13 Cultural Things to Do in Bristol

Bristol has a stunningly rich history, with whispered nods to its past hidden around the city. Bristol is famous for its street art, its naval history and its extraordinary feats of engineering, as well as its current reputation as a city of free thinkers, artists and independent spirits.

This guide gives you a nod to some of the greatest cultural things to explore in Bristol.

1. The Matthew

This is a harbourside boat made up as an exact replica of a ship sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland (north pole region of Canada) in 1497! John Cabot, the sailor set off from Bristol hoping to find a shorter route to Asia and discovered what we now call Canada.

He is most commonly famous for being the man known to have cemented English ties with North America. He organised a fleet of voyages after the original discovery that set up trade relations with that developed global history in the way it stands today.

The boat seems quite small to have travelled so far with a crew of 18. It’s free to board and you can walk about, peek into the cabin they would have slept in and admire the sails and riggings.

‘Cabot’ is a common name around Bristol (Cabot Circus shopping centre, Cabot Tower…) John Cabot has some links to slave trading, more info here.

2. Bristol Historical Walking Tour

This is a fantastic way to explore the rich, and intriguing history of this landmark city. The 2-hour tour walks you through over 1000 years of history, its origins, artists and famous residents. This city of full of underground vaults, hidden rivers and mysterious stories- this is an excellent way to immerse yourself in them!

It has incredible google and TripAdvisor reviews! The tour costs around £11 per adult and leaves from outside Bristol Cathedral. See details and book a place on their site here.

3. Bristol Cathedral

Bristol Cathedral is a stunning Building right in front of college green, a famous gathering place for protest movements and political rallies in Bristol.

It was once a 12th Century monastery church, with a lot of remodelling, particularly of the nave and west towers, during Victorian times. It’s architecturally a famous example of a Hall Church- you’ll recognise this by noticing that the Nave, the Chapels and the CHoir all sit at the same height.

It’s free to walk in, though they request donations towards the building’s maintenance.

4. Banksy Art

Well Hung Lover depicts a lover dangling naked out of a bedroom window. It’s at the bottom of park street, quite easy to spot (link to location) on google maps. It was painted on the side of a sexual health Clinic!

Girl With the Pierced Eardrum is another famous Banksy taken on the ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’. It is hidden behind the marina-a bit tricky to spot. Follow a link to the Google location here.

Castles Stencil ‘You don’t need Planning permission to build Castles in the Sky’ is another famous Banky stencil down the side of Bristol Library. See links to the Google location here.

5. Red Lodge Museum

This is a historical house you can visit as a museum exhibition (with free admission). A quirky historical installation of bristol, this building is from 1590 and was remodelled in 1730. The great hall features original Tudor oak panelling, plasterwork and a Tudor carved chimney piece.

It is a small but exciting glimpse into the past on Park Row, right in the centre of today’s bustling city. A quirky and cute visit. It closes during the winter and has some unusual opening times so check details on the Bristol Museums site here.

6. Georgian House

This is a historic building that once belonged to John Pinney, a famous Slave Plantation owner and sugar merchant. The house was built in the 1700s and gives visitors a glimpse into the life of Aristocrats in the Georgian Era; Grand library and drawing room and huge Georgian kitchen.

It is free entry and details of the opening period and times can be found on the website here. The house is situated on Spike Island.

7. Suspension Bridge

The suspension bridge is Bristol’s most famous landmark It was a colossal feat of engineering- marking a turning point in engineering progress and has “come to symbolise a city of original thinkers and independent spirit” (Cliftonbridge.org.uk).

You can walk and cycle it for free (cars pay a £1 Toll). It is a stunning walk across to Ashton Court Estate Park (a stunning park with deer) or Leigh Woods, a gorgeous woodland with well-marked walking and biking trails right next to the city).

The Bridge is stunning by day and perhaps even more magnificent as it’s lit up at dusk and overnight.

8. Brunel Insitute

This is an archive of maritime materials relating to the life, projects and accomplishments of Isambard Kingdon Brunel and general Bristol Naval history. It’s free to enter; you need to show ID with a recent address.

It is one of the only access archives of this nature- people visit for academic purposes or to research family members who travelled on the SS Great Britain. Get in contact for information or find out details for opening hours on their site here.

9. SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain is a world-famous steamship- once the largest passenger ship in the world designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for a transatlantic service between Bristol and new york.

It is now an iconic, UK-famous museum. The ship has extraordinarily curated to look exactly as it would have done during a voyage in the 18th century- during its heyday.

There is half-cooked food in the kitchens, the corridors and passages are filled with authentic ship sights, sounds and smells and a Brunel actor walks around, chatting to visitors about the boat and his voyages. It is a magical time portal to a far-gone era!

The ship was actually rescued from a wreckage in the 70s and restored to this incredible museum installation. There are frequent interactive options- victorian pudding tasting, afternoon teas and much more. Entry is £22/£13.50 (Adult/Child), and last for any number of visits over a year. See details on the site here.

10. We the Curious (Science Museum)

This Museum of Science in central Bristol is an exhibition space for exploration, curiosity and imagination. Discover the science of flight, tornados and cosmic rays. There are live performances from the science team, robots to explore and immersive planetarium shows.

The space also hosts after-hours evenings for adults with interactive games and activities. Entry costs £16 for Adults and £10 for children. See details on their site here.

11. Clifton Observatory & Camera Obscura

The observatory hosts a viewing platform offering incredible views of the famous suspension bridge, across the Avon Gorge and over the city. It is built inside an 18th Century windmill.

Inside is a very rare camera obscura and olden-day light reflection technique allowing you to view the scenery from a big metal bowl inside the building.

12. Giant’s Cave and Rock Slide

Beneath the Observatory and the Camera Obscura is the ‘Giant’s Cave’, a natural cavern in the rocks that you can walk down into. There is a little viewing deck so you can look out, up at the suspension bridge and down over the gorge from inside the cave!

Nearby is the locally famous slide rock- a rock down the steep hillside made so smooth over the years, it is used as a slide- a very popular playground in the summer!

13. Cabot Tower

Cabot Tower, set in Brandon Hill Park, is a climbable viewing deck with magnificent views across the city and to the hillsides beyond. The tower is 32m tall and was built between 1896 and 1898- it is also free to climb!

The tower was built to commemorate the famous voyage of John Cabot who set off in search of a shortcut to Asia and discovered Northern Canada. He is famous for establishing the English relationship with northern America and establishing historical trade routes that would last for centuries. His boat, the Matthew is item one on this list.

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