Things to do on a city break to Bristol this Autumn
Welcome to Bristol!
Bristol, for me, is the military snare drum of the Southwest of England. The kind of drum you see keeping the rhythm and energy alive in military or state pageants. But in this case, it’s a creative and independent city that’s keeping the rest of the Southwest artistically youthful. Its dense alleyways and backstreets, along with its constant herd of traffic, might prompt you to give Bristol a miss. But this would mean losing out on what makes Bristol so unlike any other UK metropolis, with its robust art and culture scene, along with a preserved history and heritage.
The rows of colourful Victorian terraced houses at Cliftonwood unite with the street art of the world-famous artist, Banksy, to cancel out the sea of uninspiring post-war buildings. The dozens of green parks and estates, the trendy Wapping Wharf, and the historic harbourside, make it just as exciting as it must have been as the second largest port in England. The only difference is that we no longer have pirates walking around!
To really get a sense of the city, read our four-day itinerary, mentioning the best things to do in Bristol at autumn time, along with a lot of free activities!
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MORNING: Cabot Tower and Bristol Cathedral
Start your week at Brandon Hill - the oldest parkland in the city near Park Street. It has a children’s playground, along with a nature conservation area which is ideal for listening to birdsong or enjoying scrumptious finger sandwiches from a locally bought picnic. But Brandon Hill’s crowning glory is the ornately carved Cabot Tower. The tower, which stands at 105ft, was constructed in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Italian explorer John Cabot. It’s free to climb to the top, at which point you’ll have a never-ending view of the city.
From here, wander down Park Street (via Charlotte Street) and pop into The Last Bookshop. This is my favourite bookstore in Bristol as every book is new and under £4. Continue down Park Street to the Cathedral which is one of the best free things to do in Bristol for architecture and history lovers.
Open Monday to Saturday between 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Bristol Cathedral is one of the country’s greatest medieval churches with crenelated parapets, large stained-glass windows, lofty vaulted ceilings, and one of the very finest examples of a medieval ‘hall church’. Its architecture is the kind that makes your heart soar with wonder, and a local man called Robert Fitzharding founded the cathedral as an Augustinian abbey in 1140. Amazingly, the cathedral stretches over 300 feet with many unique features to discover.
AFTERNOON: The Harbourside, Spike Island and Underfall Yard
As you start to think about lunch, head to the Harbourside. This was once a thriving port where pirates, merchants and soldiers set sail or traded goods. Today, the harbourside is buzzing with hotels, waterside restaurants and bars, cinemas, markets, and water sport activities like paddle boarding and rowing. Walk around the harbour and discover its many historical attractions, including the Bristol Aquarium, the Brunel’s SS Great Britain, and several boat trips.
As you go along the harbourside, you’ll find the M Shed which is a 1950s transit shed that has been turned into a living museum. The museum is free to the public and is one of the best things to do in Bristol for history lovers, as they’ll learn about Bristol’s 2,000 years from prehistoric times to the 21st century. Its three floors offer a detailed idea of the people – political reformers, inventors, and engineers – who shaped the city, as well as individual stories which are brought to life by film and photographs.
Nearby, and a must for any city break in Bristol, is Spike Island. This is a hub for contemporary art and exhibitions, as well as a workspace for over 70 artists and designers. It’s free to enter, and visitors are encouraged to engage with the art through discussions and participation. If you have time, walk to Underfall Yard, a working boatyard with maritime businesses. The visitor centre is free to enter and narrates the harbour’s history. I suggest trying out the Human Accumulator while you’re there.
LATE: The Wapping Wharf
End your first day in Bristol at Wapping Wharf, the newest quarter at the harbourside. It has a great selection of restaurants, serving everything from pizza to Greek cuisine. These restaurants have been uniquely designed and are housed within cargo containers that are traditionally stacked on top of each other.
MORNING: Blaise Castle and Aerospace Bristol
Pop in the car or a taxi and make your way to Blaise Castle Estate. It is a 650-acre, Grade II* listed parkland with a 19th century historic home that’s been turned into a museum. It’s free to visit and inside you’ll find the Picture Room with its red flock paper displaying paintings from the museum’s collection. On the property is Blaise Dairy and Gardens, a building designed by architect John Nash to provide the mansion with cheese and butter. The kitchen garden and orangery are also great to visit, but most people come here to see Blaise Castle. This is a sham “castle” built to act as the family’s summer house and is the same folly discussed by the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
But if it’s a rainy day, you should instead visit Aerospace Bristol. Here you’ll learn about the city’s aviation achievements and get the chance to step onboard the Concorde Alpha Foxtrot which is the last supersonic jet to fly. If you’re interested in planes, then Aerospace is going to be among your favourite things to do in Bristol as you’ll also get the chance to learn about cutting-edge aerospace technologies and travel through 100 years of aviation history.
AFTERNOON: Palestine Museum, Castle Park, and St Nicholas Market
One of the most unusual things to do in Bristol for a free day out is to visit the Palestine Museum. On display are paintings, artefacts, and photographs that recount Palestine’s heritage and political story. A short walk away is Castle Park within which is St Peter’s Church and St Mary le Port Church. The park also has the remnants of Bristol Castle’s King’s Hall. St Peter’s is a memorial site for those who died during the Bristol Blitz in World War II, while St Mary’s is the oldest of the park’s churches dating to the Saxon times. All that remains of St Mary’s is the 15th century tower.
St Nicholas Market, otherwise known as ‘St Nicks’, with its elegant Georgian architecture, is an energetic and culturally immersive place for a spot of lunch. It’s home to a range of permanent food stalls, serving everything from Moroccan cuisine to Caribbean wraps, and great British pies to locally made vegan cakes and pastries. There are also stalls selling second-hand books, jewellery, toys, and more.
LATE: Banksy Street Art Walking Tour
Provided there’s still daylight, embark on a guided or self-guided tour of Banksy’s street art which can be found all over the city. The world-famous artist, Banksy, was born and raised in Bristol and some of his earliest works are dotted around the city. On Marsh Lane in Barton Hill is Banksy’s Valentine’s Day 2020 which shows a girl firing a catapult of red flowers. In central Bristol, on the side of the M Shed is Banksy’s Grim Reaper, while the Girl with the Pierced Eardrum can be found on the side of a building in Albion Docks in Hanover Place.
MORNING: Clifton Village, Cliftonwood, and Clifton Suspension Bridge
Start your third day by taking a short walk to either Clifton Village or Cliftonwood. Clifton Village is a Georgian styled suburb in Bristol with many independent shops, boutique jewellery stores and the longest crescent in Europe, known as the Royal York Crescent. The East Village Café is great for breakfast, serving the most picturesque delicacies that are 100% vegan, including vibrant superfood lattes and homemade croissants. Cliftonwood is known for its rows of vibrant Victorian terraced houses, but there’s also Argyle Place Park, an award-winning community garden and street mosaics to discover.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a short walk from here and it’s undeniably the city’s most recognisable landmark overlooking the Avon Gorge and River Avon. It was designed by Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who described it as ‘my first love, my darling’. It was originally designed for horse-drawn traffic in 1864, but today it offers visitors a scenic drive. The bridge is free to walk over and has a nearby visitor centre which is also free to visit. The centre details the bridge’s construction and maintenance history, it’s also well worth coming back to the bridge at sunrise/sunset, especially at autumn time, for spellbindingly picturesque views.
AFTERNOON: Ashton Court Estate
Grab a taxi or bus and head to Ashton Court Estate for 850 acres of grassland and woodlands that are often full of deer. In the summer, Ashton Court Estate is known for the International Balloon Fiesta which sees over 100 rainbow-coloured hot air balloons take flight. But the parkland is also worth visiting during an autumn break as it’s not only free to enter, but you’ll find ancient oak trees, two 18-hole golf courses, a coach house, and plenty of refreshingly country-like walking trails.
LATE: King Street
Head back into the historic centre of Bristol and end your day at King Street. This is an ancient street that was originally laid out in 1650, and if you fancy yourself a photographer, or just want to have an evening stroll, you can enjoy the diverse range of architectural styles overshadowing the cobblestone street. Highlights along the street include 17th century pubs, a timber-framed building that was originally a merchant’s house, and symmetrically perfect Georgian facades. Obviously, the street is free to visit, but it’s also Bristol’s theatre district which features the oldest continually operating theatre in the country – the Bristol Old Vic.
MORNING: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Begin your second day at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, another free tourist attraction that details the Earth’s last billion years, from dinosaurs and Egyptian mummies to contemporary art. The museum, built in 1823, is within the heart of the university campus and has three floors with 19 galleries. The ground floor displays the region’s natural wonders and collections from ancient Egypt and Assyria. The first floor has fossils, gemstones, and crystals including the Bristol Diamond, as well as dinosaur and wildlife galleries. Discover works of art by Cellini, Renoir, Hepworth and more on the second floor, as well as exquisite glass and ceramic galleries from around the world.
AFTERNOON: The Martin Parr Foundation and The Royal Photographic Society
A city break in Bristol wouldn’t be complete without getting in a taxi and heading to Paintworks. Within the area’s industrial buildings, you’ll discover the Royal Photographic Society and the Martin Parr Foundation, both awe-inspiring places with regular exhibitions that photography enthusiasts will adore. The Martin Parr Foundation primarily displays photos that celebrate life on the British Isles!
End your city break in Bristol at Southville which is in the south corner of the city. It’s here where you’ll find street food, street art and many restaurants, some of which host comedy nights or musical performances.
Bristol & Bath Railway Path
If you’re looking for a long autumnal walk or cycle route, then embark on the 13-mile off-road Bristol and Bath Railway Path. As the name suggests, the route takes you between Bristol and Bath, and was built above the former Midland Railway by Sustrans, a cycling charity.
One of the best free things to do in Bristol is to visit the suburb of St Werburghs. Here you can explore red brick, Georgian and Victorian houses, along with the tranquil Mina Road Park. The St Werburghs City Farm is a great place for a free day out with the family, and children will adore playing with the chickens, rabbits, goats, pigs and more! Here, you’ll also discover a two-acre small holding which has a terraced orchard, a stream, and green spaces. There’s also a two-and-a-half-acre conservation site, and a one-acre community garden with flower beds, and fruit and vegetable patches.