Updated: 1/2/18 | January 2nd, 2019
One of the great things about budget travel is that you get to meet other travelers. During a trip to England, I actually received an offer to explore the English city of Bristol with Heather, someone I had met on a previous trip.
As I traveled around England, I’d explain my route through the country and people would universally go, “Bristol? There’s not much there.”
Needless to say, I had low expectations.
But I’m not sure what Bristol people were referring too because I found a hip college town with amazing eateries, great ethnic food, wonderful things to see, and great parks to relax in.
Bristol is like the English version of Seattle. Most travelers seem to use it as a base for trips to Bath, and never fully explore this city, giving it only a brief glance before heading back to London. This is a mistake.
With a population of around 400,000, Bristol is the largest city in southern England after London and the largest shipping port in England. It received a royal charter in 1155 and, until the rise of Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, was one of England’s largest cities. Bristol suffered extensive bombing during World War II and a subsequent steep decline in its manufacturing industry.
The port of Bristol grew up in medieval times because of its location near the rivers Avon and Frome. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, this area was turned into the enclosed Floating Harbour by the construction of locks. With the advent of larger ships, though, the Avon Gorge became too much of a liability, and commercial shipping moved downstream to more modern docks at Avonmouth and Portbury.
The city is no longer an industrial center, but rather a vibrant college town. The University of Bristol dominates the city, and the students provide a lot of income and jobs for the community.
Spending the day walking around, I found the city pretty easy to navigate. Almost everything was within walking distance from somewhere. And if it wasn’t, the city has an easy-to-use bus system that can take you anywhere you need to go.
The waterfront area has a nice collection of restaurants and art galleries. It’s been cleaned up in recent years and has become a local hot spot. It’s a very fashionable area, and you could see the renovation was not completed. More condos were being built, more restaurants going up, more galleries in the works. I suspect this will be a very upscale place within the next few years.
What I really enjoyed the most about Bristol were all the parks. Bristol is filled with great parks. I particularly liked Castle Park. Castle Park is located near the river and features a bombed-out church from World War II. The church has been left in ruins as a monument to the destruction of the war. Around the church are beautiful gardens and grassy fields where locals gather for lunch. I sat there during lunchtime and watched the park fill with office workers enjoying the fresh air while they ate. It was a great place to people-watch.
Things to See and Do in Bristol
1. Bristol Cathedral
This is one of the true must-sees in Bristol. It’s a beautiful cathedral that was built during the Norman Era and originally the abbey of St. Augustine (you know, the guy with the quote). It’s grand and should not be missed. To get the most out of your visit, catch a tour of the Cathedral on Saturdays at 11:30am or 1:30pm, or on Tuesdays at 2:15pm. The tours are free but a donation is appreciated.
College Green, West End, +44 117 926 4879, bristol-cathedral.co.uk. Open Monday-Friday from 8am-5pm and 8am-3pm on the weekends (unless there is a special event happening). Admission is free.
2. Visit King Street
Originally laid out in 1650, King Street is a fascinating, historical part of Bristol. It used to be where the old sailing barges docked after their journeys from South Wales. Now the area is the heart of the theatrical district and features outstanding bars and restaurants too. There are even some pubs from the 17th century that are still standing!
3. Go see the Clifton Suspension Bridge
This is Bristol’s most famous landmark. Suspended high above the Avon Gorge and River Avon, this is not an attraction for anyone who is afraid of heights! The bridge was opened in 1864 and gives you sweeping views of the river and surrounding parks and buildings. It was also where one of the early bungee jumps in the UK was held, in the 1970’s. The bridge is open and manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Stop in at the visitor center any day from 10am-5pm.
4. Check out St. Nicholas Market
Just off the old Corn Exchange, this is an awesome, bustling market with more shops than you could go through in an afternoon. There seems to be an endless number of farmers’ stalls, with amazing local produce, second-hand bookshops, and vintage clothing stores.
Corn St, +44 117 922 4014, stnicholasmarketbristol.co.uk. Open Monday-Saturday from 9:30am-5pm
5. Visit the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Established in 1823, this museum is awesome because it covers a little bit of everything. From archaeology to dinosaurs to English history to art (from all ages), it’s the area’s largest museum and one of my personal favorites. It’s not too overwhelming and it’s easy to see in a day. Plus, like all public museums in England, it’s free!
Queens Road, +44 117 922 3571, bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm.
6. See the S.S Great Britain
Located in the harbor, the S.S Great Britain was actually the world’s first steam-powered passenger liner. It took its maiden voyage in 1845, and it was actually the longest ship in the world for almost a decade. (It’s 322 feet long). Unfortuantely, since it was so big it took a long time to build and the owners eventually went bankrupt not long after it was launched. Tickets aren’t cheap at 16.50 GBP per person, but it’s a fun activity to do, especially if you’re traveling with kids.
Great Western Dockyard, +44 0117 926 0680, ssgreatbritain.org. Open daily from 10am-4:30pm. Admission is 16.50 GBP for adults, with discounts available for students and seniors. Kids under 4 enter for free.
7. Take a spooky walking tour
Bristol is an old city and has been an important port for almost a thousand years. With so much history, it should come as no surprise that the city has collected its fair share of ghost stories. To hear some of the tales as you explore the city, check out this fun evening tour. The tour lasts 90 minutes and is well worth the 5 GBP!
hauntedandhiddenbristol.co.uk. Tours occur daily at 8pm and cost 5 GBP.
8. Visit WeTheCurious
This is a fun and interactive way to spend the day, especially if you’re traveling with kids. They have exhibitions on biology, technology, farming, and a really cool planetarium. The exhibitions are always changing too so check the website to see what’s new!
Anchor Road, +44 0117 915 1000, wethecurious.org. Open Monday-Friday from 10am-5pm and 10am-6pm on the weekends. Admission is 15.95 GBP for adults and 10.50 GBP for kids.
9. Play some games
Bristol has tons of fun activities like go-karting, trampoline arenas, VR rooms, escape rooms, and obstacle courses. If you’re looking for something fun that isn’t a historical site (especially if you have a group of people) then check out some of the cities more unique offerings.
I suspect one day the word will get out, but, at least for now, Bristol remains a hidden gem and a city that is well worth a visit.
How to Get to Bristol
Bristol is located near Bath, about a 2-hour drive from London. Trains leave often and take just under 2 hours. Tickets are usually 45-85 GBP, though the earlier you book the cheaper they will be. If you’re on a budget, take the bus. The journey will be around 2hrs 30min but it will only cost around 10 GBP.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight to Bristol
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation in Bristol
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the largest inventory for hostels! If you want to stay somewhere else like at a cheap guesthouse or B&B, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for that kind of accommodation. They are the best! My favorite places to stay are:
- The Bristol Wing – This hostel new brand new, in a great location, and has really helpful staff.
- YHA Bristol – A great, quiet hostel. Perfect if you’re looking for a low-key stay in a great location.
Don’t forget travel tnsurance – and protect your trip!
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!
Want more travel tips for Bristol?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Bristol for even more planning tips!
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