Last Updated on January 9, 2023

Looking for an art museum in Bristol? You have good choices!

Incorporated in 1155 at the confluence of the Avon and Frome rivers, Bristol in England developed as a major shipping, manufacturing and distribution hub for the UK thanks to its prime location along the Bristol Channel in southwestern England opposite southern Ireland. Wool from Ireland, then sugar and tobacco – industries supported by the transatlantic slave trade – flowed into Bristol from overseas ports.

In the 20th century, the production of aircraft became Bristol’s industrial calling card. The first airplanes manufactured in Britain were designed and built here, as were military aircraft for use in both World Wars. Bristol’s critical role in supplying planes for World War II put it in the crosshairs of Germany and both the plant and town suffered major damage as a result of Nazi bombing raids. Postwar, cutting-edge experimental aircraft and, eventually, the iconic Concorde would be developed here.

More on that later, this weekend in Bristol is centered on the city’s surprisingly robust arts scene so we’ll start there.

Art in Bristol

The Royal West of England Academy

Debuting in 1844 as the Bristol Academy for the Promotion of Fine Arts, this was the first art gallery/museum in Bristol and one of the most important in England. A major renovation project on the building was completed in 2022.

Offering artistic instruction, a year-round exhibition program showing the best of contemporary art in a historic context and an unrivalled body of work by a range of artists with close connections to Bristol and the West of England, post-1941, the Royal West of England Academy makes for a great place to begin your art museum in Bristol explorations.

Arnolfini in Bristol

The most important hub of contemporary art in Bristol, Arnolfini blends “radical ambition and blurring of creative disciplines combined with exciting public spaces.” Consider RWA the “old school” art museum in Bristol and Arnolfini the “new school.”

The gallery is used as an exhibition place where visitors and locals enjoy some dancing, music, art exhibitions, and even lectures. Every week there are different events, like film screenings all available watch for free. Arnolfini’s reading room is the perfect place for enjoying a book in a quiet environment, perhaps one acquired from the gallery’s bookshop, one of the country’s finest specialty art retailers.

M Shed

M Shed is more of a Bristol history museum than an art museum, but it does host photography exhibitions and other presentations merging art and history.

Follow Banksy

The world’s most famous street artist, Bansky, was born in Bristol and remains anonymous. The anti-establishment hero spraypainted some of his first and most important pieces around the city; tracking them down makes for a great way to explore Bristol by foot, uncovering the city neighborhood by neighborhood.

Numerous Banksy street art tours are available in a city that, thanks to Banksy, has become a haven for the artform.

Aerospace Bristol Museum

From the earliest days of manned flight to manned space exploration, the Aerospace Bristol Museum leads visitors through the history of flight and Bristol’s key role in it. From small model aircrafts to biplanes, helicopters, fighter jets, rockets and missiles, the cavernous museum does more than tell the story of aerospace, it shows it – up close.

The highlight of the museum, undoubtedly, is the Concorde Hangar where guests can step aboard British Airways’ Concorde Alpha Foxtrot, the last of the supersonic passenger jets decommissioned in 2003. An atrocity of fuel consumption and carbon dioxide release – even by commercial jet standards (not that many people cared in its heyday) – the Concorde flew at an unimaginable 60,000 feet of altitude at an equally unimaginable 1320 miles per hour, carrying over 100 passengers in luxury across the Atlantic in under three hours.

Aviation fans could spend a full day at the museum, but even those only mildly curious should devote at least an hour.

Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol

A famed Bristol landmark, the Clifton Suspension Bridge spans a total of 214-meters connecting the city to forested Leigh Woods. You’ll notice the bridge swaying as you walk, but don’t worry, that’s part of its construction design and perfectly safe.

Visitors may also go on a tour across the bridge and learn some interesting facts about it, as well. The Visitor Center at the other end of the bridge hosts a gift shop and the staff there is ready to answer any questions you may have concerning the bridge and its construction. The bridge is open 24-hours, every day of the week and free to pedestrians and cyclists with a 1-pound charge for cars.

Tours and information are available via the visitor center.                                                             

SS Great Britain

Brunel’s SS Great Britain, “the ship that changed the world,” began its life in 1843 as an iron steamship – a vessel so large and unconventional for its iron construction and screw propeller, it astounded the world. The technological marvel, the world’s first great ocean liner, is now a floating museum where guests can learn about the long and varied history of the ship. In addition to the museum ship, the historic dockyard, dry dock and a separate museum for the ship’s designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, are open to tourists along with dining options.

Guests immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the high seas right along the water!

Watershed in Bristol

Housed in an ex-warehouse on the harborside, Watershed is a media center where visitors can enjoy three different cinemas highlighting the work of emerging filmmakers and blockbusters alike, cafeterias and various cultural events, such as workshops and talks along with cinema festivals. Consider it an incubator for creatives and small businesses.

The British Film Institute has been using Watershed for promoting events and films.

Hang out for a coffee or lunch and let the creative energy soak into your bones.

Bristol Queen Square

Bristol Queen Square. © NotFromUtrecht Wikimedia Commons.
Bristol Queen Square. © NotFromUtrecht Wikimedia Commons.

Steps from Watershed, one of Bristol’s most beautiful greenspaces and squares, Bristol Queen Square is a splendid Georgian Park surrounded by cobblestones streets and trees in the heart of the city. Locals prefer it as a meeting place on sunny days and visitors can use it as respite from the hustle-and-bustle.

When visiting the square, take time to explore the nearby buildings, all of which feature splendid architectural design. The Square was constructed back in 1622, but is well-preserved.

Where to stay in Bristol

From historic ins and B&Bs to modern, branded hotels, finding your perfect lodging in Bristol is simply a matter of preference, location and budget. Use the map below to get started.

Booking.com

Blaise Castle

“A place of myth, legends, awe and wonder,” Blaise Castle is situated on a location inhabited since the Neolithic Times. The estate has been converted into a museum where guests learn about life in Bristol during the 17th century.

In addition to the Castle and Blaise Museum, hundreds of wooded acres, meadows, lawns – even caves and a dramatic valley – provide endless roaming for guests. This is a great place to tire out energetic children.

The Old Duke Pub Bristol

The famous little Old Duke Pub in Bristol is a pilgrimage site for music lovers with live music every night of the week and its own annual jazz festival. The cozy pub built in 1775 authentically delivers what every English pub around the world attempts to recreate.

The Coronation Tap

A local’s favorite drinking establishment, the Coronation Tap is situated on a small side road only steps from the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Locally known as Cori Tap cider house, the signature spirit is the Exhibition cider.

Author

  • Chadd Scott

    Chadd Scott is an arts contributor with Forbes and the founder of See Great Art, where he writes about his travels from big city museums to small town galleries in search of great art.

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