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. You can read more about Bristol’s colourful history here, or continue on to immerse yourself in the city’s many seafaring attractions…

Ships ahoy! 

Image - Jim Cossey

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.

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? Or maybe you’d like to be a sailor – in which case climb the rigging on Go Aloft! You can also learn how the boat was built in Bristol, returned ceremoniously in 1970 and restored to its former glory.

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 Boats 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 Boats, Bristol Packet Boat Trips and No 7 Boat Trips. All of the above, plus Avon River Cruises, also offer private hire.

And 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 such as Brunel’s ss Great Britain and The Matthew, and if you’re lucky you might even catch a hot air balloon gliding overhead.

Museums with maritime connections

Image- Underfall Yard

To understand Bristol’s ship building past, present and future head to Underfall Yard’s new hands-on visitor centre. Part of a working boatyard, you’ll get a real sense for the nuts and bolts of the industry. 

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 on 1-2 October you can even ride in one! 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 from 31 May-3 September. Three historic boats reside at M Shed: The Pyronaut, John King and the Mayflower – the oldest steam tug in the world. Go to www.bristolmuseums.org.uk to find out more.

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 want to learn more there’s a dedicated Sugar and Slavery guided tour with curator Sue Giles on 24 September. See www.bristolmuseums.org.uk for details.

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, special events include Shipwrecked Storytelling and Mermaid Mondays. Go to www.bristolaquarium.co.uk for more.

Boat bars, clubs & restaurants

Image - The Glassboat

For casual dining, Three Brothers Burgers on Welsh Back serves up some epic – you guessed it – burgers. Try the Blue Brothers Burger, topped with caramelised onions and Alex James from Blur's Blue Monday cheese! Next door you’ll find the stylish Glassboat, great for seafood and steaks and watching the city's lights dancing on the water at night. 

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. 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. Or, if you’d prefer local cider it’s got to be The Apple – brace yourself for their house special, the super strong Old Bristolian. Meanwhile Thekla has a legendary reputation for its late night club nights and live gigs. For more ideas, see our page devoted to food and drink on boats.

Pirate walks & treasure trails

Image - Pirate Pete 

Join the notorious Pirate Pete on an eye-opening one-hour walking tour of the Harbourside – via Bristol-born Blackbeard’s secret lair! A great storyteller, Pete will have you gripped with his swashbuckling tales and insight into the city’s turbulent past.

Or take the self-guided Treasure Island Trail. Simply download the app and 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...

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 the Glassboat, the Llandoger Trow and 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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