Bristol Travel Guide
Bristol is one of those hip, energetic cities that has something for everyone. Whether its Bristol’s expansive maritime history or eccentric and thought-provoking street art scene, you certainly won’t be lost on things to do, see and learn. Located in south-western England and set along the picturesque River Avon, Bristol is so much more than an eclectic city to explore, there is also plenty of natural beauty that surrounds it from an awesome gorge to a sprawling hilltop park.
Bristol’s maritime history dates back over 1,000 years and the city is home to many iconic boats and other sights that celebrate this past. It is also home to one of the world’s oldest continuously operating train stations, Temple Meads. And though the city centre took quite a hit due to bombing during World War II, much has been restored and still offers glimpses into its rich history.
Away from the budget-busting London, Bristol is far more affordable and still close enough to plenty of awesome cities to explore on day trips. It’s only a two-hour train ride from London and an hour or less for many of England’s must see places like Bath. This and more make Bristol a great place to use as a base to explore the surrounding area on top of its own great attractions.
Things to Do & See
Set atop a hill in Brandon Hill Park, Bristol’s oldest park, you can find Cabot Tower. Over one-hundred feet tall, the tower was built in 1897 for the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s famous voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland, Canada. It’s free to walk up its spiral staircase that leads to awesome views over Bristol. After ascending the tower consider a stroll through the lovely park, full of flowers, prime places for a picnic, shaded trails and more views over the city.
2. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is located in the city’s Clifton area and set in a stunning building of Edwardian Baroque architecture. The museum opened in 1905 and has a wealth of collections from Egyptian artifacts to Eastern Art and geology to English delftware. Some favourites include; Alfred the infamous gorilla from the Bristol Zoo, dinosaurs, a replica of the Bristol biplane that hangs over the main hall, and a piece from Bristol’s own Banksy. The museum also showcases Bristol’s own history, including amazing maps that take you from present day to back through to the middle ages. All this and it’s free!
3. Explore the Harbour
Bristol’s picturesque harbour is home to a wealth of history, things to do and sights to see. In the 15th century it had been a busy port for trade and travel. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that the current floating harbour was created. The area along the harbour is where you’ll find all sorts of museums, Castle Park, plenty of places to eat and of course some of Bristol’s iconic boats. It’s here you’ll find the S.S. Great Britain, the first iron-hulled propeller driven ocean liner, and a replica of The Matthew, the boat sailed by John Cabot in 1497 from Bristol to Canada’s Newfoundland.
Like everywhere you visit in Great Britain, Bristol is also home to some amazing churches full of history and wonder. Temple Church, now in ruins, was built upon an earlier round church built by the Knights Templar. It’s surrounded by a peaceful green space and though you can’t enter the church remains you can still peek inside, wander its graveyard or marvel at its leaning tower. St. Mary Redcliff, located nearby, has stood for over 800 years and is not only the second largest parish church in England but also holds the title as tallest building in Bristol. Because of its grand interiors it is often mistaken for the Bristol Cathedral. The Bristol Cathedral, founded in 1140, was originally St. Augustine’s Abbey and is built from beautiful Bath stone. Unlike most English Medieval churches the aisles are the same height as the choir creating a large and grandiose appearance. With stunning vaulted ceilings and beautiful stain glass a wander around is a must. It’s also full of impressive wood carved benches and many other interesting pieces.
Located in the Clifton area of Bristol, the Bristol Zoo is a fun place for children and adults alike. The zoo opened in 1836, making it the second oldest zoo in England after the London Zoo. The zoo is home to over 400 species and is full of great exhibits including; Monkey Jungle, Butterfly Forest, Twilight World, and Gorilla House. Most of the larger animals have been moved to its sister zoo, Wild Place Project, located 25 minutes outside the city.
6. Street Art
If ever there was a city that was the epitome of street art and graffiti culture it would be Bristol. Bristol is not only home to Banksy, one of the most famous street art artists, but also Europe’s largest street art and graffiti festival, See No Evil. If you scour Bristol you’ll discover a wealth of fantastic street art and all coming in various forms, from snow art in the winter to classic graffiti displayed across the walls of buildings. The subject matter ranges from plays on pop-culture to pieces wrought with emotion. You can see most of Bristol’s street art in three main areas; the city centre, and the neighbourhoods of Stokescroft and Eastville. If you’re adventurous you can pick up a cheap pamphlet from Bristol’s tourist office that is full of Banksy pieces with their descriptions and locations. Or if you want something more structured there are numerous guided tours, one of which is put on by Bristol’s street art artists themselves.
7. Free Walking Tour
I always advise travellers to take a walking tour of every new city they explore to learn of its history, find hidden treasures and see it from a local’s perspective. There are many walking tours in Bristol but I chose a free walk tour put on by Walking Bristol, where tips are accepted. This 3 hour tour takes you by popular and off the radar locations in Bristol’s city centre. Along the course your guide will offer up everything from tips on where to eat or explore to telling tales of the city’s history, its people and its sights. The tour also stops for lunch in St. Nicholas Market where you can choose to browse or eat at one of the many food stalls, and if you choose Pieminister Pie Shop you can get a 20% off discount with the tour, which I highly recommend – it’s delicious!
8. Explore St. Nicholas Market
Established in 1743, St. Nicholas Market is located in the heart of Bristol’s city centre. Opened Monday through Saturday (9:30am – 5pm), it is a covered market place that’s home to a quaint maze of stalls selling everything from odds & ends to sweets. There are plenty of mini cafés and a wealth of delicious food stalls offering up a diverse assortment of foods, styles and diets. It’s also home to Beware of the Leopard Books, a sprawling bookshop full of second-hand books covering all subjects of fiction and non-fiction.
Designed by the grand Victorian engineer, Brunel, who also designed Temple Meads railway station and the S.S. Great Britain, the Bristol Suspension bridge is a must see from every angle. From a distance it stands out in Clifton’s skyline, and from atop it towers over the picturesque Riven Avon and crosses the awesome Avon Gorge. The bridge opened in 1864 and stands 245 feet above high tide, and is 1352 feet long. Though it’s a toll bridge for vehicles, it is free for pedestrians to walk over and offers incredible views over Bristol, the gorge, and surrounding areas. The Avon Gorge is home to a diversity of both plants and animals, of which over 65 bird species call it home, including peregrine falcons.
10. Explore Clifton
The Clifton neighbourhood is just north of the city centre and is home to a ton of gems. Here you’ll find the Bristol Zoo, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Clifton Downs, which is a large park with trails and fantastic views of the Avon Gorge. There’s also an observatory overlooking the Gorge and even a tunnel from the observatory to an old cave. Ghyston’s Cave (also known as St. Vincent’s Cave and Giant’s Cave) sits 250 feet above the Avon River, and the earliest record of it was back in 305 A.D. Clifton is also home to gorgeous Georgian era homes and Clifton Village. Clifton Village is an eclectic shopping district with shops, cafés and even charming passageways. Clifton has something for everyone.
Air – The Bristol Airport is located 8 miles from the city centre and there is a ‘Flyer’ bus service to transport you to the city, and takes approximately 35 minutes.
Train – If flying into London you can easily take the train from Paddington Station to Bristol’s Temple Meads Station which is located in the city centre, and the trip takes approximately 2.5 hours.
Bus/Coach – Bristol’s bus station is located near the Broadmead shopping area and both National Express and Megabus coach services run from it.
City Bus – Getting around Bristol by bus is very easy. There are stops at all the major sights, and maps and further information are available online here. There are also day passes available and are valid for travel on the day issued and up to 2:59am the following morning, these are a great deal if you plan on using the bus more than a few times during the day or taking a day trip out of the city.
Located harbour side in the city centre, Bristol’s Tourist Information Centre is a great place to pop into upon arriving in the city. They offer free maps, help with organizing tours, accommodations, have a wealth of souvenirs and so much more.
Bath is only a 15 minute train ride from Bristol, and it’s easy to take in all the main sights during a day trip. Check out my Bath in a Day, to learn what I did and saw during my day trip to Bath.
Home to historic sites like Glastonbury Abbey and Tor, Glastonbury makes a charming day trip from Bristol. Buses to Glastonbury take approximately 1.5 hours.
Home to one of England’s stunning cathedrals, Wells offers a nice short day trip option from Bristol, and by bus it takes approximately one hour.
Note: You can easily do both Glastonbury and Wells in the same day as they are located near each other.
Gloucester is a great place to take a day trip to as it is only 35 minutes away by train. Gloucester has a wealth of things to do, from its grand cathedral to its museums and abbeys.