Regularly named the best place to live in the UK, Bristol, the gateway to the West Country is having a moment. Its creative industries are flourishing as disillusioned Londoners seek a more affordable alternative, while a new generation of young chefs are returning home to re-imagine the area’s ancient foodie traditions. One of the most consistently liberal places in the country, Bristolians have always been proud to dance to the beat of their own drum (and bass)… the best news? Some of the city’s coolest experiences can be enjoyed without spending a penny. So here are the best free things to do in Bristol:
1. Spot the Banksy
Sardonic graffiti artist Banksy is a Bristol boy through and through and some of his most famous works are scattered throughout the city. Track his progress from being just another kid in the 80s with spray paint in his hand to when he took over the Bristol Museum in 2009, attracting 350,000 visitors to his exhibition in a single month. Head to the sexual health clinic on Frogmore Street to see the well-hung lover and Lower Lamb Street for a lesser-known mural which reads ‘you don’t need planning permission to build castles in the sky’. The tourist board has a Banksy walking itinerary which you can download for free from its website.
🌎 Website: visitbristol.co.uk
2. Join the #EdibleBristol movement
An awesome community growing movement that sees fruit and veg patches pop up on unused land throughout the city, free for anyone to love, nurture and ultimately harvest. You can find them at Temple Meads Station, Chatterton’s Garden, Anchor Square, St Mary Redcliffe churchyard and many more. Very tasty, very eco-friendly, very Bristol.
🌎 Website: ediblebristol.org.uk
3. Pay your respects to The Duke
Named after jazz legend Duke Ellington, The Old Duke pub has free live music every night of the week as well as Sunday lunchtimes. It may be on cobbled King Street but push open the peeling door and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter… except with a better choice of ciders! This venue has been a Bristol stalwart for more than 50 years and there’s always a great mix of retired rockers, indie kids and jazz-lovers.
🌎 Website: theoldduke.co.uk
4. Get your culture fix at the Arnolfini
The Arnolfini is groundbreaking arts space on Narrow Quay has been central to Bristol’s creative scene since it flung open its doors in 1961. They host free music events on Thursday nights from June-August and most of the exhibitions are free (that deserves a yeah boi). In Autumn, Sortition, a major exhibition by Selina Thompson that imagines what the country would look like if it were run by politicians who had been selected at random rather than voted in. Pretty rad. Head to the new Front Room to flick through a selection of art books and independent magazines.
🌎 Website: www.arnolfini.org.uk
5. Don’t miss… Encounters Short Film Festival
What started in 1995 as a one-off project called Brief Encounters has gone on to become the UK’s leading short film, animation and virtual reality festival. It’s all about supporting up-and-coming talent, as well as pushing the boundaries of the genre. Expect haunting, beautifully-crafted and highly original films, often lasting no more than a few minutes. You can catch free films on their website and there is normally a free programme throughout the festival too.
🌎 Website: encounters-festival.org.uk
🗓 Date: 24th-29th September 2019
6. Don’t miss… Bristol Open Doors
Ever walked past a heritage Georgian mansion and wished you could have a snoop inside? Or wondered what’s hidden beneath a city’s streets? This is a unique weekend organized by the Architecture Centre that sees 101 iconic buildings unlock their doors and welcome the public, many of them for free. This year we’re buzzing to explore the wine cellars of Avery’s, Bristol’s oldest wine merchants, and tour Avonmouth Asphalt Plant, a futuristic structure with awesome estuary views.
🌎 Website: Bristol Open Doors
🗓 Date: 13-15th September 2019
7. Cross the Clifton Suspension Bridge
Bristol’s architectural calling card, this miraculous feat of engineering was designed by Isimbard Kingdom Brunel in the 1830s, although he sadly didn’t live to see his masterpiece finished. A thin cobweb of metal stretching 100 metres above the water of the River Avon, it swings gently in the breeze and offers staggering views over the entire city. Go prepared to be wowed and (please) make sure you hold on tightly to your phone when taking pictures.
8. Don’t miss… Bristol Harbour Festival
Dancing, music and a healthy dose of maritime history are the order of the day at the city’s biggest free festival. The site runs from Brunel’s SS Great Britain all the way to Welshback. Come wearing your dancing shoes and expect four music stages, free dance workshops from Bristol’s most famous schools in Millenium Square and thought-provoking spoken word performances from local poets. Last year’s headliners included reggae legend Jimmy Cliff and pioneering hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash.
🌎 Website: Bristol Harbour Festival
🗓 Date: 19-21 July 2019
9. Stroll through Leigh Woods in May
Shaded by rare Whitebeam trees and scattered with the remains of Iron Age forts, this National Trust Nature Reserve is a peaceful place to reconnect with mother nature all year round. However, it’s extra special in the month of May, when the floor is transformed by a fragrant carpet of bluebells. Stroll, sniff and enjoy all without spending a penny. Delightful.
🌎 Website: National Trust
10. Don’t miss… the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Europe’s largest hot air balloon event attracts more than 300,000 people across one weekend every summer. Head to the rolling grounds of Ashton Court to watch 130 air balloons from all over the world take off at sunrise or sunset. Don’t miss the Nightglow sessions, where the balloons light up like electric jellyfish while local DJs show off their talent.
🌎 Website: Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
🗓 Date: 8-11 August 2019
11. Follow your stomach to St.Nick’s Market
This Victorian market hall is home to a crew of fabulous independent food businesses and many offer free samples to tempt potential punters. Go for nothing more than the sights, smells and sounds although, if you do try a sample or two we reckon you won’t be able to resist forking out for a full meal. Some of our favourites are Ah Toots bakery, Eat a Pitta, Grillstock and Source Cafe. Look out for the monthly night market in summer.
🌎 Website: St.Nick’s Market
12. Be inspired at Spike Island
This cool, contemporary gallery is a living, breathing arts organism where free exhibitions share the space with a community of more than 100 artists, sculptors and designers who rent low-cost workshops and give the place its authentic edge. Check-out the website to hear about upcoming open studio weekends where you can spot the next big thing and gain fascinating insights into how artists approach their work.
🌎 Website: Spike Island
13. Choose your hood
Are you a coffee-sipping sophisticate or metal-head? Nature lover or night owl? Each of Bristol’s neighbourhoods has a distinct personality and one of the city’s great pleasures is mooching around the streets, window shopping for your tribe. There’s elegant Clifton, the Georgian gem beloved by well-heeled bohemians and Stokes Croft, a honeycomb of creativity and liberal activism. Follow the smell of jerk chicken to St.Paul’s, raise a pint with the old boys at one of the salty pubs on the harbour or meet the new wave of young entrepreneurs at Whapping Wharf.
About the author
Imogen Lepere is a travel writer with a soft spot for anything quirky, surprising and incongruous. Her adventures include teaching in Kathmandu, riding the Trans-Mongolian railway and living with a nudist colony in Greece. She currently splits her time between London and Melbourne, where she can normally be found with a glass of wine in one hand and a pen in the other. Read more of her work here or follow her on Instagram.