Bristol is having a bit of a moment and I couldn’t be more excited for my home city. With accolades coming out of its ears – ‘Coolest City in Britain’ (Rough Guides), ‘Best City to Live in 2017’ ( The Sunday Times), new restaurants and attractions popping up all over the place, the city is a thrilling place to visit. If you’re after free activities in Bristol with kids or exciting family-friendly entertainment on a budget, Bristol has loads on offer – from fascinating museums to historic towers, city farms, brilliant play parks and of course, that mother of a bridge…read on for my top free activities in Bristol with kids.
Free activity in Bristol: Clifton Suspension Bridge
Young kids might not give two squawks about Brunel’s engineering prowess, exhibited in Bristol’s famous landmark Clifton Suspension Bridge, but it doesn’t half make for some lovely photographs. You have to pay to cross the bridge by car (£1 each way), but it’s free for walkers to cross and admire from afar. On the city side, there’s lots of green grass to run around on, wooded paths that lead to The Downs, a lovely park surrounded by rocky walls and beautiful Clifton Village to wander around. Don’t miss the natural rock slide (polished smooth by generations of gliding botties) or Clifton Observatory and the Giant’s Cave (more on that later). For a bit more adventuring, cross over the bridge – from here it’s just a short walk to the vast, green (and free to enter) Ashton Court Estate and National Trust woodland, Leigh Woods.
Home to one of the most spectacular views in the city (and let’s face it, the UK, nay the world) and one of only two camera obscuras open to the public in England, is Clifton Observatory and Camera Obscura. It’s only a few quid to enter and you get a lot of bang for not many bucks. Inside, wind and wend down steep stony steps to the ‘Giant’s Cave’ – so-named after the legendary Goram and Ghyston from Bristolian folklore. According to West Country legend their feud over a lady, Avona, supposedly created Bristol’s dramatic Avon Gorge (there are other ‘traces’ of these giants to be found around Bristol – discover them on the free Mythical Bristol Giants Walking Tour). The stairs lead to a little balcony halfway down the cliff face, with breath-taking views of Clifton Suspension Bridge and along the Gorge. Above ground there’s a roof terrace bar for drinking in that view and a gin or two.
*Under-4s are not allowed in the cave for health and safety reasons.
A delicious wide-open green space right on the city’s doorstep, Ashton Court Estate has acres of grass and woodland open to the public for free. Cyclists, mountain bikers, horse riders, golfers and families flock here for fresh air, picnics, bike trails, buggy-friendly paths, and a golf course. Spot fallow deer wandering in fenced-off areas, play hide and seek in the woods or let little ones scoot to their heart’s content. There’s also a couple of cafés if you get peckish. If you’re visiting between March and October, be sure to check ahead to see if the Miniature Railway is running (90p a ride, 10 rides for £8) – it’s brilliant, cheap fun. Come August (normally the second weekend), Ashton Court is transformed into the visually spectacular Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, when over 100 hot air balloons take off from the grounds of Ashton Court Estate. There’s also special night glows, fireworks, aerial displays and tons of family-friendly fairground entertainment and free activities over the course of the four-day festival.
Free activities in Bristol with kids on a rainy day? This museum is a life-saver. The first thing you’ll notice upon entering is an old aeroplane hung from the high ceilings of this magnificent building. Colourful Chinese dragons snake along the walls and a statue covered in spilt paint is a throwback to when Bristol’s infamous street artist Banksy took over the place back in 2009. There’s loads of exploring to be done – kids will love the dinosaurs, dodo, Egyptian mummies, gypsy caravan, South West Wildlife, exotic stuffed animals, colouring tables and lots more. Downstairs, a fenced-off children’s play area with interactive puzzles, dressing up costumes and voice recorder keeps young children entertained even longer. The museum is free to enter and completely geared up for families- you’ll find feeding and changing rooms, a café and buggy-friendly lifts. Check their website for current exhibitions and special kid’s activities.
One of Bristol’s greatest parks with a lovely play area for kids and huge sand pit. It’s very popular with dog walkers (the huge kid’s play area is a dog free zone), so if your little one is a canine fan then it’s a great chance to spot a few. The park comes into its own in summer when the free lido is filled with water for kids to splash about in and ice cream sellers wander the walkways – you can easily fill a day wandering from park to pool to sand pit. A lovely little kiosk at its centre sells refreshments, including great coffee for parents who need a pick-me-up!
Free activity: Millennium Square Water Fountains
Down near the city centre, close to the Floating Harbour there are fountains and water features to be found at Millennium Square, Cascade Steps and Quaker’s Friars. They’re perfect (and free) to paddle in on a hot, sunny day. Here you’re right next to We The Curious (Bristol’s brilliant interactive science centre) and its giant disco ball lookalike – the UK’s first 3D Planetarium – should you have a few extra pennies to spend on a family day out.
For a fun, cheap, activity with kids, take to the water to get around the city on one of Bristol’s water buses, Bristol Ferry Boats. Ok, they’re not free, but they’re not very expensive either and a family ticket will only set you back a few pounds. The ferries start at Broad Quay and go all the way around the Floating Harbour to the Pump House, Nova Scotia and The Cottage, stopping at sights like Brunel’s SS Great Britain on the way. Or you can go the other way, all the way to Temple Meads Train Station.
Sitting pretty on the Harbourside, Arnolfini – one of Europe’s leading centres for the contemporary arts – offers free family activities all year round. From free film screenings to story time, free exhibitions and art workshops it’s a fantastic place to eat, drink, learn and be merry.
So much spaaaaaace to run wild in! It’s no wonder it’s been called ‘Bristol’s green lung‘. Pack a picnic and laden yourselves with scooters, balance bikes, kites, balls, trikes and anything else you can think of to enjoy the great outdoors. The café next to the water tower is a great spot for refuelling (and there are toilets here too!) Head to the Sea Walls end, where there’s gorgeous views along the Avon Gorge to the Clifton Suspension Bridge one way and the Severn Bridge and Bristol Channel the other. Lucky youngsters will be grateful for the ice cream van that sets up camp here on sunny days.
Despite being just a stone’s throw from the city centre, Blaise Castle Estate sprawls for acres. With vast open areas, dreamy forested gorge walks, stream stepping stones, Bristol Giants spotting and a ‘folly’ castle sitting atop a hill, it’s a great place for an attention-grabbing walk with children. Two huge playgrounds cater for younger and older kids if you still need to wear the little monkeys out and the museum in the mansion house is free to explore. Look out for their ‘fairy walks’ and other free activities for kids during the school holidays.
From prehistoric times to the present day, the story of Bristol is told at this free-to-enter museum through interactive displays and quirky paraphernalia. Kid favourites are a double decker bus, life-size horse and suspended hot air balloons. During the holidays, they offer train and crane rides along the dockside as well as Pyronaut trips on the water. There’s also a café and killer panoramic views over the Harbourside from the roof. Afterwards, wander over to Wapping Wharf for something seriously yummy to eat in a Cargo shipping container.
Following the success of Bristol Hospital Charity, The Grand Appeal’s ‘Gromit unleashed’ and ‘Shaun the Sheep’ arts trails which saw oodles of Aardman’s Gromit and Shaun sculptures pop up around Bristol, comes Gromit Unleashed 2. This time three characters – Wallace, Gromit and Feathers McGraw will take the city by storm from 2 July to 2 September 2018. The trail features lots of exciting new interactive additions, just download the app, round up the family and seek out the statues!
Free activity: Cabot Tower
Hundreds of squirrels frolic in the gardens surrounding this Grade II* listed tower – take a few nuts with you and they’ll eat them right out of your hand! It’s free to climb to the top of the steep winding tower steps and you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable panoramic views of the city. If you don’t have a head for heights, don’t fear! There’s also a delightful little water feature, children’s play area and steep grassy hill sides – perfect for rolling down.
Over the bridge, opposite Ashton Court Estate is a glorious patch of woodland. If you have a doggy or a child to walk, let them run their little leggies out here. Although a nature reserve managed by the National Trust, it’s free to the public. There’s a variety of colour-coded pathways and mountain bike trails to choose from, plus a few swings and bits for kids to play on on the way round. They also put on events in the woodland every so often to bring out the woodland elf in you! The views from this side across the Gorge to Clifton Suspension Bridge aren’t too shabby either.
Free activity: The Matthew
The Matthew, a replica of the ship John Cabot (or Giovanni Cabotti as he’s also known) sailed across the Atlantic and discovered North America, is moored on Bristol’s Harbourside. It’s stunning to look at and free to hop aboard. It’s got pretty pirate-y vibes which kids will love and they often put on a ‘Captain Barnacle Pirate’ panto (which you have to buy tickets for). If you’re happy to pay a bit more for a Floating Harbour-faring adventure, you can also hop aboard for fish and chips or afternoon tea cruise in the holidays.
Free activity: Bristol’s City Farms
St Werburgh’s (north of the river) and Windmill Hill City Farm (south of the river) are both free to enter and are perfect for pottering about and learning about farm animals. St Werburgh’s has a children’s play area, a Gaudi-meets-the-hobbit gnarly tree café with an outside deck serving fresh, wholesome, mostly organic food. Windmill Hill feels slightly larger and offers activities such as goat walking! It also has a lovely organic, child-friendly café with farm produce to buy, gluten free options and a place to recycle Ella’s pouches – big thumbs up in my book!
Free Bristol play parks
Bristol is home to a whopping 400 parks and gardens and many of these have brilliant children’s play areas. Oldbury Court & Snuff Mills is a big green estate with woodland, riverside walks, cafe kiosk, picnic spots and a kid’s play area complete with pirate ship, sand pit and zip wire. Canford Park is a Victorian park with football pitches, tennis courts and a bowling green and a great play area. You’ll also find plenty of park life at Horfield Common and Eastville Park – the latter has a huge fishing lake, Redland Green and small Victorian park Cotham Gardens.
What’s your favourite free activity in Bristol to do with kids? Let me know in the comments below!
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