Considering Bristol is bursting at the seams with fascinating history and rampant creativity, it’s no surprise that it’s also home to some of the best culture in the country too. 

We’re the home of Banksy, Brunel and Blackbeard, with our sprawling city packed with discoveries and exciting tidbits just waiting to be uncovered. Fiercely proud of our originality and heritage, we’re also not shy of showing off our endeavours to the wider world, which is why Bristol is home to some of the most celebrated museums and art galleries. 

Discover some of Bristol’s best museums and art galleries for a fantastic day out, including a peek into our past as a bustling port and our more modern incarnation as a city for the arts. 

Delve into Bristol’s social and industrial history at the M Shed. Housed inside a former transit shed, this museum of Bristol combines historical artefacts and exhibits alongside clues to Bristol’s past as told by its people. Locate your house on the giant map which spans the floor of the lower gallery, marvel at the gruesome book bound with human skin, and hop aboard the 1950s bus to eavesdrop on some of the stories of journeys past. Outside, there are working exhibits to be seen, including the giant transit cranes, steam train and the oldest tug boat in existence. The upper floor regularly houses some of the most fascinating immersive exhibitions celebrating the achievements that Bristol has made as a city; from tattoo culture to the music scene, there is always something which we can be proud of for being Bristolian.

You’ve no doubt walked past this secretive-looking museum on Park Row on more than one occasion. Juxtaposed next to a huge multi-storey car park, Elizabethan history meets Georgian architecture and Victorian discipline in this beautiful house which spans the centuries. The Red Lodge museum was built in the 1500s as essentially a royal party house, and is home to some of the oldest architecture in Bristol. Discover the secrets behind the red door including its time as a Georgian family home and a Victorian reform school for girls, and be sure to take a peek at the beautiful Elizabethan knot garden outside. 

Perhaps the most iconic of the Bristol art galleries, this beautiful building sits next to the waterfront, and on a sunny day becomes the meeting point for hundreds of Bristolians looking to soak up the sunshine with a pint in hand. Established in 1961 and migrating to its current home in the early 70s, the Arnolfini is at the forefront of contemporary art in Bristol. Alongside the gallery spaces lies a vast specialist art bookshop, stocking all of the art books, zines and prints any art buff could desire. Curating exhibitions from the likes of Grayson Perry and performances from comedians and local musicians, the Arnolfini has created a community feel to welcome all into the space.

Perched at the top of steep Park Street, The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has been fascinating generations of Bristolians since the late 1800s. The imposing Gothic building is home to a vast collection of artefacts, including an exhibition of Ancient Egyptian history, a traditional gypsy caravan and exquisite collections of English pottery and Bristol blue glass. If you’re a fan of taxidermy then you’re in luck, the first floor houses a Noah’s Ark of specimens, including Alfred the gorilla who used to reside at Bristol Zoo. Modern art and history exhibitions often adorn the central hall, including the famed surprise Banksy exhibition back in 2009, showcasing his most recognised work.

Bristol’s very first art gallery, dating back to 1844, sits in a stunning Grade II Victorian listed building at the very top of the Clifton Triangle. This established and respected institution organises an extensive programme of talks, events and exhibitions to ensure that all generations have access to viewing their reputable art collection. Showcasing an ever-changing display of contemporary and historical art, the RWA is also home to a Drawing School with a roster of courses and workshops open to the general public, if you fancy sharpening up your drawing skills.

For 17 years, the At-Bristol centre brought science to a new generation, with their huge harbourside attraction crammed floor to ceiling with interactive exhibits. Now refreshed and re-branded as We The Curious, this science and arts museum is the ultimate place to entertain the whole family. There’s no ‘please don’t touch the exhibits here’; encourage your inner creativity and curiosity by exploring exhibitions which were designed to be played with. If you know of any budding astronauts then treat them to an immersive show at the totally sci-fi planetarium, or those without children will be pleased to know that there are regular adults-only evenings with the addition of a bar. Yeah, science!

Home to over 70 artists, 35 creative businesses and also the residence of UWE’s Fine Art courses, it’s fair to say that Spike Island is absolutely brimming with artistic genius. Housed in a former tea packing warehouse on the small strip of no-man’s-land in the middle of the Floating Harbour, this community arts centre is a fantastic day out, with a regularly changing programme of new work from up-and-coming artists, plus a pretty glorious cafe to boot - make sure you leave time for a slice of their legendary cake. Spike Island welcome all to their museum-sized gallery space, and regularly host talks and events aimed with the whole family in mind, so little ones will have plenty to do too.

“The ship that changed the world” - Brunel’s masterpiece of engineering was effectively abandoned at the beginning of the 20th Century, saved from rusting and welcomed back to Bristol in 1970 by the SS Great Britain Trust, 137 years after her first launch. Climb aboard today to experience the great-grandma of modern passenger ships in all her glory, and discover what life was like for a passenger on board. Plenty of activities help keep the kids entertained, with the chance to meet Brunel himself, dress as a Victorian and climb the rigging. History and engineering buffs will be agog at the sheer scale and beauty of the vessel which inspired every modern ship that followed it. 

Take a short trip to the outskirts of Bristol to marvel at the beautiful Blaise Castle Estate. Set in a stunning sprawling parkland sits a Grade II-listed Georgian folly castle and manor house, which is home to Blaise Castle House Museum and gardens. This fascinating museum is definitely one for social history buffs, as it explores the everyday lives of people over the last 300 years. Discover what they wore with displays from a collection of 10,000 pieces of historical costume, how they cooked and ate, how children’s toys have changed over the years, from the 1780s to the 1980s.

Step into the shoes of a member of Georgian high society at this perfectly preserved townhouse. Recreated to mirror what the living quarters of a plantation owner and slave trader might have looked like, it’s an important slice of Bristol’s somewhat troublesome heritage. Explore eleven rooms over four floors, discovering what life was like for those who lived upstairs versus those who served them from the rooms below. This beautiful house is also the home of Bristol’s most famous slave, Pero Jones, after whom the distinctive bridge across the harbour towards Millennium Square is named. 

If you have a keen eye for photography, then make sure the Bristol HQ of the Royal Photographic Society is on your bucket list. Housed inside an incredible building which looks just like a giant TV, it’s the home of this education charity aiming to further everyone’s knowledge of this specialist subject. The RPS building has a dedicated exhibition space presenting the best photographic talent with an ambitious program which changes with the seasons, including a focus on women in photography, plus an auditorium hosting talks and seminars every single week. 

Throughout the year, handfuls of talented Bristol artists open their front doors to the general public with Bristol Arts Trails. Taking place from Bishopston to Bedminster, these community-run events showcase the best art from local makers in different neighbourhoods across the city. Quite literally showcasing their talent from their front rooms, this is a unique opportunity to visit the home of an artist, have a cup of tea and ask them in-depth about how they create their work. Keep an eye out for your local trail and pop along on the day to support your local community, buy some unique pieces and listen to some brilliant music.  

Aiming to develop creative opportunities for the people of Bristol, this co-operative art gallery, events space and artists’ studios in the heart of Bristol was established in the 1970s and offers an affordable space for new artists in the old city. Alongside events and artist residencies, the gallery runs a dynamic calendar of exhibitions and is also available for hire if you want to show off a hidden talent or run a workshop of your own. Discover some of the finest contemporary art in their gallery space, from fine art and sculpture to film and sound installations. 

Published -3rd September 2019