Packing in unique attractions such as the historic Harbourside and Brunel’s ss Great Britain, plus a wealth of museums, galleries and other cultural venues, Bristol also hosts exciting festivals all year round, and offers plenty of pleasant, green spaces where you can escape the crowds.
Depending on when you visit, you may well be able to experience one of Bristol’s famous events or festivals. January welcomes Bristol Slapstick Festival to the city, giving audiences a unique opportunity to watch some extraordinary films – mainly from the silent era (1895-1930), accompanied by live musical scores performed by world class musicians. The screenings are introduced by prominent film historians, experts, and comedians inspired by the comedy legends on screen. Bristol Bluegrass Festival and Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival take place around March-time, then there’s Love Saves The Day, usually in May, which showcases a diverse range of contemporary musical genres, combining the best of Bristol’s thriving underground scene with pioneering artists from across the globe.
The annual, city-wide festival of sustainability, known as the Big Green Week, takes place every June, along with the family-oriented Festival of Nature. July brings the city’s famous Harbour Festival, featuring free maritime events, dance and live music. And in August everyone looks to the skies for the world-famous spectacle of Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, which draws huge crowds each year. From Chinese New Year celebrations to twinkling Christmas markets, Bristol hosts an impressive array of events throughout the year – but even if you can’t time your visit to coincide with a major event, there are more attractions to choose from than you could ever fit in to a single trip.
One of the latest additions to Bristol’s list of major attractions is Aerospace Bristol at Filton, just north of the city, where you get to explore the awesome Concorde 216 – the final Concorde to be built, and the last to fly. The wider exhibition incorporates over 8,000 artefacts covering more than a hundred years of aviation history through two world wars, the space race, and on to modern day developments.
Just around the corner from Aerospace Bristol you can bounce to your heart’s content at the world’s biggest trampoline park, Airhop Bristol. With more than 50 wall-to-wall trampolines in the main court, you can also have fun in the foam pit, try your hand at the basketball slam dunk, and challenge yourself to some total wipeout-style obstacles.
July brings the city’s famous Harbour Festival, featuring free maritime events, dance and live music. And in August everyone looks to the skies for the world-famous spectacle of Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Back in the city centre, M Shed is a great starting place for learning more about Bristol itself, and its inhabitants throughout the centuries. This relatively new museum tells the city’s story from prehistoric times to the present day through an eclectic mix of rare and quirky objects, personal memoirs and interactive displays. Offering free entry, the venue has three main permanent spaces: Bristol Places, Bristol People and Bristol Life. You can learn about Bristol’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade; discover some of the countless festivals, events and celebrations held across the city; and meet Bristol’s very own dinosaur – Thecodontosaurus. There is plenty to keep children entertained, including the chance to embark on a museum expedition and discover the exhibits afresh with a Family Explorer Kit (aimed at the under sevens). Outside the building you can often take a ride on some of the exhibits, including steam trains, boats and the famous cranes – but check for dates and times beforehand to make sure they’re running.
Another of the city’s top attractions, and one that is particularly popular with families, is the constantly evolving We The Curious: an innovative science discovery centre with countless hands-on activities to keep everyone entertained, young and old. Head towards the Harbourside and look out for the giant mirrored sphere that houses the centre’s Planetarium, and you will soon find the entrance to We The Curious. You can get lunch or snacks at the on-site café, and pick up good quality, science-related souvenirs at their shop.
To get a peek inside a beautiful old gypsy caravan, meet Bristol’s dinosaur and his relations, and see some Egyptian mummies, make your way to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery at the top of Park Street. The museum offers free entry and incorporates a hands-on play area for younger children, including some dress-up costumes and other fun activities. There is also a café downstairs serving simple lunches, cakes and drinks. The gallery on the top floor is home to an impressive range of art, from European paintings by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, to one of the finest collections of Chinese glass outside of Asia.
At the Georgian House Museum, which is also free, you get a snapshot of what a Bristol sugar plantation and slave owner’s home might have looked like around 1790. The four-storey home and its 11 rooms give visitors the chance to discover what life was like both above and below stairs – from the basic servants’ quarters in the basement to the elegant formal areas upstairs. This smaller museum is closed on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but is open on other days from 11am-4pm, except from January through to the end of March, when it closes for winter completely.
The museum offers free entry and incorporates a hands-on play area for younger children, including some dress-up costumes and other fun activities
Another unique Bristol attraction is The Red Lodge Museum, which has the same opening times as the Georgian House Museum. Found behind a bright red door, this historic house combines an original Tudor/Elizabethan building, built in 1579-1580, and additional buildings added from the 1730s through to the early 19th century. Visit the original guest house and entertainment lodge; the immaculately-kept ornamental gardens; and the building that became the first ever Girls’ Reformatory school, set up by Mary Carpenter.
You can embark on an undersea safari at Bristol Aquarium, near We The Curious and the Harbourside. This state-of-the-art aquarium showcases native and tropical marine and freshwater creatures from around the world, living in habitats that are designed to reflect their natural environment. Look out for the life-sized replica of a sunken ship, the walk-in seahorse exhibit, and the recreation of a scene from Bristol’s harbour.
While you’re down by the Harbourside, take a stroll along to Brunel’s famous ss Great Britain, which dominates this fascinating area of the city. Representing Bristol’s number one attraction, the ss Great Britain is a unique and unmissable experience for visitors to the city. Climb on board to discover what life would have been like for both its passengers and the staff, such as sailors, cooks and doctors. And, if you’re feeling brave, sign up for the “Go Aloft” experience, which gives you the chance to scale the 30-metre high mast/rigging for far-reaching views.
It is also worth taking a trip on the water on a harbour tour, either with Bristol Packet or Bristol Ferry Boats, which operate all year round. Another way to gain a fresh perspective on the city is to experience a stand-up paddleboarding adventure with SUP Bristol – they offer both evening taster sessions and weekend day courses, but you will need to call to book a place.
This state-of-the-art aquarium showcases native and tropical marine and freshwater creatures from around the world, living in habitats that are designed to reflect their natural environment
An unmissable landmark
One of the city’s iconic landmarks that visitors shouldn’t miss is Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is bordered by the beautiful green, open expanse of Durdham Downs – the ideal spot for a picnic or some kite-flying on a fine but breezy day. Spanning the gorge of the River Avon, and offering impressive views, the Suspension Bridge is the symbol of the city, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Visitor Centre, in Leigh Woods, is open daily to offer people an insight into the history of the bridge and the people who worked on it. There are often children’s activities, and there’s also a gift shop and toilet on site. You can also enjoy a free tour of the bridge at 3pm every Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday between Easter and October. You don’t even need to book: simply meet the volunteer guide at the Clifton Toll Booth at the scheduled time, and they will give you a guided tour.
If you climb Observatory Hill you can get a spectacular view of Bristol’s iconic bridge. Just follow the footpaths to the top and, if you’re feeling brave, take a rather quicker journey back downhill using the well-polished Rock Slide – well-smoothed over hundreds of years by Bristol’s bottoms! For a small entry charge you can also visit the Camera Obscura and Giant’s Cave at Clifton Observatory.
Nearby you will find the equally well-known Bristol Zoo, which is the fifth oldest zoo in the world, packing in a huge variety of attractions despite its relatively compact size. You can visit Gorilla Island; the Seal and Penguin Coasts; Explorers’ Creek, which includes a water play area; Zona Brazil; Bug World; Monkey Jungle; the Butterfly House; and heaps of other major attractions. The Zoo now has a second, physically separate attraction, too: a conservation park known as the Wild Place Project, which is close to junction 17 of the M5. There you can encounter animals such as wolves and lemurs, and enjoy outdoor adventures on the 136 acres of land – including lots of opportunity for natural play.
If you are visiting with young children, but don’t fancy a day out at one of the city’s bigger attractions, you can take a simple trip to Windmill Hill City Farm to meet cows, goats, pigs, ducks and chickens, amongst other friendly animals – and it won’t cost you a penny (although donations are welcomed!). Located in the Bedminster suburb, within walking distance of the Harbourside, you can reach the farm by heading out of the centre past the Arnolfini Gallery, taking in the awesome St Mary Redcliffe Church along the way, and continuing on to Bedminster Parade. There you will find a signpost to the farm, which is tucked away along a narrow side street. While you’re there, take a look around the beautifully-kept community gardens and allotments, and tuck into some delicious, home-made lunch or cake at the newly-renovated and extended on-site café.
Just follow the footpaths to the top and, if you’re feeling brave, take a rather quicker journey back downhill using the well-polished Rock Slide – well-smoothed over hundreds of years by Bristol’s bottoms
Escape the city
You can also escape the city with ease if you want to fill your lungs with fresh air and enjoy great swathes of green, open spaces – found in plentiful supply pretty much whichever direction you choose to travel. Or you could wander amongst ancient trees and enjoy spectacular views at nearby Leigh Woods. A little further west, but still less than half an hour’s drive from the city centre, you can explore one of the area’s best-loved National Trust properties, Tyntesfield – an impressive Victorian Gothic revival house surrounded by rolling parkland, beautiful gardens, and a woodland play area.
South of the city, outdoor lovers can get their fill by driving less than half an hour to enjoy the lakes of the gently rolling Chew Valley area. A little further out and you are in the Mendip Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which offers superb views and endless opportunities for walking and cycling. Head to the Forestry Commission’s Stockhill car park, about 45 minutes’ drive from the city centre, to enjoy a peaceful walk through moss-covered pine woods, then drive on to the wonderfully compact yet attraction-packed city of Wells, which is home to a lively marketplace, stunning Wells Cathedral, and the neighbouring Bishop’s Palace and Gardens.
Widely considered to be one of England’s most beautiful cathedrals, Wells Cathedral incorporates striking architectural features such as the Scissor Arches and historical gems such as the famous Wells Clock, which is the second oldest clock mechanism in Britain. The Bishop’s Palace also has a long and fascinating history, having been home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells for more than 800 years, hosting a varied programme of family events throughout the year. You can explore acres of peaceful gardens, head into the Palace itself, and cross the drawbridge to enjoy a delicious, home-made bite to eat at The Bishop’s Table Café. Or, for some culture, Cedars Hall, opened in 2016 is a state-of-the art concert and arts venue located in the beautiful grounds of Wells Cathedral School in the heart of Wells. The Hall is open all year round and hosts a variety of events including classical concerts, comedy, film, jazz and lectures.
For a really exciting family day out, Longleat Safari Park is just over an hour’s drive south east of Bristol. Set around an Elizabethan stately home, it was the first safari park to be created outside of Africa, and today it is one of the area’s biggest outdoor attractions. Entry prices are not cheap, however, so it’s well worth arriving early and spending the whole day there. And, finally, to the north of Bristol, options include the 650-acre Blaise Castle Estate, where visitors can lose themselves in the Grade 2-registered parkland or visit the museum, castle or children’s play area. Whether you choose to stay central, or venture outside of the city’s boundaries, Bristol and the surrounding area offer an incredibly diverse range of days out.
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