One meander through the colorful streets of Bristol and you’ll be hooked on the city’s passion for creativity.
From Brunel’s groundbreaking steamships to Banksy’s thought-provoking art, this city on the Avon River prides itself on taking risks and breaking the rules. And that heritage extends far beyond its most famous sons: whether it’s the artisans at St Nicholas Market or the independent restaurants at Wapping Wharf, all of Bristol’s people contribute to its inventive spirit.
Here are a few of the things not to miss as you explore this vivid city.
Cross one of the world’s most famous bridges
It’s all about location. Visionary Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel oversaw many groundbreaking projects throughout his illustrious career, and few are as spectacular as the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Crossing the 245ft-high chasm of the Avon Gorge, the bridge runs from the handsome Georgian neighborhood of Clifton over to the serene streets and bucolic landscapes of North Somerset.
Tragically, while Brunel never lived to see the bridge in its final form – completed in 1864, it took 34 years to build – it looks today as magnificent today as it did in his original sketches. Cross the bridge’s 702ft span on food to get a wind-whipped idea of its grandeur. If that still isn’t enough, a tour from its Visitor Centre will teach you more about the history of Bristol’s most iconic site.
Go belowdecks on a 19th-century ship
Another masterpiece of design by Brunel, the SS Great Britain has resided in Bristol since 1970. A heroic salvage operation in the Falkland Islands thousands of miles away brought the ship back to the Bristol harbor, where she was first built in 1856; it’s remarkable she still exists in one piece. Today, visitors can explore almost every inch of the almost 100m-long vessel.
The tour of the first ship in the world to be both built of iron and powered by a screw propeller begins belowdecks with a slightly unnerving walk beneath the vast hull and around that huge propeller. It’s a perfect introduction to your discovery of this pioneering ship.
Experience the counterculture in Stokes Croft
The epicenter of Bristol’s creative movement, the Strokes Croft neighborhood offers a smorgasbord of jaunty art, cool cafes, quirky pubs, vintage shops and more. Just north of the city center, this district has a palpable sense of counterculture, community and artistic drive that few other neighborhoods in the UK can match.
Home to some original Banksy pieces and local institutions like the Crofter’s Rights and Canteen, Stokes Croft is perfect for a wander day or night.
Enjoy the views from Cabot Tower
From the tumbling cliffsides of the Avon Gorge to the breathlessly steep walk up Nine Tree Hill, Bristol promises wild topography. So there might be nowhere better to get a panoramic view of this cinematic city than from the top of a hill.
Built at the end of the 19th century to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s historic voyage to Newfoundland, Cabot Tower at the top of Brandon Hill offers gorgeous views of Bristol and the surrounding countryside.
Stay in an artistic haven
Bristol has bold artistic traditions, and the Artist Residence on Portland Square does right by them. Located on the square’s northwestern corner in a handsome Georgian townhouse, this boutique hotel has spacious stylish rooms dotted with unique art and period features.
With mid-century modern furniture and high ceilings allowing plenty of natural light, its breezy Library bar is a fine neighborhood spot for a quiet drink. (We recommend the divine Smoky Martini.)
Take a walk in the woods
At a compact two square miles, Leigh Woods Nature Reserve packs a lot into its small size. Located just across the Clifton Suspension Bridge on the western side of the Avon Gorge, these ancient woods provide a tranquil escape from the city and boast stunning views of the bridge from an angle few visitors ever see.
As well as rare flora and fauna, the woods are also home to Stokeleigh Camp, an Iron Age hill fort dating back to 350 BCE whose rising green ridges are clearly visible today.
See some of the best street art anywhere
Few cities in the UK have an identity as purely visual as Bristol’s. Using the city’s streets, buildings, walls and parks as an enormous canvas, Bristol’s street artists have given the city a color and richness that capture the eye almost immediately. The street art visible just about everywhere embodies the city’s vibrant and creative culture.
The enigmatic Banksy is the local whose work really put Bristol on the map over 20 years ago. You can explore his oeuvre in glorious yet succinct detail on tours run by Where The Wall. Taking you by Banksy classics like Mild Mild West and Well Hung Lover, global graffiti art authority John Nation explains the history and significance of these works, and why they could only have been made in Bristol.
Sip some cider
England’s West Country is one of the world’s most foremost cider regions, so unsurprisingly its largest city is home to some sublime cider pubs. Quietly situated at the end of a low-lit street in Clifton, The Coronation Tap – CoriTap to locals – is a 200-year-old cider house famous for serving the fearsome 8.4% Exhibition cider (only available in half pints).
Other superb spots for sampling the fermented apple beverage include the charming riverside barge The Apple in the Old City. On Spike Island, The Orchard Inn is a traditional pub dating back to 1834 with over 20 different dry and sweet ciders available.
Lie back at the Lido
An oasis in the heart of Clifton’s busy residential streets, Bristol Lido is a restored Victorian outdoor swimming pool with a unique open-air setting. Flanked by wooden changing rooms on one side and a modern European restaurant on the other, this modern bathhouse is a gorgeous retreat that’s perfect for unwinding after a long day.
Especially pretty in the evening under the glow of the lights, the Lido also features a hot tub and a sauna, very welcome amenities during the winter months.
Learn what makes Bristol, Bristol
Some city museums display gaudy art and artifacts from far-flung corners of the globe. On the other extreme, Bristol’s M Shed goes deep into the fascinating, hyper-local makeup of this city, from its unsung heroes to proud neighborhood heritage.
M Shed celebrates everything that makes Bristol what it is today – without shying away from difficult episodes from the past. Handled with particular care is the city’s historical relationship with the slave trade, especially the sobering exhibition on the (in)famous Bristol merchant and colonial trader Edward Colston.
Sample the diverse food scene
With Bristol’s cultural range and creative mindset, it makes perfect sense that the city has a rich food scene, too. From the zesty Jamaican favorite ackee and saltfish at Carribean Croft to Coconut Tree’s fiery Sri Lankan Jaffna goat curry, there’s a wild variety of flavors to choose from.
If you want to choose from a selection of alluring flavors in one location, head to the famous St Nicholas Market in the Old Town, or the shipping containers converted into food stalls at Wapping Wharf.
Make some waves
If you’ve ever dreamed of surfing outdoors but far from the rough sea, meet The Wave. Just outside Bristol, this pioneering 180m-long inland surfing lake is the first of its kind in the UK, and is powered by 100% renewable energy.
It’s also a hugely welcoming environment with encouraging coaches who get just as much of a kick from seeing beginners ride their first wave as the surfers do themselves. Yes, you’re sure to wipe out a few times – but that first stand-up surf above the waves makes every tumble worth it.
Question your own ways of thinking
Bristol’s We The Curious does things a little differently from typically didactic science museums. Intended to get kids thinking about the world around them, this science center asks visitors questions in an interactive, visual and playful manner.
Located by the historic harbor, We The Curious engages young people’s natural curiosity, even encouraging them to leave their own questions pinned to the wall as a way of expanding the conversation. Don’t miss the remarkable 3D Planetarium shows on the first floor.
Pedal around a bit
With so much green space, Bristol’s a fine city for enjoying the great outdoors. And there might be no better way to enjoy the fresh air than by cycling the 14-mile Bristol and Bath Railway Path. Entirely free of cars, this converted railway right-of-way offers an eco-friendly path to Bath’s ancient Roman spas and majestic Georgian streets.
Within Bristol’s city limits, Pedal Progression will take your cycling to the next level by showing you the finer techniques of mountain biking amid the lush trees and hills of Ashton Court Estate.
Get high (in a hot-air balloon)
Bristol’s long relationship with aviation is proudly displayed at Aerospace Bristol, where visitors are able to explore, among other mechanical highlights, the last Concorde to ever fly.
For something more genteel than supersonic, hot-air balloons take to the skies around Bristol throughout the year. Organize a trip with Bailey Balloons or Elite Air to see the city from thrilling new heights.
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