Cool Harbour City: 20 Things To Do In Bristol

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Bristol is cool.

It’s street artist Banksy’s home town for starters, and one of its best nightclubs is on a boat. That said, if your idea of culture is less graffiti and raving and more science and pirates, then you’re in luck, too. Bristol’s got ultra modern museums and more seafaring links than Robinson Crusoe. And, actually: more on him later.

We couldn’t make a list of day trip ideas from London without including this hilly south west culture-pot. So keep reading to find out what to do when you’re there.

1.  Head down to the Harbourside by ferry

Bristol Ferry (c) Destination Bristol

Bristol’s port and harbour has been transformed in recent years. It used to be where all the city’s commercial trade went down, but now it’s a very visitor-friendly area full of bars, restaurants, shops and cafes. Harbourside also has a festival-like market every Saturday and Sunday, which gives you a nice taste of all the independent food, drink and shops in the area. Getting a ferry around the harbour gives you a feel for what it was like in its trading heyday. Then you can just sit back in a bar or restaurant, grab a coffee and watch the boats go by.

2. Walk across the Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge (c) Walter Dirks

Clifton Suspension Bridge (c) Walter Dirks

If you’re wondering what’s so good about a bridge, you haven’t seen the Clifton Suspension Bridge at night. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iconic landmark sits 245 feet high, set against the cliffs of the Avon Gorge. If you’re not around in the evening, take the equally illuminating one-hour guided tour from the toll booth on the Bristol side. They run from Easter to October. You could also stop for a drink in the Avon Gorge Hotel’s bar – their beer garden is a good place to watch the sun set over the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

3. Explore more of Brunel’s genius at the SS Great Britain

The Victorian engineer is also responsible for a revolutionary steam ship. The SS Great Britain was designed to be the most luxurious, and largest, passenger vessel of its time.

Brunel's SS Great Britain Deck (c) Brunel's ss Great Briatin

Brunel’s SS Great Britain Deck (c) Brunel’s SS Great Britain

4. See inside some very impressive churches

The Grade I listed Bristol Cathedral was originally founded as an Augustinian Abbey in 1140. You can visit the Chapter House – a nice example of a medieval church. Otherwise, stop by the gothic  St Mary Redcliffe. It was allegedly described as “The fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England” by Queen Elizabeth I. Its soaring ceiling and stained glass windows are still looking good, even 800 years after it was built.

5. Track down some locally-sourced food

If fancy a nice, seasonal lunch or dinner, both Casamia and Wilks are good options (Casamia has held their Michelin star for eight years). There’s also the Glassboat restaurant on Bristol harbour, or Zazus on Gloucester Road, where chef’s specials depend on what’s locally available.

But as you’re by the coast, try some seafood at The Spiny Lobster in Clifton. If you’re after pizza, Flour & Ash‘s sourdough is made with locally milled flour, or if Indian food, the Thali Cafe prides itself on its street food. Up early? The Gloucester Old Spot pub is a lovely for a bit of breakfast.

The Glassboat restaurant (c) Glassboat

The Glassboat restaurant (c) Glassboat

6. Listen to some live music for free

If you love jazz, The Old Duke has free live music every night of the week. There’s also The Canteenwhich not only supports the local music scene, but also the city’s Gluten free, veggie, or vegan population.

7. Have a cocktail in a speakeasy bar

The Haus Bar in Clifton has a great reputation for cocktails. It’s open until 2am, making it a popular spot to sip an Old Fashioned or Martini in its dark and moody bar. The Milk Thistle has a prohibition-era style to it and you can drink in their clandestine cocktail bar until 3am at weekends. If you love gin, you can visit Bramley & Gage. It’s Bristol’s only distillery – the the 6 O’clock Gin Distillery Tour is worth a try.

8. Take some time out for a coffee

Bristol’s got some good places to get a caffeine hit. Centrally, try Small St Espresso or Full Court Press, who both serve up excellent coffee. Bakers & Co in Gloucester Road also do great coffee and brunches, and sandwiches to take away if you’re in a rush.

9. Visit the fifth oldest zoo in the world

Bristol Zoo Gardens (c) Bob Pitchford

Bristol Zoo Gardens (c) Bob Pitchford

Bristol Zoo Gardens is top of its game when it comes to research and conservation. And so it should be – it’s been doing it since 1836. Over the decades they’ve helped save more than 175 species from extinction. You can get up close to their gorilla family, monkeys and Asiatic lions, among the hundreds of other animals.

Bristol Aquarium tunnel (c) Bristol Aquarium

Bristol Aquarium tunnel (c) Bristol Aquarium

More centrally, there’s Bristol Aquarium, which is down near the harbour. You can pop your head into one of the bubble windows in the underwater walk-through tunnel. It’s about as close to a reef as you can be without getting wet.

10. Scour the fashionable streets of Bristol Shopping Quarter 

There are more than 500 stores around here, from big name luxury retailers to more independent local shops. St Nicholas Markets are also nearby. The Glass Arcade, Covered Market and the Exchange are some of the finest buildings in the city, and have been serving Bristolians since 1743.

Elsewhere, Clifton Arcade has been restored to its former Victorian glory. It’s a great place to find small, independent shops selling vintage clothing, jewellery and antiques.

Bristol Shopping - Clifton Arcade (c) Morgane Bigault

Bristol Shopping – Clifton Arcade (c) Morgane Bigault

11. Delve into Bristol’s literary past

Bristol’s links to pirates and its seafaring past have influenced two of the major books in English Literature. Robinson Crusoe was written after Daniel Defoe met the shipwrecked Alexander Selkirk in The Llandoger Trow pub – he’d been rescued from his desert island and brought to Bristol.

If you’ve read the children’s classic Treasure Island, you might want to pop into the Hole in the Wall pub. It’s just off Queen Square, and is what Robert Louis Stevenson based the Spyglass Tavern on. The pub was once an infamous recruitment place for the Royal Navy.

12. Learn about the city’s most notorious pirate

The notorious Blackbeard originally came from Bristol. The pirate – called Edward Teach – was born in 1680 and at the height of his reign of terror had a 400 strong gang roaming the ocean waves. Pirate Pete can take you on a swashbuckling weekend walking tour. It covers of some of the most famous and shady Bristol piratey-places. Ooh-aarrr.

Banksy Masked Gorilla (c) Destination Bristol

Banksy Masked Gorilla (c) Destination Bristol

13. See some original Banksy street art

The Stokes Croft area is the cultural quarter of the city. It’s also where you’ll find some of Banksy’s earliest street graffiti, as well as huge murals by other local artists. You can take a self-guided tour around some of the original murals.

Street Art - Stoke Croft Murals (c) Morgane Bigault

Street Art – Stoke Croft Murals (c) Morgane Bigault

14. Get scientific in some modern museums

Open seven days a week, the free Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has Egyptian mummies and the famous Bristol dinosaur. A particular favourite with children is the large stuffed gorilla, Alfred.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

There’s also the free, state-of-the-art M Shed, which pays tribute to the city’s seafaring and industrial past. They have some large exhibits, like the Fire-boat Pyronauttry and catch the water-spraying show at the harbour while you’re on board. There’s also the @Bristol Science Centre, which has the UK’s only 3D Planetarium. Elsewhere, the Georgian House Museum is open during the spring and summer.

@Bristol Planetarium and Bristol Cathedral. Image via Destination Bristol

@Bristol Planetarium and Bristol Cathedral. Image via Destination Bristol

15. Take a boat or bus tour

Bristol Packet Boat Trips will take you out into the harbour or up the Avon – all four boats in their fleet have a bar. You can also hop onto one of the Bristol Ferry Boats – which has drop offs at some of the main attractions on the Floating Harbour, like the Aquarium and Brunel’s SS Great Britain.

Alternatively, try an open-top bus tour of Bristol and see the sights over an hour and a half tour – you can hop on and hop off at various attractions around the city.

16. See a play at the longest continuously-running theatre in the UK

Bristol Old Vic Theatre (c) Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic Theatre (c) Bristol Old Vic

In 2016, the Bristol Old Vic will celebrate its 250th anniversary. ElsewhereBristol Hippodrome puts on West End Shows, like Cats, Dirty Dancing and Mary Poppins, as well as opera, ballet and comedy performances. Its Victorian design means it has the only operating domed roof in the UK, allowing it to be opened to the elements, however it is rarely used today and you’re more likely kept cool by the air conditioning.

17. Go hot air ballooning (or watch 100 take off at once)

Bristol Balloon Fiesta Morning Launch (c) Gary Newman

Bristol Balloon Fiesta Morning Launch (c) Gary Newman

Bristol Balloons offer flights between March and October – although they do have some options over the winter months. Alternatively, time your visit for the Bristol International Balloon FiestaEurope’s largest ballooning event. This free festival has been going for 30 years and is usually held over four days in August. Organisers say the best time to see the 100+ balloons is when they first go up, at 6am at Ashton Court (they will have breakfast on the go).

18. Watch rival football clubs at Ashton Gate or the Memorial Stadium

There is a fierce rivalry between the two football teams in Bristol, with Bristol City Football Club (The Robins) in the red and white corner and Bristol Rovers  (The Gas) in blue and white one since they were established in the 19th century. They’ve played each other more than a hundred times in the Bristol Derby. City play at their home ground of Ashton Gate and Rovers at the Memorial Stadium.

19. Take a dip in an outdoor lido

The Lido in Clifton is one of the oldest in the UK. This Grade 2 listed building is a good place for a few lengths before lunch or afternoon tea at the poolside restaurant. They’ve also got spa facilities, including a sauna, steam room and massage room.

Clifton (c) Destination Bristol

Clifton (c) Destination Bristol

20. See Bristol by bike

The Better by Bike website has a good list of cycling trails, with varying lengths and abilities. They also offer advice on where to hire bikes and even pump up your tyres if you get a flat.

21. Go for a stroll

Take a walk alongside the river from Snuff Mills to Oldbury Court, which has a playground at the end of the walk as well as a little cafe to have a cup of tea or coffee in. There’s also the Grade II* registered parkland at Blaise Castlewhich has giant’s footprints, a lily pond, caves and a castle to explore. The Downs have wonderful views over Avon Gorge and the Severn Estuary. It’s also one of the best places to fly kites in the area.

Bristol from above (c) Destination Bristol

Bristol from above (c) Destination Bristol

22. Catch an independent film at the Cube

If you want to see films you won’t find at the multiplex, then visit the independent Cube CinemaThey also do comedy nights, children’s events, live music and cabaret as well as making their own cola.

Plan your visit

Summer festivals

  • The free Bristol Harbour Festival takes place over a long weekend in July, and you can enjoy all things nautical, top food and drink and live entertainment down by the waterfront. The annual cardboard boat race always a highlight.
  • Eat Drink Bristol Fashion put on the Queen Square Festival every summer in a tipi village. They put on fine dining, British tapas and live music to entertain the crowds and showcase the best local produce.

Staying there

Has our guide inspired you to stay a little longer? In that case we have plenty of hotels in Bristol and the surrounding area. Here’s some more weekend break destinations nearby.

Getting there

It takes around an hour and 45 minutes to get to Bristol from London by train via Great Western Railways.

If you’re driving from London, it can take between two and two and a half hours (depending on traffic). There are three different places to Park & Ride into the centre if you don’t want the hassle of finding a parking spot.

Where would you visit in Bristol?

If you live in Bristol or have visited the port before, we’d love to hear your favourite things to do in Bristol.

Please share your recommendations and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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About Author

Kirsten Beacock

Kirsten is the chief blogger here at lastminute.com. A former newspaper journalist (don’t hold that against her), having taken extensive trips to China, America and Australasia, she is now pouring her passion for travel into writing blogs and features for the lastminute.com website. Arriving in London via exotic Scunthorpe, Kirsten has made it her mission to try out as many pubs and restaurants as she possibly can in the capital.

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