Bristol makes an ideal destination for a weekend getaway as well as a good base for touring Bath, Somerset, the western Cotswolds and South Wales. The university city with hills to rival San Francisco seems to have something for everyone: A superb, child-friendly science museum, plenty of waterfront dining, independent shops and a top international street art scene (this is Banksy's home town after all). After you've checked out Nelson Street, Clifton Village. the Georgian squares and museums, here are five more fun things to do.
Travel Tip: Bristol is compact and walkable but also has many steep hills. Wear comfortable walking shoes. And if you don't fancy a lot of walking, buy a ticket for the city's hop-on-hop off sightseeing bus. You can catch it in the city center and it goes everywhere.
Take a Boat Trip
Regular ferries ply Bristol's Floating Harbour, from the water feature known as the Cascade Steps in the city center, to Temple Meads in one direction and Hotwells (where multi-colored terraces of houses overlook the water) in the other. You can hop on or off at multiple stops along the way or just enjoy the city views on a round trip. It's called the Floating Harbor, by the way, because of an 18th-century project, involving dams and locks, that kept the Avon navigable to Bath despite the rising and falling of the tides. There are adult, child, family, and concessionary fares for seniors. Fare varies depending on how far you are traveling but most round trip tickets are less than £5. Visit their website for the schedules and fare structure.
A pair of Bristol Packet Boats take visitors on longer outings, including narrated City Docks tours, cream tea cruises and monthly sightseeing cruises that sail through the Avon Gorge, under Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge and out to the Bristol Channel. Boats leave from Wapping Wharf, near the SS Great Britain or from the Bristol Packet Pontoon Watershed near the city center. Adult fare for the 45 minute City Docks Tour is £5.50 and for the three and a half hour Avon Gorge Cruise it's £15.50 (in 2013). The company also run occasional five-hour, one-way cruises to Bath in the summer season. Visit their website for up to date schedules and prices.
Visit the SS Great Britain
19th-century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is credited by many with changing the face of transportation in the modern era. From a base in Bristol he created the design for a stunning bridge over the Avon Gorge, was behind the design and development of the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol and advanced and experimental steamships.
When the SS Great Britain (now in a purpose built dry dock near Wapping Wharf that is itself an engineering marvel)was launched in 1843, she was the world's first iron, ocean-going steamship. For about a decade in the mid-19th century, she was the world's longest passenger ship and, with its huge propellers driven by a 1000hp steam engine, was the most powerful. And, she was also the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, doing so in 14 days in 1845.
The ship was part of Brunel's dream of extending his Great Western Railway service across the Atlantic by steamship to New York. But it was not to be for very long. In 1846 she was damaged because of a navigation error and the high costs of building her, running her and repairing her put paid to her backers business.
After salvage, she carried immigrants to Australia, was a coal hauler and was finally abandoned for use as a warehouse in the Falklands in the 1930s.
In 1970, she was refloated and towed back to Bristol where it took more than 30 years, and massive infusions of funds to bring her back to life. In 2005 she opened to the public. Today, visitors can explore her spacious staterooms, first class saloon, mirror-lined promenade deck and steerage accommodations; see her structure and engines; learn the stories of many of the passengers and crew who sailed in her, and find out about the mysterious disappearance of Captain John Gray who vanished on a voyage from Australia in 1872.
It's fascinating and well worth a visit. Take one of Bristol's ferries, or a hop-on-hop off sightseeing bus from the city center to get there. If you are romantically inclined, you can even get married and hold your wedding reception on board.
The SS Great Britain is open every day except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the second Monday in January. Hours are seasonal. Visit her website to check current opening hours and the range of ticket prices.
Shop and Nosh in the Old City
Despite being a target for Hitler's bombers in WWII, Bristol has managed to retain a compact "Old City" between Queen Square and Nelson Street. It's mostly Georgian, but explore the alleyways and the cobbled streets and climb the Christmas Steps to find genuinely ancient, medieval buildings, dozens of independent shops and an arts quarter.
Smack in the center, the St. Nicholas Market claims to have Bristol's largest collection of independent traders. A London daily newspaper named it as one of Britain's best markets. I won't argue with either. It's huge, with two glass arcades, a covered market at a gigantic market hall. You can buy just about everything you need and lots you never even imagined you needed - from sunglasses covered with a pink flower print (I confess, guilty as charged) to glad rags from undiscovered designers, to the weekly groceries.
If you can squeeze into a table along the Glass Arcade, have lunch or a snack from one of the popular food stalls that line it. I liked the style of the servers at "Eata Pitta" but never got close enough to sample their wares. Pie Minister - the pie makers who have spread from Bristol to all the best supermarkets and delis in the country, have two stalls in the St. Nicholas Market.
If you have time to stay a while, take in a play at the Bristol Old Vic - it's the oldest English theatre in continuous operation.
Have Some Fun in a Museum
Bristol's museums are not the staid galleries you might find in other cities. The same lively, indie spirit that inhabits much of the city also enlivens its museums. @Bristol, the city's new science center, is more of a playground than a museum. M Shed occupies a former 1950s dockside transit shed beside a line up of four cranes from Bristol's heyday as one of Britain's most important trading ports. Inside, takes interactive exhibits, including personal reflections from Bristolians and visitors, tell Bristol's story from prehistory to modern times. Even the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the most traditional of the city's museums, approaches its task with a sense of fun. There is usually something off-beat happening. In 2009, "Banksy the Bristol Museum" created quite a stir with the famous street artist subverting traditional museum exhibits all over the building. If you're traveling with a dinosaur enthusiast, visit this museum for at look at the Scelidosaur, the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever found in Britain - a family group of an adult and two juveniles.
The Bristol museums must be doing something right because they claim among the highest rates of repeat visits of any museums in the UK. And they are all free to visit as well.
And Speaking of Banksy...
If the weather is good, why not see if you can find any of Banksy's works around the city. Bristol is the secretive street artist's home town but many of his works there have been removed and sold or occasionally defaced. Visit Bristol has put together a Banksy walking tour that will take you around the city to visit six Banksy artworks. I spotted Banksy's "The Well Hung Lover" (pictured here) on the side of a building on Frogmore Street, The best viewing spot is on Park Street. The irony of this image is that when it was painted, the building was in use as a sexual health clinic for Bristol University students.
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