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Student city guide to Bristol: top 10 things to do

Bristol is one of those cities that you can’t really describe to someone. It’s more about the feel of the place as you walk around – most of the time, you’ll just end up saying “you’ve got to experience it for yourself!” But nevertheless, we’ve attempted to summarise it here with this list of the top 10 things to do in Bristol...

Eleanor Foulds
by Eleanor Foulds
Last Updated:
22 Dec 2022

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1) Motion

Good for: Clubbing ‘til the early hours of the morning.

What it is: A huge warehouse-style nightclub, which used to be an indoor skateboard park, just down the road from Temple Meads station.

Why you should go: Motion puts on massive nights, all throughout the year. With three rooms, and curfews as late as 6am, it’s quickly become one of the most prominent underground clubs in the UK. If you’re into house, drum and bass, dubstep or dance music, then you should be putting this venue right at the top of your priority list.

2) The Downs

Good for: Walking, sport, and some sightseeing!

What it is: A large expanse of grass and open fields, right by the Stoke Bishop halls.

Why you should go: This is where all the sports societies come to play games on Wednesday afternoons, so if you join a team you’re bound to come here. But even if sport isn’t your thing, take some time out to stroll around the parks – or if you’re particularly adventurous, wander over to the Avon Gorge, where you get a fantastic view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Which leads us on to…

3) Clifton Suspension Bridge (and Clifton Village)

Cliffton suspension bridge
Image via Sarah Charlesworth

Good for: Admiring architecture and engineering!

What it is: An awe-inspiring bridge that spans the Avon Gorge.

Why you should go: If you’re planning to study engineering, this should be your first stop when you come to Bristol. The mechanical engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the bridge, which was eventually completed after his death in 1864. It was only initially built to carry horse-drawn traffic, and yet it still functions today as an active road bridge for modern traffic. The bridge gives you a great view of the River Avon below, and is only a short walk from Clifton Village, which is famous for its beautiful Georgian architecture.

4) Stokes Croft

Good for: Finding out what Bristol is really like.

What it is: An eccentric, vibrant place – known as Bristol’s ‘cultural quarter’.

Why you should go: To check out the street art! Stokes Croft has wonderfully painted murals and stunning graffiti art, all up and down the main street. Stop off for a bite to eat in one of the local cafes, and then if you have time, take a look at the ‘outdoor gallery’ wall; there’s always something different up there!

5) Arnolfini

Good for: Experiencing some contemporary art.

What it is: A free art gallery right by the harbour side.

Why you should go: If street art isn’t your thing, then Bristol (of course) has something different to offer you. Check out their website to see what’s on. The best thing about the Arnolfini is that most exhibitions are free-admission, but the location is also excellent – after wandering round the gallery, you could finish your day off perfectly by sitting down for a meal at one of the many restaurants at At-Bristol, just across the water.

6) Cabot Circus

Good for: Shopping, shopping, shopping!

What it is: A modern shopping centre in the heart of Bristol.

Why you should go: With over 120 shops and two department stores, the reason for coming to Cabot Circus is obvious. But even if shopping tires you out, there’s a huge multiplex cinema upstairs, and you’re spoilt for choice with restaurants too. When you do end up going, make sure you check out the epic glass-panelled roof enclosing it all. Awesome!

7) Thekla

Banksy on the side of Thekla, via Alex McGregor

Good for: Seeing some live music or clubbing.

What it is: A moored cargo ship converted into a music venue.

Why you should go: Firstly, the variety in the music that you get at Thekla is amazing. From metal bands to DJs, from spoken word to cabaret – it’s a showcase for all things music. Secondly, the sound system there is top quality. And thirdly… it’s on a boat! Enough said.

8) S.S. Great Britain (and the Bristol Harbour)

SS Great Britain
Image via Robert Brewer, via Wikimedia Commons

Good for: Lovers of the history of marine engineering.

What it is: A restored version of the great passenger steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Why you should go: This ship was the first iron steamship ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and in 1970 she was returned to where she was originally built – the Bristol dry docks. Walking from the city centre to the S.S. Great Britain gives you a fantastic insight into Bristol’s shipping-industry history, and with museums, exhibitions and bars dotted up and down the harbour, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

9) The Old Vic

Good for: Watching plays, musicals and productions.

What it is: The longest continuously-running theatre in the UK.

Why you should go: Recently refurbished, The Old Vic Theatre always has something on, from classics like ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Hamlet’ to productions by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company themselves. You won’t find a more engaging or more intimate theatre experience in Bristol.

10) Will’s Memorial Building

Will's Memorial Building
Image via Ell Brown

Good for: Just looking at. Seriously… just look at it!

What it is: A beautiful Oxford-esque building and the heart of Bristol University.

Why you should go: If you come to Bristol University, then you will probably end up walking through those majestic doors at some point – whether it’s for your initial registration, for a talk from the head of your Faculty, or even for an exam. It’s the centrepiece of the University. So, if you ever see it pop up on your timetable, and you find yourself heading over there, just take a moment to look up at it. It’s grand, it’s majestic… it can even be a little bit daunting, at least at first. But, give it some time and eventually, that building will start to feel like home.

Key info about Bristol

Bristol is the largest city in the south west of England and the eighth most populous in the UK.  A historic town, with records dating back to the 11th Century and beyond, Bristol’s recently regenerated docks have become a centre of heritage and culture, and the area is packed with popular harbour side bars and restaurants.  Bristol is also well known for its live music scene, as well as playing host to several popular museums, art galleries and theatres.  It is connected to similarly historic spa town Bath by a Roman road, and is also close to Gloucester.

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