Bristol isn’t the most beautiful city in the world (the blitz and brutalist post-war planning saw to that), but it compensates with a unique, offbeat charm. Cycle paths, community farms, street art, street food and a potent live music scene make it a multicultural, civic-minded kind of place with an alternative approach to city planning, green credentials and an unshowy, creative vibe – characteristics that also make it a family-friendly destination.
There’s no need to spend hundreds of Bristol (or any other) pounds to have a good time here (Leigh Woods, Blaise Castle Estate, Cabot Tower, M Shed and many more big-hitters are free to visit, including the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge if you’re on foot), but two fee-paying attractions are must-dos.
The first is the SS Great Britain (family ticket for two adults and up to three children, £37), which is easily reached by bus and foot, but is more fun approached via the water: hop on a Bristol Ferry at the back of Temple Meads station and it’s a 25-minute ride (adult single £3.10, child £2.60, under-5s free).
Brunel’s radically engineered ship is probably the city’s most famous attraction, and rightly so. Younger kids can dress up as Victorian cabin boys, have a go at punchbag-boxing on deck, pinch their noses at the reek of horses and chickens in the hold, and jump when they try to open a toilet door in steerage only to find a booming recorded voice telling them it’s occupied. Older children and adults will get more context about how the design rewrote the rules of shipbuilding – and can pay extra to climb the rigging.
The other must-visit is the At-Bristol Science Centre (family ticket for up to four £43) just across the water from the SS Great Britain on Millennium Square: take a cross-harbour ferry (90p, under-5s free), then it’s a five-minute walk. Its hectic medley of hands-on exhibits includes plenty for younger children to turn, splash, fly, draw or build, while older children could just come away with a grasp of the science behind its giant bubbles, pulley-parachutes, soundwave machines and animation screens. Even toddlers can get on board with a builders-themed play area kitted out with soft bricks and wheelbarrows.
This is the first attraction we’ve ever had to drag our two under-fives away from (wristband entrance tickets mean you can go in and out), but if the standard attractions start to wane there’s a regular programme of demos and workshops, plus an on-site planetarium, where bookable shows cost £2.50 per child and are well-judged for different ages.
If you’re an outdoorsy lot, hire bikes and pedal out along the Bristol to Bath Cycle Path. The 13-mile off-road route between Temple Meads and Bath Spa stations is wide, asphalted and peppered with sculptures. Children too young to cycle the whole route might manage the seven or so miles from the centre of Bristol to Warmley, where Warmley Waiting Room does bacon rolls, cream teas or Marshfield ice-creams, and there’s a Tardis-shaped toilet.
Where are all the other kids?
Ashton Court Estate’s 850 acres of woods and parkland are free to explore and include cafes, a deer park, natural play area, miniature railway and a mountain bike hire and skills coaching centre. Crowds descend for the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta each August, but balloons take off from the estate most mornings and early evenings throughout the summer – a sight that’s always worth catching.
The other reliable local all-rounder is Tyntesfield, a National Trust property on the western fringes of the city (from £22.70 per family, free for members). At the centre of this 540-acre estate is a gothically gloomy grade I-listed Victorian mansion, proving that where there’s muck there really is brass (it was built with a fortune made flogging guano).
The house itself doesn’t hold much appeal for very young children. Save the higher entrance fee and explore the grounds instead; there are good play areas beside the site’s two cafes, and the Trust has recently built a vast woodland play zone on a slope above the house, with treehouses, rope swings, climbing frames and a den-building village. It’s quite a hike to get to (especially with a buggy), but you’ll be glad you kept going once you find it.
Two city farms are also worth making a beeline for – and they’re both free. St Werburghs, to the north, is small but has a great, Gaudí-esque cafe with a play area, food made (sometimes) with ingredients picked from the neighbouring allotments and, next door, a bohemian pub with a sunny, family-friendly garden.
Windmill Hill is more central and has a wider range of play areas, animals and events (kids’ cookery workshops, circus skills, street food pop-ups). Its cafe is currently squished into a temporary site while a new one is being built, but the new, improved space should be open by June.
Less busy is Willsbridge Valley (also free), a local nature reserve whose wildlife gardens and woodland walking trails (great for balance bikes and buggies) are run in partnership by the Avon Wildlife Trust and a local community group. Stop for lunch at the cafe in restored mill buildings, then dip your toes in the stream just behind it.
If you’re in the city centre and everyone’s screaming for ice-cream, pizza or fish and chips, help is at better-than-average hand in the shape of Swoon Gelato, Pi Shop and Salt & Malt.
The first on that list, overlooking College Green, does superior takes on classic strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ices as well as myriad seasonal flavours (don’t miss the chocolate sorbet) and Swoon on a Stick (think posh Magnum). Gelato available in a bambino portion also wins them brownie points.
Pi Shop, just across the waterfront, is a good option if you want to steer clear of nuggets and cartoon character placemats. A stylish but laid-back pizza spot a little away from the hullabaloo, it has good-value children’s pizzas, colouring sheets and high chairs. These mean it’s packed with families in the early evening, despite its grown-up feel (walls are whitewashed, tables are hewn from wood and metal, and the drinks list includes a mean citrus-and-herb aperol spritz). Cracking pizzas, too (try a Wye Valley asparagus with tallegio, ewe’s curd and rocket).
Salt & Malt is Josh Eggleton’s sustainable, family-friendly fish restaurant at Cargo 2, a cluster of food outlets in shipping containers set to open imminently at Wapping Wharf. If you can’t wait, and you have your own wheels, drive out to the original restaurant at Chew Valley, just south of the city, and follow a walk around the adjacent lake with portions of battered cod, haddock, plaice or scampi.
For a sit-down Sunday lunch or dinner in the centre, make your way to No 1 Harbourside. A big, light space with children’s toys and colouring pads peppered among its wooden tables, this waterside restaurant holds a Sustainable Restaurant Association three-star rating for its ethical approach to food. Much – though not all – of it is vegan or vegetarian (it does outstanding Buddha bowls with toasted quinoa, spiced carrot hummus, dukkah, pickled beetroot and turnip, and purple sprouting broccoli marinated in lemongrass and ginger) and a new children’s menu includes made-from-scratch pasta sauces and posh fish finger sandwiches.
The city’s new ‘boatel’, the Kyle Blue (dorm beds from £29, doubles from £49, family rooms for four from £102), opened in January at Wapping Wharf. What once served as the green room for guests on Richard & Judy’s TV show at Liverpool’s Albert Dock was shipped south, overhauled and fitted out with geothermal heating, powerful showers, customised wooden bunks, plump duvets and free wifi, tea and coffee.
The peace is worth splashing out for: this part of the waterfront is quiet at night, and we woke only to the gentle sounds of swans smacking the water and rowers gliding past. There’s a self-catering kitchen, but if you don’t want to make your own breakfast, Brunel’s Buttery kiosk, two steps away, does a brisk trade in bacon sandwiches.
More of a landlubber? Family rooms at Bristol YHA, just over the water, start from £39 for four. Or nearby Brooks Guest House has standard triple bedrooms, or rooftop Rocket trailers sleeping four (last-minute rates for these start at around £87 B&B).
• For more information see visitbristol.co.uk