Good news, culture vultures – there are few better cities for museums and art galleries than this. You’d be hard-pressed to walk a hundred yards through Bristol city centre without stumbling upon a big-hitting cultural institution. From kid-friendly interactive permanent exhibits to super-cool contemporary art galleries to a resplendent revamped steam ship, pretty much all tastes are catered to here. Need some refreshment? Round off a tour of the best museums in Bristol with a bite at one of the city’s best restaurants, then make a beeline for a cold pint of west country cider at a classic Brizzle pub.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Bristol
Best museums in Bristol
What is it? A family-friendly museum where you can see everything from ancient Egyptian mummies to modern art.
Why go? Explore the museum’s permanent art and natural history collections, plus an enticing range of temporary shows. Highlights include the Bristol dinosaur (yes, it has one), a beautifully preserved Gypsy caravan and an ingenious flying machine. Right next to the iconic Wills Memorial Tower, the building’s pretty special too. Free entry.
What is it? Harbourside modern art gallery heading into an exciting new era.
Why go? Formerly a 19th-century warehouse in Bristol’s docks, the Arnolfini is the place to see cutting-edge performance and visual art. And if art isn’t your thing, the café-bar and waterside seating area makes it the perfect place for a cold beer on a hot day. Looking for prezzies? The bookshop here is brilliant.
What is it? Dockside museum telling the history of a modern city.
Why go? The M Shed is one of Bristol’s newest museums (it opened in 2011), but it’s also one of its most popular. Bang in the middle of the rapidly up-and-coming Wapping Wharf area, it’s dedicated to Bristol’s past, present and future – including its role in the slave trade. The glass-fronted café offers photo-worthy views across the waterfront.
What is it? Hidden gem of a historic house, now turned into a quirky museum.
Why go? It’s possible to walk straight past The Red Lodge Museum without noticing it’s there. But ignore it at your peril. Behind the red door lurks a fascinating home dating back to the Tudor period. Small enough that you’ll only need to schedule an hour or two for a visit, the Red Lodge also boasts a tranquil knot garden. Free entry.
What is it? Fun and interactive science museum that makes learning feel like play.
Why go? If you like London’s Science Museum, you’ll love this. Curiously named ‘We the Curious’ (it used to be @Bristol), this harbourside venue is more activity centre than museum. It’s big on interactive exhibits, making it a great choice if you’re travelling with kids (or just find normal museums boring).
What is it? Brunel’s iconic steamship.
Why go? Ahoy there! From Clifton Suspension Bridge to the city’s main railway station, Bristol Temple Meads, Bristol loves to celebrate the inventions of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And here’s another one. The SS Great Britain was a maritime miracle of its day, and it remains impressive even in the age of Uber and iPhones. Grrrrr like a west country pirate and jump aboard.
What is it? Arts centre and exhibition space ideal for fans of contemporary art.
Why go? Spike Island is one of Bristol’s lesser-known art galleries. But it’s a genuine treasure characterised by some very savvy programming of international artists, writers and film-makers. It’s very slightly outside of the centre, but well worth the short walk (and you can always enjoy a bite in the informal café when you get there).
What is it? 18th-century mansion set in beautiful parkland displaying antique dolls’ houses, domestic equipment and art.
Why go? Located in the north of Bristol, Blaise Castle House Museum is a charming antique mansion now open to the public. Highlights include the red wallpapered Picture Room and you can pick up the key to the nearby Kings Weston Roman Villa. It’s out of town, but the huge park surrounding it makes it worth the trip.
What is it? Tranquil art gallery in a striking building.
Why go? The Royal West of England Academy (to give it its full name) is a small but perfectly formed gallery near the Victoria Room fountains. It’s in a grade II-listed building and programmes a variety of themed exhibitions combining famous names with lesser-known artists, making it a good place for stumbling on art you never knew existed.
What is it? Perfectly preserved Georgian home of a sugar plantation and slave owner.
Why go? Bristol’s neighbour Bath is famous for its Georgian architecture. But Bristol also has many houses dating from the era, too, and this is one of them. Find yourself sucked into a time capsule as you explore what life was like for the very wealthy and those who waited on them. Be warned that it’s closed for part of the winter, so check times before visiting.
What is it? Fascinating aerospace museum containing the last Concorde to ever fly.
Why go? Travel to Filton in north Bristol to learn about 100 years of aviation history. Like the older brother of We The Curious, this sounds like it’s only for science geeks, but don’t be put off from going, even if you think it’s not your thing. See the iconic Concord up close and discover how humans achieved the impossible: learning to fly.