Bristol is situated inland, up the Avon river from the Bristol Channel, and protected by the narrow Avon gorge. It has a fascinating history.
It had a major Norman Castle in the middle ages (at what is now Castle Green). From the 13th to the 18th centuries, it was a major port, among the 3 largest towns (along with York and Norwich) outside London. In 1497, John Cabot's voyage of exploration accidently (re)discovered America which searching for a shortcut to Asia. In the 1700's, it took part in the triangular slave trade (manufactured good to Africa, slaves to America, tobacco and cotton to Europe).
The Severn Estuary (which Bristol's river flows in to) has an enormous tidal range - 8m - the second highest in the world. To get around this, and stop ships becoming grounded on mud twice a day at low tide, the river was dammed, with large lock gates, creating a "floating harbour". However, expensive port charges to pay for it, caused trade to move to competing ports like Liverpool.
In 1838, Brunel designed the successful SS Great Western paddle steamer, which was built in Bristol. It was the first regular transatlantic steam (i.e. not sail powered) ship.
The Great Western and even larger Great Britain (see below) marked end of an era, both for the age of sail, and for Bristol as a port. The port wasn't deep enough or wide enough for the new larger iron ships, and new docks were built downstream on the Severn Estuary itself. In the 19thC Bristol declined relative to the industrial northern towns.
Bristol suffered badly during WW2 bombing - much of the old town was lost.
Things are now looking up, Queen's Square has been restored, pedestrianised areas created, and new hi tech industries have moved in to the town. Today, the floating harbour is used for leisure - the warehouses, docks and wharfs have become apartments, art galleries, cafes and museums.
SS Great Britain
In 1847, a few years later after the SS Great Western, Brunel built the revolutionary SS Great Britain, easily the world's largest ship at the time. It was the first modern large iron hulled, propeller driven vessel. It was too revolutionary for its owners. The ship's new hull and engines were costly to build. The harbour gates had to be modified to allow it to even leave port. The new technology had several flaws which made it unsuitable for transatlantic passenger service. The propellers broke in use, and the the large size caused the ship to roll, even in calm weather. It eventually ran aground during its third season after a navigational error, bankrupting the company that built it. It was eventually re-floated, sold, refitted, and was used in Australia, before eventually being converted to a coal carrier, and ended up as a floating coal bunker in the Falklands. It is now a museum ship in Bristol's harbour.
Brunel later built the Great Eastern (in London), 5 times bigger than any ship then afloat. It too was not a commercial success for its builders. Although neither ship was a success, they were prototypes for the move from the age of wooden sailing ships to the modern large engine powered, screw propeller driven, double iron hulled ships. Besides ships, he is famous for bridges, tunnels, railways and harbours.
Clifton is a wealthy hillside suburb with many grand houses, Bristol University housing, crescents (long curved terraces of grand houses) with harbour views, a suspension bridge over a dramatic gorge, and a shopping district with independent shops and cafes.
Clifton Suspension Bridge
The suspension bridge (wikipedia) is Bristol's iconic landmark, and crosses the 75m high River Avon gorge. It's a remarkable location, just off Clifton's village green is a very steep gorge with the iconic bridge.
Besides the dramatic location, the bridge has an interesting history. In the age of sail, a Bristol merchant left money in his will for a free bridge across the river. The Admiralty had stipulated that a bridge had to be 30m high so (sail powered) warships could enter the port. This meant the narrowest part of the gorge, with 75m high cliffs, was the only suitable location. It would have been the longest bridge span in the world at the time.
Some 75 years later, in 1829, still in the age of sail, a competition was held to design the bridge, and parliament was asked to alter the will to allow a toll bridge to recoup the cost of construction. Thomas Telford, who designed the Menai Straits bridge, was asked to judge a competition to design the bridge. There wasn't a winner. Telford himself produced a design but it was too expensive, so a second competition was held which Brunel won. Construction started, but stopped after the 1831 Bristol riots sapped confidence in the scheme. Eventually the act of Parliament expired, and the steel for the cables was sold off.
Thirty years later, after Brunel's death, the Institute of Civil Engineers decided to complete the scheme as a memorial. Brunel's design was modernised, and the bridge opened in 1864. However, by the time the bridge opened, Bristol's time as a major port was almost over. New steam powered iron ships were larger, and couldn't navigate the tidal river to the inland port. New docks were built on the Severn Estuary at the mouth of the river. Ironically, it was the SS Great Britain, built in Bristol, which started the coal powered steamship era, crossing the Atlantic in 1838, which led to the demise of Bristol as a port. By the time the bridge opened, it was something of a white elephant.
Today, the bridge charges a £1 toll for cars, or you can walk over for free. Nowadays as there is no need for tall ship clearances, motorways and rail lines cross the Avon in the town centre.
The smaller free attractions are weekend only from December to March. Most "free" attractions suggest donations.
St Mary Redcliffe Church
St Mary Redcliffe is a grade I listed 15thC church, free entry.
Queen Square is a Regency Square, now a public park, named for Queen Anne. The wealthy soon moved away from the docks up the hill to Clifton, and it went into decline after the 1831 Bristol Riots (neo Corbynistas got massacred by the Dragoons, but enough of them, as their Lieutenant-Colonel was court martialled for leniency), and more recently by being part of Bristol's ring road. Now restored as a pedestrian park.
Waterfront art gallery with cafe
Bristol Dockyards / The Floating Harbour
The River Avon's natural 8m tidal range is controlled by lock gates, so its always 'high tide'. The working docks are long gone, and the riverfront is now used for leisure. There are many historic buildings, a dockyard railways, dock cranes, attractions including M Shed museum and The Matthew and SS Great Britain museum ships, and Underfall Yard. Wikipedia
When the floating harbour was created, a bypass channel had to be created (the tidal New Cut), this created Spike Island. You can cross the New Cut on the pedestrian Gaol Ferry bridge.
Bristol (Social) History. Free. Covers a bit too much, a bit too simply. Nice cafe, trains, rooftop terrace viewpoint, heritage cranes.
Museum ship, free, weekends only Dec-Mar, a replica of the ship John Cabot used to (re)discover the Americas/ Wikipedia
Bristol Harbour Railway
The former docks railway (blog). Short steam trips some weekends
Even if you don't ride, there are tracks and wagons for selfies
SS Great Britain and Being Brunel harbour walk only
Restored museum ship of Brunel's revolutionary but unsuccessful ship , and the Being Brunel museum. £17 / £9.40 child. (wikipedia)
Underfall Yard harbour walk only
The pumps that managed the sluice gates that regulated the river height. Boatyard with a visitor centre. Long (10m) aerial photo table of the docks area. Cafe with terrace overlooking the harbour. Recommended. website, Wikipedia
One of a number of linked pedestrian squares, has a large outside screen and a large reflective silver ball (part of We Are Curious museum)
We The Curious
Kids science museum with a planetarium (£4 extra). £15 adults. £10 kids.
Bristol Cathedral and College Green
Georgian House Museum Clifton walk only
18thC historic town house museum, free entry. Open Sat-Tue, Apr-Dec. On Gt George Street, north of the Cathedral. BS1 5RR.
Brandon Hill and Cabot Tower Clifton walk only
A hillside park with harbour views, and an 1890's Tower (free entry) that commemorates the t400th anniversary of the explorer's (re)discovery of the Americas. Its viewing gallery is 334 feet (102 m) above sea level.
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery Clifton walk only
"Art, nature and history." (just not Bristol's). Free entry. Pretty building. There's the University Wetherspoons opposite.
Royal Fort Gardens Clifton walk only
Pretty gardens, part of the University, but usually open to the public, with some interesting sculptures. No website.
RWA - Royal West of England Acadamy Clifton walk only
Art gallery with changing exhibitions.
Clifton Clifton walk only
A suburb of large grand houses built for merchants during Bristol's golden era, and crescents of terraced houses overlooking the harbour.
Today there's Bristol University buildings, and a village of independent shops and cafes leading to the green and the suspension bridge.
Suspension Bridge Clifton walk only
See above. Iconic and picturesque bridge over a dramatic steep gorge. Across the bridge is a small visitor centre that tells the story of its building is recommended. Also recommended is the vantage point above the road on the Clifton side. Free to cross for walkers, £1 for cars.
Downs Clifton walk only
Just by the Observatory (a cafe and pay tunnel to a cave overlooking the gorge) there is a nice outlook over the gorge and bridge.
You could follow the ridge to the Downs proper.
Red Lodge Museum Clifton walk only
Historic house museum with an "Elizabethan Knot" Garden, free entry. Open Sat-Tue, Apr-Dec. Near the Bristol Art Gallery. BS1 5LJ.
On a "peninsular" between the river and Bordeaux Quay, north of Queen Square is what's left after WW2 bombing of the old town.
Highlights include the St Nicholas market. Best just to wonder around.
Nelson Street Murals
Look up for murals on drab 1960's concrete buildings, from a 2011 street art festival
The site of the 11thC Bristol Castle (demolished 1656), and the former old town which was destroyed in WW2 bombing, it is now a riverside park, with remains (walls, no roof) of 2 churches, St Mary-le-Port and St Peters.
Knights Templar Church
Temple Church is a ruined Knights Templar church (WW2 bombing) with a leaning tower. Walls and tower, but no roof. Free.