It’s hard to pin down why so many young people are upping sticks to Bristol. Perhaps it’s the cutting-edge clubs. Maybe it’s the charming old-world pubs, or the world-class theatre scene. There’s also London’s frankly absurd rental market. But another one of the most obvious, perhaps subconscious draws comes by way of the sheer number of iconic Bristol attractions and sights. From the fascinating art and artefacts at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to the architectural splendour of the Clifton Suspension Bridge to the museums and arts centres that line the labour, there’s almost too much to see here. To help you navigate this brilliant city, here’s our pick of the sights you totally shouldn’t miss.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Bristol
Best Bristol attractions
Clifton Suspension Bridge isn’t just a convenient way of getting from Clifton Village to Lea Woods, or a dizzying vantage point from which to admire astonishing views – it’s an internationally recognised symbol of the city and source of great pride to anyone who calls Bristol home. Opened in 1864, the bridge was completed as a tribute to its designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who died before it could be finished. You’ll now find a visitors’ centre on the Somerset side in Leigh Woods, and perched up on the hill on the Bristol side you’ll find the Clifton Observatory. Within this former snuff mill you’ll find one of only two working Camera Obscuras left in the UK and a subterranean passage leading to Ghyston’s Cave.
Dating back more than 180 years, Bristol Zoo is the oldest provincial zoo in the UK. These days, what it lacks in space and size, it more than makes up for in attractions and animals. There may not be any elephants or giraffes, but more than 400 species do reside here, from the tiny (and horrifyingly large) insects of Bug World to the majestic Asiatic lions and Western Lowland gorillas. The latter are housed in an innovative (and toughened!) glass enclosure, Gorilla Island, that lets them stomp around above your head.
Even from outside, the SS Great Britain is impressive, but an official visit is well worth the ticket price. No matter your age, it’s impossible not to be delighted by the entrails of this reconstructed steam ship. Restoration has been carried out brilliantly; best of all, you can witness the noise and the huge, moving pistons of the engine room. There are evocative period soundscapes everywhere, and in the kitchens a whiff of freshly baked seafarers’ bread. With storytellers in period dress, workshops on conservation and even a chance to climb the rigging in the warmer months, there really is no excuse not to visit this outstanding achievement of historical preservation.
Bristol’s very own cathedral of consumption opened back in 2008, completely transforming a depressingly shabby central shopping area into one of the city’s prime attractions for locals and out-of-towners alike. Sweeping away the discount stores and carpet shops that previously occupied the site where the M32 ends and Broadmead begins, Cabot Circus brought decent shopping, restaurants, designer stores and a cinema fit for the 21st century to the middle of town. The main covered Circus area boasts all the usual shopping-centre keystones, from American Apparel to Zara. And unusually for a city-centre shopping centre, its all very tastefully done, the open design and inclined levels making the whole thing feel more like a bundle of streets rather than a hermitically sealed retail space.
Rather than traipsing around a museum that has installed a kids’ trail as an afterthought, this place is built on educating and entertaining children of all ages (and adults, if you have a sense of fun). Think everything science, from invention labs to a mini Aardman animation studio, a planetarium and, yes, a real human brain on display. They try to please everyone here, with specific days for under-fives – reduced ticket prices for parents – and whole sections aimed at under-eights. If the thought of a child-filled science centre fills you with horror, they hold adults-only evenings, too, where you can wander through the exhibits, beer in hand.
Trying to list all the attractions at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery makes you sound like a carnival showman. Egyptian and Ancient Assyrian artefacts! Diamonds and fossils! Alfred the stuffed gorilla! Contemporary ceramics and glassware! Not to mention the balcony gallery and an art collection ranging from Pissarro to the Old Dutch and Italian Masters. Stepping into the high atrium, and seeing the Bristol Boxkite suspended above your head in flight, there’s a feeling of childish excitement. Think the Natural History Museum, but with added Victorian and Edwardian paintings. Changing shows are just as bogglingly miscellaneous as the permanent collection, whether it’s early work by Turner, contemporary Chinese porcelain or the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.
This place is very trick to sum up. Where to start? The 18th-century grade II-listed mansion building? The museum of social history oddities, from toys to toilets? The domed picture room, with its fine art collection? The 600 acres of stunning parkland? For convenience, the museum. Kids (and adults, probably) will be alternately delighted and freaked out by the displays of old toys, doll’s houses and games, some of them over 200 years old. There are beautiful fabrics and dresses from the 1730s to pore over in the costume collection, as well an exhibition showing how everyday domestic living has changed over the last 300 years. Add to this a lovingly restored picture room, with artworks on loan from Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and you’re looking at a couple of hours well spent.
The multiple limestone caves that make up Wookey Hole, in nearby Somerset, have been a source of fascination and intrigue for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. From prehistoric cavemen and pagan druids to Victorian explorers and excitable modern-day schoolchildren, the caves and the River Axe that mysteriously flows from them have caught the imagination of generations of visitors. The caves themselves are stunning, their stalagmites, stalagtites and natural lakes beautifully lit up for all to marvel at. Guides delight in filling you in on the many mysteries and tall tales that have been ascribed to this place down the centuries.
For centuries, Bristol’s greatest asset has been the docks and floating harbour around which it is built. From pirates and sugar traders to the pleasure seekers of today, the waterways at the heart of the city have drawn trade and talent to Bristol from around the world to help create the city we all know and love today. The days of huge galleons mooring up in the docks have long gone, but the floating harbour and waterways remain and today provide a unique waterside setting for a very modern city. For visitors and locals alike, the museums, restaurants, bars, galleries and cafes that fringe the Harbourside area of the city are one of the city’s greatest attractions. The internationally renowned Arnolfini gallery and the Watershed media and arts centre can be found adjacent to the water, as can the M Shed museum.