Synonymous with Bristol is the famous suspension bridge designed by the ingenious civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. After a stroll through Clifton which is filled with its own delights, take a few minutes to walk across the bridge and see the fantastic sights it has to offer; on a sunny day the view over Avon Gorge offers a picturesque vision of Bristol.
Another jaw-dropping view to be had is only 10 minutes walk away from the suspension bridge: Bristol Observatory. As its name suggests, the views to be had from the top deck (which is also a wonderful café) are stunning as you overlook not only Avon Gorge but also the bridge. Commonly, observatories are known for providing a fantastic overview but here you can also go underground to find a unique vantage point! The view is from within Giant’s Cave where there is a viewing platform built into the limestone face of the gorge wall.
Royal West of England Academy (RWA)
After taking in the vistas above Clifton, head down Whiteladies Road until you reach a grand Victorian museum, the Royal West of England Academy. This grade II listed building was the first art gallery to be established in Bristol (1844) and is still promoting the finest works of art in the southwest as well as offering many classes to improve your skills!
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and The Wills building
Continuing down the hill, eventually you’ll arrive at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery which houses a variety of exhibitions, some permanent ones are wildlife of the southwest, ancient Egypt, Dinosaur fossils along with ceramics and glass from Eastern Asia. The museum also has exhibition space for temporary art or photography installations as well as a fantastic café in the heart of the building from which you can sit back and take in the beauty of the actual building as well as some of the artifacts it houses.
Brandon Hill & Cabot Tower
Just over the road from Bristol Museum is Brandon Hill, a large parkland which has a 5 acre nature reserve as well as being the site of Cabot Tower. The tower is eponymously named after John Cabot (Italian name Giovanni Caboto) who made the first European voyage, setting sail from Bristol to North America, since Norse Vikings dropped by in AD 1000! The 32 metre tall tower benefits from a beautiful panorama of the harbourside - one virtue of such a hilly city is the opportunity for expansive views from every corner.
A little bit further down the hill and you’ll arrive to the historic Christmas Steps, an old fashioned looking street offering a wide selection of independent retail options. In fact it’s such a historic street that you can even rent DVDs and VHS at 20th Century Flicks, one of the last film-rental shops in the UK. Along with renting physical films you can also begin a stamp collection at West Region Stamps, get fitted for a bespoke wedding dress at Karen Reilly and visit an art gallery at That Art Gallery. Quite a range for such a small street! Be sure to visit Christmas Steps as there are even more gems to be found here.
Now you can take a slight detour to visit Bristol’s medieval cathedral on College Green, just 10 minutes walk from Christmas Steps. The building's origins are an Augustinian Abbey constructed in 1140 which has then undergone many alterations to reach its current grand status as one of the finest examples of a ‘hall church’ in the UK. With fantastically high vaulted ceilings and bright stained-glass windows, it really is worth a visit.
After exploring the sights and sounds of the Cathedral, take a moment to sit on College Green from where you have a great vantage of Bristol City Council and the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, two other famous local sites.
St. Nick’s Market
Heading into the centre of the city, St. Nick’s Market is a great place to pause and have some lunch. There’s a great variety of local independent options for all taste buds from Caribbean to Japanese, there’s a host of delicious flavours to be found in this diverse market that’s been operating since 1743. Along with food stalls, St Nick’s offers a range of shopping too: record shops, jewellery, books and many more.
Having refuelled at St Nick’s, enjoy a leisurely stroll along Bristol harbourside. As a historically significant trading port in its past, Bristol’s harbourside were once filled with trade vessels travelling around Europe (and even as far as North America thanks to Giovanni Caboto!). As a result, the harbour is an integral part of Bristol that is home to many wonderful restaurants, bars, museums and much more. A couple of highlights include the Arnolfini, a contemporary art gallery and the M Shed, another museum all about Bristol’s varied history that also features a temporary exhibition space for such shows as Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Once a year Bristol plays host to the harbourside festival which is always a popular event in the calendar.
S.S. Great Britain and The Matthew
Being a dockside of such historical significance, Bristol harbourside is also the berthplace of the S.S. Great Britain and The Matthew. The former was another marvel of design by the resident genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This ship was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic in 1843 and its life hasn’t been any less exciting since then. After being run aground and then refloated, it ferried thousands of immigrants to Australia from 1852 - 1881, got retired in the Falkland Isles where it was deliberately sunk and finally brought back to life and back to Bristol where it is now a hugely popular museum.
Just as above, the original Matthew also had quite the interesting life. This was the vessel used by John Cabot to sail the Atlantic that eventually landed on North American soil. What is now a faithful replica, the modern Matthew offers visitors a chance to relive history on a trip around the harbourside.
The Theatre Royal - Bristol Old Vic Theatre
Just a couple streets inland from the harbour is the wonderful Theatre Royal which is run by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre company. This is the oldest (built between 1764-1766) continually operating theatre in the English-speaking world. Not only famous as a theatre but also as a theatre school which began almost simultaneously with the opening of the theatre. What is now the world famous Old Vic Theatre Company has a number of notable alumni including Daniel Day-Lewis and Olivia Colman.
Be sure to visit their website to see what’s on.
Family Fun To Be Had In Bristol:
Since opening its doors on 11th July 1832, Bristol Zoo Gardens has continued to entertain and educate generations of visitors. A family favourite among Bristolians and tourists alike, the zoo is one of Bristol’s most famous and visited attractions. And for good reason too as some of the zoo’s more famous exhibits include: seal and penguin coast, gorilla island, twilight world and monkey jungle. Aside from all the traditional aspects of a zoo, Bristol Zoo has run over 30 field conservation and research projects around the world as well as saving over 175 species thanks to its various breeding programmes.
Being the 5th oldest zoo in the world means that the staff and management really know and care about their work; this dedication can be seen directly in the quality and variety Bristol Zoo is able to offer. For further information and ticket prices, visit their website here.
Wild Place Project
The Wild Place Project is the sister site of Bristol Zoo and like its older sibling is home to a great many animals with a similar emphasis on conservation and sustainability. This wildlife park is aimed at housing and displaying animals in as close to a natural habitat as their native one. For example in the area known as Discover Madagascar, the lemurs are kept in an enclosure that is modelled on their native one after the zookeepers visited the country in 2015. Along with efforts to ensure animal wellbeing in their new homes, Wild Place Project also teaches safety and sustainability to the people of Madagascar.
We The Curious
Previously @Bristol, this is a science and arts centre as well as educational charity aimed at spreading wonder and curiosity among visitors. Just some of its exhaustive shows on offer are: 3D planetarium, Animate It! (in partnership with Aardman animations), live science shows and a sustainable planet exhibit to name just a few. The entire museum’s emphasis is on interaction and engagement so children are actively encouraged to learn by doing and playing!
Right next to We The Curious is the intriguing Bristol Aquarium which is home to a vast array of aquatic life including octopus, piranha, sharks, rays, and luminous jellyfish. In the aquarium, you’ll find a sunken shipwreck which is a popular exhibit that’s inspired by all the sea creatures that can be found along the British coastline. After the shipwreck, you can journey to the Amazing Amazon zone which has over 60,000 litres of freshwater to house all the big fish native to the amazon jungle. Truly a fantastic site to discover some marvellous marine life!
This estate and mansion is on 850 acres of parkland right next to Bristol city centre. The core 15th century mansion has undergone many renovations in its time and today the building has little cohesion in terms of architecture, nevertheless it makes for a grand sight within the spacious grounds. Apparently, the original manor was a gift to Geoffrey de Montbray from William the Conqueror and thereafter passed through many hands and owners to where it is today mostly an elegant property rented for private events. Alongside its grand past, the mansion’s more recent history has seen it as a makeshift military hospital during the First World War.
Nowadays the court is used mostly for leisure activities as it is a varied landscape perfect for mountain biking, walking and even golf too - not just golf but discgolf and footgolf! Ashton Court offers a great environment to escape the city for an afternoon and enjoy some wonderful scenery in the fresh air.
Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm
Set on 100 acres of countryside, Noah’s Ark Zoo aims to teach conservation and sustainability as much as it does about animals. A hugely popular place among families, the zoo offers the traditional farm animals you’d expect to see as well as some more unusual ones: tigers, lemurs and tapirs to name just a fraction! Here you can see hands-on demonstrations on caring for these animals as well as learning about their natural habitats and of course the animals themselves.
Noah’s Ark Zoo began its life as a working dairy farm owned by Anthony and Christina Bush who then repurposed it as a farm visitor centre in 1999. Since then Noah’s Ark has continued to grow and now boasts over 100 species of animal!
Recently opened in October 2019, The Wave is a 300mx100m artificial wave pool designed to be surfed on. Certainly one of the more adventurous day-out activities though it can still be undertaken by all levels with training provided from absolute beginner to more experienced surfer. If surfing on your first go is a little bit intimidating, you can warm up on a bodyboard before venturing on to a surfboard. No matter what board you choose to surf, one thing is certain, that a heck of a lot of fun is to be had at The Wave!
Situated at Filton Airfield, the Aerospace museum offers an up-close look at the past 100 years of British aviation history. Among its exhibits, the most notable is probably the Concorde and the one housed in this museum is especially famous for being the final one built and last to fly. Other than the fastest passenger plane ever built, the museum is home to other aeronautical marvels such as a sea harrier, a skylark sounding rocket and a Bristol Sycamore helicopter. All these planes and more are just a 20 minute car journey from the city centre!
This eclectic museum is home to an extensive private collection of farm memorabilia and machinery collected over 60 years by Keith Sherrell, a 5th generation west country farmer. Oakham treasures opened in July 2008 and is staffed by the Sherrell family who have continued to grow their collection over the years. Oakham Treasures has earned its reputation as one of the largest private collection museums in the UK as it boasts over 150 old and vintage tractors alone! Apart from heaps of historic farm machinery, there are also displays to give you a glimpse into Britain’s recent past with faithful replicas of a sweet shop, grocery stores and chemist all filled with trinkets from a bygone era.
Set right in the city centre, this 1951-capacity theatre regularly shows successful West End productions such as Cats, Les Miserables, Lion King and Book of Mormon. Along with familiar theatre shows, a whole host of famous comedians have performed on the Hippodrome’s stage: Jimmy Carr, Russel Howard, Stewart Lee to name just a few. Be sure to check their website to see what’s on and book ahead of time!
And a Few Extras for Good Measure:
This newly developed area right by the waterfront is a flourishing hub of independent business and new-build homes. The areas Gaol Ferry Steps and Cargo both offer plenty of tasty treats which can be enjoyed in the large outdoor seating area, weather permitting. One of Cargo’s stand-out features is that all the shops are contained within shipping containers! Bristol’s very own Boxpark. Cargo is a great place to get some fantastic local grub before exploring more of the city.
Just around the corner from Wapping Wharf is the acclaimed Spike Island which is a cultural institution of Bristol. Named after the island it’s situated on, the arts centre offers gallery and studio space to promote contemporary art and design from a hotbed of local and international talent. Spike Island is also home to the University of West England’s (UWE) fine arts programme along with being host to a number of creative agencies based in Bristol.
Tucked away next to Clifton Suspension Bridge is Leigh Woods, a 2km² area of woodland, managed by the National Trust, which offers a sheltered respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. The woods have a number of trails both for walking and running and also purpose-built tracks for mountain biking. Among the range of wildlife and fauna you’re likely to see are a few rare species such as Bristol Rock Cress, western spiked speedwell and whitebeams. In fact this is probably the richest site in the world for whitebeams and there’s even a few native only to Leigh Woods. Along with all the rare vegetation is old fauna: there are a number of veteran and ancient trees to be found, over 150 and 500 years old respectively!
Apart from fantastic fauna, Leigh Woods is also home to the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Stokeleigh camp was positioned here for its defensive features and the vantage point it provides. So take advantage of the views and bring a picnic to enjoy in Leigh Woods!
University of Bristol Botanic Garden
If you haven’t seen enough fauna and wildlife around Bristol for one day, take a trip to the exceptionally well curated University Botanic Garden. This 4.4 acre garden provides a home to over 4500 species of plant that includes local West Country specialities, medicinal plants and flowers as well as rare tropical species in the green houses. Enjoy a guided tour through the different zones and then finish with a drink in their café which overlooks the splendid garden.
St. Mary Redcliffe Church
An Anglican parish church dating back to the 13th and 14th century, St Mary Redcliffe is a fantastic example of gothic architecture with an incredible 89 metre tall spire which can be seen from all around Bristol. Part of its history is owed thanks to a number of wealthy merchants who were able to commission the construction of the church back in 1292 (or thereabouts). Their tombs and monuments can be seen throughout the building. Being a port city, seafarers would regularly pray in it before departure and also to give thanks upon safe return - the church’s tall spire surely being a sign of comfort for those leaving and coming back from the wild seas.
Snuff Mills and Oldbury Court
To continue the lush verdant theme of Bristol, Oldbury Court is a wonderfully relaxing parkland for walking or running. Snuff Mills, named after Snuffy Jack who worked there when it was a functional mill, features a gorgeous snaking path that follows the River Frome through Bristol. Along the trail you’ll encounter a restored stone mill building as well as plenty of picnic and playground space. Oldbury Court in particular is catered towards children as it has a large play area with an abundance of child-friendly equipment. Don’t forget, there is also a café kiosk for light refreshments!
Boat Tours Along the Waterfront
While you’re strolling along the harbourside, why not take a quick boat tour along the waterfront? You could opt for a grand trip in The Matthew or go for a quick tour of the harbour in any one of the tour boats. It’s always nice to get a different point of view and seeing Bristol from the water is certainly worth doing. There are many tour operators to choose from and they all offer public ferry services as well as private hire for large groups.
Blaise Castle House and Estate
Like the rest of Bristol, this site is steeped in history: the folly castle dates back to 1766 while there are archaeological remains from the neolithic period, bronze and iron age and also from Roman times to top it off! The folly castle, like other genuine fortifications, was built on a hill with 360° views over the surrounding landscape. This was originally open to the paying public who could climb up to the top to see the panoramic views. After a lovely walk to the folly, head down the hill to the edge of the estate where you can enter Blaise Museum for free. The museum provides visitors an insight into how people lived in the past - the clothes they wore, kitchen utensils used and toys played with by children. A well-curated sense of history can be found at Blaise Estate as well as lush open spaces to enjoy an afternoon walk.
A multi-purpose hub set in a converted tobacco factory that contains a bar, marketplace, offices and even a theatre which is also used as a venue for teaching performing arts to young students. Along with the multitude of services it offers, the Tobacco Factory prides itself on sustainability and supporting local communities. Some of their initiatives include using solar energy wherever possible, sourcing local produce and serving great local beers and ciders on tap.
Graffiti and Street Art
A visit to Bristol wouldn’t be complete without seeing at least one work of famous graffiti, and not just from Banksy! Bristol is fortunate enough to feature an impressive number of large-scale works of street art and graffiti by local and international artists. Head to Nelson Street in the city centre to see many of the city’s largest murals on display. There are entire multi-storey buildings with huge single-piece works of art on them that look astounding from up close and far away.
Other famous works can be found throughout the city; Banksy’s Mild Mild West in Stokes Croft and Phlegm’s Tsunami on Hillgrove Street. Of course as is the fleeting nature of street art, many impressive artworks have come and gone so be sure to keep an eye out for something new!
Bristol’s attractions don’t only include monuments and museums but also a huge pull factor among tourists is the great variety of food and drink on offer. Bristol is widely known for its culinary gems but also for its fine drinking establishments too. Some of the best coffee shops I know are scattered across Bristol and in this small section I’ll cover just a small selection of my favourites.
The first on the list in no particular order is Small Street Espresso which is down in the centre of Bristol adjacent to St Nick’s Market. Usually a hotspot for office workers and tourists alike, this particular cafe serves a mean espresso as you might imagine judging by the name! Come here for a warming cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat before continuing exploring further into the centre of Bristol.
Next is Tradewind Espresso which is further north of the city centre, on Whiteladies Road. This small coffee shop has a lovely selection of pastries and a sheltered outdoor seating area for when it gets a bit crowded during the day. Also a great opportunity to get a coffee to go to enjoy on the downs when the weather is nice.
Finally, Bar Chocolat which is tucked away in Clifton Village, as the name would suggest, specialise in wonderful handmade chocolates as well as brewing fantastic cups of coffee. This cafe is home to arguably the best hot chocolate in the south west so just for that alone I’d highly recommend a visit!
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