Bristol is well-known as one of the UK’s most creative and exciting cities. It often tops the charts of the best places to live in England and, after moving here in 2016, I have to agree. Londoners like me flock to Bristol, tired of the pace of the capital but still keen to have all the perks of city living, from an exciting food scene to cultural events of every stripe. It’s a city famed for its liberal-mindedness and local activism, the home place of Banksy and drum and bass, and decked in a rich history that permeates the streets. And to top it off, it’s surrounded by the hills of South-West England, meaning you can be out in the countryside within moments of the city. Bristol has stolen my heart, and I though it was about time I shared some of it with you.
This article is all about some of the best things to do in Bristol. We teamed up with local blogger Lori at Wild and Grizzly to find out about some of her favourite places in Bristol, and we’re also sharing lots of our own. There’s a video with a round-up of the very best of what to do in Bristol, plus here’s a written guide with some more options added in.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, see my guide to the best Bristol Airbnbs, and for places to eat, see this guide to the 27 best restaurants in Bristol. And this guide to Bristol’s best independent shops.
Updated in March 2020.
Handpicked City Guide: The Best of What to do in Bristol
The Best Things to Do in Bristol
1. Explore the harbourside
Bristol maritime history stretches back many centuries, taking in impressive boat building as well as a more shameful past as a slaving port. You can explore some of this history down by the harbourside where the number one attraction is the (2) SS Great Britain, a ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was the first ship of its kind to cross the Atlantic and is considered on of the most important ships in history. Not far from the SS Great Britain is the (3) Matthew, a replica of the ship John Cabot sailed on when he discovered Newfoundland in 1497. You can do sailing trips on the Matthew or just admire it from the harbourside. While there, visit the (4) M Shed, a museum that tells the story of Bristol and its people, and also hosts lots of excellent visiting exhibitions, from the Nat Geo wildlife photography of the year exhibit to lesser known cultural features.
And the harbourside isn’t only about maritime history, it’s also packed with great restaurants and cafes (most notably, the excellent (5) Wapping Wharf, which you can read more about in the food section), as well as the excellent (6) Arnolfini gallery of contemporary art, and the (7) Watershed independent cinema. A good walk along the harbour, stretches from the SS Great Britain all the way to the Watershed, which only takes about 20 minutes if not stopping, but there’s so much to see that it will easily take longer. If you’re doing a circular route, you can hop on a ferry at the SS Great Britain to take a different route back.
8. Take in the view from Cabot Tower
For a great view of Bristol, head up to Brandon Hill Park and Cabot Tower. The park itself is beautiful, and you can climb the tower for free. Once up there, you’ll see a panoramic view of the city, from Clifton to the water and beyond. The park is just a few minutes away from the harbourside and centre of town, and it’s also right next to Park Street, one of Bristol’s most beautiful streets. The (9) Bristol Cathedral is at one end, and at the top you’ll find the (10) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, as well as the (11) Wills Memorial Building, part of the university and one of my favourite pieces of architecture in the city. The Bristol Museum is perfect if you’re visiting with a family as it has a lovely play area and lots of child-friendly exhibits. And there’s also the (12) Red Lodge Museum, a historic Elizabethan house on Park Row.
13. Explore the best of Bristol’s family attractions
Bristol is a great family destination with lots of options to choose from. You could go to (14) We the Curious, which is filled with interactive exhibits and a planetarium, or go to the (15) Bristol Aquarium to be enchanted by the sea life. Both attractions are on (16) Millenium Square, which has a big wheel ride, plus fountains, which are fun to play in in the summer.
There’s also the renowned (17) Bristol Zoo, which has a second site about 15 minutes outside the city called (18) Wild Place, which houses larger animals like giraffes and cheetahs. Or for farm animals, go to the tiny, hippy-vibe (19) St Werburgh’s City Farm, or the bigger and somewhat more impressive (20) Windmill Hill City Farm (both are very cute!).
21. Be charmed by Clifton Village
Clifton Village is Bristol’s most charming spot. True to its name, it has a lovely village feel, and is a perfect place to wander while exploring all the little cafes, delis, boutiques and restaurants. The area is filled with elegant Georgian architecture, and be sure not to miss the impressive Royal York Crescent. Some of my favourite spots in the village are (22) Papersmiths, a magazine and stationery shop; (23) Anna Cake Couture, which has some of the best cakes in Bristol; and (24) The Primrose Cafe, perfect for sitting outside on a sunny day. Go to the nearby (25) Clifton Wood to see some particularly colourful houses.
26. Marvel at the Suspension Bridge
Bristol’s most iconic sight is the suspension bridge that sits high above the Avon Gorge, just next to Clifton Village. It’s a spectacular site from every angle, whether you’re down below in the Cumberland Basin, or high above on the Bristol Downs. The (27) Clifton Observatory on the Downs is a good option, and also includes access to the Giant’s Cave, a natural cave in the Avon Gorge.
But my favourite spot for bridge gazing is the beautiful terrace at the (28) White Lion Bar in the Avon Gorge – it’s perfect on summer nights and even better during the Balloon Fiesta when, if the wind is in your favour, you can see the balloons sail right past you.
29. Get a taste of the countryside without leaving the city
One of the best things about Bristol is the countryside that surrounds it. Drive in any direction for about 15 minutes and you’ll be in the depths of it, but there are also some great options even closer to the city centre. Two of my favourites are (30) Leigh Woods and (31) Ashton Court. On the other side of the suspension bridge, they’re both just a 15-minute walk from Clifton Village, but feel miles from city life. Ashton Court is also home to the annual balloon fiesta and has an 18-hole golf course too. And for something even closer to the centre, there’s the (32) Bristol Downs, which have amazing views of the suspension bridge and are a lovely place for a dog walk or a picnic.
33. Explore the city’s street art
Bristol has a thriving street art scene and is also the home of Banksy, so you can see a few of his originals around the city. Stokes Croft, where I live, is one of the bet places in Bristol’s street art scene, featuring everything from graffiti to huge murals. If you head to the (34) Canteen bar, you’ll see a Banksy just outside, as well as a huge mural of a breakdancing Jesus! There are also some particularly nice murals on and around (35) Picton Street. There are street art tours run by people who know Banksy, and if you’re around in the summer, head to (36) UpFest, Europe’s largest street art and graffiti festival, which is held in Bedminster. The artworks done during the festival stay up all year, so (37) Bedminster is another great place to see street art.
38. Delve into Bristol’s food scene
One of my favourite things about Bristol is the food. It’s one of the things I was afraid I’d miss about London, but Bristol has easily compensated. There’s something for every taste, from Michelin-star food to amazing burgers. I’ll write a full post with all my favourites soon, but these are a few of them: (39) Dela for brunch; (40) Bosco for pizza; (41) Swoon for gelato; (42) Pinkmans for doughnuts; and (43) Poco for locally sourced tapas, and (44) Pasta Ripiena for Italian, and (45) Masa and Mezcal for Mexican. (46) Cargo at Wapping Wharf is a brilliant foodie hub, with lots of shipping containers filled with local restaurants. I’ve also written a guide to the best brunches in Bristol and the best food delivery in Bristol. For third wave coffee, head to (47) Small Street Espresso, Little Victories or (48) Full Court Press. And don’t miss (49) Boston Tea Party, a small chain of friendly cafes that recently won an award for its sustainability (they no longer serve any single-use coffee cups and have lots of other waste-reducing initiatives too).
50. Sample the city’s nightlife
Bristol is famous for its drum and bass scene that peaked in the 90s, and nowadays it continues its reputation for having a lively clubbing scene. (51) Lakota, (52) Motion and (53) Cosies are three of the favourites. There’s also no end of pubs and bars, including a burgeoning craft beer scene at places including (54) The Beer Emporium and (55) Wild Beer. And you can also visit the taproom at the popular local brewery (56) Wiper and True.
and the city has become well-known for its speakeasy scene, including bars such as (57) Red Light and (58) The Milk Thistle. Another excellent bar is the (59) Psychopomp gin distillery, which makes all its own gin on-site. You can also do gin-making classes there. And don’t forget to go for half-pint at the infamous (60) Coronation Tap in Clifton Village (it’s sold in small glasses because it’s so strong!).
61. Go to the theatre
Bristol has a thriving performing arts scene. The (62) Bristol Old Vic hosts world-class theatre productions, you can see cutting-edge shows at the (63) Tobacco Factory and (64) Redgrave Theatre. Colston Hall and (65) O2 Academy hold gigs by international artists, and you can see travelling west end shows at the (66) Hippodrome. There are also smaller venues like the (67) Wardrobe Theatre in Old Market. And finally, do look out for events at the (68) Passenger Shed, an event space that’s particularly atmospheric when hosting plays (I saw Mallory Towers there, which was amazing!).
69. Do some independent shopping
Bristol has a proud independent business scene, and some of the finest can be found on Lower Park Row, Colston Street, Christmas Steps, Gloucester Road and North Street. A few favourites are (70) 20th Century Flicks, an old school dvd shop with an 11-seat private cinema, (71) Bloom and Curll bookshop, (72) Mon Pote for gifts and homewares, and (73) Fox + Feather for clothes. You can also find lots of vinyl shops, including (74) Prime Cuts and (75) PK Music Exchange. And for food, the local chain of (76) Better Food markets is a great place for organic and locally sourced foods (although you’ll also find plenty of other local options in each area of Bristol). Also head to (77) St Nicholas Market, which has over 60 stalls selling everything from food to antiques.
78. See the city from the water
A great way to see the city is from the water. Hope on the 364-days a year (79) Bristol Ferry Boat, which travels from the SS Great Britain to Temple Meads. Or do a guided boat tour with (80) Bristol Packet boats (there’s even an option with a cream tea!).
81. See the city from a balloon
Perhaps the ultimate way to see Bristol is from a hot air balloon, the mode of transport the city is most famous for. The best time to come is during the balloon fiesta when the sky is filled with balloons of all shapes and sizes (there was a Darth Vader one this year!), but you can go up in a balloon year-round, so long as the wether conditions are favourable.
82. Cycle the Bristol to Bath bike path
Following an old railway line, the 13-mile cycle path from Bristol to Bath is by far the most scenic way to travel between the two cities and a perfectly pleasant way to spend the day. There are even spots where you can stop beside the river and do a bit of wild swimming.
83. Relax your cares away at the Lido
One of my absolute favourite things to do in Bristol is go to the Lido, a beautifully restored 1850s swim club, complete with a spa, outdoor pool and hot tub, tapas bar and restaurant. It’s a members club, but you can pay for day swim passes or go for a treatment in the spa, plus the cafe and restaurant are open to anyone. It’s a little oasis of tranquility in the city, and the perfect way to feel refreshed (not least because the pool is only heated slightly, so you always have a bracing swim!).
84. Go to St.Pauls Carnival
One of the most famous events in Bristol is the St Pauls Carnival, which has been going since 1968. The day-long street party is a celebration of African-Caribbean culture and includes a big parade. Bristol also has plenty of other festivals throughout the year, including the (85) Harbour Festival, (86) Simple Things and (87) Love Saves the Day.
88. Catch a film at The Everyman
My favourite cinema in Bristol is the Everyman, where you watch films from the comfort of a sofa and can have drinks and snacks delivered to your seat. It’s the ultimate luxury cinema experience. Other good options are the Watershed, which I already mentioned, and (89) The Cube (a tiny cinema specialising in independent and cult cinema.
I hope you love Bristol too!
So that’s a quick run-down of some of the best things to do in Bristol if you’re visiting the city for the first time or want to get to know it better. There are tons of things I’ve had to miss, but I’ll be sure to write some specialised versions, focussing on different elements of the city in the future. For now, this should be enough to get you started.
I hope you’ll love the city as much as I do.