My home town of Bristol is seriously overlooked by tourists yet it’s a great place to live and work, with loads to see and do for visitors. I thought that it was about time to sing Bristol’s praises and let you know about some of the many things to enjoy here that won’t cost you a penny. Here are 20 of my recommendations for free things to do in Bristol;
Free stuff for families in Bristol
Bristol City Museum
At the top of Park St, in the heart of the University district of Bristol, The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery is a bit of an institution. It still has that slightly old fashioned feel with a mixture of stuffed animals, Egyptian mummies, geological specimens and an old-fashioned airplane hanging in the foyer. One of the things that brings the museum bang up to date, however, are the regular exhibitions on the ground floor – normally photography and painting that are often by artistic masters touring the country from other galleries, such the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings that will be on show in May and June 2012. For families the museum is ideal for rainy weekends with a large, buggy-friendly atrium in front of the cafe where there is an activity area for children – you might even get away with a cup of coffee while the kids have a play.
In the harbour where the Industrial Museum once stood, we now have M-shed – a museum that colourful, vibrant and all about Bristol. On the ground floor there’s a Bristol Places area where you can jump on the bus, get on hands and knees to examine the photographic map on the floor to find the street where you live and see if you can learn more about the history of your neighbourhood. Bristol Life is full of people’s stories, where they came from and how life has changed over the years – you can see the dining room table set for different times and classes. Bristol People is about the notable citizens and there’s a mini exhibition about the Slave Trade that brought so much wealth to Bristol. Step outdoors onto the quayside and the exhibition extends to the steam cranes and boats. There’s a cafe that serves coffee, cakes and lunchtime meals with a healthy children’s selection.
Set a little way back from the harbour is Millenium Square, an open paved space that’s next to the At Bristol Science Centre and Blue Reef Aquarium (I’m afraid these aren’t free). The square’s a great place to let the kids run around in summer – with benches where you could have a picnic as well as plenty of cafes nearby. There’s a large water feature which has plenty of splashing and paddling potential and I love the statues of Bristol citizen such as Archibald Leach, better known as film star Cary Grant, William Penn, and teenage poet Thomas Chatterton. Track back from here to the water and you could cross Pero’s bridge, named after the Negro slave who worked for the Bristol Merchant who built the Georgian House or walk up the towpath as far as the spot opposite the SS Great Britain and take the ferry across.
The aim of the Create Centre is to inform and educate about environmental issues. It’s not the easiest to find, set beside the canal by one of the old Bristol Warehouses, but you can reach the centre by bike, bus or ferry as well as by car. The Create Centre is open on certain Saturdays so check the website for event details and it features an Eco-home, a purpose built show-home with practical ideas for greener living. There are also regular exhibitions which cover Green issues.
City Farms in Bristol
Get down on the farm in the heart of the city at St Werburgh’s City Farm. It’s a working farm that is also a thriving community project offering work experience and training for local people. On the farm visitors can see sheep, goats, chickens and pigs which are reared for meat that is sold locally and there’s an award winning cafe next to the childrens’ playground that serves fairtrade, organic and locally grown food wherever possible.
On the south side of Bristol you can visit Windmill City Farm that was started by local volunteers in 1976 to put a patch of wasteland to better use. Now you can see farmyard animals, kids can play in the adventure playground and there’s a cafe serving home-made food where you can buy eggs from the hens and ducks.
Both the city farms are free but donations are appreciated.
Bristol’s history and heritage for free
The Georgian House
The Georgian House Museum is an 18th century townhouse house that has been restored and furnished as it would have been at the time of its wealthy merchant owner, John Pinney. The Bristol Merchant was a sugar plantation and slave owner in the West Indies and had many business interests in the triangular trade that linked Bristol with West Africa and the West Indies. In the ground floor reception rooms, dining rooms and library you can get a feel for elegant life of a wealthy family of the day and downstairs the kitchen is laid out with all the copper pans and the original kitchen range. There’s even a plunge pool in the basement for health giving cold baths. The Pero’s bridge in the harbour is named after John Pinney’s slave who worked in this house as his personal servant. On the top floor and interesting small exhibition room gives insights into the business interests of John Pinney and the Bristol connections with the slave trade. The Georgian House is open from Easter until the end of October.
Red Lodge is a Tudor house that sits on Park Row, looking down the hill towards the former quayside where merchant ships would have moored. The building was once the lodge of a greater house that was further down the hill on the site of the present Colston Hall and at the back is a small formal knot garden, planted in the Elizabethan style. The highlight is the Great Oak room with an ornate plasterwork ceiling, Tudor oak panelling and a great view over the city. The house was built in 1580 and was used in the 19th century as a reform school for girls. Red Lodge is open from Easter to the end of October.
Bristol Doors Open Day
Every September interesting and historic buildings in Bristol open their doors to the citizens of Bristol (and anyone else who’d like to look around) – some are open at other times during the year but others are not generally open to the public. In past years we’ve visited Royal Fort House which is a Georgian villa, built on the site of civil war fortifications but now part of the Bristol University Campus. We also had a guided tour through the passages of the Clifton Rocks railway, descending from the old entrance beside the Avon Gorge Hotel to see the old turnstiles and tunnel through the cliffs of the water powered funicular railway that opened in 1892 but closed in the 1930s. Be aware that some of the visits, especially the ones that aren’t open at other times, are very popular, so arrive early for anything you don’t want to miss. The next Bristol Doors Open day will be on Sept 8th 2012.
Walk across the Suspension Bridge
The Clifton suspension bridge is one thing you can hardly miss if you’re visiting Bristol – even if you don’t make it up the hill to Clifton village from the city centre, you’ll spot this iconic Bristol landmark on practically every postcard or book cover about Bristol. The bridge was the design of Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who at the tender age of 24 won a competition to design the bridge. The work was started in 1831 and then abandoned but finally it was completed after Brunel’s death in 1864 and has been carrying traffic across the Avon Gorge ever since. You can get the best views of the bridge from the grassy area near the observatory on the Clifton side, or from the bar terrace of the Avon Gorge Hotel, a favourite hangout on summer evenings. Walk across the bridge for views along the gorge and you’ll find the small information centre on the other side, then carry on for a walk in the nearby Leigh woods or straight ahead and into Ashton Court deer-park.
Bristol Parks & Walking for free
Castle Park is in the heart of medieval Bristol and a favourite place for local office worker to have lunch on a sunny day with a view of the canal. The focus is the shell of St Peter’s church, destroyed by wartime bombs and never reconstructed, so only the tower and open walls remain. Tucked behind the church there’s a formal garden with sculptures and water features and the park also contains a large children’s playground. Walk around and you’ll find some remains of the old city walls and the park is very close to the Broadmead and Cabot’s Circus shopping areas too, providing a green escape when you’ve had enough of the shopping. If you want to buy an interesting picnic to eat in Castle Park, I highly recommend the food stalls in nearby St Nicholas market which sell everything from Pieminster pies to Moroccan tagines to Jamaican goat curry washed down by a freshly pressed Wheatgrass juice.
If you want a magnificent view over the Bristol harbour and the green countryside beyond the edge of the city, climb up Park St and to the top of Brandon Hill. The Cabot Tower was under restoration for some years but now it’s open for a climb to the top although I haven’t been. There are benches around the garden at the bottom of the tower and the rest of the park is green open space with a small children’s playground at the foot of the hill. Like Castle Park it’s a green oasis after looking around the interesting shops on Park Street and if you want to take a picnic, you’ll find a good selection of upmarket fare at the Waitrose on the nearby Triangle.
Download a free audio walking tour of Bristol
If you enjoy exploring corners of Bristol that you might not find on your own, download one of the free audio walking tours from the Visit Bristol website. You can look for pirates on the quayside, find out more about the buildings designed by the famous Victorian Engineer, Brunel, follow the slave trade trail that made many Bristol merchants rich and explore the city’s old churches. Download the MP3 file and find out more about Bristol’s colourful past.
Walk from Blaise Castle to Kingsweston
One of my favourite Bristol walks for a Sunday afternoon is from Blaise Castle to Kingsweston House. Leave your car in the car park of Blaise Castle estate and first walk back to look around the green with charming thatched cottages of Blaise Hamlet, owned by the National Trust that were designed as housing for the pensioners of the Blaise Castle Estate. Back in the Blaise Castle park and you could easily spend an hour or two, what with the childrens’ playgrounds for different ages, the Blaise Castle House Museum and the folly at the top of the hill. However, I like to walk to the top of the high ground and along the ride towards Kings Weston House, with views towards the Severn Bridge. Within the hour you should arrive at the house, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1710 which is now often rented out for weddings and other functions, but around the side there’s a small tea shop with a terrace for sunny days. Read my article about the Walk to Kingsweston
Free artistic endeavours in Bristol
Housed in one of the old warehouses on Bristol’s Quayside, the exhibitions that are held in the Arnolfini celebrate everything that is contemporary, thought provoking and conversation generating. My family’s reaction on entering tends to be either “Is that Art?” or “What on earth is it”? as we eye up some strange piece of experimental installation art. The big open spaces and family friendly activities make the Arnolfini a great place to introduce the kids to art that’s a bit different. There’s also an arts cinema, cafe and shop in the Arnolfini and the exhibitions and art projects are free.
Street art on Stokes Croft, Nelson Street & Banksy relics
Street art is big in Bristol if you know where to look and after doing as much as it could to discourage it on Stokes Croft, perhaps the recent Nelson Street project demonstrates that the Bristol City Council is having a change of heart. After all Street art can be a big tourist draw and crowd pleaser – you only have to go to the East Side Gallery in Berlin to see that. One of the key places for Street Art in Bristol is Stokes Croft – start in the Bear Pit, the underpass at the roundabout near Debenhams which is now being made into an out-door gallery (and not before time) to brighten up the drab walls just crying out for something colourful. Walk up Stokes Croft keeping your eyes and wits about you and on shops, buildings and side streets you’ll find plenty of fine street art, up as far as Jamaica Street. There you should turn left past the Jamaica Street Studios (don’t miss their open days if you get the chance) and take a look in the Selling Gallery run by the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft who are leading campaigners to make the area an outdoor street art gallery. As you walk back down you’ll see the Banksy Mild Mild West Mural above the Canteen in Hamilton House – a place that’s always packed with locals enjoying inexpensive food and live music – there are plenty of other cool bars, cafes and music venues in this neighbourhood. From here, I’d suggest that you walk through the bus station and along Nelson Street which has more recently been made into an outdoor gallery in the See no Evil Project that brought leading Street Artists to Bristol from all over the world, to brighten up the grey 60s buildings. Read my article about Stokes Croft Street Art
Embrace the spiritual in Bristol
John Wesley Chapel
Tucked away in the middle of the Broadmead shopping area you could easily hurry past the John Wesley Chapel, known as The New Room, on your way to Boots or Marks & Spencer. Walk through the small paved courtyard with benches and espaliered fruit trees and you will enter the oldest Methodist Chapel in the world, built in 1739. The chapel is beautifully simple and open with wooden benches and galleries and was founded by the preacher, John Wesley, one of the leaders of the Methodist religious movement. Upstairs above the chapel are several rooms which are laid out with information about John Wesley and his brother Charles, and show where he slept and worked. Entry is free although donations are welcome for the upkeep of the chapel.
You’ll find Bristol Cathedral on College Green at the foot of Park Street and close to the harbour area. You will be very welcome to join one of the regular public services in the Cathedral, or to walk around the Cathedral when there are no services taking place. Take time to look at all the stained glass windows both ancient and modern and walk up the Nave to the Choir where you can see the carved wooden stalls, organ and lacy carved stonework. The Abbey of St Augustine was founded in 1140 but was destroyed in the 16th century and the new Bristol Cathedral built on the remains of the old. I recommend that you take a look at the patterned marble floors to the side of the choir and also walk down the cloisters towards the Buttery where you can have a cup of tea or a sandwich. Take time to look into the Norman Chapter house, a room in the original abbey there the monks would gather. There’s also a small enclosed garden which can be accessed from a door near the buttery. Entry is free although donations are welcome for the upkeep of the Cathedral. Read my article about a contemplative lunch at Bristol Cathedral.
Bristol’s free festivals
Bristol Harbour Festival
On a July weekend the Bristol Harbour festival brings the harbour to life with a free music and street drama with stages set up in a number of different locations. On one side there’s the amphitheatre outside the Lloyds Building, leading into Millenium square, on the other there’s the spaces by M-shed and the SS Great Britain. Queens Square and Castle Park become a seething mass of folk out to enjoy the music and a beer in the sunshine – there are entertainments for the kids and plenty of food and drink stalls. The next Bristol Harbour Festival is on 20-22 July 2012.
Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
On a summer evening you’re quite likely to see a balloon or two drifting over the rooftops of Bristol and in August the balloons and crowds converge on Bristol for the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. There’s a funfair and market stalls but if you want to see the main ascent of balloons you need to be there either early or late at 6am or 6pm. One of the most popular parts of the Fiesta is the Night Glow that’s held in the evening on the Thursday and the Saturday when the tethered balloons rise and sway in town to music creating a glow with the flames with a firework finale. Watch my video of the Bristol Night Glow. On the final Sunday evening ascent, many families take a picnic on to the downs by the sea wall overlooking the gorge or position themselves above the suspension bridge to watch the balloons rise over the Avon Gorge and the photographers are out in force to snap that iconic Bristol shot. The next Bristol Balloon Fiesta is 9-11 August 2012.
Bristol Kite Festival
In September, Ashton Court Estate host the Bristol Kite Festival, on the highest part of the park (here’s hoping for a windy day). The festival area is full of giant kites in all shapes, sizes and colours and there are stalls around the edge where you can buy your own kite and other merchandise. The guest kite flyers come from all over the world and there are other entertainments such as trampolines to entertain the family.
Hopefully you won’t need too much convincing that Bristol is a vibrant, lively city with loads of great stuff to see and do and that there’s plenty here that’s budget friendly for a weekend visit or longer.
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