Bristol is a contrast. Because it’s a port, Bristol contains centuries of trade history, but they’ve also transformed themselves into a modern city with a crisp urban edge. This guide will help you figure out what to do in Bristol if you want to explore both its modern side, as well as its proud history. Read on for twelve things to do in Bristol along with practical tips for how to see them, suggested places to eat and drink and places to stay.
Visiting Bristol: Urban Edge with a Historical Core
Bristol is like a tale of two cities. Historically, Bristol England has been around since 950 AD as a market town. It became a major player in the slave trade during the 1700’s and then really came into its own when the Great Western rail line from Paddington arrived in 1841. It has since evolved into a modern city that manages to successfully bled it’s historical legacy with a cool urban culture and a social conscience.
You can find this mix of urban edge and history all over the city. This list of twelve things to do in Bristol will give you a rundown on both aspects of the city’s culture along with a few suggested itineraries and practical tips for what to do there.
(Much thanks to Visit Bristol. They were kind enough to host part of my stay and helped me with access to tours and museums.)
What To Do in Bristol…if you like Urban Edge
Bristol has a lot of urban edge. There is a quirky counter culture vibe to Bristol which has given rise to the development of their own currency, called the Bristol Pound. The movement rose out of the ashes of the 2008 financial collapse to give locals and local businesses a way to keep their money, well, local. There is also a protest movement afoot to strip Edward Colston’s name from buildings and statuary. He was paradoxically, a philanthropist and a slave trader. The locals are cool with the philanthropy part, the slave trading part, not so much. This is all to say that Bristol has a conscience and a modern sensibility that feeds it’s culture. So here’s what to do in Bristol if that’s your jam:
1. Take a Street Art Tour
Bristol was the first city in Europe to truly embrace street art. They host the annual Upfest street art festival and you can find streets full of urban art in the Bedminster, Central Bristol and Stokes Croft neighborhoods. Rather than give you the full tour here, please read my complete street art guide to Bristol. It will tell you how to find Banksy, show you great murals with links to the artists who created them, help you find a guided street art tour and it also provide a self-guided map.
Read More: For more street art, check out this mural tour of London’s Shoreditch neighborhood.
2. Shop at Saint Nicholas Market
Saint Nicholas Market combines both urban edge and history in Bristol. It’s housed in and around the Exchange Building, which was built in 1743. During the 60’s it was a concert venue and it has now evolved into a hip urban market. You can kill a few hours perusing the stalls and pick up a hat, jewelry, books, sauces, records, candy and whacky clothes. The market also has cafes and street food stands, making it an excellent place for lunch. I completely stuffed myself with falafal when I was there.
Tips for visiting: The market is open Mon-Sat 9:30a-5p. The food stalls are open 11a-2:30p and there is a Wednesday farmer’s market.
3. Hang out at the Arnolfini
The Arnolfini is a contemporary art gallery located in the harbor district. They host music, spoken word events, film festivals and commissioned works. They have a great little bookstore that goes way beyond the typical museum gift shop. Any gallery or museum space that also serves book nerds is always going to be on the top of my hit parade. In addition to the bookstore, the Arnolfini also has an amazing library-themed coworking space called The Front Room. If you are hungry or thirsty, they have a cool beer bar and cafe with an outdoor seating area that features roving bands of musicians on nice days. It’s a great place to just hang out.
“…the road is never easy and straight. And living is all about living alive and lively. And love will conquer hate.”
—Poem by Salena Gooden on the wall at the Arnolfini
Tips for visiting: Mon-Fri 9a-6p, Sat/Sun 10a-6p. Check their events board for new of other artsy events in Bristol.
4. Learn about Bristol’s Modern History at MShed
The MShed is a unique city museum which focuses on how Bristol’s citizens live, get around and inhabit the city. It’s one of the more popular attractions in Bristol and well worth spending a few hours there. This museum touches on Bristol’s history, but in a very modern way. You won’t find dusty royal relics and period furniture here. Rather, you may find a special exhibit on how contemporary music has shaped Bristol’s culture, or how modern families live and work in the city.
Tips for visiting: Entrance is free (or voluntary donation) and they are open Tues-Sun 10a-5p. Be sure to step out onto the viewing balcony on the second floor. It offers killer views of the harbor.
5. See Contemporary Art at Spike Island
If you really love avant garde contemporary art, then check out the Spike Island Gallery because it’s exhibits present one of the more unusual things to do in Bristol. In addition to offering exhibitions that challenge conventional wisdom about art, they also provide low cost studio space for local artists and a shop featuring their works.
Tips for visiting: Entrance is free Tues-Sun 12-5p.
6. Chill out in Bedminster
The Upfest street art festival happens Bedminster, so the streets there are absolutely covered in murals. But even if you aren’t as crackers for street art as I am, it’s still a cool neighborhood for hanging out. You can take a brewery tour at the Bristol Bristol Beer Factory. The nearby Tobacco Factory has a cafe bar, live music, exhibitions and a Sunday market or you can simply pop into one of the many coffee shops and pubs that line North Street.
2-Day Bristol Itinerary for Urbanites
- Morning: Take a 2.5 hour street art tour (either self-guided or with Where the Wall).
- Lunch: Grab lunch at the Saint Nick’s market. Make the hard choice between falafal, crepes, barbeque, savory pie, sausages or cake. Or eat all of it.
- Afternoon: Go shopping Saint Nick’s market and exploring at the Arnolfini.
- Evening: Eat at the Mud Dock Cafe, because of course urban Bristol combines a bike shop with a restaurant. They have a large selection of salads, burgers and sandwiches served with a fantastic second story view of the harbor. Afterwords, hit up the nearby Hole in the Wall pub for after dinner drinks. They have a light bright interior and a nice outdoor space if the weather is nice.
- Morning: Tour MShed and Spike Island.
- Lunch: Join the container truck movement and eat at Cargo. This lego-land of containers behind MShed offers pizza, Indian, Mexican, barbeque, chocolate and ice cream.
- Afternoon: Chillax in Bedminster.
- Evening: Keep the book theme going and eat at the The Old Bookshop on North Street. They offer beer, cocktails and a tapas menu. You can also get brunch, light bites, soups, sandwiches and pizza at the Tobacco Factory.
Things to do in Bristol…if you like History
Another quirk of Bristol is that they historically ran on “Bristol time”, which was, oddly, ten minutes off the Greenwich Mean Time clock. You can still find the stray clock that shows both times. In fact, Corn Street, which runs along the edge of St Nick’s market has one of those clocks and it was also the center of commerce and banking during Bristol’s heyday as a market town.
7. Climb the Clifton Observatory & Cave
Speaking of corn, you should definitely visit the Clifton Observatory. This former mill site was once used to grind corn and tobacco. The site was an iron age fort, presumably because it’s flat location, overlooking the Avon Gorge made it a very defensible location. Long after the iron age and shortly after the corn era, the mill burned down. In 1828, an artist was given permission to erect an observatory on the site.
The tower still stands and it includes a working camera obscura, making the Observatory one of the most interesting things to see in Bristol for history buffs. Deep below the Observatory is a cave system that opens up into the middle of the gorge cliff. It’s definitely worth paying the extra money to carefully pick your way down the steep stairs. The cave opening offers stunning views of the Avon gorge and the Clifton bridge.
Tips for visiting: Open everyday from 10a-5p (closing earlier in the winter). Tickets are £4.00 for both the Observatory and the cave.
8. Walk the Clifton Bridge
The Clifton Bridge was conceived by Isambard Brunel, Bristol’s favorite son (after Banksy). Brunel was Britain’s most ambitious transportation engineer during the Victorian era. In 1831, Brunel proposed an audacious design, which broke the bank, leaving the bridge incomplete. A revised design was worked out and the bridge was ultimately completed in 1864. The bridge is notable not only for Brunel’s involvement, but also it’s graceful design and dramatic perch over the gorge.
You can walk down from the Observatory and across the bridge to see it from both sides. If you do, be sure to stop into the visitor’s center museum on the west side because they have a great deal of information about the design and construction of the bridge.
Tips for visiting: The visitor’s center is open daily 10a-5p. They offer free tours every Saturday and Sunday at 3pm.
9. Chill out in Clifton Village
That iron age fort hidden in the ground at the Observatory means that Clifton Village is much older than Bristol proper and it’s always taken the literal and figurative high ground over the harbor. It was part of the spa circuit in the 18th century and in the 19th century, it began attracting “the leisure classes”. This is code for “Clifton Village is super adorable” and it’s absolutely what to do in Bristol if you can’t resist cute flower shops, pastel pottery stores, frilly boutiques and pretty parks.
Tips for visiting: After climbing the Observatory and walking the bridge, save some energy to simply stroll the town.
10. Visit the Bristol Museum
The Bristol Museum and art gallery is the city’s all purpose museum The permanent collection features a natural history section that includes endangered and extinct animals and local geology from the UK. The art collection features some old masters along with several rooms of British and European art. They also run an eclectic assortment of special collections which can range from African textiles to contemporary photography.
Tips for visiting: Open Tues-Sun 10a-5p.
11. See Stained Glass in the Bristol Cathedral
The cathedral is one of Britain’s great medieval cathedrals. It was started in 1160 and had subsequent add-ons and remodels in 1220, the mid 1500’s and 1868. The high vaulted ceilings arising from these early periods are very graceful and worth a look. However, the best bit came in 1965 when they installed a beautiful abstract stained glass window in the south nave.
Tips for visiting: The cathedral is open Mon-Fri 8a-5p, Sat-Sun 8a-3:15. They offer evening prayer at 5:15 and Sunday service at 3:30.
12. Tour the SS Great Britain
Brunel made transportation in Bistol happen. He built out the Great Western Railway, with lines connecting London to Bristol that are still in use today. Also, don’t forget that he did the original design work for the Clifton Bridge. But Brunel’s crowning achievement was the SS Great Britain. It’s one of the Bristol attractions that the locals are most proud of. Brunel shattered the conventional trade ship design by building a ship that was not only physically huge but constructed of iron, with an enormous steam engine and the first propeller system. The ship functioned as an immigrant and cargo ship for thirty five years before being scuttled in the Falklands, near Argentina. In the 1970’s, the ship was carefully floated and barged back to Bristol where she was lovingly restored. Visiting the SS Great Britain is one of the must see things to do around Bristol. The site has information on the history of the boat, tours of the ship itself and exhibits on the life of Brunel himself.
Tips for visiting: This is the most popular attraction in Bristol, so if you are going in high season or on a weekend, go early or late or be prepared for the crowds. They are open everyday 10a-6p (in the spring/summer) and 10a-4:30p (in the autumn/winter). Tickets are £16.50 for adults and they allow return visits all year, so you may want to purchase online so that you have an email receipt.
2-Day Bristol Itinerary for History Lovers
- Morning: See the Clifton Observatory and bridge.
- Lunch: Catch lunch at the Mall Deli Cafe, where you can do a takeaway sandwich or hand pie and eat in the mall gardens. Alternatively, you can get lunch or dinner at the White Lion. They have an elevated pub menu with burgers, sandwiches, pizza and barbeque. Best of all, they have a huge terrace with great views of the bridge.
- Afternoon: Stroll Clifton Village and Bristol Museum.
- Evening: Do a pub crawl on King Street. This street is full of 17th century pubs oozing with beer, cider and history. The Londoger Trow is said to have been frequented by Blackbeard and a chance meeting there inspired Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
- Morning: Tour the SS Great Britain.
- Lunch: Grab some harbor-side views and Mediterranean grub at the Olive Shed.
- Afternoon: Tour MShed (if you haven’t already done it on the urbanites tour) and the Cathedral.
- Evening: Go fancy and eat at The Ox. It’s located on (actually under) historic Corn street and they feature an elevated meat +2 menu.
(some of the following links are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission. Also, I was offered a trade rate by the Brooks Guesthouse but my opinions are my own).
Where to Stay in Bristol
Cute & Central: Brooks Guesthouse. This guesthouse is located right in the heart of St. Nicks market. It’s very conveniently located to public transportation and many fun things to do in Bristol. They have adorbs airstream-style trailers on the roof. Be aware the the normal double rooms are quite small, but the custom breakfast is fantastic. Read reviews or book at Trip Advisor or Hotels.com.
Hang in the Harbor: The Bristol. This full service hotel has great staff and is conveniently located in the harbour near the SS Great Britain, MShed and a lot of night life. Read reviews or book at Trip Advisor or Hotels.com.
AirBnB: There is a decent amount of AirBnB inventory in Bristol, but not much of it is in the central city. But if you are willing to Uber or take the bus, you can get whole apartments in Stokes Croft, Clifton or Bedminster for $40-90/night. If you’ve never tried AirBnB, you can save $40 on your first visit using my coupon code.
Essential Reads for Bristol
- The Naked Guide to Bristol: This cheeky guide is popular with students and offers up the full Banksy trail, the cider trail and the definitive guide to the best breakfast in Bristol.
- The Women Who Built Bristol: Brunel wasn’t the only one who put Bristol on the map. This book contains “250 inspiring women, three sheroic dogs and one heartbroken barmaid from Easton”. Sold!
- Only Time Will Tell: This series by Jeffrey Archer follows Bristol dock worker Harry Clifton as he makes his life choices from the Great War through WWII.
- The Fair Fight: “Where the Crimson Petal and the White meets Fight Club” as two women in two women in 18th century fight (literally) to find a place for themselves a better place in society.
If you are still unsure about what to do in Bristol, maybe you should plan to spend four days and do the full itinerary. These historic, urban chic and fun things to do in Bristol will certainly keep you busy. Have fun and happy trails!
Check out more itineraries for the UK including: three days in London, an alternative itinerary for Northern Ireland, an alternative itinerary for Edinburgh, hiking Hadrian’s Wall and also the Jurassic Coast.
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