohemian vibe. Sip some local craft beer or enjoy some great food at reasonable prices. And while inside, have a look at the rad vending machine. It’s stocked entirely by local artisans, with everything from music, to homemade patches and hot sauce.

  • Where:  Hamilton House, 80 Stokes Croft
  • Get There:  Either walk or take bus #75 from the harbour;
  • Cost: £12.50
  • Website

Nature / Deer at Ashton Park

Get your hike on without having to leave the city. Just across the Avon River from the Bristol harbour is a huge expanse of nature full of walking trails. We spent every morning and evening here, taking our dog for his daily runs.

Follow the trails along the Avon Gorge and marvel at the river’s every-changing tidal flow. Or hike up into Ashton Court, a little further south. Check out the resident deer as they run through the morning fog.

If you’re visiting in August, come here for the annual Bristol Balloon Fiesta. Dozens of hot air ballooners from around the world congregate in Ashton Court to colour the sky for a weekend.

  • Where: Southeast of Spike Island, across the harbour;
  • Cost: Free.

Explore the Harbourside

There are few things in Bristol as enjoyable as simply strolling along the harbour. We spent countless hours here, hanging out along the water, often just people watching or inspecting the many houseboats, imagining owning one ourselves one day.

On the north side, in Bristol proper, you’ll find Millennium Square with heaps of different restaurants and activities. One regular event that we unfortunately missed out on, is Big Screen, where movies and live productions are projected on an outdoor screen.

Across the harbour, on Spike Island, you’ll find other popular spots. The SS Great Britain and the Matthew — the ship John Cabot sailed when he landed in Canada back in 1497. For shopping and eating, look no further than Wapping Wharf and Cargo, a shipping container park with independent restaurants and boutique shops.

  • Where: The entire Bristol harbour;
  • Cost: Free to explore;
  • Website
Harbour between two cranes in England

Overlooking the Bristol Harbour

Clifton Bridge

Easily the most iconic sight in Bristol is the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Another of Brunel’s engineering marvels, the bridge is also where modern-day bungee jumping began.

On the west side of the bridge is a fairly interactive and informative visitor centre. It’s interesting enough, especially if you’re crossing the bridge anyway (and why wouldn’t you?). The troubled construction history is almost as intriguing as the bridge itself. On the east side, you’ll find the best views looking down at the steel and iron span over the Avon Gorge.

Above the bridge you’ll find the Clifton Observatory. Check out camera obscura and St Vincent’s Cave, peeking out from the cliffs below.

  • Where: West Bristol, over the Avon River;
  • Cost: Free to walk, £1 toll per vehicle;
  • Website
Large suspension bridge in Bristol England over avon Gorge

Clifton Suspension Bridge at Dawn

Bristol History at the M Shed

While exploring the Harbourside, don’t miss the quintessential Bristol museum that is the M Shed. Under the shadow of the two iconic dock cranes, the M Shed showcases all-things Bristol.

The M Shed is free to visit, and features over 3000 exhibits throughout its three main galleries: Bristol Places, People, and Life. Some displays feature those you’d expect to encounter, such as historic locals and entrepreneurs who helped build the city. Though much more contemporary figures are featured as well. Exhibits featuring trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack for example, as well as one of Banksy’s early works.

Even more importantly, the M Shed recognizes the significant role Bristol played in the Atlantic slave trade. When many destinations might shy away from such a tragic past, Bristol acknowledges the subject. On display is a detailed and informative history of this unfortunate period.

  • Where: Spike Island, Harbourside;
  • Cost: Free;
  • Website

Records, Books and Beer

Alright, I might get some flack from Bristol locals for throwing in a chain music shop on this list, but hear me out. Having spent several of my younger years as a DJ, I love visiting record shops. Flipping through record bins is almost meditative. And Bristol has no shortage of fantastic, independent shops.

However, the shop that blew me away was Rough Trade. I stopped in here multiple times during our stay. It isn’t some small, indie shop. It’s a modern record store, and has locations in London and New York City. But I’m not from London or New York City. I’m not used to a place like this. Not only does it have a great selection of music; it also has a ton of wicked books, artwork and a cafe/bar and live performance area.

It’s not better than the other shops, it’s just different.

  • Where: 3 New Bridewell, Nelson St;
  • Website
Storefront of a record shop in England

A Very Rad Record Shop & Cafe

Walk the Colourful Houses of Cliftonwood

One of the reasons we labelled Bristol as a perfect alternative to London is because of how colourful it is. From the harbour, you can look up in almost any direction and find a row of brightly coloured houses.

For a close-up view (and some great photos), the easiest to visit also include a scenic walk. There’s a roundabout across the harbour from the SS Great Britain. From here, follow the path winding up the hill to the northwest called the White Hart Stairs. Take a left when you arrive at the fork and continue along World’s End Lane. Passing cozy, hidden gardens and oddly small doorways, you’ll eventually arrive on Cliftonwood Crescent.

This whole neighbourhood is full of multi-hued facades that make the perfect photo backdrop. Stop in the Lion for a quick snack and a pint before getting lost in the maze of colourful streets.

Several houses painted in bright different colours

Vibrant Houses of Cliftonwood

We the Curious

For those of you travelling with kids, or like us, can’t control your own inner child, We the Curious is for you. In essence, it’s an educational science exhibition. In reality, it’s an absurdly fun and wildly interactive playground of all-things science.

Watch water freeze, paint with your shadow(!), track your genetic history and watch yourself jump in hilarious, ultra-slow motion. You’ll get to throw stuff, bang on things and make all kinds of noise – it’s awesome.

There’s also a wonderful planetarium for space geeks, and a cartoon studio featuring Bristol’s own Wallace and Grommit. Learn not only how stop-motion animation works, but try your hand at making one of your own!

  • Where: Milennium Square;
  • Cost: Adult (16+) – £14.50, Child – £9.50, Senior – £12.50, Child under 2 – free;
  • Website

Upfest Graffiti Festival

A few minutes south of Spike Island is the neighbourhood of Bedminster. Here, along the restaurant and bar-lined North Street, is the home of UpFest — one of the biggest street art festivals in the world.

Hosted almost annually, UpFest features both local artists and can-slingers from around the globe. The masses gather for three days in July, where they paint huge, glorious murals up and down North Street; where they’ll remain until the following year.

Also, UpFest has a shop on North Street that is open year-round. Here you can purchase funky clothing, books and prints of local graffiti. They also sell high-quality spray cans and caps for those of you wanting to (legally of course) give it a go.

Bright yellow graffiti piece in Bristol UK

Street Art in Bedminister

Eat Everywhere

Why didn’t we save money during our time in Bristol? There are so many mind-blowing restaurants. We ate Tibetan momos, Korean bibimbap, and fiery Sichuan food. We devoured tasty bar snacks and discovered the best fish and chips we’ve ever had.

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About the Author

Mark Stewart

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Mark is a multi-passionate creative with a fascination for getting the most out of the human experience. While he isn't chasing adventures around the globe as a travel journalist and photographer, he works as a freelance writer, private chef and web developer.

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