Bristol is a wonderful and historic city that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a few times over the years. My most recent trip was back in January 2020 when I spent a couple of days visiting friends and taking the opportunity to explore the city and surrounding area. This post is going to explore a few free things to do in Bristol and the surrounding area, as well as a couple of things that aren’t.
Explore the City’s Historic Centre
With Iron Age hill forts being constructed near the confluences of the rivers Frome and Avon, Bristol has been a key location in the history of southwest England since around 1000AD. With a turbulent history including the exploration of North America, involvement in the slave trade and some of Britain’s most intriguing pieces of industrial history.
The city of Bristol has more than 50 Grade I, 500 Grade II* and over 3,800 Grade II listed buildings ranging from medieval pubs such as the Llandoger Trow to the Edwardian Bristol Central Library designed by architect Charles Holden, of London Underground fame. There are also at least four of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s constructions within the city that are listed, including both the 1840 and 1870s parts of Temple Meads station, and the stunning Clifton Suspension Bridge.
You could easily spend a day just exploring Bristol’s city centre and surrounds discovering the amazing architecture that has been designed and built throughout the centuries.
Severn Beach and Heritage Trail
Technically this one falls into Gloucestershire rather than Bristol, but it’s easily accessible from the city so I’m going to count it. There’s a two-hourly train service from Temple Meads to Severn Beach as well as an hourly bus service connecting the village with Bristol Parkway station.
The Severn Beach Heritage Trail covers the history of the village through its heyday as a holiday resort in the early 20th century to its demise in the 1960s and 70s. The trail starts at the station and mostly follows the promenade northwards towards Salthouse Farm. Whilst covering some of the area’s history, the area is also nice for a brisk walk along the bank of the Severn Estuary. There’s also a further heritage trail around New Passage to the north of the M4 motorway if you fancy extending your walk.
M Shed and the Harbour Front
Prince’s Wharf & Wapping Wharf form the southern side of Bristol’s Floating Harbour, stretching from the SS Great Britain at the west to Prince Street Bridge at the east. Home to some of Bristol’s nautical heritage, as well as the M Shed museum and the Bristol Harbour Railway.
The M Shed is home to more than 3,000 items telling Bristol’s story and its role in the slave trade as well as exhibits covering people, transport, and the arts. Completely free to enter, the museum is one of Bristol’s most popular attractions, and there is also usually a collection of historic vessels moored on the wharf alongside the harbour’s former electric and steam powered cranes.
The Bristol Harbour Railway was constructed in the heyday of the Floating Harbour and its 5 miles of track connected the harbour with the Great Western Railway’s (GWR) Temple Meads station. Due to its existence, freight wagons could travel directly from the dockside to London and the rest of the country via the GWR network. The railway now runs over a mile of track along Price’s Wharf, offering visitors a chance to experience a journey by steam train along the harbour.
Originally founded as St. Augustine’s Abbey and consecrated in 1148, Bristol Cathedral became the seat of the Bishop of Bristol after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1542. Most of the existing building is a Grade I listed 19th century construction, however the 13th century ‘East Lady Chapel’ and late Norman ‘Chapter House’ still exist from the time of the monastery.
Little of the original stained glass remains within the Cathedral with most of what was left being destroyed in the Bristol Blitz. Unlike some Cathedrals, entry to Bristol Cathedral is free and it is a wonderfully peaceful place to explore for an hour or so, with a Café, Shop and Garden also available to visit.
Located on part of the former Filton Airport (which closed in 2012), Aerospace Bristol covers more than 100 years of aviation history and its part in the history of Bristol. With over 8,000 artefacts including a large number of full aircraft, the museum is arranged around each of the seven eras of aviation. Home to the last Concorde to be built and fly, former British Airways G-BOAF has its own hanger and exhibit separate to the main part of the museum.
The museum costs £17.00 for adults and £9.50 for children, however tickets are valid for a year from the date of the first visit. With so much to cover, its certainly worth making the most of this if you can and visiting multiple times. The museum is easily accessible by public transport, with direct buses connecting both the city centre and Bristol Parkway station with the museum.
Hopefully this blog has given you an idea of what there is to do in the wonderful city of Bristol. As mentioned, I’ve visited on a few occasions, and still haven’t done everything I want to. With good road and rail connections to the wider southwest, why not base yourself in Bristol for a week or two and see what it has to offer?!