Bristol’s past is awash with nautical goings-on. Ever heard the saying ‘ship shape and Bristol fashion’? That goes back to when sailors here had to keep their cargo neat and tidy, on their impeccably crafted ships, to prevent them tipping over when the tide went out as Bristol has the second biggest tidal range in the world.

The city's significance as a trading port goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, and since then its played host to some of the finest and most fearsome characters of maritime history, from Samuel Plimsoll – a social reformer who devised the Plimsoll line, which improved safety at sea by indicating the maximum amount a vessel could be submersed under the weight of its cargo, to Blackbeard – a pirate who lit fuses in his hair to strike terror wherever he roamed.

Discover where you can experience more of Bristol's maritime past, from boat trips to walking tours.

Ships ahoy! 

Bristol’s maritime history means there are boats aplenty to enjoy year-round. Hop aboard The Matthew, a replica of the ship John Cabot accidently sailed over to North America whilst trying to find Asia. Don’t worry, you won’t suffer any of the hardships or hunger the 15th century crew would have. In fact, sign up for one of their fish & chip trips - accompanied by sea shanties - and your experience will be quite the opposite.

A view of The Matthew replica ship passing through Bristol's Cumberland Basin with the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the background - credit Nick Greville
Image - The Matthew

At engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s handsome SS Great Britain – the world’s first great ocean liner – you can see what it was like for the pioneering Victorian passengers who took those longs trips over to Australia. Will you travel first class or steerage? You can also learn how the boat was built in Bristol, returned ceremoniously in 1970 and restored to its former glory.

Exterior of the SS Great Britain at the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol - credit Brunel's SS Great Britain
Image - Brunel's SS Great Britain

For a cool way to get around, make like the locals and jump on one of the handy ferries that shuttle people to and fro across the Floating Harbour run by Bristol Ferry and No 7 Boat Trips. You can also take a longer journey under Clifton Suspension Bridge on an Avon Gorge Cruise or enjoy a leisurely float along the River Avon to beautiful Beese's Bar & Tea Gardens with Bristol Ferry, Bristol Packet Boat Trips and No 7 Boat Trips. All of the boat companies also offer private hire.

If you want a really unique way to see the Harbour’s sites – check out SUP Bristol. Their Harbourside Adventures on stand up paddle boards will take you past all the classic Bristol sites, and if you’re lucky you might even catch a hot air balloon gliding overhead.

Paddleboarders in front of Hotwells and Grain Barge, Harbourside - credit SUP Bristol
Image - SUP Bristol

Museums with maritime connections

To understand Bristol’s ship building past, present and future head to Underfall Yard’s hands-on visitor centre. Part of a working boatyard, you’ll get a real sense for the nuts and bolts of how the Floating Harbour works - a marvel of engineering from the 1700s. Once you've had a look around, stop into the cafe next door for a hot drink and cake with a fabulous view of the harbour.

Boat on slipway at Underfall Yard - credit Underfall Yard
Image - Underfall Yard

Make sure you take a look around social history museum M Shed, too, to learn about the lives of those who worked on the docks in the days when Bristol was a bustling port city. Housed in an old transit shed, it has some distinctive cranes outside, now synonymous with Bristol’s Harbourside – they still work, and you can even ride in one on selected days!

If a Behind the Scenes Tour is more your scene, you can turn up for a special look at treasures from the city’s industrial and maritime past throughout the year - check the M Shed website for more details. Four historic boats reside at M Shed: The Matthew, The Pyronaut, John King and the Mayflower – the oldest steam tug in the world. 

Exterior of Bristol's M Shed local history museum - credit Quintin Lake
Image - M Shed

At The Georgian House Museum, you can step inside a sugar plantation owner’s home from 1790. Eleven rooms spread over four floors reveal what life was like above and below stairs and offer a glimpse into Bristol’s history of slavery.

If you’ve got kids in tow, head to Bristol Aquarium – set atmospherically in a sunken ship. As well as various permanent tanks with sharks, piranhas and all manner of weird and wonderful ocean life, the aquarium hosts daily talks and special activities during the school holidays, as well as After Hours events. 

A group of children looking into a tank while walking through the tunnel at Bristol Aquarium - credit Bristol Aquarium
Image - Bristol Aquarium

Boat bars, clubs & restaurants

If there's one thing Bristolians love, it's a bar or restaurant on a boat! For casual dining, Three Brothers Burgers on Welsh Back serves up some epic – you guessed it – burgers. Under the Stars has a great top terrace where you can tuck into tapas and cocktails with a great view of the waterfront.

A burger at Three Brothers Burgers in central Bristol - credit Three Brothers Burgers
Image - Three Brothers Burgers

When it comes to drink - whether you want a leisurely afternoon pint in the sun or a late night boogie below deck, Bristol’s got you covered. Enjoy a gin and tonic in the serene surrounds of 6 O'Clock Gin at the Glassboat, or soak up views of the Harbourside from the top deck of the Grain Barge. Run by Bristol Beer Factory, it’s also a great place to sample some top local brews. If you’d prefer local cider it’s got to be The Apple – brace yourself for their house special, the super strong Old Bristolian. Thekla has a legendary reputation for its late night club nights and live gigs. 

You can also book on to sunset drinks cruises with Bristol Ferry during spring and summer, or enjoy a tipple during a harbour cruise with Bristol Packet Boat Trips.

Independence at sunset with M Shed in the background - credit Bristol Ferry
Image - Bristol Ferry

Pirate walks & treasure trails

Discover the truth about the world’s most notorious pirate on the Blood, Blackbeard and Buccaneers Tour around the harbour, or learn more about Bristol's 1,000 year history as an international port city on the All About Bristol Walking Tour.

Or take the self-guided Treasure Island Trail. Be guided round eight sites – signified by wine barrels planted with palm trees - pertinent to the Robert Louis Stevenson classic novel which was set in Bristol. Make sure you duck into the timber-framed Llandoger Trow on cobbled King Street for a quick rum, this old pirate haunt has some strange stories to tell...

Exterior of The Llandoger Trow pub in central Bristol - credit Haunted & Hidden Bristol
Image - The Llandoger Trow

Harbourside hotels

If you want to wake up in view of Bristol’s colourful boat life treat yourself to a luxury stay at The Bristol. This contemporary waterfront hotel is supremely appointed near all the great Harbourside attractions such as Arnolfini art gallery, Bristol Aquarium and At-Bristol Science Centre. For a budget option here you can also try YHA Bristol. Then in Welsh Back, close to all the pubs and bars of King Street, there’s Mercure Bristol Brigstow. Ideal if you have a fear of missing out!

For Victorian splendour, wander over to the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel – right next to Bristol Cathedral and within striking distance of the Harbourside. If your maritime themed trip has got you in the mood for a dip – go for a swim in the hotel’s Romanesque pool. And then there’s Radisson Blu – check into one of the top floor rooms for some awesome views over the water.

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