Bristol is the most important city in the southwest of England and it offers plenty to see within the city and also makes an excellent base for exploring the surrounding area. Bristol is England’s 10th-largest city with a population of just under half a million within the city (and three-quarters of a million when you include its suburban area).
It has historically been an important port city and also a centre for shipbuilding and many important maritime milestones are linked with the city.
In 1497, it is from Bristol that John Cabot departed on the Matthew to become the first European since the Vikings to land in North America and his voyage to Newfoundland is generally credited as the European discovery of North America. However, ships were sailing between Bristol and Iceland as early as the 1420s and there is some speculation that sailors landed on what is now the Canadian coast prior to Cabot’s voyage.
In the 19th century, Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the SS Great Britain, which introduced two innovations that remain in use to this day. The ship, which was twice the weight of any other ship when she was launched in 1843, was world’s first steam-powered, iron-hulled passenger liner. The SS Great Britain was revolutionary for being both built from iron and for being powered by a large screw propeller under the hull as is still used by ocean liners today.
The plimsoll line is another maritime innovation that is linked with Bristol. The plimsoll line (also known as the waterline or the international load line) is the compulsory load line used by ships to avoid overloading. The line is named after Bristolian Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned to introduce the line as a safety measure.
By the end of the 19th century, Bristol’s port had begun its move to Avonmouth, which can handle larger ships, and the city’s Floating Harbour, which runs through the city centre, has now been gentrified, making it a pleasant place to wander around and stop in at many of the city’s wonderful waterfront bars, cafes and restaurants. This waterfront area is also home to several attractions including the Arnolfini gallery, the M Shed museum, a replica of the Matthew of Bristol that John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland and the revolutionary SS Great Britain, which is now open to the public as a museum ship.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel is widely regarded as the greatest engineer of the Victorian era and his legacy extends far beyond his innovations in shipbuilding. He is responsible for building the Great Western Railway, which connects Bristol with London and he even had a hand in designing most of the stations along the line including Bristol’s Temple Meads railway station. Brunel also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge connecting Clifton to the west of the city centre with Leigh Woods in Somerset.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, Bristol was the third-largest city in England and during the 17th and 18th centuries, the city grew rich on the back of the tobacco trade and the slave trade between Africa and the American colonies. The Georgian House Museum to the northwest of the city centre provides an insight into this era.
More recently, Bristol has been a major centre in the aerospace industry with manufacturing facilities in Filton and Patchway on the city’s northern outskirts. The Bristol Aeroplane Company, which is a founding component of British Aerospace, was based here, as was Bristol Aero Engines, which later became part of Rolls-Royce, producing jet engines used by both Boeing and Airbus. Airbus also has a presence in Bristol and the Concorde was built here.
Aerospace Bristol on the former Bristol Filton Airport is a must-visit destination for any av geek. This excellent aviation museum chronicles the history of aviation with an emphasis on Bristol’s role in the development of commercial air travel and its main drawcard is the very last Concorde to ever fly.
Although nearby Bath is a bigger tourist draw than Bristol, Bath’s industrial neighbour is an increasingly popular travel destination with several excellent hotels, some good museums and a vibrant nightlife. It has a bustling city centre and it is an enjoyable place to spend some time.
Bristol also has an excellent arts scene with art museums that include the Royal West of England Academy (RWA), Arnolfini and the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It is also the home of Aardman Animations (which produces stop-motion animations including Wallace and Grommit) and it is believed to be the home of anonymous street artist Banksy. Banksy’s work can be found throughout the city and both the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and the M Shed museum have his art on display. Exhibits about Aardman Animations’ work (with an emphasis on Wallace and Grommit) can be found at M Shed and also at the We The Curious science museum.
Bristol’s excellent transport connections to Bath, Cardiff and Glastonbury make it an excellent base for exploring the West Country and destinations in Gloucestershire, Somerset and western Wiltshire are an easy day trip from the city.
Bristol is the southwest’s largest city and it is a major transport hub for the region. The city is well served by rail, bus and coach and it also has the region’s busiest (and the UK’s ninth-busiest) airport.
Bristol Temple Meads is the city’s main railway station, which is around a 15-minute walk east of the city centre and most buses and coaches (except Megabus coaches, which stop on Bond Street) stop at the Bristol Bus and Coach Station near the Bear Pit.