All of the Best Things To Do in Bristol: Amazing Bristol Travel Guide
Table of contents
Bristol, Bristol, Bristol… I could go on for years about my love for this place. There are so many amazing things to do in Bristol: the street art and liberal attitude of Stokes Croft, the charming architecture of Clifton Village, the picturesque Harbourside.
Anybody who lives here – people who have moved and locals alike, could spend eternity telling you why it’s the best city in the UK. Yet it’s surprisingly under-visited for a city of its size; with people looking for large cities favouring London, Manchester and Birmingham and tourists seeking historical cities opting for Bath or Brighton.
But Bristol has it all. Not only is it stunning and has a great city vibe but it was actually Europe’s green capital in 2015 and has its own currency, the Bristol Pound (but don’t worry, you can still use the sterling!). Bristol revels in its intricate history – the ‘Old City’ still has its medieval layout – yet also paves the way to become a beacon for the future.
How to Get to Bristol
Getting to Bristol from London is incredibly easy. Just hop on a train at Paddington or a coach at London Victoria Coach Station. Between 1 hour 50 – 3 hours later (depending what mode of transport you have), you’ll be at either Bristol Temple Meads Station or at the coach drop-off in the middle of the city.
There are also rail and coach links to Bath, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Exeter, Liverpool and many other cities.
If you are driving to Bristol, it is located on junction 19 of the m4 and junction 17 of the m5. It is 2-3 hours from London (depending on where in London you’re driving from), 2 hours from Exeter, 2 hours from Birmingham, 3 hours from Manchester and around 3.5 hours from Leeds. Bath is located just 40 minutes away.
You can also fly into Bristol Airport. I’ve never personally used this airport – if you’ve been on this blog before, you’ll know I <3 overland travel – but it flies to various locations around Europe. It is generally cheaper to fly into London, however.
How to Get Around Bristol
Most of these attractions can be reached from the city centre on foot. There are some exceptions, depending on where you’re staying and how much you’re cramming into a day.
WiFi in Bristol
The 10 Best Things to do in Bristol
This is going to be a long post/ ode to my favourite city in the world, but I’m going to split it into categories, just to make life a little easier for you (don’t say I don’t treat ya). But for starters, the absolute best things to do in Bristol, that should be on anyone’s Bristol bucket list, is:
- Walk across the Clifton Suspension Bridge
- Take in the architecture of Clifton
- Enjoy the relaxed vibe of the Harbourside
- Go back in time on the SS Great Britain
- Learn about Bristol’s history at M Shed
- See Stokes Croft’s Street Art
- Shop at Gloucester Road
- Drink at a historic pub in the Old City
- Enjoy Bristol’s amazing food scene
- Admire the beautiful buildings of Bristol University
Do you want to jump to a particular section? Check out free things to do in Bristol/ museums in Bristol/ historic buildings in Bristol/ things to do in Bristol with kids/ romantic things to do in Bristol/ shopping in Bristol/ festivals in Bristol.
Where to eat in Bristol, the best pubs in Bristol and where to stay in Bristol will be written about in other posts!
Free Things to do in Bristol
Snap a Photo of the Clifton Suspension Bridge
Probably Bristol’s most iconic structure, the suspension bridge in Clifton opened in 1864 and has operated as a toll bridge ever since. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and leads from Clifton over the River Avon to Northern Somerset. The bridge is a marvel; stretching from bank to bank over the Avon Gorge, it dominates the skyline of Clifton and the views from it are extraordinary.
The idea for a bridge being constructed at the narrowest point of the Avon Gorge was thought of due to the old Bristol Bridge becoming too dangerous for people to use, yet a high bridge was needed for tall-masted warships to fit under it whilst travelling to the city. A competition to see who could design the bridge was established – it received 22 entries. Brunel submitted four entries, but they all ended up being rejected by Thomas Telford, Scottish engineer and competition judge. Telford decided he would be the best person to design the bridge, and it was predicted to cost a whopping £52,000 to build.
They failed to raise the money for this bridge, and Brunel designed a new proposal which cost £10,000 less to create. Another competition was hosted in 1831, with entries from many of the original proposers. The winner was actually first deigned to be Smith and Hawkes, but, in a personal meeting with the judge Davies Gilbert, Brunel persuaded him to change his mind. The bridge that we see today was largely based on Brunel’s winning design, yet was adapted by his predecessors (Brunel actually died before the bridge was constructed). Nonetheless, the grand Victorian monument harks to Bristol’s complex history and is one of the city’s most intriguing structures.
Local tip: For a great view of the Bridge, check out The White Lion pub in Clifton Village; it has a great balcony where you can sit and marvel at the construction!
Or climb up Observatory Hill and catch a glimpse of the bridge from another angle. The bridge is free for you to walk across (toll charge for cars), where you can enjoy impressive views of the river and city beyond. There is also a small museum at the North Somerset end of the bridge, open from 10am-5pm every day, entry free.
See Stokes Croft’s Street Art
Indeed, further down the road in Stokes Croft there is a wall mural saying ‘Think Local Boycott Tesco’, and this area certainly does that. There’s so many unique things to do in Stokes Croft; come here to mingle with hippies, support local businesses and marvel at the quirky exteriors of many shops and businesses. There is a strong ‘Love not War’ vibe around this area, and various pacifist quotations are etched into walls and on shop windows. It’s without a doubt my favourite part of Bristol.
Learn About the City’s Story at M Shed
A fantastic museum that is completely free to enter, M Shed tells the tale of Bristol. Through exhibitions detailing each Bristol neighbourhood and its history, Bristolian culture and the people who have shaped the city – as well as props like an entire double decker bus – this free museum is an absolute must to get to grips with the South West’s biggest metropolis.
You could easily spend 2 hours in the museum. It is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday.
The Bear Pit
It might be odd to have a roundabout listed on here, but it’s covered in graffiti. That probably still doesn’t make sense to those of you who have never been to Bristol. The city is the home of Banksy (the world’s most talented graffiti artist) and wall art isn’t just not frowned upon, but actually encouraged. A tour of the city’s graffiti is definitely one of the quirkier things to see in Bristol!
The city has produced beautiful works of art over the years, and while the open air art gallery is in fact all over the city, The Bear Pit provides some of the best examples. Along with revolutionary slogans and steel drum bands, the bear pit also has various food stalls and occasionally market stalls, seemingly set up on a whim to sell whatever they have that day.
City Walks in Bristol’s Neighbourhoods (these are also free!)
A lot of Bristol’s best can be taken in by strolling around its many neighbourhoods. All of these areas are very different and are equally fascinating to explore. This is just one of the things that I love about Brizzle, it evolves with people.
There’s the edgy neighbourhood of Stokes Croft, the multicultural St Pauls, Clifton and its Georgian architecture (I call it ‘the little Bath’) and the harbourside and its shipping history. Each neighbourhood adds another dimension to the city.
If you’re wondering which Bristol neighbourhood to stay in, click here to check out my fantastic guide (if I do say so myself) which goes into a colossal amount of detail about the pros and cons of staying in each one. It opens in a new window!
This was my favourite area of the city when I was a student. Note that my student days involved many a party-til-5am night (not like now, when I’m in bed with my cocoa by 10pm) – which means that Stokes Croft is a bit of a party place. But a nice kind of party place – I also had many a chilled out night in the pubs and bars around Stokes.
But, in the day it’s a completely different place and should totally be visited. I’ve included seeing Stokes’ street art in the best free things to do in Bristol section, and a walk around the area takes full advantage of that. It also means you can stop at many of the local shops and restaurants (think local, boycott Tesco, remember?) and take in the vibes, man.
Clifton is the classy sibling who always wears Prada in the Bristol family. Nonetheless, Clifton’s really pleasant to stroll around in. Georgian buildings line the streets – most are now restaurants and shops but if you look up, the old buildings still remain intact. Of course, our friend the Suspension Bridge is there which is a great photo backdrop; and there is a scenic grassy area which gives way to the Clifton Downs.
If you’re into architecture or like feeling as if you’re travelling through time, a walk from Clifton Village to Whiteladies Road, through the backstreets of Clifton is a wonderful way of enjoying this without the hoardes of tourists. There aren’t really any notable landmarks on this walk, but the buildings are historic and wonderful and make for some gorgeous photos. Whiteladies Road is a largely residential area, but there are lots of shops and restaurants lining it.
From here you can loop back round to the Clifton Triangle (where the University of Bristol buildings are located) and back towards the city centre. Or you could walk through Redland, an up and coming Clifton, and reach Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft. It’s lovely how it all links together.
Hotwells and Spike Island
Walking in a westerly direction from the city centre (check out M Shed while you’re there!), you’ll come to Hotwells. You can take a ferry over to Spike Island – where the SS Great Britain and an international arts centre are located. This area of Bristol is ‘docklands central’, with lots of history about how Bristol built up as a city against the shipping trade.
As well as the SS Great Britain, the Matthew is available to visit (opposite M Shed) and there are a variety of attractions on Spike Island that tell its history.
Crossing back over the water, and Hotwells stands underneath Cliftonwood, which is famous for its brightly coloured, Balamory-style houses. There are a couple of pubs here to enjoy a very Bristolian cider, including the Pump Rooms and the Grain Barge.
Neighbouring Hotwells, Spike Island and the Old City, the Harbourside area of Bristol is one of the city’s busiest. Home to plenty of bars and restaurants, the gorgeous water and many docked boats, and eventually backing onto some very sought after (and I imagine, extremely pricey) apartments, the Harbourside is one stylish area. Whether you opt to eat in (cafe?) or enjoy lunch in a shipping container near M Shed, this area of Bristol deserves to have the time taken to soak it all in.
The Old City of Bristol still has its medieval layout; a fact I find fascinating. Plus, it’s bursting with pubs which all have their own unique story to tell.
Museums in Bristol
Historic Places in Bristol
Just two miles from the city centre, technically in North Somerset yet merely a stones’ throw from Clifton, is the grand Ashton Court house and estate. The extensive history of Ashton Court spans back to before the 11th century, when a fortified manor house stood on the plot of land; believed to have been given to Geoffrey de Montbray by William the Conqueror. It passed through various noble owners throughout the centuries.
The house was extensively remodeled by both Sir John Smyth in the 1700s and Sir Greville Smyth in the latter half of the 19th century; it is still noticeable today which alterations took place and when.
SS Great Britain and the Harbourside
Often a waterfront is the most beautiful part of a city, and Bristol’s is certainly up there. The SS Great Britain is right at the top of any tourist’s ‘things to see in Bristol’ lists. The world’s first luxury cruise liner, she now stands majestically in a dry port on the River Avon. She was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic in 1845, which she did in 14 days, and was the largest sea vessel in the country at the time. Along with the suspension bridge, she was designed by Brunel.
The dock is where ships would set sail and was once a bustling trading area for those sailing. Nowadays, the waterfront area is equally busy with artisan markets, atmospheric bars, and tasty restaurants. There’s always loads of boats to admire, and the area is the perfect place to enjoy the sunset.
Shopping in Bristol
Stokes Croft/ Gloucester Road
On Gloucester Road is Britain’s longest chain of independent shops. There is ‘everything you’ll ever need’ at these local stores, and it is widely known as Britain’s last proper high street. Whether it’s an ironmonger, a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer or a toy shop that you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Gloucester Road’s beautiful rebellion against Tesco.
Stokes Croft is also a great place for nightlife, with dozens of edgy bars and a few live music venues, two of which (Lakota and Blue Mountain) are open until 6am.
Park Street and the Clifton Triangle
Park Street, the very steep hill that ascends from the waterfront to Clifton, is home to a couple of decent vintage shops, as well as some arty stores. Check out BS8, a long time vintage clothing classic
Festivals in Bristol
Where to Stay in Bristol
I wrote a whole post addressing this matter: check it out here. Or if you’re in a rush and my bad jokes have gotten too much (I’m like this in every post I’m afraid), then just click through below for the best of the best.
- Best Chilled Out Hostel in Bristol (good for families as well) – The Bristol Wing
- Best Party/ Social Hostel in Bristol – The Full Moon Backpackers
- Best Mid-Range Hotel in Bristol – Brooks Guesthouse Bristol
- Best Luxury Hotel in Bristol – the Avon Gorge Hotel
What to Pack for Bristol
Bristol’s in Britain, so be prepared for unpredictable weather, incessant tea drinking and funny accents that you may not understand.
Click here for my UK Packing List (coming soon to a browser near you!) but here’s some essentials:
- A brolly (umbrella). It doesn’t actually rain all the time in the UK (even though we like to make it out that it does), but if you don’t pack one, it will. So use it as a force to ward off the rain gods, if nothing else. Click here to purchase yer brolly.
- A rain mac because you might want some extra protection from those pesky rain gods. Click here to purchase one.
- Comfortable shoes for all that walking you’re going to do around Bristol.
- Evening clothes not that many of Bristol’s establishments are super-classy (which is why I feel so at home here) and many, especially ones in Stokes and Glozzie Road, accept trainers and casual wear, but you might want something a little more glitzy for if you’re planning on spending the night at the harbourside (you can still wear casual wear here, however), or have a ball booked or something.
- Lots and lots of layers in Bristol, and the UK as a whole, it can be 20 degrees one day and 5 the next. Basically the weather loves a bit of sarcasm as much as we do so this is how it gets involved.
- A UK accent guide I mean you don’t need this, but it could make for some entertaining reading. Click here to purchase.
Health and Safety in Bristol
Have I convinced you to visit Bristol?
It’s the variety of Bristol that makes it so enchanting and captivating. There really is something for everybody, whether you’re after classy cocktails, coffee in a quirky cafe or lunch on a boat on the River Avon. Bristol is magnificent history, extraordinary culture and eternal optimism for the future all rolled up into one package. These five things to see in Bristol barely scratch the surface of what the city has to offer; you could easily spend weeks in the city without running short of things to do. Make sure you don’t miss it on your England itinerary but be warned – it may just capture your heart and refuse to give it back.