The biggest city in the southwest of the UK, Bristol is a buzzing cultural metropolis with the quintessentially British villages of the Cotswolds to its north and the lush, green countryside of Somerset to its south.
Also a hop, skip and a jump from Bath, a UNESCO heritage site full of Georgian beauty, Bristol has a rich history of its own, largely focused around the maritime trade.
The city has lots of different things to see and do and there’s something for everyone whether you’re all about the history, into getting up close and personal with cuddly animals or love everything science and high-tech.
We decided to give some love to one of our local cities by putting together this round-up of the biggest attractions it has to offer – mixed in with some quirky places we love, that you might have otherwise missed.
As the locals might tell you, Bristol is “gurt lush”!
Our top 15 things to do in Bristol
1/ SS Great Britain
One of the most popular attractions by the river has to be Brunel’s ss Great Britain. When this ship was launched back in 1843 it changed history, as Brunel designed a large ship made of iron, powered by steam and driven by a screw propeller. You can now walk under the ship, through a museum and then explore the vessel itself, restored to look as it would have when it worked as a passenger liner.
There are often special themed events taking place – we’d love to come along for one of their special Victorian dinners, where you have a slap up three course meal onboard the first class dining saloon!
2/ Take a boat tour
There are numerous boat tours on offer in and around Bristol’s floating harbour, but we particularly recommend a trip with Bristol Packet Boat Trips.
Combine sailing with some food on a lunch or cream tea cruise or a trip to Beese’s Tea Garden. Or head further afield on a trip down the Avon Gorge towards Pill and Avonmouth.
3/ Bristol Zoo Gardens
The world’s oldest provincial zoo, beautiful Bristol Zoo Gardens’ architecture does give it an old school vibe, but it’s a wonderful place to animal lovers to visit: not just for the chance to get up close and personal to a myriad of animals but also to hear about the great conservation work they do and promote.
We particularly love the butterfly house and the Gorilla enclosure. This has a glass floor that allows you to look up at the gorillas eating, playing or just having a snooze above you. Such a simple thing makes your experience of seeing this magnificent animal seem so different!
If you get a chance to visit in the summer do look out for the zoo’s special ‘twilight’ opening sessions as these allow you to come see the nocturnal creatures at their more active. The zoo also holds outdoor cinema nights in the height of summer – it was great watching The Goonies in the heart of the park!
4/ Clifton Village
Home to Bristol Zoo Gardens, Clifton Village is one of the city’s prettiest, and most affluent areas and is a great place for a bit of shopping or a bite to eat. Discover Clifton Village is a great resource for visitors, listing all the wonderful boutiques and locally run restaurants and cafes you might like to check out, but it can be just as much fun to just let your feet do the work and simply see where you end up.
5/ Clifton Suspension Bridge
Often used as an iconic image of Bristol, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge straddles the Avon Gorge and is still an awe-inspiring example of engineering today!
There’s a visitor’s centre you can visit to find out more about the building of this bridge and its famous creator, and during spring/summer weekends and bank holidays there are often free tours on offer. Do make sure you’re around to see the bridge lit up at night, it’s a beautiful sight!
6/ Clifton Observatory
Sitting above the impress Avon Gorge, the Clifton Observatory actually dates back to 1766 and began life as a windmill. Here you can check out the Camera Obscura, and also take a visit to the Giant’s Cave. According to local folklore Bristol was once home to two giants; Goram and Ghyston and this cave was where they called home…
7/ Clifton Rocks Railway
If you’re lucky you might have timed your visit with one of Clifton Rocks Railway’s rare open days.
Deep within the rock of the Avon Gorge is this water powered funicular railway which ran between 1893 and 1934. Used as a secret transmission base for the BBC during WWII it now lies unused but is occasionally opened to the public for special tours!
8/ Go museum hopping
If history’s your thing, Bristol has a number of decent public museums.
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery holds a wide range of collections including Egyptian, southwest wildlife, art and natural history as well as an interesting programme of temporary exhibitions throughout the year. Down on the harbourside, the M Shed tells the story of Bristol, its industry and people.
Visit the Georgian House to discover what a local sugar plantation and slave owner’s home would have looked like and pop into The Red Lodge Museum to find over 400 years of history behind one little door.
There is also a lot to explore regarding the city’s maritime past. Recently renovated is Underfall Yard, a historic 19th Century working boatyard. A newly opened visitors centre tells its story and those who venture down to the harbourside can take a guided tour of the workshop and sluice room.
9/ We The Curious
One of the city’s biggest attractions is We The Curious, a family-friendly interactive science hub. Here it’s all about going hands-on, and there are tonnes of experiments teaching you about everything from human bodies and movement through to food and the planet Earth. A big kid at heart, I loved trying out all the gadgets, especially the machine that let you see the veins under your skin!
Upstairs you can go even further afield by visiting the UK’s only 3D planetarium, which offers some pretty wild shows, plus for the artistic types you can try your hand at creation your very own animated film in the Aardman-sponsored area. Oddly, every time my stepdaughter and I make our own film it always ends up involving monster attacks or alien invasions (Should I be worried?!)
10/ Bristol Aquarium
Next door to At-Bristol is the city’s aquarium. It may be quite small but it’s still very impressive and definitely worth a visit.
There’s some great talks on throughout the day – when we visited we caught a really interesting talk about the fish you’re actually eating, where we discovered more often that not the food you’re served or sold is incorrectly named. Informative, with some beautiful displays, it’s a great way to see sharks, jellyfish and rays amongst others and is the only UK aquarium to have a giant botanical house.
11/ Stop for a cuppa and a board game
If, like us, you love tea and board games then we’ve found just the place for you. Chance & Counters is Bristol’s first dedicated board games café and recently opened after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Want to check it out? Well, you’ll find it on Bristol’s iconic Christmas Steps.
12/ Take in some art at the theatre!
When it comes to the arts, Bristol is the place to go as the city has a thriving theatre scene. This year the Bristol Old Vic marks its 250th anniversary, making it the oldest working theatre in the UK. Other top venues around the city include the Bristol Hippodrome, Tobacco Factory Theatres and lots of comedians and musicians take to the stage at Colston Hall.
13/ Bristol’s street art scene
Home to the famous graffiti artist Banksy, street art is found all over the city, especially in the cultural hub of the Stokes Croft quarter, and a rising number of companies now offer walking street art tours.
One such company is Where The Wall, whose tour guides – often artists themselves – take you on a walk around the city, revealing the stories behind some of its most beautiful street art.
14/ AirHop Bristol
Got some energy to burn, well then time to check out AirHop Bristol; one of the UK’s first trampoline parks.
This place is made up of over 50 interconnected trampolines and also has slam dunk and dodgeball zones. Epic!
15/ Take to the skies in a balloon
Want to see Bristol in a new and exciting way, well why not head up in the air?
Bristol’s well known for its love of ballooning – each August it’s skies are filled with a myriad of wonderfully shaped balloons for the International Balloon Fiesta (I recommend going along to one of the nightglow events if you can, they’re amazing!). There are several companies that offer balloon flights all year round, including Bristol Balloons, who’re also well placed to cater to nervous flyers – perhaps they might get me in a balloon eventually, eh?!
For further information for what you can see and do in Bristol we recommend heading to Visit Bristol, the city’s official tourism site.
Have you visited Bristol before, or has our post inspired you to come check it out? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the city, so please share in the comments below!
[main image and Pinterest image credit: Andy Maybury]