Bristol is creative, it’s cultured and it’s absolutely crammed full of great museums and galleries to explore. You can set foot aboard Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s greatest seafaring creation, delve into the city’s chequered past at one of the waterfront museums or let your curiosity get the better of you at one of the best science centres in the country. And that’s before we even mention Glastonbury, which heads up Bristol’s calendar of cultural events.
Culture in Bristol
We The Curious is an incredible, multi-million-pound science centre on the harbourside. It’s a particularly good family day out, thanks to its wide range of workshops, experiments, creative spaces, science shows and interactive exhibitions, including the UK’s first 3D planetarium. The museum is on a mission to ‘create a culture of curiosity’. It does away with the antiquated idea of what museums used to be. You’re encouraged to touch and toy with some of the exhibits; you can take photos with your phone and share them with friends, and don’t be afraid of laughing and having fun. If only school trips were this fun back in the day.
Spread over three floors, with 18 galleries and an eclectic array of artefacts that date from present day all the way back to Ancient Egypt, the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery is a fantastic place to visit, particularly if you’re looking for a free day out. The ground floor is home to its archaeology and world cultures collections. On the first floor, the geology galleries showcase some incredible fossils, as well as precious stones like the Bristol Diamond. It’s also where you’ll find everyone’s favourites – the dinosaur galleries – featuring some of the most well-preserved dinosaurs ever found in the UK. And on the second floor, you can explore the gallery’s diverse art collection, including work by Renaissance painters like Bellini, Impressionists like Pissarro, Cubists like Bomberg and sculptors like Hepworth.
If you’re looking for culture, one of Bristol’s must-see attractions is Brunel’s SS Great Britain. The fully restored passenger ship was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the honorary Bristolian who ‘built Britain’. Leagues ahead of its time, the SS Great Britain was the first iron steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, which it did in 1845 while catering for its passengers’ lavish lifestyle. Other than the fact that the ship is an incredible artefact in itself, it also contains the world’s most significant Brunel collection, spanning six galleries and around 150 of Brunel’s personal artefacts.
Bristol Harbour Festival
For your fix of contemporary art, make your way to the Arnolfini. It’s a wonderful international arts centre and gallery on the harbourside. Housed in Bush House – a 19th-century former tea warehouse – the Arnolfini is a huge space and gives its carefully curated range of exhibitions enough room to be appreciated. It means the gallery can comfortably showcase the work of artists like Rachel Whiteread and Matti Braun. Their exhibitions aren’t for everyone, but take a look at what’s on during your stay and see if it’s up your street.
Alternatively, you can make your way directly over the water to the M Shed. A relatively new addition to Bristol’s cultural scene, it tells the story of the city from prehistoric times right through to the 21st century with a wide range of modern, exciting and interactive exhibits. You’ll find out about pirates, the city’s tobacco trade from its booming heyday to when it went under, and – regrettably – the city’s role in the transatlantic slave industry.
We can’t mention Bristol’s galleries without talking about the one that paved the way. The Royal West of England Academy was established in Clifton in 1849. Nowadays, it’s home to a splendid collection of artworks, particularly from the relatively local Newlyn, St. Ives and Bloomsbury Schools. The gallery is housed in is one of the most stunning buildings in the city – a fitting home for the UK’s only regional Royal Academy of Art.
Some truly spectacular events and festivals come to Bristol throughout the year. Depending on when you’re staying in the city, it’s well worth looking into whether something is on while you’re here. For example, 30,0000 people come together in July to celebrate Bristol Pride, making it one of the largest LGBT celebrations in the UK. The Love Saves The Day music festival takes over Eastville Park for a weekend in May and always attracts an impressive lineup of artists.
In August, the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is a four-day extravaganza of hot air balloons, with up to 100 taking to the sky at a time. It takes place at Ashton Court, where firework displays, fairground rides, traders, street food and much more will keep you entertained. And, in July, the waterfront is overrun by the Bristol Harbour Festival. One of the UK’s largest public festivals, it attracts up to 300,000 people with live music, street performers, fireworks, food, and drink to celebrate Bristol’s rich maritime history.