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12 brilliant things to do in Bristol, from hot air balloons to Banksy's street art

Simon Horsford
This spectacular view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge is not to be missed - Chris Hepburn

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Bristol is bursting with things to do: from trips in the air (ballooning) to boat tours around the harbour; from cutting edge art galleries and theatres and brazen street art to a myriad of museums and numerous diversions for children; and from brilliant markets and festivals to wondrous feats of engineering.

What's more, for sports lovers, the city has two football league teams (City and Rovers), a rugby team (Bristol Bears), and is home to Gloucestershire County Cricket Club. No wonder the poet John Betjeman once referred to Bristol as the most 'interesting' city in England. Here are a dozen ways to get a feel of the place.

Harbourside

Imagine the magic of Brunel

The immersive Brunel Museum, marks the greatest achievements of the Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It’s hard by one of his most striking creations, the beautifully restored SS Great Britain – make sure to see that as well – and not far from another, Clifton Suspension Bridge. Rooms examine his life as an engineer, entrepreneur and celebrity, but also his failures; head into 'Brunel’s Mind' for something a bit different. 

Insider tip: For those wanting to discover what life was like for sailors on board the SS Great Britain, try the hands-on, climb-the-rigging experience. It’ll test your nerve and head for heights.

Contact: 0117 926 0680; ssgreatbritain.org
Price: ££

Get on board the SS Great Britain to discover what life at sea was like for sailors Credit: chrisdorney

The best restaurants in Bristol

Get curious about science

Great for families and chock-full of creative and interactive fun, We The Curious makes science at once fascinating, playful and inviting. The museum, spread over two floors, tackles everything from mechanics and engineering to the human body; you can create your own animated film, make giant bubbles and wonder at various sound, light and sensory experiences. There are regular stargazing shows in the 3D Planetarium too.

Insider tip: Seek out a member of the Live Science Team; they are a mine of information and include astrophysicists, palaeontologists, biologists and musicians. Or bring your own props to create your own stop-motion film in the 'Animate It' exhibit.

Contact: 0117 915 1000; wethecurious.org
Price: ££

After your crash course on science, head to the terrace at We The Curious for a view of the city

The best luxury hotels in Bristol

Immerse yourself in the past

M Shed, a 1950s former transit shed, dominated by four massive cargo cranes, houses a captivating and thoughtful insight into Bristol’s past – and present – capturing what makes it tick and its independent spirit. Three floors offer an evocative picture of “Life, People and Places”, including those who shaped the city (authors, inventors, engineers and political reformers). Elsewhere, discover about everything from the slave trade and past industries (chocolate to tobacco) to boycotts, festivals and the Blitz.

Insider tip: Add another dimension to your trip with a (free) behind-the-scenes tour (Tue-Sat) to see some of the items not in the regular collection with a visit to the L Shed next door.

Contact: 0117 352 6600; bristolmuseums.org.uk
Price: Free

M Shed houses a captivating and thoughtful insight into Bristol’s past – and present

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Old City

Catch a play at the oldest theatre in Britain

The Bristol Old Vic, the oldest continuously working theatre in Britain, has some terrific productions throughout the year. A recent renovation in the timber and glass-fronted foyer has also brilliantly revealed the original auditorium brick façade – built in 1766 – for the first time. On stage, expect everything from challenging new theatre to established works, comedy, dance, children’s shows and Christmas plays (and Mark Rylance makes his Old Vic debut in 2020). 

Insider tip: For a great fringe option, look out for productions at the Wardrobe Theatre (0117 902 0344; wardrobetheatre.com) in Old Market with a mix of theatre, story-telling, puppetry and family shows; it shares a building with the Old Market Assembly pub, which has an excellent food menu.

Contact: 0117 987 7877; bristololdvic.org.uk
Price: ££

The Bristol Old Vic is the oldest continuously working theatre in Britain Credit: PHILIPVILE/PHILIPVILE

The best hotels in Bristol

Make the most of the markets

With its impressive Georgian architecture, St Nicholas Market or 'St Nicks' is home to an array of permanent stalls selling everything from second hand books to classic reggae LPs, bike equipment, jewellery and children’s toys. There are some terrific food stalls too,offering the likes of pies, Moroccan dishes, ice creams and cakes. Also head to the eco-aware Tobacco Factory Market in Southville on Sundays with artisan breads, fresh fish, Jamaican food, paintings, children's clothes and more.

Insider tip: Look out for the occasional Friday night St Nick’s market, here with street food vendors, musicians, and performers. The Over Here 'stall' sells t-shirts from local makers, such as Mild West Heroes. 

Contacts: 0117 922 4014; stnicholasmarketbristol.co.uk. 0117 902 0344; tobaccofactory.com
Price: £

St Nicholas Market, or 'St Nicks', is home to an array of permanent stalls selling everything from second hand books to children’s toys Credit: AlbertPego/AlbertPego

An insider guide to Bath

Floating Harbour

Get on board a river cruise

Experience a sense of Bristol’s bustling maritime past with a trip around the Floating Harbour with Bristol Packet Boat Trips. They have four boats –  Tower Belle and Narrowboat Redshank are the oldest and have most character – and the trip to go for is the City Docks Tour, which reveals the origins of the city and how it has changed from its old trading days. There are also (less frequent) trips to Bath and the Avon Gorge.

Insider tip: Take a summer trip up the River Avon on the boat for lunch at Beese’s Riverside Bar (Wyndham Cres; 0117 977 7412). Look out for swans nesting in spring in the manmade marshland opposite the SS Great Britain landing point.

Contact: 0117 926 8157; bristolpacket.co.uk
Price: ££

Cruising up River Avon is a lovely way to see Bristol Credit: mrtom-uk

• The best restaurants and cafés in Bath

City-wide

Let your taste buds wander on a foodie tour of the city

Negotiate your way through Bristol’s terrific food scene by tagging along to a Bristol Food Tour. There are so many independent food shops, cafés and restaurants, it’s hard to know where to start. This foodie adventure, created in 2016 by two food- and Bristol-loving women – has three distinct tours (for small groups) that run every Saturday, covering Stokes Croft, East to West and South of the River. Great fun and informative: expect to sample Japanese dumplings, Creole burgers, local cheeses and artisan pizzas.

Insider tip: Alice and Jo, the founders, say the Grano Kitchen in the Old Market (visited on East to West) offers “exquisite Italian home cooking and the best focaccia”; also Zara's Chocolates (based in Southville and is a regular on the tours) has “hot choc bar second to none”; divine truffles, too.

Contact:thebristolfoodtour.com
Tour times: Sat, from 12pm; tours last around three hours
Price: £££

Bristol Food Tour is a great way to get to know the many independent food shops, cafés and restaurants in the city

• The best things to do in Bath

Clifton 

Enjoy the view from the top

At various times the site of the Clifton Observatory has been an Iron Age hill fort and a windmill, but since 1828, it has been home to the observatory and then the home of the Camera Obscura, which was originally installed by the artist William West; turn the wooden handle to get a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Descend into the natural limestone Giants Cave for a spectacular view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Insider tip: Sunsets are quite something from the excellent 360 glass café’s rooftop terrace (with more views of Brunel’s bridge); it’s a great place to see the Bristol Balloon Fiesta in August, when the café opens especially early.

Contact: 0117 974 1242; cliftonobservatory.com
Price: £

Clifton Observatory was once an Iron Age hill fort and a windmill

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College Green - Stokes Croft

Take a crash course in street art and graffiti history

Explore Bristol’s inspired street art with an expert, which you’ll do by going out with Where The Wall. Their aim is to give a 'contemporary culture experience' about the home turf of Banksy and more than 30 years of street and graffiti art history and the guides (street documenters, Banksy fans and artists) do that with ease. The tour begins on College Green and ends in Stokes Croft; an added bonus is that new street works by various artists appears all the time.

Insider tip:A perfect time to go is during Upfest (May 30-Jun 1), Europe’s largest street art festival. Three times a month Where The Wall has a 'spray session' – your chance to practice stencilling.

Contact: 07748 632663; wherethewall.com
Tour times: Sat & Sun,11am, with more dates during the week in holidays and half-terms
Price: £

Where the Wall aims to give a 'contemporary culture experience' about the home turf of Banksy

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Paintworks

See photo exhibitions in Bristol's creative quarter

The Martin Parr Foundation, brainchild of the acclaimed documentary photographer, is housed in a new-build at Paintworks, the live/work creative hub south of the river. This neat gallery displays photography that focuses on and perfectly captures life on the British Isles – five exhibitions a year from various photographers – and also preserves Parr’s own immense archive of collected works. Right opposite is the expansive new home of the Royal Photographic Society (01225 325733; rps.org), which stages regular exhibitions and events.

Insider tip: Take out a supporter membership for the Martin Parr Foundation and you will get a tour of the gallery with Parr. Stop off for a coffee, a drink or a bite at the atmospheric BocaBar at the entrance to Paintworks.

Contact:0117 329 3270; martinparrfoundation.org
Price: Free

The Martin Parr Foundation displays photography that focuses on and perfectly captures life on the British Isles

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Stoke Bishop

Lose yourself in a secret garden

Something of a hidden gem, the University of Bristol Botanic Garden is set  in a compact 3.2 acres and is described by the current curator as a place of 'science, learning, intrigue and fun.' Every possible space is given over to plants, shrubs and trees of all shapes and sizes as it engagingly tells the story of their evolution, taking in everything from Mediterranean and Australian flora to Chinese medicinal herbs; there’s a charming café, too.

Insider tip: Look out for the weekly notice board by the entrance, which tells what to see in the garden: autumn colours, say, or peonies in May. Don’t tread on the fruit of the ginkgo tree – they smell of sick.

Contact: 0117 42 82041; botanic-garden.bristol.ac.uk
Price: £

Every possible space in University of Bristol Botanic Garden is given over to plants Credit: (C) 2019 SARA GILL ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Filton

Take to the skies

The last Concorde ever built might be the go-to attraction at Aerospace Bristol, but there is a whole lot else to get stuck into at a museum that recalls Britain’s achievements in the air and showcases the role played by the Bristol site in Britain’s aviation history. There are restored and replica planes, helicopters and missiles and lots of interactive options. The gift shop is imaginatively stocked with goodies such as Airfix kits.

Insider tip: Go to the balcony above supersonic Concorde and walk around to the front of the plane – it’s the best selfie spot in the museum. Chat to the volunteers, many of whom have worked on Concorde.

Contact: 0117 931 5315; aerospacebristol.org
Price: ££

Aerospace Bristol showcases the role Bristol played in Britain’s aviation history Credit: Jack Hobhouse