If you’re looking for the best things to do in Bristol, then look no further! This guide will show you how to see as much of the city as possible in just a one day trip of Bristol.
After a rather stressful day getting from London to Bristol, we had a full day to explore the wonderful sights and scenes of Bristol, a city that has a special place in my heart.
I hadn’t been to Bristol for nearly 3 years, after having lived there while a student. I was excited to see what had changed and been improved, and of course, see all my favourite haunts! Revisiting a place you once lived always has that added element of nostalgia and fondness, I knew we would have a great visit, but wondered if it would live up to all the hype I’d given it for Kazimir. Needless to say of course, I couldn’t wait to show him around!
Without further ado, here’s how to spend one day in Bristol for a highlights visit to some of the best things to do in Bristol!
Where Is Bristol?
Bristol is in the south west of the UK, just a short drive from Bath. Although Bristol is a riverside city, it’s not far from the Mouth of the Severn which separates England and Wales. The nearest coastal destination is Weston-super-Mare.
How To Get To Bristol?
Transport to Bristol is efficient and highly accessible. Fast trains from London to Bristol take around 2 hours or less, leaving from London Paddington. Slower trains are also available from London Waterloo to Bristol Temple Meads Station. Trains between Bristol and Bath take around 15 minutes, and there are train links to Cardiff, Exeter, Salisbury, and the North from Bristol. It’s really one of the most well-connected cities in the UK!
The best way to get from London to Bristol by road is by the M4 which takes around 2.5 hours, and for heading to or from deeper into the south west (to Exeter & Plymouth), the M5 is the most accessible route. This motorway will also take you from Bristol to Birmingham in around 2 hours.
Bristol has it’s own airport, offering both international and domestic flights if you’re coming from further afield. As you can see, there are many ways to visit Bristol, with transport connections to suit all travel styles, budgets, and requirements.
Why Should You Visit Bristol?
There are SO many reasons to say why you should visit Bristol! Whether you’re visiting for just a day, or plan to base yourself in the city for a longer stretch, everyone who visits Bristol comes away wanting more.
If you’re tight for time, visiting Bristol is certainly possible as a day trip from London, Cardiff, or the Midlands. With a return journey of less than 4 hours from each AND great transport links, you can hop over to Bristol to tick off the sights, and be back before bedtime if you wish. If you’re looking to take things a little slower, Bristol is an ideal city to stay in and explore before heading down the beautiful West Country, or journeying onwards to Wales, or even prior to travelling north. As a base city, you can visit Stonehenge, Bath, Cardiff, Dorset, or the West Country National Parks from here.
The number of things to do in Bristol are really endless. Exploring the luscious countryside around Bristol’s hills and farmland will completely immerse you in the Green and Pleasant Land of the UK. And, if city-life is more your thing, Bristol is a hub of activity including great nightlife, world-class arts and culture, and has a bubbling shopping district too. It really is a city to suit all interests, and with a wealth of history bursting the Avon riverbanks, you’ll never run out of things to do in Bristol.
And finally, the best reason to visit Bristol is simply this: it’s really blooming awesome. It’s a city that feels like a community. One of respect, of open-mindedness, and of pride. So many who visit Bristol are immediately wowed by the locals’ love of their city, and the infectious positivity that oozes throughout.
Having lived in Bristol during my student years, I can 100% confirm it’s really quite a fabulous place to be, and one that keeps you wanting to come back for more!
One Day Itinerary In Bristol
Now enough of the gushing, let’s dive into our one day in Bristol exploring history, sights, and great foodie spots of just some of the best things to do in Bristol!
9am – Floating Harbour & Visit SS Great Britain
To start off our day, we headed out from our Airbnb in Clifton village and walked our way down the famously steep roads towards the Bristol Floating Harbour. Heading through Hotwells, Nova Scotia, and finally onto Spike Island, the area of land that divides the harbour and wharfs and guides the River Avon, which is now a hub of art, culture, and history. Battling the Brizzle Drizzle we walked the length of the south side of the river, enjoying some hidden parts of Bristol’s daily life such as the Underfall Yard and Cumberland Basin.
Once we had weaved our way around the wharfs and industrial buildings, we reached the SS Great Britain – the site of our first activity of the day. SS Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and was famed for being the first iron steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the longest passenger ship for 9 years! Her unique design and never-before-seen engineering put her straight in the nautical history books, and her fruitful life matches such fascinating origins.
We started our visit by diving straight out of the rain to the cosy Dry Dock where she was originally built. Once inside, and below this impressive feat of engineering, we were astounded by how incredible the ship is and just how enormous she is too! Here you can see the restorative efforts to maintain the SS Great Britain and how she is kept in optimal conditions for staying preserved.
After walking the length and breadth of the ship, we moved on to the Docklands Museum, taking us through the life of the SS Great Britain. With artefacts and stories covering every corner of the museum, you’ll be completely immersed in the incredible journeys she has been on. Discovering every step in the SS Great Britain journey, there are plenty of interactive elements to enjoy along the way. A couple of my favourites included the chance to stamp your own ticket to mark each pivotal change in the ship’s career, starting with her launch, all the way to the Falkland Islands where she eventually was rescued from. This fun little memento is a reminder of the many people for whom the SS Great Britain was an important part of their lives, whether that was taking them to new beginnings, or the foundations of their community.
Another immersive area is the chance to take a Victorian era styled photo (costumes and all!), and imagine you’re on your way to start a new life as an emigrant to Australia. This part of the ship’s history came towards the end of her service and use as a passenger ship, and is a great reminder of all those who relied on such transportation to explore the world in unimaginably different circumstances to modern day travel. As a travel lover, this part really spoke to me, and of course I couldn’t resist the silliness of the photo booth!
Once we were satisfied with all we’d learned in the museum, it was time to visit the main attraction and hop on board the SS Great Britain itself. Braving the drizzle once again, we started off on the aptly named Weather Deck where we explored the surface area of the ship and enjoyed the views over the harbour. Once finally on the ship, we were again reminded of it’s enormous size!
After we’d explored the top deck and felt like real shipmen, we descended the steep steps down to the spacious Promenade Deck and explored the upper-class cabins. Next, we passed through the extravagant Dining Saloon – marvelling at the detail and refinement of it all. It’s hard to believe you’re still on a ship! Onwards to the steerage area to see how the majority of passengers travelled, and then to the cavernous storage hold and the mighty engine itself, gently whirring and turning away.
The fully immersive experience of the ship is a feast for the senses, and there seems to be no area inaccessible for visitors (except the odd staff-only area of course!). The restoration of the ship is so impressive, you are truly transported back in time to feel a part of the ship’s thriving days. With only some information dotted throughout, as well as those plastic statue tableaus (you know the one’s I mean!), there was enough to enlighten visitors as to the realities of the ship and passengers, but it was by no means exaggerated or unnecessarily tacky. The perfect balance of educational without limiting visitors to use their imagination!
Finally, feeling pleased we’d explored every part of the ship in enough detail, we ventured back to land to continue our day. There are additional areas accessible with the SS Great Britain ticket which include the Brunel Institute and Being Brunel exhibition, however, we felt we’d seen enough for now. There’s only so much history we could cram into one day in Bristol!
A visit to the SS Great Britain is an absolutely essential activity for your day trip in Bristol. With adult tickets costing just £16.50 on the door (or 5% less online), you can’t argue with such an affordable and richly detailed activity that truly gives you a lot for your money! Best of all, the tickets are valid for one whole year, meaning you can make a return visit to the areas you didn’t get to see, or split up your trip if you’re spreading your time in Bristol over a few days. With so much interactive content, the SS Great Britain is a perfect activity for anyone looking to experience a piece of this city’s heritage, and it suitable for visitors of all ages. It really is a great way to start your day in Bristol!
11am – Walk to St Nicholas Market
Up next, we continued along the river passing the old Aardman Studios by the harbourside, snapping a photo at the odd Banksy street art – his latest in his hometown, and admiring the Llandoger Trow pub which is known for having inspired Robert Louis Stevenson for parts of Treasure Island. Only in Bristol would you be able to cram so much into a 20 minute walk! Pretty everywhere you go in the city you’ll find a hidden gem, you just have to know what you’re looking for.
After our detour, we headed towards St Nicholas Market. Sat on the edge of the oldest part of Bristol, this complex of alleyways and indoor market spaces is such a perfect way to have a casual nose around, grab a bite to eat, or maybe pick up a few souvenirs!
St Nicholas Market was one of the first places I explored in Bristol all those years ago as a young fresher at university, and there’s a reason it keeps drawing me back. Getting lost amongst all the sellers, the delicious foods, and the cosy, quiet atmosphere is so appealing to first-timers and returning visitors alike. You’ll always find something new in St Nicks!
We wandered our way through the Covered Market past record stores, book shops, tucked away cafes, and so much more until we reached the Exchange Hall – the heart of St Nicholas Market. With more time, we would definitely have paused for a delicious jerk chicken wrap or falafel pitta before moseying through the hall discovering trinkets and treasures galore. But alas, we were strapped for time during our one day in Bristol so continued on!
Visiting St Nicholas Market is always such a special experience as you truly feel a part of everyday Bristolian life, and supporting small local businesses is one of the best ways to be give back when in a new city! Beyond the many amazing sellers in St Nicholas Market, it’s also a gorgeous place to spend a bit of your time in Bristol. The alleyways with fairy lights draped across then, the grandeur of the Exchange Hall exterior, and the overall setting of the old city is an experience in itself – definitely one of the best things to do in Bristol!
11.30am – Spot Bristol Street Art & Climb Christmas Steps
Walking our way through the old town, we had a chance to pause at a few of my favourite Bristol street art spots. Bristol is renowned worldwide for its place on the street art scene, as home to Banksy, We Are Europe, Nick Walker, INKIE, and more. A quick Google and you’ll soon see how popular Bristol is for street art, as featured in Culture Trip and Buzzfeed. In fact, the vibrant art scene in Bristol was one the aspects that first intrigued me about the city years ago, and it continues to do so now!
Some areas a little further from the city centre have some truly incredible murals around areas such as Stokes Croft and Bedminster, but if you’re tight for time a quick look around Nelson Street will certainly give you a taste.
Crossing the busy Rupert Street, we came across another of my favourite spots in Bristol: Christmas Steps. The historic street dates back as late as 1600s, and is now home to some boutique stores and cafes in listed buildings. A fun challenge is to try and run up the steps without stopping, which is almost impossible but a pretty good workout! Once at the top, you’re treated to great views over the city, and if you feel like it’s deserved, stop by the Zero Degrees microbrewery and pizzeria to say well done!
Around the top of the Christmas Steps are several antique stores and historical points of interest. One of my favourites being the Cafe Wall Illusion on the corner of St Michael’s Hill! This famous illusion has a special place in my heart, having studied it in a perception module during my Philosophy BA studies. Yet another random but interesting part of Bristol to add to the list!
12pm – Lunch at Watershed
After such a busy morning running around Bristol, we felt ready for a bite to eat! The modern Watershed is the perfect stopping point for lunch, with a number of bars, restaurants, and cafes to suit all budgets. One of my favourite eateries along the Watershed is The Stable, where they offer some delicious pizzas washed down with some local cider! On this occasion, however (and having had pizza the night before), we opted for a bite bite and cold beverage at the Pitcher and Piano.
1.30pm – Visit College Green & Walk Up Park Street
Feeling revived and well-fed, we were ready to take on the most common Bristol challenge: Park Street! Stopping by College Green to admire the gorgeously gothic Bristol Cathedral, as well as City Hall. We began walking our way up the infamously steep Park Street, pausing only to take the odd photo and spot yet more street art, until we took a turning towards Brandon Hill.
1.45pm – Visit Brandon Hill & Cabot Tower
This unassuming haven of greenery right in the middle of the hilly city centre is such a paradise away from the busy streets and city life. Brandon Hill is a mix of gardens, small ponds, and open grassland. In the summertime, it’s an ideal location for a picnic or to enjoy the beautiful flowerbeds and watch the cheeky squirrels scamper by.
Arguably one of the best free things to do in Bristol is right on top of Brandon Hill’s summit: climbing Cabot Tower. Embarking on the spiral staircase up to the 105 metres to the two viewing platforms isn’t too challenging and can easily be done by most physically able people. The staircase is steep and narrow, which means pausing for a rest isn’t much of an option! It should only take a couple of minutes to reach the top, so try to power through as best you can.
Once at the top, the effort is 100% worth it. Phenomenal panoramic views across all of Bristol is such a treat, and at this point in your day trip to Bristol you’ll be near enough an expert on spotting all the sights you’ve just visited! My favourite views include that of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Floating Harbour (and SS Great Britain), and the Wills Memorial Building – which truly stands out in the sea of buildings below.
With no information plaques to explain the tower, visitors are simply left to enjoy the view. There are a few indicators of distances to other cities and notable destinations in every direction, as there often are at elevated viewpoints. For historical context, the tower was built at the end of the 1890s to commemorate 400 years since John Cabot (for which many buildings and parts of Bristol are named) travelled from Bristol to “discover” what is now Canada.
An absolute must-do activity and easily one of the best things to do in Bristol, I can’t recommend a visit to the top of Cabot Tower enough, and even on a moody day you’ll still be blown away by the gorgeous views of Bristol and beyond.
2.30pm – Coffee Break on Park Street
After all that climbing and walking, we felt we were due another break. We made our way back to Park Street to pause at Friska, a chain of feel-good and community-vibe cafe chain in Bristol, for a smoothie and people watch in the shop window.
Refreshed, I was keen to take Kazimir into the University of Bristol campus, for just a bit of indulgent nostalgia for my students days, but also because there are some really wonderful buildings and gardens to be found! Starting off at the Victoria Rooms, we admired the architecture and grandeur before heading towards the heart of the campus.
3pm – Find The Mirror Maze in Royal Fort Gardens
One of the best hidden gems in Bristol can be found in the heart of the University of Bristol campus. It may not immediately occur to tourists in Bristol to visit the university, but it’s well worth it! Open to the public, everyone I’ve taken to this spot is blown away by the exquisitely-kept gardens and views of Bristol from Royal Fort Gardens. The best part of the gardens is by far the unique mirror maze tucked away at the bottom of a grassy bank. It’s truly a fun and unusual spot and is always a surprise to unsuspecting visitors!
After ambling our way through campus and avoiding the hoards of students, we walked our way along St Michael’s Hill, to head down Cotham Hill (yes, Bristol has a lot of hills!). This part of town sits right on the edge of Redland and Clifton, and has a wide range of charity shops, independent cafes, and more. In the summer, there is even a Cotham Hill street party which becomes quite the festivities of live music, food stalls, and fun!
4pm – Explore Clifton
I’m proud to say I was now truly in my old stomping ground, having lived in this part of Bristol. We bypassed the many tempting shops and pubs around Whiteladies Road to head back to Clifton, where we’d started our day many hours ago!
Nearing the end of my ambitious sightseeing list, our tired legs began to feel weary but we soldiered on to wander the oh-so adorably quaint Clifton Village. Through the tree tunnels of Victoria Square and around the Arcade, we wandered past so many beautiful shops and typically-Bristolian homes.
With a surprising amount of time to kill having run around all day, we decided to treat ourselves to the most deliciously indulgent hot chocolate at Bar Chocolat, right on the Mall of Clifton. Another chance to admire the beautiful shops and watch the world go by, we were grateful for a chance to shelter from the drizzle making its return.
5pm – Walk Across the Clifton Suspension Bridge
Before the day got too late and our tiredness became too much, we visiting one of the most iconic Bristol landmarks – the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Starting out at the Clifton Observatory (which had unfortunately closed by the time we got there, as it closes at 5pm!), we had moody views over the bridge as the clouds became low and thick. From the Clifton side of the bridge, you can look over the Avon Gorge towards Leigh Woods, giving the most ethereal views of dense forest and expansive greenery which quickly makes it clear that this really is one of the best things to do in Bristol.
From there, we followed the cliff towards the bridge itself, appreciating the many angles and landscapes provided by the changing light and weather conditions. With very few people around, we had the space to ourselves of what can otherwise be a rather busy part of Clifton. Having said that, we did watch a family enjoy the Clifton rock slide at the Clifton Suspension Bridge – it’s simply a steep part of slippery rock which visitors have turned into a fun (but bumpy!) attraction.
We eventually made it to the bridge itself, and crossed from one side to the other, enjoying the views over the gorge along the way. Walking over the Clifton Suspension Bridge always feels like it will be a momentous occasion, building up to what turns out to be rather mundane – the real excitement is definitely the view of the bridge itself! At this busy rush hour time, we carefully crossed the toll booth area to the other side of the bridge to make our way back, but not before a quick few photos! My favourite side is definitely the Bristol side, where the views over the city are magical, especially at night. On this occasion, the north side was also great to enjoy the moody textures of the landscapes, which I took great pleasure in snapping lots of pictures of.
Once back to the Clifton end of the bridge, we continued our way along the path taking you past The Zig Zag – a great path taking you down the cliffside to the Avon Gorge, until you meet back up with the familiar Clifton Village architecture.
Of course, we can’t ignore the historical significance of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Designed by the great Brunel, and built very slowly over a number of years, the bridge was completed in 1864 – just 5 years after the engineer’s death. At the time of its construction, it had the longest span of any bridge in the world! A fact that is hard to imagine in modern days, given the enormity of some bridges now.
6pm – Grab A Drink at the Cori Tap
For anyone that is unfamiliar with Bristol and the South West of the UK, this part of the country is famed for its excellent varieties of a particular alcoholic beverage, which also happens to be my favourite… Yes, I’m talking about cider! The choices for cider are endless, and it would be almost criminal to visit Bristol and NOT have a taste of the tipple!
I knew just the place to take an unsuspecting Kiwi for his first Bristolian cider. The Coronation Tap is a world-famous cider house, most known for its own brew: the Exhibition. Only served in half pints because it can reach up to 10% alochol content (!), this apple-y goodness hits the spot after being such busy tourists exploring a day in Bristol. We got there just as doors opened, and had the place to ourselves for our entire visit! Luckily so, as the pub tends to get pretty darn busy later in the evening.
7pm – Dinner
Hungry and worn out after a long day, we went to the White Lion just around the corner from the Cori Tap for dinner. I chose the White Lion as it’s a beautiful pub sat right alongside the Avon Gorge Hotel, and boasts a pretty spectacular view of the Suspension Bridge from the outside deck. Any time of day to visit the White Lion is beautiful, but a visit in the evening means you’ll get the chance to see the twinkling lights of the illuminated bridge. Quite the romantic end to the day I think!
8.30pm – Back to Airbnb
We turned in for an early night as we would be up bright and early to catch a flight to Edinburgh! Plus, after such a busy day of exploring Bristol by foot we felt a restful evening was particularly well-deserved.
Top Tips for Visiting Bristol
- Bring a brolly! The weather is always unpredictable and often rather rainy, so be prepared.
- Prepare to walk. I’d suggest not to bother with taxis or public transport unless necessary or weather conditions are dreadful, it’s often quicker and more pleasant to go by food.
- Wear comfy shoes. On that note, wear comfy shoes that will withstand lots of walking, cobbled streets, and puddles.
- Keep a map handy. The streets can be tough to navigate at times – there’s no simple grid system here! Keep a map or phone nearby to guide you between activities easily.
- Plan your route out. Know the order of what you’d like to do, so you don’t have to go back on yourself (or yoyo up and down the hills!).
- Try to hit the best spots, but don’t put yourself under too much pressure
- Learn about the city. There is so much history and culture in Bristol, it’s well worth reading up before or after your visit to understand what you’re seeing, whether it’s a significant piece of history or a famous work of art – they can be easily missed if you’re not careful!
- Explore different areas. Each part of Bristol has a unique character, some which may suit you more than others. Consider which areas matter to you most, whether you’re after quirky pubs and vintage shops, or the touristic historical areas – and plan your day accordingly.
- Meet the locals. Bristolians are some of the friendliest people ever and they’ll be happy to have a chat and tell you all about their city with a cheery smile. See what nuggets of info you can learn from them on your visit!
We certainly crammed a lot into our day in Bristol, and are so pleased to have ticked off so many of the best things to do in Bristol in such a short space of time! As a pretty compact city, it’s not hard to fill your day with a wide range of sights and activities. I can’t recommend a day trip to Bristol enough, it should absolutely be on your UK cities list if it’s not already!
Have you visited Bristol? What’s your favourite part of the city? Let me know any of your favourite things to do in Bristol in the comments!
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