Bristol: A Vibrant Modern City With A Turbulent Past

Photo by Nathan Riley on Unsplash

Bristol is one of my favourite cities in the West Country and one of the most culturally rich & diverse but for some reason, one that is often missed out on tourists’ itineraries with travellers preferring to see the grandeur of Bath. I grew up in the country in between Bristol & Bath, and whilst I love both, the variety of Bristol & the exciting vibe within the city always win out. It had a murky past with much of its inherited wealth coming from the slave trade, but Bristol as a city has never been shy about confronting that past. I hope that this article will help put Bristol on your radar when visiting the UK and the West Country!

How to get there

Bristol is very well connected – you can fly to Bristol International Airport (please note though it’s a good 20 mins taxi or bus ride into the city), take a train (direct from London Paddington in 2 hours), take a coach or drive (roughly 2.5 hours from London).

There are two main train stations in Bristol: Bristol Temple Meads as well as being closest to the centre is also important historically having been built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1840, and Bristol Parkway which is quite a way out and is much more of a commuter station.


What to do

Bristol is blessed by a wide variety of museums, many of which are centred around the docks, the working heart of the city. It is hard to narrow down which ones would be on my must-see list, as there are so many interesting museums, but these three are simply fabulous!

  1. the ‘M shed’, a fascinating museum which has several different galleries: ‘The Bristol Places’ gallery which looks at the ways that people have shaped the city; the ‘Bristol People’ which explores the activities past and present that have shaped the city through 4 main themes (creating, trading, challenging and celebrating) and includes a section Bristol’s part in the Transatlantic Slave Trade; ‘The Bristol Life’ gallery which looks at peoples shared experiences in the city & even features a work from one of its most famous children Banksy ‘the Grim Reaper’. The last ‘gallery’ are the working exhibitions – these aren’t actually in the museum and at weekends are often brought to life by volunteers. They’ve not been working recently due to Covid, but we all look forward to them restarting as they are fantastic! Before visiting the M Shed I would thoroughly recommend checking out their what’s on page as they have some fascinating walking tours & at the moment, online talks, I personally will be logging on several of the ones in February celebrating LGBTQ+ history month as well as the one on witchcraft in Somerset. Entry – FREE
  2. SS Great Britain – another fine example of Brunel’s work, it is the world’s first iron-hulled passenger ship. It was also the first to use screw propellers. It is fantastic fun exploring the ship – imagining what it was like to be one of the ship’s boys down below deck or to be a passenger in first class. A wonderful immersive experience! Entry – Paid (4 and under free). However, your entry ticket gets you unlimited entry for a year so if it’s too much in one day, you can come back!
  3. We The Curious – a science museum where you are actively encouraged to question, touch & engage. It’s for all ages & there is also a planetarium attached (make sure to book in advance). Entry – Paid (under 2s free)

Bristol is also blessed to be surrounded by lots of amazing countrysides full of wonderful National Trust properties & a couple of fantastic wildlife parks. If you decide to make Bristol your base, you won’t be short of things to do!! For us, when we come to visit grandparents, we make sure we do at least one of the following on the list, as they are all fantastic days out:

  1. Bristol Zoo’s Wild Place Project, a conservation park just on the outskirts of Bristol. It’s a wonderful day out where you can see some wonderful large animals (and small) and learn about conservation, as well as having lots of fun on their play equipment!
  2. Tyntesfield National Trust – this is a stunning & extremely ornate Victorian mansion set in lovely parkland and grounds. As with most NT properties, it has lovely cafe & play areas for children to let off steam & explore their imagination!
  3. Avon Valley Country Park – this is much smaller than the Wild Place and is situated in between Bristol and Bath. It’s more aimed at farm animals and has a massive play barn & adventure playground as well as Dinosaur Valley (my son absolutely loves this!) and a little ride-on railway. It’s about 10 minutes from my parents’ house so we often come here for a morning to burn off steam and much fun is had. They also have lots of themed activities during the year.

So much of Bristol’s history can be seen by simply walking. Whilst it doesn’t quite have the grandeur of Bath, it does have pockets of incredible architecture & invention. Here are my top ‘sights’:

  1. Clifton Suspension Bridge & Clifton Village – no trip to Bristol is complete without going to see Brunel’s famous suspension bridge. Whilst the best view is arguably from the bottom of the gorge, I would also recommend stopping into the Avon Gorge Hotel by Hotel Du Vin for lunch or dinner as the views are unparalleled. The village itself is one of the most upmarket areas of Bristol and boasts lots of lovely small boutique shops and some wonderful restaurants.
  2. Park Street – This is one of the main shopping streets that leads up from ‘the green’ on which is situated Bristol Cathedral and leads all the way up to the Assembly Rooms (now Bristol Universities music department). Architecturally there are some very important buildings on the way up (yes it is EXTREMELY steep), as well as having some fantastic shops!
  3. Brandon Hill – Brandon Hill not only boasts some of the best views in Bristol, but is also the oldest park in Bristol (playground included) and is home to two fantastic buildings. Cabot Tower which was built in 1897 to mark 400 years since John Cabot’s famous voyage from Bristol to North America and St George’s Brandon Hill, a 200-year-old Georgian Church which is now a wonderful concert venue that often holds fantastic children’s concerts.

Where to eat

In a city Bristol’s size you are never going to be short of somewhere to eat – there is so much on offer. Here are some of my favourites:

  1. For an evening out without the children (ha!!) Fishers restaurant in Clifton Village. I would also take my 5-year-old here, but probably not the 2-year-old. If in Clifton Village, I also love to visit the Ivy, situated in the old Natwest bank, this is one I’d take the whole family to!
  2. The Bristol Loaf – an artisan bakery set across 3 sites. They are accredited by the soil association, and their produce is incredible. Plus they do dairy-free & vegan cakes which is a big plus!
  3. The Pig, near Bath (it’s actually halfway in between both – you do need a car to get here). This is one of my favourite places to eat, full stop. It’s so easy and in the summer you can sit on the lawn and play throw the welly or sit on a wooden swing overlooking the deer park. There is a choice of proper menus or a flat bread menu. Both source their produce from within a 30-mile radius and the kitchen garden is simply stunning. From the city centre it’s about a 30-minute drive, but it is well worth a visit!
  4. Glen’s Kitchen – whilst a trip to St Paul’s might not be on everyone’s list (not really somewhere to sight see), a visit to the community kitchen that is Glen’s Kitchen is definitely worth it. It is a takeaway café (no inside whatsoever) that serves authentic Caribbean food and it is a real hub of the community

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