Bristol has an urban personality that’s vibrant, creative, diverse and a little quirky.
This is a city known for its iconic suspension bridge, Banksy’s political street art and its role in the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests – which makes the slate of museums to discover across the southwest’s largest city an intriguing one. Once a major trading port and shipbuilding city, Bristol still largely revolves around its harbor. But today, the dockside warehouses and offices have been repurposed into exciting waterfront attractions and art galleries.
From historic ships to wealthy merchants’ houses, many of the following institutions explore the city’s unique – and at times controversial – history, while others tap into this innovative town's quirkier side. Among the top things to do in the city, these are the best museums in Bristol.
M Shed is the best museum for local history
If you only visit one museum in Bristol, make it this one. Housed within a 1950s cargo shed at the heart of the buzzing Harbourside district, M Shed brings Bristol’s social and industrial history to life.
Like the city itself, this museum is colorful, cool and eclectic. The wonderfully muddled collection sees artifacts like a medieval doorway sharing space with a Banksy piece, with stories and quotes from real-life Bristolians woven throughout.
Several thought-provoking exhibits illuminate ongoing debates. One particularly well-told display examines Bristol’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and the legacies of this appalling industry, while another delves into the city’s modern-day protest culture.
Feel the city’s creative spirit at Bristol’s best art galleries
Bristol’s oldest art gallery, the Royal West of England Academy (RWA), houses over 1200 works of art from the 19th century to the present day. This striking Grade II–listed building pairs nicely with a visit to the neighboring Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
For contemporary art, head to the redeveloped Harbourside district. Arnolfini is a center for contemporary arts housed within an 1830s dockside warehouse, Bush House, while Spike Island features exhibition galleries as well as artists’ studios and commercial workspaces all housed a former Brooke Bond tea packing factory.
Take the kids to We the Curious
Home to the UK’s first 3D planetarium, We the Curious is not your average science museum. This is a playful and creative space full of hands-on exhibits designed to get young minds thinking.
Curiosity is the name of the game at this state-of-the-art attraction, where Project What If sets about answering real – and really provocative – questions posed by the people of Bristol, such as “Will we ever find a way to prevent being ill?”
Maritime aficionados will love Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Said to be the “world’s first great ocean liner,” the SS Great Britain was designed by famed Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. With her iron hull and enormous screw propeller, this luxurious liner was the first of her kind when she launched in 1843, marking a new era for passenger ships.
Today, she’s one of Bristol’s top attractions, sitting in the very dry dock where she was first constructed as a testament to the city’s long history of trade and shipbuilding.
Explore the restored ship – where models, recordings and artificial scents bring to life the stories of genuine past travelers – then descend below the glass “sea” into the dry dock for a close-up of the hull. Your ticket price includes admission to two additional museums: the Dockside Museum tells the story of the ship, while the interactive “Being Brunel” exhibit delves into the life of Britain’s greatest engineer.
Learn about a remarkable feat of engineering at the Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre
Be sure to visit Brunel’s other famous legacy in Bristol: the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This marvel of Victorian engineering crosses the gaping Avon Gorge some 245ft (75m) above the winding river below.
Before crossing on foot to enjoy the excellent city views, pop into the Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre. This small museum is packed with information about the bridge’s history, the process by which it was constructed and Brunel himself.
Take in natural specimens and beautiful paintings at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
The impressive Edwardian building that houses the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery is worth a visit for the architecture alone. But fans of natural history and geology won’t want to miss the expansive collections here, which have a particular focus on the local region. The top-floor art galleries, meanwhile, are home to a mixture of historic and contemporary pieces.
Regular temporary exhibitions allow the city’s culture to penetrate this grand institution, often weaving new stories into the permanent collections rather than being presented separately. Bristol-born street artist Banksy famously took over the museum in 2009, leaving behind his Paint Pot Angel in the entrance hall.
Immerse yourself in 18th-century life at the Georgian House Museum
Step back in time at the Georgian House Museum. Built in 1790, this six-story townhouse still looks as it did in the 18th century, and offers an evocative glimpse of how life might have been for wealthy Georgians and their staff.
Like several other buildings in Bristol, the Georgian House owes its origins to the Atlantic slave trade. Its original owner, John Pinney, was a sugar merchant and a plantation owner who amassed wealth through the labor of enslaved human beings. A small exhibition in the museum confronts this controversial history and tells the story of Pero Jones, who was Pinney’s personal servant for 32 years after being bought across the ocean at the age of 12.
Celebrate the space age at Aerospace Bristol
Another of Bristol’s claims to fame is as the birthplace of Concorde, one of the great symbols of Franco-British innovation and collaboration. At Aerospace Bristol, you can step aboard the last Concorde ever to fly to learn more about the world’s fastest passenger jet and Bristol’s role in its development.
This family-friendly museum has a fantastic collection of airplanes, helicopters, satellites and more. The interactive exhibits will take you on a journey through aviation history, while kids will love the airplane climbing frame in the outdoor play area.
Starting in summer 2022, immerse yourself in the interactive fantasy of Wake the Tiger
Opening in summer 2022, Wake the Tiger is a brand-new attraction in Bristol that’s set to be part museum, part art installation, part theme park. The immersive art maze will transport visitors to Meridia, a fictional world made up of several fantastical environments, for a self-guided experience you’ll walk – or run, climb and scamper – through on your own.
The masterminds behind Boomtown Fair, Wake the Tiger’s creators are calling it the “world’s first amazement park.” With its history of innovation, Bristol is the ideal setting for such an unusual take on the museum-going experience.