I had never been to Bristol, despite being born in London, and spending my childhood summers in Wales with my grandparents. When a good friend announced she was moving there I decided I had to check it out. And so I announced to Nathan that I wanted to plan a weekend in Bristol before we left the UK again. We were pleasantly surprised at the abundance of things to do in Bristol!
About two hours west of London, Bristol makes a great city break for Brits and tourists looking for an easier pace than that of England’s capitol city. That is not to say that Bristol is sleepy by any means. Thanks in part to the popular university in town, this South West English city is colorful and lively with plenty to see and do.
The city has been named as the best place to live in the UK more than once and after one weekend in Bristol we were convinced it was more than worthy of the title. It is a place that manages to balance the vibrant energy of a big city with the quiet charm of a small town.
By day you can spend your time visiting the city’s sights and attractions, strolling the Quay alongside the River Avon, shopping in the funky boutiques and exploring the charming streets of Clifton Village. By night there are numerous trendy restaurants, cosy pubs, and a really impressive music scene.
Whether you are in Bristol for a family vacation, a romantic getaway or a party weekend with friends, there is enough plenty to keep everyone entertained and happy.
Spending a Weekend in Bristol
How to Get to Bristol
Trains leave from Paddington Station and drop off at Temple Meads which is a 15 minute walk to the center of town. With advance booking you can find tickets for as little as $50 USD for a return journey.
Taking the bus from Victoria Station is a fraction of that cost but will add about an hour on to your journey.
If you have a car it’s an easy drive but as with all cities it can be challenging and expensive to find parking. Having said that, Bristol is a short drive from Bath so if you do have a car it would make a great road trip.
Once your in the city a car is really not needed as it is a very walkable place. However, there are a fair amount of hills so keep that in mind.
Places to Stay in Bristol
Bristol is quirky, eclectic and made up of neighborhoods each with their own unique flavor. The accommodations are also varied in both style and price range.
If you are just staying for a couple of days, like we were, it’s best to stay in the center of town.
We stayed at the lovely and convenient Berkeley Suites. The central location meant we could walk everywhere easily and having a full suite with a separate bedroom, kitchenette, and gorgeous living room with a projection TV gave us a comfortable home at the end of a long day.
Another nice area to stay is Clifton. This upscale neighborhood is more residential with lovely Georgian architecture and beautiful views. Accommodations here tend to be more boutique style and a bit pricier. It is also much quieter in the evenings so if nightlife is your thing then central may be a better choice.
Old City is still quite central but as the name suggests it is the historic district of Bristol. This means cobblestone streets, little squares and quirky hotels converted from Victorian warehouses and town homes.
If we haven’t already decided on a place, as we had with Berkeley Suites, we almost always go to two sites for booking. If we want an apartment style accommodation we go with Airbnb. Click here for up to a $40 credit on your first booking.
For hotels or hostels we start with Hotels Combined. This site contains information, reviews and booking options for accommodations on all the major booking sites like Booking.com. You will get the best rates and comparison rates from the sites giving you access to the best deal possible.
16 Things to do in Bristol
As mentioned before there are plenty of things to do in Bristol and a weekend is definitely not enough time to see it all. For this reason it’s good to go in with an idea of what to do in Bristol so that you can make the most of your time there.
Following is a list of our favorite things as well as suggestions from friends who have lived there or visited often.
1. SS Great Britain
Probably the top sight in Bristol is the Dockland Museum, home to the historic SS Great Britain. Launched in 1845, this beautiful vessel is called “The ship that changed the world” due to the incredibly innovative technology of Bristol native engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. For many years it was the world’s longest passenger ship.
You can stand below the impressive hull and look up through water at the ship above…it’s really quite amazing. Then spend some time exploring inside the ship and maybe even climb the mast before visiting the interesting museum.
2. Street Art
The famous street artist, Bansky, is from Bristol and he started his wall work, anonymously, right here in his home city. Today, there are tours showcasing his artwork, and other street artists, which can be seen all over the city and especially in the Stokes Croft area.
If you prefer to discover the pieces yourself there are maps available at various spots around town. Make sure to look for Banksy’s “The Well Hung Lover” and “The Girl With The Pierced Eardrum.”
3. Clifton Suspension Bridge
The iconic and elegant Clifton Suspension Bridge is another masterpiece of Brunel. It crosses the River Avon connecting Bristol with North Somerset and is a favorite for a stroll and stunning views. If you can time it right it’s a great spot for watching the sunset.
4. Clifton Village
Image courtesy of Visit Bristol
This lovely, upscale, Victorian neighborhood is perfect for a stroll to admire some of the Victorian terraces, Georgian architecture and colorful buildings. It’s also a fabulous for window shopping, or actual shopping if budget allows, at the boutiques of local artisans and designers. Be sure to visit the Victorian arcade and look up at the beautiful glass ceiling.
5. Cabot Tower
Climb to the top of Cabot Tower for wonderful views of Bristol. It commemorates John Cabot’s 1497 voyage from Bristol to North America and stands 105 feet tall on Brandon Hill overlooking much of the city and part of the Avon River. Admission is free, other than the energy expended climbing the narrow, winding stairs to the top.
6. Christmas Steps
We were unsuccessful at finding out how these steps got their name but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Christmas holiday. What you will find are steps from the 17th century climbing a narrow, steep street lined with shops housed in pretty, historic buildings. Around the steps is the Arts Quarter which is full of more shops, cafes, bars and of course art galleries.
7. Bristol Cathedral
Founded in 1140, the Bristol Cathedral is one of England’s great medieval churches. It started as an Augustine Abbey but has undergone expansions and changes over the centuries and now displays beautiful 14th century stained glass and medieval stonework. Admission is free and there are also guided tours available on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
8. St Nicholas Market
Named Britain’s Best Large Indoor Market in 2016, St Nicholas offers three sections: The Exchange Hall has stalls selling almost everything you can imagine, The Glass Arcade is full of delicious local and international foods, and The Covered Market is a series of shops and alleyways. The market is open Monday to Saturday 9 am-5 pm and makes a great lunch stop at the Glass Arcade.
9. Old City
Once the heart of Medieval Bristol this small area was originally a walled city. Although the Old City walls are long gone it’s still possible to get a vision of what was as laid out by the street pattern and hidden lanes. Other than the churches, most of the old buildings were replaced in the Georgian and Victorian era.
Today trade is still the main focus in Old Bristol and it hums with activity from the many shops, markets, eateries and bars. It is a historic yet quirky area that is buzzing both day and night.
10. Bristol Aquarium
The Bristol Aquarium is a fun and fascinating place for nature lovers of all ages. There are over 40 exhibits and attractions here set up in themed environments from all over the world. You can explore a sunken ship, a Mediterranean “Urban Jungle”, an Amazon rain forest, and the incredible “Coral Seas” display which is home to 250 marine animals. There is even an underwater tunnel that you can walk through and see the marine life swimming all around you.
11. We The Curious (formerly At-Bristol Science Center)
This is a fun and educational place to spend a few hours at any age, especially if it’s a rainy day. There are all sorts of hands-on, interactive activities and exhibits centered around the human body, science, geography and physics.
If you are a fan of Wallace & Gromit you’ll be thrilled to hear there’s a whole attraction dedicated to Aardman Animations which was responsible for the hilarious British show. You can even try your hand at animation!
12. M Shed
Image courtesy of Visit England
M Shed is a large museum which follows the history of Bristol all the way back to prehistoric times and up until modern day. This is definitely high on the list of things to do because of the wonderfully creative way they’ve shared the stories of people and activities in the city over the years. Plus it’s absolutely free to visit!
13. The Lido
In the neighborhood of Clifton Village you will find the beautifully restored Victorian swimming pool called simply “The Lido.” There is also a full spa, poolside tapas and a gourmet restaurant on site so if you have the time it’s a great place to spend an afternoon.
It can get really busy on the weekends and there are certain times when it is members only so it is usually best to plan or book in advance.
14. Bristol Harbourside
Image courtesy of Destination Bristol
Bristol Harbour has been in use since the 13th century but has undergone some big changes in recent decades. What was once a busy port full of sailors, merchants and people coming and going to and from the “New World” is now a lively area for food and entertainment.
By day or night you can visit the art exhibits and museums, relax at the hip cafes, bars and restaurants, and do some shopping at boutique stores. On Saturdays there is also a market of local crafts and food.
15. Cider Tasting
Bristol and Somerset are famous for their cider so no visit to the area is complete without a cider tasting. You will find local cider on tap at most of the pubs and bars but it’s worth seeking out some of the specialty shops and cider houses devoted to this elixir of the Gods.
In particular, seek out the Bristol Cider Shop where you can sample and purchase a large range of “proper” ciders. Also, The Stable in the Harbourside where you can get a cider flight and enjoy some delicious pizza. Plus the Cori Tap which was Bristol’s original cider house. There are also cider tours available which can be a lot of fun.
16. Music Scene
Bristol is proud of its music scene as producers of some big acts in the 90’s genre of “trip hop” and rock. Today there are many music venues around town from hole-in-the-wall, underground bars to big music clubs like Colston Hall where you can find plenty of live music and DJ gigs.
Where to Drink and Where to Eat in Bristol
There is not shortage of trendy and traditional pubs as well as local and international eateries to please every taste and budget. Following are just a few favorites:
- St Nicholas Market is a top spot for lunch. Step inside the Glass Arcade, browse the many vendors and begin the task of deciding between food from all over the world.
- The Canteen in Stokes Croft offers up a daily fresh fish and food menu at a very reasonable price between 5-10 pounds. There is also live music every night of the week!
- Wapping Wharf on the Bristol Harbour is made up of cargo chipping containers. The array of restaurants and street food make it a great choice for a self guided food tour on a nice evening.
- Anyone who has ever been to Bristol has likely heard of Lovett Pies. These award winning, freshly baked savory pies are a must try. Made with love using local ingredients, choose from tasty treats such as the “Beef, Bellringer Ale & Bath Blue Cheese” or “Lamb, Rosemary, Garlic, Potato & Honey.”
- Pieminster is another must for the pie lover with spots all over the UK. Meat eaters will be thrilled with the many beef pie variations but there’s also plenty of choice for vegetarians and gluten free eaters.
- Pigsty serves up pork in numerous delicious ways including the indulgent Pig Mac. This BBQ pulled pork burger comes with bacon mayo…need I say more?
- Avon Gorge Hotel has a huge deck with one of the best views of the Suspension Bridge. On a nice day be sure to stop in for a drink and take some epic photos.
- Primrose Cafe is quite possible the #1 spot for breakfast. Of course, this means it can get pretty busy, especially on weekends.
- The Hatchett dates back to 1606 and serves up a good range of beer and cider on tap as well as tasty eats like Bristol Mac and Cheese. It is also a great music venue.
- Wild Beer is the place to go if you’re a craft beer fan. They have 22 varieties on draft and many more by the bottle or can.
- Hotel du Vin is the place to go for traditional English Afternoon Tea. Graze on sweets and savories in this transformed sugar warehouse.