Bristol sits astride the River Avon, which cuts through the imposing Avon Gorge and is the biggest city in the South West of England. It is, however, a lot less hectic than London and, being only an hour and a half’s train ride away, is a popular tourist destination. Historically famous for its ships, pirates and ill-gotten gains from the slave trade, today it is known for its street art, music, animation (home of Wallace and Gromit) and it’s green credentials. Greta Thunberg recently adopted a local two-storey mural portrait as her social media profile picture. But that’s not all, so read what else there is to do during your one day in Bristol.
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What’s the best time to visit Bristol?
The best time to visit Bristol is summer. During the annual Harbour Festival in July the city’s docks fill up with ships from around the world, accompanied by live music, food tents and a general party atmosphere for the whole weekend.
Another incredibly popular annual event is the not to be missed is the balloon fiesta in August, when hundreds of hot air balloons gather in Ashton Court and launch en mass in an blaze of colour at dawn and dusk. Don’t be surprised to find a 30 foot magnum of champagne or Leonado Da Vinci’s head floating by. The grounds of the Estate are transformed by the arrival of a funfair, open air bars and market stalls.
Upfest – Southville
For those who like street art, welcome to the home of Banksy and the July Upfest Festival in Southville. Artists descend on this Bristol suburb from across the world to turn walls, shop fronts and houses into urban art.
A few facts about Bristol
The name Bristol derives from “Brigstow” meaning “place by the bridge”. A thousand years on, and Bristol still plays second fiddle to its upgraded replacement, the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of Bristol’s most famous residents.
In his quest to link London and New York, he also built Paddington Station in London, the entire railroad to Bristol and the city’s grand Temple Meads Station. He finished the job spectacularly with the magnificent SS Great Britain, for the final leg across the Atlantic. This remains one of the City’s foremost tourist attractions. Busy man.
Bristol’s proximity to the sea has had an enormous impact on its history and notoriety. The infamous Bristolian pirate Blackbeard would place lit fuses in his beard so that it would literally smoke and thus strike terror into the hearts of his foes.
The grand buildings in Clifton and Queens Square were built on proceeds from the Slave Trade, a part of local history that remains controversial today and is explored in the city’s museums.
The phrase “Ship shape and Bristol fashion” comes from the strength of the hulls required to withstand life in the Bristol channel.
A non-nautical fact, is that Bristol is also home to one of the oldest zoos in the world, which comes with dazzling landscaped gardens, perfect for summertime wandering and picnics.
One Day in Bristol Itinerary
Visit SS Great Britain
Start your day at the impressive SS Great Britain, which has been restored both inside and out to its former glory. Step into the shoes of an authentic first class passenger in the dining salon below deck before taking a promenade outside under the towering masts. The braver of you may choose to have a go at climbing the scarily high rigging.
On holiday weekends, a steam train runs from in front of the SS Great Britain to your next destination, the M Shed. It is great to sit downwind of the plumes of steam billowing overhead. If it is not running, never fear as you only have a 10 minute walk to your next stop.
Explore the M Shed
Walking along the docks, stop for a cuppa or some chips in the Brunel Buttery, an al fresco café popular with the locals, before popping into one of the former shipping warehouses, and current Bristol Museum, the M Shed. Learn all about Bristol’s past, including its wartime experience, when heavy bombing destroyed much of the city. You can also board a vintage double decker bus, which is fun.
Sit down in the Cargo Area
For lunch you are spoiled for choice in the Cargo Area, next to the M Shed, which has recently been regenerated and plays host to a number of the city’s top eateries, housed in old shipping containers. Urban chic, Wild Beer and tapas abound.
Relax at Arnolfini
After lunch, continuing round the docks and over the old Princes’ Bridge you might want to check out the Arnolfini, a contemporary art centre with a lovely dockside café. This is often the site of food stalls and live music on weekends, when crowds dangle their feet over the edge of the docks whilst drinking a summer beer.
Head through the lovely Queens Square, where homes of former merchants are set around a grassed area with cobbled streets and set about with olde world-y lamp posts. You may want to check out King Street which, not surprisingly, sits right next to Queens Square and is home to some of the oldest and most characterful pubs in town.
Explore St Nicholas market
You are now in the centre of town, and it is worth taking a look in the historic St Nicholas market, established in 1743. It is a maze of independent stalls, spread through the old Exchange Building, with its ornate ceiling (don’t forget to look up) and into the Glass Arcade behind. You can buy a whole range of goodies – anything from ethnic clothes to carved wooden bowls, leather bags, enormous ammonites, old records or second-hand books.
In front of the huge wooden doors of St Nick’s Market on Corn Street, stand the iron nails on which traders struck their deals, giving rise to the phrase “on the nail”.
Walk along Park Street
Moving up Park Street, you will pass a Banksy on your right before having a chance to check out a few shops on your way up the hill. Take a detour behind the shops to your left to climb up to Cabot Tower where you will be treated to a 360 degree view of the city.
Built in 1897, the tower stands more than 100 feet tall, and commemorates John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to North America four hundred years ago.
At the top of Park Street you will find another Bristol landmark, the Wills Memorial. The building, commissioned by the tobacco manufacturer Henry Wills in 1925 (although it looks much older). Next door is the Natural History Museum with collections of gemstones, dinosaur skeletons, Victorian stuffed animals, Egyptian mummies and an amazing gypsy caravan.
Head out to Clifton Village
From the Museum it is a short walk to Clifton Village, the prettiest and most affluent area of Bristol.
Don’t miss the beautiful Victorian Clifton Arcade, which houses a handful of unique shops selling vintage clothes, antique glass and jewelry.
Wandering around the village itself, you might want to take afternoon tea at the very glamorous Ivy, with its black and white tiled floors and flower festooned doorway.
Cross the Clifton Suspension Bridge
On the far side of the village is the Suspension Bridge with incredible views over the rugged Avon Gorge. From the adjacent hilltop in the park, you can enter an observatory and descend into the rock, emerging out of the sheer cliff face on to a small platform balanced over the gorge. You may come face to face with one of its many climbers.
Soak in Avon Gorge views
After all this walking, the best place for rest is the terrace of the White Lion pub, which has unrivaled views over the Gorge and bridge.
When it is time for dinner, stroll down to the Lido, where you can dine overlooking an open air pool, with retro poolside changing rooms.
Where to stay in Bristol?
Day trips from Bristol
If you are looking for day trips from Bristol, then the beautiful Roman town of Bath, with its Royal Crescent, Roman Baths and magnificent Georgian terraces, is only a 12 minute train ride away.
Or why not try Tyntesfield, a manor house and grounds run by the National Trust, 15 minutes by car from Bristol.
For a traditional seaside town, Weston Super Mare with its pier and donkey rides on the beach is another popular day trip from Bristol and only 30 minutes by train.
Beeseys tea rooms is a popular place for a boating day trip from the centre, with lunch at the famous riverside cafe.
Extra tips for visiting Bristol
A lovely way to get around is on one of the harbor ferries. You can catch these from just outside Temple Meads station, and they take you all the way to the town centre, or beyond. You can hop on and off at various points around the harbour.
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