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Clifton Suspension Bridge. © Shutterstock

The 20 best things to do in Bristol

It’s one of the UK’s most vibrant and cultural cities: here are the best things to do in Bristol for first-timers and old hands alike

Written by
Jon Cook
&
Sammy Jones
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It’s very easy to spend a good week pottering through Bristol’s vastly contrasting neighbourhoods. All locals have their own strongly held views on the best stuff to see, hear and taste in Bristol – meaning that even if you’re stumped on where your next stop should be, you can always ask whoever you end up sitting next to at the pub, coffee shop or art gallery. However, with such a wealth of options, it doesn’t hurt to go in with a plan. Here are 20 totally brilliant things to do in Bristol next time you’re in town.

Best things to do in Bristol

Get lost on the Clifton Downs
Rochard Toller

1. Get lost on the Clifton Downs

What is it? Get your green fix in the lungs of the city. 

Why go? Stretching from the top of Whiteladies Road all the way to the Suspension Bridge is the huge open green space known as the Downs. This massive area has been helping Bristolians feel a million miles away from the hustle and hassle of the city centre for generations. There’s more than enough room for endless teams of sporty types and Sunday leaguers to kick a ball around without bothering each other. A whole pop-up landscape of independent restaurants, pub gardens and even a theatre appeared during lockdown, too, named Breaking Bread.

Don’t miss: The area known as the Sea Wall in the south-west corner of the Downs is the perfect spot to admire the jaw-dropping views of the Avon Gorge and Suspension Bridge. Follow it around to the gorge to spot bearded goats picking their way up and down the rocky terrain.

What is it? Much more than just a masterpiece of design and engineering. 

Why go? Widely considered to be Brunel’s greatest work, Clifton Suspension Bridge first opened in 1864, and the Grade I-listed structure is and is an internationally recognised icon of the city. No matter how many times you’ve climbed up to Clifton Village to gawp at it, the giant wrought iron structure never fails to inspire sheer vertiginous awe. Big Brunel fan? The SS Great Britain contains a whole room of exhibits dedicated to him and his inventions, including a working train carriage and an enormous bust of the cigar-puffing man himself.

Don’t miss: Perched up on the hill you’ll find Clifton Observatory. Within this former snuff mill is one of only two working camera obscura left in the UK, and a subterranean passageway leading to Ghyston’s Cave, which looks out from the cliff face on to unrivalled views of the bridge and gorge.

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Track down some gorgeous graffiti

3. Track down some gorgeous graffiti

What is it? Get to know Bristol’s graffiti hotspots. 

Why go? One of Bristol’s most famous cultural exports is street art. From fiercely protected murals on shop shutters and public walls to chrome-and-black ‘throwies’ and tags on vans and windows, Bristol is covered in graffiti. Definitely take a look at the art all the way up Stokes Croft and looming large on Nelson Street, and if you’re looking for even more top-quality street art, you can head to Dean Lane skatepark in Bedminster.

Don’t miss: Bristol is home to Europe’s biggest street art and graffiti festival, Upfest. While it’s had to press pause on the main event for now due to Covid restrictions, it’s still making sure street art is in the spotlight in south Bristol. 

Cycle up, down and around the city
Sam Saunders

4. Cycle up, down and around the city

What is it? Whizz around in the UK’s first ‘cycling city’.

Why go? With more sharply rising inclines than a ski resort, cycling around Bristol can be hard work. But, there are plenty of great things to do here on two wheels. Head to the huge open spaces and wooded mountain bike trails of Ashton Court where you can hire a mountain bike for the day, or cycle out to the beautiful Snuff Mills and take in the greenery. There are plenty of resources online to illustrate possible cycling routes – so get wheelie (sorry) into it.

Don’t miss: Set off on the Bristol to Bath Railway Path that follows the route of an old train line through the serene countryside for a manageable 13 miles from city to city.

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Get your caffeine fix

What is it? Satisfy your caffeine cravings at an independent coffee shop. 

Why go? Dozens of incredible independent coffee shops have sprung up all over town in recent years. From cold-pressed filter coffee to Italian-style espressos and flat whites, you’re never too far from a great coffee and much of it is freshly blackened in the city by one of the many roasters that call Bristol home, like Clifton Coffee Roasters, Wogan Coffee Roastery, and Extract Coffee Roasters. If you’re a real aficionado, pay a visit to one of the many independents around the the city centre – Full Court Press, Little Victories, New Cut Coffee and Small Street Espresso deserve particular praise for their complex blends, broad roster and distinctly charming surroundings.

Get in the vinyl-hunting groove
[Duncan]

6. Get in the vinyl-hunting groove

What is it? Rediscover your love of vinyl at the city’s best record shops.

Why go? Fiercely independent and run by true music obsessives, the likes of Idle HandsSpecialist Subject RecordsFriendly Records, and Payback Records keep the city up to date with their hand-picked releases, while Wanted RecordsPrime Cuts, and Plastic Wax are packed solid with second-hand vinyl and CDs of almost every genre and are perfect places to lose an afternoon on one of Bristol’s many rainy days. Some shops have even popped up during lockdown – check out Planet Caravan inside arts space slash club Strange Brew, and Longwell Records down on Wapping Wharf.

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Spend some cash on Gloucester Road
Kyla Borg

7. Spend some cash on Gloucester Road

What is it? Do some shopping on the largest strip of independent retailers in Europe.

Why go?
 One of the many things that makes Bristol so special is the huge variety of independent shops here, which are particularly well-clustered along Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft. Sure, there are a couple of Tescos along the way, but we all know how their arrival went down… On your walk from bottom to top, we’d particularly recommend a stop at Colmado, an award-winning Spanish deli; Wild Leaf, an indoor plant specialist; and Fox + Feather, an aspirational fashion and homewares shop.

Don’t miss: It probably goes without saying that there are many multiples of coffee shops and pubs to wet your whistle on your climb from the Bear Pit all the way into Bishopston and beyond. The pub garden at The Prince of Wales and the coffees and pastries at Bakers + Co are especially worth a pause.

What is it? See the city from the water. 

Why go? Bristol was built on the slave trade. The docks and floating harbour that slave traders used until slavery’s abolition still remain, and mean that nowadays you can tour the city while by boat. Bristol Ferry Boats operates a waterbus service 364 days a year, letting you jump on and off as you choose from Bristol Temple Meads train station to the SS Great Britain. The stops are well-placed, letting you jump on and off at places including Spike Island contemporary art gallery, The Cottage Inn, and Underfall Yard’s working boatyard and visitor exhibits.

Don’t miss: If you’d like to top off your seafaring day with dinner on a boat, Under the Stars, the Grain Barge, FiSH and Three Brothers Burgers all serve you onboard a (stationary) vessel.

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Take the plunge at the Bristol Lido

What is it? A beautiful outdoor swimming pool with a top-notch restaurant attached.

Why go? Clifton is undeniably the most genteel part of the city – so it’s no wonder the luxe Bristol Lido is quietly tucked away down a residential street here. Built back in 1850 and re-opened in 2008 after closing for almost 20 years, the Bristol Lido has been fully restored with spa facilities and a new restaurant and café. You can lounge by the pool, have a massage, pop in the sauna, then grab some tapas at the bar or head up to the more upmarket viewing gallery restaurant. It’s at limited capacity due to Covid right now, but we’re hoping it’ll be back to its busy self soon.

Don’t miss: Eye for a bargain? Keep an eye on the website for spa packages that include a set dinner and a drink – they’re cheaper and just as lovely as an à la carte day out.

Grab some grub at St Nick’s

What is it? The largest collection of independent retailers under one roof in Bristol.

Why go? While most of the surrounding area was totally destroyed during the Second World War, the eighteenth-century Exchange building at the heart of St Nick’s market was spared. Today it’s the last remaining building of its kind in the country. While the Exchange itself is packed with independent traders selling all sorts of wares, the adjoining Glass Arcade is home to a huge variety of food stalls offering treats from across the globe. From divine Kurdish naan wraps at Matina and tantalising tagines to awesome jerk pork at Caribbean Wrap and fabulous falafels from Eat A Pitta, it’s all here.

Don’t miss: Bristol’s own pie-flingers at Pieminister do a roaring trade here, too. Pie and mash goodness at your fingertips.

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Wander the shipping containers of Wapping Wharf
Photograph: Flickr / John Lord

11. Wander the shipping containers of Wapping Wharf

What is it? From high-end dining to independent shops selling plants, pastries and proper Bristol cider, it’s all here in this historical and cultural quarter. 

Why go? You could idle away a whole day exploring the shipping containers of Wapping Wharf – for each one holds its own kind of treasure. The Bristol Cheesemonger has an incredible range of specialist delights, Bristol’s first dedicated fementery Every Good Thing is based here, and there’s so many amazing restaurants here we don’t even know where to start. Seven Lucky Gods, Root, and Bandook, perhaps? Gert lush, as the locals say.

Mess about on Millennium Square
Photo: Tripadvisor

12. Mess about on Millennium Square

What is it? Two of Bristol’s best things to do with kids are handily placed together on Millennium Square, where you can also take a pic of yourself in the great shiny sphere that holds an observatory. We the Curious is a science centre that encourages children and their grownups to experiment with ideas via their colourful interactive installations. Just across the Square, Bristol Aquarium holds watery wonders like sharks in a sunken ship, a bay of rays, and a learning lab.

Don’t miss: In summer there’s a pop-up rollerdisco over the harbour. Brilliant for making some bum-bruising memories.

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Learn how to brew like a Bristolian

13. Learn how to brew like a Bristolian

What is it? Get hoppy on a tour of one of Bristol’s great craft breweries.

Why go? Bristol’s brewers are a friendly bunch, always keen to throw open their doors so you can get a taste of how they make such brilliant brews. From Bristol Beer Factory to Moor Beer to Wiper and True, beer-makers across Bristol offer an inside look at how those tasty pints make it to a pub near you.

Don’t miss: All the breweries offer a snifter of the goods once you’ve learned something new, so make sure to head to the taproom after your tour. 

What is it? Bristol’s very own board game cafe. 

Why go? Board games get a bad rep as a family activity of last resort. But, suspend your cynicism for a trip to Chance & Counters, a board game café where you can knock back a beer (or three) while exploring the comprehensive catalogue of games old and new. Prepare to knuckle down for hours – you’ll be surprised at how quickly the hours while away.

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What is it? A boutique retro bowling alley.

Why go? Independent bowling alley The Lanes is where to head for a tipsy (and thoroughly indulgent) night of bowling, live music, pizza and lots and lots of drinks – including their signature hardshakes, which are boozy milkshakes. Genius. Adults and childish adults, in particular, will get a kick out of the ’50s diner-style décor and jazzy atmosphere. It’s also great for first dates – show off to your partner by getting a strike.

Don’t miss: If you get bored of bowling, you can take to a karaoke room, or get down at one of its many popular alternative club nights.

Stroke a sheep at a city farm
Matti Braun

16. Stroke a sheep at a city farm

What is it? Bristol’s city farms are some of the city’s most brilliant work. These mini-farms, one in St Werburghs and one in Windmill Hill, are small but hardworking, and are a lovely day out for little ones. See all the animals you would in a countryside setting, like ducks, sheep, goats and pigs, but on a smaller scale. There’s also plans for a new farm in Hartcliffe – watch this space. 

Don’t miss: if you plump for a trip to St Werburghs, the cafe and pub next door come highly recommended. The cafe has a playground for kids, too.

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Enjoy some movie magic at an arthouse cinema
Photograph: Sarah Macfarlane

18. Enjoy some movie magic at an arthouse cinema

What is it? Catch rare prints on screen and all the latest independent releases at Bristol’s clutch of fab arthouse cinemas. 

Why go? Each cinema offers something a little different: The Cube ‘microplex’ is a resolutely DIY and volunteer-run affair that even brews its own cola, the plush Everyman offers delicious cocktails delivered to your seat, and Watershed is a culture and arts hub dedicated to showing the best international cinema you can’t catch anywhere else.

Don’t miss: The Cube ‘wild-crafts' its own cola from an 'open-source recipe' you can find online. 

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Check out some cutting-edge theatre

What is it? Bristol has theatres of all shapes and sizes, putting on shows most nights of the week. 

Why go? Delving into drama is easy in Bristol. From internationally acclaimed touring shows at the Hippodrome and the newly-revamped Bristol Old Vic, to cutting-edge theatrics at the Redgrave and Tobacco Factory, to intimate performances at the Wardrobe Theatre… Bristol has it all down.

Don’t miss: Not up for heading into indoor events yet? Bristol Old Vic’s hybrid online/offline events are pioneering how we can enjoy staged events at home, via our screens.

Bask in the ‘Bristol Sound’
DeclanTM

20. Bask in the ‘Bristol Sound’

What is it? Get to know Bristol’s world-famous contributions to modern music.

Why go? The likes of Smith & Mighty, Massive Attack, Portishead, and Full Cycle have called Bristol home, and a new generation of sound-makers are thriving in their wake. Independent radio stations like Noods Radio, SWU.FM and 1020 Radio promote Bristol-born sounds like Giant Swan, Scalping, Tara Clerkin Trio and Slagheap. What was once labelled the ‘Bristol Sound’ is still very much alive and evolving, and can be found shaking the walls at clubs and bars such as Cosies, Trinity, and in venues across the city almost every night of the week.

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