Just like its most infamous son, street artist Banksy, Bristol is creative, bold and resolutely alternative. Historically a place of seafaring and industry – with the heritage sights to match – the self-appointed capital of southwest England is now a flag-bearer for ideas, independence and innovation. It’s a vibrant place to live, and an engaging place to visit. For a city-break with a buzz, look no further. The city is less than two hours from London by train, and you’ll find your money can go a long way here.
The main attractions
The biggest standalone visitor draw is SS Great Britain, the ship designed by legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Launched in 1843 as “the greatest experiment since Creation”, it’s been described as the forerunner for all modern ships. There’s no online discount, but it’s worth knowing that tickets, once bought, provide free return visits for a year.
Brunel’s other iconic Bristol legacy is the mighty Clifton Suspension Bridge, which yawns across the Avon Gorge. There’s a free visitor centre open daily, with info on the bridge’s design and creation, and free guided tours of the bridge itself at 3pm every Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday between Easter and October.
The key city museums are free to enter, including the excellent M Shed, which takes a modern (and sometimes critical) look at Bristol’s past, present and future – there’s even a Banksy artwork on permanent display. The classy Bristol Museum & Art Gallery also has no entry charge, and gives space to everything from Old Masters to contemporary works.
Bristol also has cultural festivals by the dozen, many of them free. Two of the most notable are the four-day International Balloon Fiesta (which has a shuttle bus from the city centre to the site) and the weekend-long Upfest, Europe’s largest graffiti festival.
This is a big city. Bristol Insight runs open-top bus tours every month except January, taking in all the main parts of the map. You’ll get money off by booking online, and the bus ticket also qualifies you for discounts to other attractions – most notably 30% off entry to Bristol Zoo Gardens, the fifth oldest zoo in the world. It also grants you 20% off meals at Bill’s.
Bristol Free Walking Tours offer two-hour, pay-what-you-feel tours of the city centre. They don’t run over winter, but otherwise they go ahead whatever the weather. If street art’s your thing, meanwhile – and this is Bristol, after all – the multi-award-winning Where The Wall has graffiti-themed tours and experiences at reasonable prices.
The city’s main shopping centre is Cabot Circus, which has over 90 stores. Its website generally has a few offers on – check online to see the latest. And for clothing bargains elsewhere, Rag Trade Boutique sells designer goods at slashed prices.
Getting there and around
Bristol Airport has comprehensive direct connections to the rest of Europe, as well as a few destinations further afield. The Airport Flyer – a 24-hour bus service – is the most cost-effective way of getting from the airport to the city centre. A return ticket is better value than two singles.
Bristol was the UK’s first official Cycle City and has bike lanes on almost all its main roads. YoBike has a low-cost rental scheme where you pay per ride, while Cycle the City is a well-priced hire shop (with bikes built in Bristol, no less).
If you plan to travel not just around the city but out into the wider region (Jane Austen fans take note: picture-perfect Bath is close by), consider a Freedom Travelpass , which grants unlimited travel on most bus and all rail routes. There’s even an app to get a ticket straight to your phone.
Where to stay
As well as the usual array of Airbnb properties, Bristol has a range of quality hotels, many of them easy on the wallet. Classic budget options include YHA Bristol and the Rock & Bowl Motel (where guests get free use of bowling alleys and pool tables on Mondays). Elsewhere, serviced apartments can work out at good value for family groups.
And a few tips for finding good hotel rates. In the peak summer months, midweeks are always a little quieter (and cheaper) than weekends, while at other times of year, Tuesdays and Wednesdays can be busy with business travel.
The local tourist board, Visit Bristol, always has a number of good accommodation offers on its website, ranging from discounted rates to free cocktails.
Where to eat
Bristol takes its food seriously. Try the regular Bristol Eats street food markets at Royal Fort Gardens and Temple Quay Market, or sample the value lunchtime menus at top restaurants like Bulrush and Michelin-starred Wilks. For more restaurant deals, head to the Wriggle Bristol or Tablepouncer websites, or check out Foozie for expert info on the best grub in town.
For more information on Bristol and the rest of Britain, head to VisitBritain.com
To purchase SS Great Britain tickets and more, head to VisitBritainshop.com
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Titanic Belfast © titanicbelfast
National Sea Life Centre, Birmingham © sealifebirmingham
Brighton Pavillion © travelapproach