Best things to do in Bristol with kids?
At your wits’ end looking for fun things to do in Bristol with kids in Lockdown? Can I suggest sliding over slippy rocks, giant head hunting, sledging down ski slopes and climbing over monkeys?
Here are some of the activities that have helped keep us sane during lockdown.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 1 - Ashton Court
First up is a firm favourite. Take a child, dog, bike (delete as appropriate) to Ashton Court Estate. This has been my weekly “happy place” since March. I have walked through all the seasons (and a lot of mud), spotted antlered deer on the path next to me and eaten bacon sandwiches at the feet of Giant Redwoods.
Ashton Court Mansion
Ashton Court is the grand ancestral home of the Smyth Family. Now owned by Bristol Council, the grounds are free to the public. In normal times the Estate plays host to balloon, kite and music festivals, and it still has plenty to offer the Covid visitor.
The Mansion’s sandstone façade glows orange as it presides over the large formal lawn, a top place for ball games and socially distanced picnics.
Top tip – Watch out for the invisible Ha-ha at the bottom, you can’t just run happily down into the meadows below.
In front of the house, next to the Giant Redwoods and the pond, blooms a rose garden straight out of a fairy-tale. Much debate usually ensues as to the best colour for a flower. It is red – I win.
The estate provides acres of woodland for wandering. If, like mine, your kids need more than a suggestion of “just a walk” to leave the house, there is a whole den building area you can tempt them with (hiding in the trees to the right hand side of the estate as you enter).
Not only do you get to spot the traditional relatives of Bambi, there is an additional, more russet coloured, deer herd living in the fields to the right of the road on the way in. In winter Santa has been known to feed them, which is about as Christmass-y as it gets. (I’m not sure the 2 deer gangs ever meet or even know of each other’s existence.)
There is a surprise giant head sitting bodiless on top of the hill, looking down over the main house and surveying the city below. It turns out this is not old man Smyth, but Golam one of 2 mythical giants said to have built Bristol.
The café is open for take away food and drinks in tier 3, and bench sitting in tier 2. Additional picnic tables are perched scenically in the adjacent lawned area. looking out over rolling fields in one direction and the pretty coloured houses of Bristol in the other. Good place for your take-out latte and hot bacon sarnie in a bag.
I am now waiting for a blanket of snow to complete the full seasonal picture and so I can add real snow sledging to my lockdown activity with kids list.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 2 - The Zoo!
Bristol Zoo, one of the oldest and prettiest in the world, has been open even in tier 3, and should be even more open in tier 2.
Even with some of the indoor exhibits temporarily closed, large parts of the zoo are accessible as normal. The timed entry and one way system ensure social distancing, although they do mean you have to visit animals in the designated order, and you can’t just run over to the lions when you hear them roar.
The zoo keepers have also turned off the comedy button which makes it look like you are being wee-ed on by a lion. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I’m not sure (less fun, but no unanticipated clothes changes required). Kids are gutted.
Although a city zoo, it does have some pretty sizable animals. And if you want to see them you had better get your skates on as it has recently been announced that they are heading up in the world and moving out to the country (probably best).
In the meantime, a 30 minute stroll from the centre will take you to a land of seals, gorillas and aforementioned lions.
Also look out for the ever popular monkey zone, the strange Australian blue necked cassowary, smiley otters and cuddly red pandas (no actual cuddles allowed).
This is not just a zoo, but a tropical botanical garden, with a bonus maze. There are large grassy areas for lazing and playing, just don’t kick your ball into the flowerbeds.
I had never taken the aerial walkway challenge until our Covid visit.
Although the challenge had been issued on an annual basis for about a decade, I had always had the wrong shoes/ skirt/ attitude. On this visit however, I had a world’s end pandemic mindset and today was going to be the day.
I stepped up, in every sense, having no inkling whatsoever as to my tolerance for heights – it was going to be a total surprise if I turned out to be a soaring eagle or a chicken of the aerial world.
As it turned out I was sort of a middling pigeon, I would say. When I could hang on to a rope, or step on to a sturdy plank – no bother. It was during the trapeze artists’ bendy wire sections where you had nothing to hold on to to steady yourself, that I found myself mentally pep-talking my way through. (Can I just say DO NOT look down at this point – it is all in the horizon focus).
The best bit was between the sections, when you get to stand on a real platform, and hug a pole. At these points I could survey the whole zoo and practically touch the howling gibbons, putting me to shame with their effortless tree swings, a couple of meters below me.
The children were fine. You don’t need to worry about them as they are fearless in their belief in their own immortality.
Try it. I dare you!
Top tip – Don’t look down (or wear a skirt)!
Things to do in Bristol with kids 3 - Street art
For something a bit arty and urban become a Bristol street art detective.
Although Banksy, a Bristol local, is the most famous contributor, he is by no means alone. The annual Upfest urban art festival has left Southville dotted with colourful installations and a menagerie of animal murals. One of the upsides of a lockdown art tour is that many of the murals are painted on shop shutters, which are hidden away when the shops are open but on full display during a pandemic.
If you want to see a Banksy, my favourite is the Mild, Mild West teddy bear throwing an explosive across the wall of The Canteen in Stokes Croft.
Closer to Southville, you will find his take on the Girl with the Pearl Earing, where the pearl has been replaced by a real life security alarm. To bring it even more up to date, someone has popped a Covid mask on her.
And you may want to head over to Totterdown for Banksy’s hot-off-the-spraycan, sneezing Covid woman.
Go on a different kind of fox hunt down North Street, for colourful walls filled with fish, foxes and seagulls who look like they are after your lunch.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 4 - Slidy Rock
Upper slidy rock
When heading up to Clifton for a walk across the Avon Gorge on the Brunel’s Suspension Bridge, don’t miss having a go on “Slidy rock”.
For possibly hundreds of years, judging by the sheen on the rock, children have thrown caution to the wind and headed off down a mini-section of the gorge on this natural slide.
It is unlikely to have passed any health and safety scrutiny, but it is fun and the Council haven’t closed if off so how bad can it be? Great views of the bridge on your way down (if you dare to look up as your velocity increases).There is also a playground hiding in the park behind it.
Top tip – Wear jeans. Its a trouser ripper and definitely no skirts!
Lower slidy rock
If you enjoyed upper slidy rock you may want to take a trip south of the river, directly under the Suspension Bridge (on the other side of the water) where you will find its lesser known twin, lower slidy rock.
Equally 1970’s in it’s approach to child safety, you may want to go for a lower launch point than that pictured. Needless to say, kids love it.
Top tip – This is best visited on a bike ride on the cycle path that follows the river from the Create Centre to Pill
Things to do in Bristol with kids 5 - Bristol Harbour
This is a great bike ride for those who hate roads and hills (is that everyone or just me?)
A circular tour takes you around the historic harbour, from the locks overlooking the Suspension Bridge, all the way to St Mary Redcliffe Church, “the fairest church in England” (according to Queen Elizabeth I). The route will transport you through all of Bristol’s history on the way – from ancient ships to a futuristic shiny world of silver.
It takes about 45 minutes if you don’t stop – but I defy you not to get off and explore! You could make a whole day of it, investigating all attractions on offer.
Starting from the centre, head to the unmissable mirrored ball in Millennium Square. On a sunny day, join the paddlers in the pools, and touch the mesmerising water feature walls.
An ice cream van is nearly always on hand.Fairground rides and Yorkshire pudding wraps provide winter entertainment.
Top tip – Bring a change of clothes and wear water shoes in the pools – they are slippy as wet glass!
When the fun is done, head across Pero’s Bridge and turn right to continue following the docks up to St Mary Redcliffe and check out the boats. Although the ferries are not running until April, they are all moored up next to Princes Bridge. Don’t miss the hulls with sharks’ teeth.
Throughout the loop you will encounter other boating legends including pirate vessels, Brunel’s SS Great Britain and the Matthew, a replica of John Cabot’s fairly tiny boat which against the odds made it across the Atlantic in 1497.
Train and Crane spotting
Loop back at St Mary’s in front of Redcliffe caves and the lovely Ostrich pub (stop for an al fresco Coke if appropriate/open).
As you pass the M Shed museum, don’t be surprised if the historic cranes appear to be speaking to you and each other in the voices of 70 year old Bristolian women in their attempt to dramatise the life of a working crane.
Look out for the old train carriages parked along the docks as if waiting for their next cargo that never comes. In the summer, hop on board a steam train for a ride along the harbour. You can even live out a childhood dream by driving one for about £10 on a Bank Holiday.
Top tip – Don’t get your bike wheel lodged in a train or tram track. Lethal. Follow the cycle signs to avoid being catapulted into the water.
See where Wallace and Grommit live
On Gas Ferry Road leading to the SS Great Britain, stop at the Aardman studios, home of Wallace and Grommit. Peek through the windows at their latest displays which come in small and large. I found a mini-morph and a huge Wallace this time. You can’t go in, but you can do a virtual tour online.
Top tip – Don’t walk past the Aardman building without looking in the windows
Banksy and shipyards
As you head along the next stretch of the docks, slightly away from the water for a short section, stop for a Pearl Earring Banksy photoshoot near the Orchard Pub.
Push your bike through the Underfall Ship yard, and watch carpenters crafting boat skeletons and breathing life back into old ones. They are literally making them ship shape and Bristol fashion.
When it opens again, there is a great cafe at the end of the shipyard, with deckchairs looking all the way down the docks.
Harbour and bridge views
As you cycle round, don’t forget to look out over the water at the pretty chocolate box houses.
Arriving at the locks at the end of the harbour, take a mini detour to the left for great views of the Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge.
Cross over one of the locks at the end of the waterway and head back all the way along the harbour to your starting point. En route you will pass a stone version of Mr Plimsoll, of Plimsoll line fame, and a lovely grassy boardwalk detour.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 6 - SS Great Britain
Brunel's international masterplan
The SS Great Britain was part of Isambard Brunel’s master plan to link up London and New York. To this end he set to work building London’s Paddington Station, the railway, bridges, tunnels, Bristol Temple Meads station, the docks and the Steam Ship Great Britain for the final leg across the Atlantic. Busy fellow! You can check out all of his many other projects inside.
Is the SS Great Britain open?
I met with Mr Brunel himself, wearing his traditional Stove Pipe Hat and less traditional Covid mask. He informed me that in tier 3 you can walk around the outside of his SS Great Britain for free and that when we get back to tier 2 the whole museum will be open. This was good news indeed as the website indicated that it was totally closed.
Touring the boat
Touring the base of the ship, you can marvel at the bow’s golden reflections in its mini-lake home.
When the SS Great Britain is fully open you will be able to stroll on deck like a first class passenger of yesteryear and explore the refurbished cabins and dining areas below.
Included in your child’s ticket is the chance to climb the rigging. There is a minimum height restriction and you will be watching though your fingers when your child reaches that height with only a millimetre to spare. He was literally just a dot in the sky at the top.
Top tip – Don’t miss your chance to act like a pirate and climb the rigging. Head for heights required!
The SS Great Britain Museums
There are now 2 museums on site. In the first, children (big and small) can ring a real ship’s bell and then dress like a Victorian passenger for a photoshoot – crinolines and top hats all round.
In the new annex, learn about the psyche of the man himself, rather than just his feats of engineering, and walk through a recreation of his dining room.
Experience a simulation of an original bone-shaker train journey (and for a chuckle, try to do draw a circle whilst on board).
Finally, look out for (as if you could miss it) the giant sized 3D Brunel head. And I thought he was supposed to be a small chap!
Things to do in Bristol with kids 7 - Leigh Woods
Pick one of the many woodland trails (I always like the sound of Paradise Bottom) and walk along a carpet of orange through Iron age settlements overlooking the craggy Avon Gorge. On the way you will encounter ponds and old barns with beams to swing off.
Build a den – because you are in the woods and it is practically the law.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 8 - Tyntesfield
A 15 minute drive from the centre of Bristol you can explore the very stately Tyntesfied, originally named after Tynte Baronets in the 1500’s. It graduated from hunting lodge to farmhouse to today’s Victorian Gothic Revival manor house and was built on the back of a fortune made in bat droppings.
Now owned by the National Trust, you can pre-book your gardens ticket online. The House is currently closed – but it won’t be long now!
Wander through conical topiary, and stroll the fabulous gardens and forest walks dotted with adventure playgrounds and designated den building areas.
Grab a coffee to go at the café and check out the fabulous orangery.
Oversized pumpkins are grown in Victorian walled allotments and conservatories. Peeping through the garden walls you feel very much like Rapunzel’s neighbour.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 9 - Brandon Hill
Tucked in behind Park Street in the centre of town, this 105ft tower was built in 1897 to commemorate John Cabot’s momentous trans Atlantic crossing 400 years previously. You may have spotted the replica of his little wooden Matthew, on the docks earlier.
If the Tower is open, then the children will make you climb it (it is free). As a reward at the top there are incredible 360 degree views over the city and fun markers showing you how far it is to Timbuktu and the like. You may surprise a few pigeons on the way up.
Stop at the Tesco’s at the bottom of Park Street to buy your £1 bag of Monkey nuts and you are set for an afternoon of squirrel hunting (only the humane kind).
Find a bench near Cabot Tower and friendly squirrels will literally take them from your hand. Very cute. If you run out of nuts or squirrels, there is a park at the bottom of the hill for playtime.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 10 - The Beach
Ok, so this is not actually in Bristol but a 30 minute drive away is Bristol’s nearest beach neighbour, Weston-Super-Mare. Here you will find proper sand and chip shops. In more normal times there are also arcades, donkeys and a pier for promenading.
Not so much a paddling beach (the tide goes out for literally miles) but great for walks and picnics on the sand.
A favourite trick is to appear to be walking on water at the far right hand side of the beach looking out to sea, by taking the path at the end of the enclosed bathing area.
Ride a donkey and bounce on a castle – all outdoors, so coming to a beach near you soon.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 11 - Dyrham Park
30 minutes in the other direction will take you to this country house in an ancient deer park. While the house is closed, Dyrham is still great for bracing walks over hills and through formal gardens. Pre-book your time slot with the National Trust before you go.
Stop at the playground at the top to play on a tractor or for the chance to hide in its wheel. There are also lots of opportunities for overly speedy running down big hills.
If you are lucky, you will have some close encounters with the deer before heading down to the ornamental gardens, choosing your favourite crazy flower and lying down pond-side for some R and R.
To complete the day out in traditional form, there is an onsite National Trust cafe for scones and tea.
Things to do in Bristol with kids 12 - Sledging
Although we are lucky if we get a light dusting as our annual snow alloction in Bristol, there is no need to miss out on winter fun. Book a family dry ski slope sledging session at Mendip Activity Centre.
Start off in a fairy lit wooden ski lodge whilst you are briefed on sledge control, before heading down to the equally twinkly slopes.
You have 30 minutes on your half of the sledge run, serenaded by Christmas tunes and occasionally snowed on – in an artificial but very magical glittery way.
Afterwards, each group of 6 gets their own bonfire and party bag of marshmallows and sparklers. Hot chocolate is ladled out of an iron tureen, all under cover of a lighted tent – like luxury winter camping.
And everyone gets their own stand up Santa hat. What’s not to like?
Sledging sessions are also available after Christmas but only for the under 11’s and minus the Christmas extras – still great but think I have been spoiled.
Ski lessons are also still running for those who are willing to stand up on their sliding toys.
Things to do in Bristol with kids summary
A surprisingly diverse array of lockdown activities are available for your things to do in Bristol with kids in lockdown list. And when we do get back to Tier 2, the world will practically be your oyster/Scotch Egg.
Would love to hear your lockdown activity hits (and misses) in the comments section below!
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