How to Spend a Weekend in Bristol, UK on a Budget

Bristol harbourside in the city centre on a sunny day. The ideal place to visit when you're in Bristol
Bristol Habourside

Hey Owlets,

Just like everything else, travelling is getting more expensive. The same budget that used to stretch to a week long trip, a few long weekends or a last minute cruise is now stretched during just one trip - especially if you’re exploring a big city like Bristol. I love my hometown but it has a reputation for being pricey, and while that’s not miles away from the truth a trip to Bristol doesn’t have to cost the Earth. There are plenty of ways that you can visit Bristol on a budget and still make the most out of your trip to the city.

The lobby of Moxy hotel in Bristol City Centre is a colourful homage to the city's street art culture.
Moxy Bristol is one of the quirkiest hotels, with plenty of Bristolian attitude!

How to Find Affordable Accommodation in Bristol:

Obviously the easiest way to find accommodation on a budget is to book a hostel - there are lots of unique options in Bristol, including house boats and hostels with beautiful rooftop bars that boast views across the city. Having said that, if you’re not a fan of hostels (don’t worry, I’m not either!) there are still plenty of more luxurious options that can still come in on budget if you know where and when to look.
Being flexible with your travel dates goes a long way to finding great deals. Travelling during the week is the easiest way to secure a hotel room for less, but booking last minute (even for weekend trips) is also a great method for securing an affordable hotel. Even if you’re not flexible you can still find some really affordable accommodation deals.

I’ve always been led to believe that booking through a hotel comparison website was the ultimate way to get the lowest price on accommodation, but during a recent meet up with the Visit Bristol team they shared some insider knowledge that has changed the way I book. 

I was told that many hotels make a certain percentage of their rooms available to book through comparison websites, but they keep some back to sell directly through their own website. Because most booking companies charge a hefty commission, hotels are able to offer better deals as an incentive for customers to book direct. Obviously individually searching each hotel in the city isn’t practical, but since learning this tip I’ve started doing a quick searching on to find the most suitable options then go to the hotel’s website to check the price when booking direct. I have to say, apart from the odd wild card it is normally cheaper!

London Paddington offers direct connections to major Bristol railway stations

Finding Affordable Travel Options:

One of the most off-putting parts about visiting Bristol can be the price of actually getting there. While Bristol enjoys a direct high speed rail link to London, it’s also cursed by the high prices that come with such good connections. A few obvious ways to lower the price are booking as far in advance as possible, taking advantage of split ticketing, using a rail card, travelling super off peak, or taking a coach instead of the train, but there are some other tricks you need to know about. 

During a recent visit to us, my friend mentioned being able to buy a “Long Weekender” ticket from GWR. This allows you a return trip at a lower rate from London to one of several destinations on the Bristol-Swansea route if your outwards journey is on a Friday or Saturday, and your return journey is on a Monday. The long weekender fare is also compatible with rail card so you can enjoy double discount. 
If you prefer to have your own transport then you can find fairly affordable car hire in Bristol, but if you’re planning to explore the city centre then being tied to a car is probably the worst thing you could do. I know very few locals that are willing to drive around the city centre! There are loads of things to do in Bristol without a car, so it's not an essential at all.

a Bristol ferry travelling up the river at Castle Park in the city centre
Ferries are really useful for getting between the city centre areas

How to Travel Around Bristol:

Bristol has a wealth of transport options, although none are particularly reliable so coming with a relaxed attitude is essential. If you’ve got somewhere to be at a set time then consider calling a taxi (expensive but reliable), give yourself plenty of time to get public transport, or you’ve planned something nearby then enjoy a picturesque walk through the city. Another option are the electric scooters that are dotted around the city - they’re low cost and great for medium distances of a few miles, but you will need to bring a smart phone and your driving license with you (a provisional license is acceptable for riding a scooter).

Bristol busses are famously unreliable, but if you’re not in a hurry they’re a great way to explore the city on a budget. An all day ticket for the inner zone (which covers the city and most of the suburbs) is less than £5, and if you want to explore a little further afield like Weston Super Mare, Portishead or further into South Gloucestershire then a West of England ticket is just under £8. You’ll be able to find a bus to most areas and in the city centre they’re fairly frequent. Clifton is a beautiful spot to visit and is accessible by the number 8 bus from the city centre (you CAN walk, but most people choose not to because it’s all uphill).

If you’re in a bit more of a hurry or looking to explore further, you can head to Bristol Temple Meads railway station to catch trains to the suburbs -you’ll find trains to nearby spots like Clifton or Bedminster, and it’s only a short ten minute ride to explore the nearby city of Bath which is also a brilliant city to spend a weekend in. If you check on Trainline you'll usually find some super cheap tickets, depending on the time of day you want to head off on your adventure.

Bristol Balloon Fiesta's mass ascent at sunset
Bristol Balloon Fiesta is one of the city's biggest and most popular events

Free Things to do in Bristol:

Despite the potentially high cost of transport and accommodation, Bristol is actually a great city to visit if you’re on a tight budget. There are so many hidden gems to visit, and even some of the most well known tourist spots are free to visit. 

One of the things that Bristol is most famous for is the creativity of its people, and taking a street art tour won’t cost you a penny. There are official tours that you can book onto which will set you back around £10, but if you’d prefer to save your money then all you need is Google maps (or just enjoy walking around the city and see what you find along the way) and some comfy shoes. Visit Bristol has a street art guide, or if you search “street art” or “Banksy” on Google maps, most of the popular places appear instantly and you can get directions straight to them. A few of my favourite places are Nelson Street, Gloucester Road and North Street. Bedminster is home to Upfest, Europe’s largest street art festival, and each year a selection of talent artists work to transform the local area. The pieces are left after the festival so you can see them anytime, but seeing the works being created is magical. 

The SS Great Britain in Bristol Harbour
SS Great Britain is one of the most popular museums in Bristol

On a sunny day, exploring the city centre is a great way to spend your time. Head to Clifton for views of the famous Suspension Bridge, follow the streets of colourful houses or relax by the Harbourside. There is also an incredible sculpture garden in the grounds of the University of Bristol which houses lots of unique pieces. It’s free to enter and open at any time - I’ve found that the best way to get there is to search “Hollow” (one of the garden’s most famous pieces) on Google Maps, and you’ll stumble across the other pieces on your way. You’re allowed to walk around the campus so don't worry when the map looks like it’s taking you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Palm Temple is my personal favourite sculpture and situated right outside the chemistry building, and is also searchable on Google Maps.

If you like to get involved in local life, there is usually something happening each weekend throughout summers. Search on Facebook events, Eventbrite or Google “What’s on in Bristol” and you’ll be sure to find an event to attend. The most well known free events are the Balloon Fiesta and the Harbour Festival, but there are plenty more in the local calendar to enjoy - lots of pubs offer free live music, there are affordable film festivals and even fashion shows. 

Other great places to explore and get a slice of local life include exploring the Underfall Yard Visitor Centre, taking a free tour of the Suspension Bridge, take in the incredible views from Cabot Tower or watch glass being blown at Bristol Blue Glass’s workshop. If you do head to the suspension bridge make sure to test out the rock slide if you’re brave enough!

A plane in Aerospace Bristol
Explore Bristol's history at Aerospace Bristol

How to Explore Bristol in the Rain:

Even if the weather takes a turn towards more British, there is still plenty to see without spending a penny. Bristol is home to some of the most unique museums, from the most large and well known establishments to the hidden gems that you could easily walk past without knowing what you’ve missed. 

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is one of the largest museums in Bristol - in here you’ll find a mixture of art, archeology and history set over three floors with the box kite and dinosaur at the heart of the beautiful historic building. If you’re looking for more local history, however, consider a walk to the other side of the river to visit MShed. Here you’ll find 2000 years of Bristolian history just waiting to be explored, as well as special exhibitions on the top floor. There’s also Aerospace Bristol which is dedicated to the city’s airside endeavours, just north of the centre.

Smaller museums include John Wesley’s New Room, The Georgian House Museum, The Red Lodge Museum, or Oakham Treasures offers a more interactive experience if you don’t mind heading a little outside of the city. If you’re a fan of architecture then make sure you take time to explore the cathedral, or if art is more your thing then consider a trip to Arnolfini or the Martin Parr Foundation. 

Ramen and summer rolls from Pho in Bristol city centre
Pho is a popular choice for Bristolians

Where to Eat in Bristol:

As much as I love Bristol’s foodie culture, it's easy for the cost of a dinner here to start racking up. Having said that, if you know where to look there are so many places to get a great meal without spending a fortune. 
Bristol has an incredible street food culture which features cuisines from across the world. You’ll find plenty of small “hole in the wall” type establishments, unique takeaways, markets and sit-in restaurants that offer incredible food on a budget.

St Nicholas Market is one of my favourite lunch spots; inside the covered market you’ll find an alleyway full of street food options that are budget-friendly and delicious! You can enjoy anything from Portuguese stew to Japanese dumplings and everything in between. If the sun is shining then you’ll find a similar concept at Wapping Wharf on the harbourside. Built from shipping containers, each container is home to a different restaurant (as well as independent shops and even a yoga studio!). One of my absolute favourite eateries at Wapping Wharf is Loki Poke - it’s a little more on the pricey side (around £10-£12 per meal) but it’s very much worth it! The fresh fish is incredibly quality and the flavours are always spot on (teriyaki mushroom is a winner). The Athenian is also a great option with their gorgeous Greek offering, although less local (they’re London based and expanded to Bristol).

Loki Poke takeaway and restaurant at Wapping Wharf in Bristol City Centre
Loki Poke is a great choice for a beautifully fresh and unique meal on a budget in Bristol

For small restaurants offering great affordable food, my go-to options are Tuk Tuck, Chilli Daddy, Rice and Things or Pieminister. For more “grab and go” food, consider Eat a Pitta, Edna’s on Castle Park or Taka Taka. There are also a small number of restaurants in the city that offer a “pay what you can” model. Obviously I don’t suggest underpaying at a restaurant to stretch your travel budget (these types of restaurant are vital for a lot of people), but pay what you can restaurants usually have a suggested price that’s more affordable than what might find elsewhere in the city. A lot of the pay what you can cafes disappeared during the pandemic, so if you can afford to pay even £1 over that helps keep the doors open.

While I’m very much in favour of supporting small, locally-owned businesses, one way to keep the cost of your meals down is to stick to large chain restaurants, pubs and takeaways like Greene King and look for vouchers online before you visit the city. You’ll be missing out on the city’s foodie culture which is a shame, but if you really want to visit Bristol then you know you’ve got a backup plan in place for meal times.

Clifton Suspension Bridge as seen from Hotwells
A walk through Hotwells provides stunning views of the city up towards Clifton and the famous Suspension Bridge

What Time of Year is Best to Visit Bristol?

Bristol is the perfect "evergreen" city; it doesn't matter what time of year you visit, you'll always find something fun happening and loads of things to do.

If you visit in Spring you can enjoy the beautiful scenery and watch Bristol's vibrant outdoor city life beginning to come out of hibernation, without having to contend with the huge crowds that the city attracts later in the year.

Summer in Bristol is a must-see; it's the time of year that the city comes alive and there is always something happening (usually there are multiple events at once so there's plenty of choice!). You can sit outside of the cafes all day, swim at Clifton Lido or in the Bristol Channel (if you're brave enough!), explore the sights or check out the local Facebook pages for a list of what's on. The only issue with visiting during summer is that it's always packed because it's the stereotypical time of year to visit the city. 

The colourful houses of Bristol city centre
Bristol's iconic colourful houses are a must see - you'll find them in Hotwells, Clifton and Bedminster

Autumn in the city is beautiful, and potentially one of my favourite times of year to be in the city. The weather hasn't quite turned too cold to venture outside yet but the crowds have gone home and are totally unaware of what they're missing. As the leaves turn golden, consider a walk around the tree-lined streets in Clifton, or explore some of the outdoor attractions like Bristol Zoo Project and Westonbirt Arboretum. You can even use this time to enjoy a quiet walk at the seaside - just make sure you bring a coat!

While the rest of the UK bunkers down for a long winter, Bristol transforms into a spectacle of lights and colour. The Christmas markets are legendary - for a smaller and more relaxed atmosphere head to Bristol's Christmas Market in the city centre, but if you want to experience pure magic then you need to hop on a train to experience Bath's Christmas Market. As well as the Christmas markets, you'll find that winter is the time that the theatres come alive with a variety of impressive performances, including the Christmas panto at the Hippodrome. Lots of pubs arrange live bands every weekend, and obviously winter is the ideal time to explore some of the museums, gorgeous cafes and stunning architecture that Bristol has to offer. 

Even after Christmas, Bristol lights up (literally) the winter months. Early in the year you'll find Bristol Festival of Lights which is a trail of light up sculptures placed across the city. It's always freezing and often raining, but it's so beautiful that it's worth grabbing a raincoat and heading out - just make sure you plan a cafe stop to warm up!

Balloons flying above Bristol's colourful houses
Bristol is a beautiful city to visit, whatever time of year you choose

Other Ways to Save Money on Your Trip

Whether you're staying for a few days or planning to explore the city for longer, there are a few things that you can do to keep costs down. Bring a small bottle of detergent to do your own laundry in the sink or shower where you're staying (pro tip - sports detergent is extra effective, particularly if you've been getting lots of steps in or enjoying more adrenaline-fuelled activities). If you don't have any food allergies, a Too Good To Go bag is a really good way to get dinner for a few people on a budget - if you're staying near the city centre you'll find a wealth of small businesses to choose from. There are also lots of cash back sites that will give you money back for what you've spent on your card in person - it's only pennies, but it's pennies in your pocket rather than someone else's!

Final Thoughts

I know I'm biased as a Bristolian, but Bristol is truly one of the best cities to visit no matter what time of year you're planning to visit. From unrivalled summer events and a thriving music and arts scene, to the incredible foodie culture, cosy pubs and beautiful museums, Bristol has something to offer absolutely everyone. Most importantly, despite what everyone says it is possible to do Bristol on a budget as long as you do your research!

Love and Feathers, 
The Owlet 💛

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