If you are like I was, Bristol, England may not be on your family travel list. But the largest city in southwestern England should be – not only are there loads of things to do with kids, great restaurants, and the fun vibe that comes from being a university town, Bristol is an easy and inexpensive train ride from London and makes for a great weekend trip.
We started our morning in Bristol down at the harbor in the Blue Reef Aquarium, which has a nice collection of animals and a 3-D Imax show that he boys really enjoyed.
After a tear around the nearby Millennium Square, we grabbed some lunch (there are lots of restaurants of various ethnicities, so you really have your pick). I wanted to explore the harbor more, but the boys had been up at a ridiculously early hour and were spazzy and out of control like only exhausted children can be (this happened pretty frequently on this trip and tempers were definitely fraying). So Matt took the boys and headed for home while I walked around the harbor to the SS Britain.
This is a fascinating ship, revolutionary for 1843 when it launched, with a screw propeller, an iron hull, and a huge engine that allowed it to travel much faster than previous commercial vessels. It enjoyed years of travel around the globe before being retired to the Falkland Islands in the early twentieth century.
You start your visit inside an interactive museum that walks you backward through time telling the story of the SS Britain’s amazing return across the Atlantic to Bristol in the 1970s and sharing lots of information about how the ship works and who sailed on it through the years, including this chest of drawers where visitors get to match objects with the people who carried them on board. This chest of drawers was an excellent period piece and I even overheard other visitors say they fancied having antique furniture like it in their homes. Somewhere like antiquesworld.co.uk would be their best bet.
Then it’s onto the ship itself. The the dry dock that’s been created below the surface of the water to protect the bottom of the boat in a dry and stable temperature is amazing. You can walk right up to the enormous propeller
and look above you to see the water of the river.
The rest of the ship has been lovingly restored, and you can see everything from the staterooms, to the dining area, to the ship’s machinery. There are even recreations of the ship’s cargo.
In addition to visiting the SS Britain, I also enjoyed just strolling along the water. There are many interesting things to look at from these houses that looked like they belonged in the Mediterranean,
to gantry cranes,
To the Bristol Cathedral, providing a nicely contradictory backdrop to the more modern buildings directly next to the river.
The day was chilly, so after my walk I was happy to warm up in the lovely coffee shop at the Arnolfini, a modern art center. They were changing exhibitions the day I was there, so I didn’t get to see the gallery space. But I enjoyed a lovely cup of tea and piece of apple cake.
While I was enjoying the SS Britain, Matt and the boys (who for some mysterious reason immediately got their second wind as soon as we parted – sigh) had a wonderful time at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery which houses a small but interesting dinosaur exhibit. This was followed up with yummy milkshakes at Rocotillos, a diner across the street.
Bristol is a great family travel destination and a place I’d like to return to. Down at the harbor I want the boys to see the SS Britain and possibly whatever is on at the Arnolfini. A new museum called the M Shed is due to open along the harbor in June, 2011 – it will tell the story of Bristol from preshistoric times through the present. We also might try a boat trip or a visit to the planetarium in Millennium Square. Then there’s the rest of Bristol, including Clifton Village with its Georgian terraces and large suspension bridge. And there are various other city parks and museums and a very nice zoo.
But the number one reason I’d like to return to Bristol is to see Heather Cowper and her lovely family again. In fact, it’s thanks to Heather that we even ended up in Bristol – when she saw we were planning a visit to southwest England last summer, she insisted we come and stay. In addition to providing us with some fantastic itineraries, she welcomed us into her home. The boys instantly bonded with her son and daughter:
It was a nice break in the middle of a two-week trip to stay in someone’s home and of course, Heather and her husband Guy were full of great suggestions and advice about what to see and do. Heather has a wonderful travel blog called Heather on Her Travels, with loads of information about Bristol and the many other places she’s visited.
So today I’m dreaming about a return to Bristol to see the rest of the city – and to visit old friends. How about you?