Bristol has been named Museum Destination of the Year 2018. Samantha Mayling visited three of the city’s top attractions to find out why.
According to the Luxury Travel Guide Awards, tourists seeking the best city for museums should head to Bristol.
As I was in the city for the Showcase South West travel trade event, it was a great opportunity to visit three of Bristol’s best museums and find out what’s new for 2018.
First on my itinerary was the new Aerospace Bristol, just off the M5 and next to an enormous shopping complex at Cribbs Causeway, called The Mall – itself a coach trip destination.
The £19 million museum is on the historic Filton Airfield and tells the history of Bristol’s pioneering aerospace industry.
Its story starts with Bristolian businessman Sir George White who witnessed the Wright brothers’ aircraft flying in France in 1900.
He established an aircraft factory at Filton in 1910 and there have now been more than 100 years of aerospace production at the site.
Exhibits in the renovated First World War hangar include beautiful vintage biplanes, helicopters, missiles and satellites, and visitors can try hands-on activities, such as moving the flaps on a real Airbus A319 wing.
The star of the show in another hangar is Concorde Alpha Foxtrot (pictured), the last Concorde to be built and the last to fly.
You can pretend you are an A-list celeb from the Seventies as you step onboard the iconic supersonic aircraft, imagining you can sip champagne while flying at twice the speed of sound – reaching New York from London in just three-and-a-half hours.
The quote which struck me as I left the hangar was: “There have been more US astronauts than BA Concorde pilots.”
Groups ranging from school trips to coach tours will find plenty to keep them busy, and there is catering with local produce in the café, as well as facilities for corporate and private events.
SS Great Britain
Next on my itinerary was the SS Great Britain, dubbed the world’s first great ocean liner when she was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843.
In the 1850s, she began to carry emigrants to Australia, and after 30 years as a passenger ship, she was converted to carry cargo between England and the US.
The museum brings her Victorian history to life, and tells the remarkable story of how she was salvaged from a bay in the Falkland Islands and brought back to her original dry dock in 1970.
It’s fascinating to go below decks and see the cramped conditions for third-class passengers in steerage – in contrast to the plush conditions for first-class travellers.
You can go even further down, and view the hull of the ship in the dry dock, complete with the revolutionary steam-powered propeller – and if you like heights, you can go aloft in the rigging, between April and October.
March will see the opening of Being Brunel, a national museum and visitor experience alongside the ship.
The new £7 million attraction sees a major redevelopment of derelict dockside buildings, enabling visitors to learn about Brunel’s life and times.
The Grade II listed Drawing Office, where Brunel and his team worked to create the SS Great Britain, is being refurbished so visitors can see what it would have looked like in the 1840s.
I could have spent most of the day at SS Great Britain, and once the new museum opens, the site will certainly offer a packed day out for visitors, schools and groups – but I had to explore Bristol further.
We The Curious
My third museum was the newly renamed We The Curious – previously At-Bristol Science Centre – in the heart of Bristol’s historic Harbourside.
With the Showcase South West networking workshops taking place on the top floor, it was an ideal opportunity to try the hands-on exhibits below, covering topics as varied as DNA, food, illusions, space and animation.
It was obviously a big hit with the primary school groups who were visiting – and I came face-to-face with Morph, from the Aardman Animations studios in Bristol.
If you are visiting Bristol in 2018, it’s worth noting the city will host Gromit Unleashed II – a public arts trail with more than 60 giant sculptures of Aardman characters Wallace and Gromit plus their arch-enemy Feathers McGraw (July 2-September 2).
Picture credit: Aerospace Bristol.
Where to Stay
Mercure Bristol Brigstow Hotel in Bristol’s city centre is close to Saint Nicolas Market, The Old Vic, Cabot Circus and the Harbour.
Its restaurant Buttermilk and Maple is inspired by the Australian cafe scene, with a New York twist – and local produce.