Bristol Beyond the Streets: World Class Contemporary Art and Family Friendly Events

24 Apr 2024

by Suzie Jones

In partnership with GWR. Your art adventure starts here.

One of the UK’s largest cities, well served by transport links across the country, Bristol’s cultural landscape has both international standing and a dynamic local arts ecology. Our GWR-sponsored guide to the best spots to visit, whether you’re a solo traveller, family or group of friends, will take you straight to the city’s creative heart.

Bristol is well known as a city full of street art and, of course, is the home turf of notorious street artist and activist, Banksy. Scaling high-rise blocks, famous Banksy works such as Mild Wild West, Well Hung Lover, and The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum can all be found within the city centre, along with works by other famed street artists like Chiba, Inkie, and Stik. For those not so inclined towards graff-aesthetics, however, Bristol offers plenty more in the way of contemporary visual art, heritage, and culture. Located just over 90 minutes from London and serving as a convenient junction for those travelling to Wales, the South West, and further into the West Country, there are plenty of good reasons to make Bristol your next cultural stop-off.

It Offers World-Class Contemporary Visual Art

Visitors to Bristol can see work at the foreground of contemporary visual culture at a number of free venues. Named after the floating harbour on which it sits, Spike Island is a gallery, café, and block of artists studios presenting a programme of contemporary exhibitions and events. Founded on a determination to build a community of artists, and to support them staying in Bristol, this ex-industrial space has attracted a stellar line-up of globally renowned artists. At the end of May, a first major survey exhibition of renowned Guyanese artist Donald Locke is set to open.

Arnolfini, located at harbourside, is a world-class venue offering spectacular survey shows, solo exhibitions, and a robust public programme. The current show, Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood, features the work of sixty modern and contemporary artists who acknowledge motherhood in all its colourful facets. Despite being the largest of Bristol’s contemporary art venues, it’s well embedded within the local creative community, hosting events and exhibitions by students and community groups.

Take a trip to Paintworks, Bristol’s recently designated creative quarter, and you can visit RPS House, which is home to the Royal Photographic Society. Offering exemplary exhibitions of contemporary photography in a specially built gallery space, the organisation’s vision is to bring ‘inspiration, creativity and connection, through photography, to people of all ages and backgrounds’.

If photography’s your bag, any visit to Bristol should include a trip to the Martin Parr Foundation, handily also located at Paintworks. Comprising a gallery, studio, library, and archive, a recent exhibition to mark 40 years since the 1984 Miners’ Strike includes rare, on-loan material as well as work by well-known photographers Chris Killip and Jenny Matthews.

Outside of these visual arts venues, museums and live art venues commission and collaborate with visual artists in their programmes, so if you’re strictly interested in contemporary art, it’s worth keeping an eye on M Shed, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and Bristol Beacon.

The City Nurtures a Vibrant Arts Community

Along with Spike island, there are a number of other artist and maker studio providers to be found throughout the city. There are also community arts spaces which host events, workshops and offer coworking space. Located in a former department store, community hub Sparks Bristol provides a range of creative spaces where people can harness the power of collective imagination.

With regular open studio events and workshops, each of these hubs offers a way for the public to engage with local creatives. In the popular Stokes Croft area, Jamaica Street Studios is one of the largest artist-led studios outside of London, having been established over two decades ago. Providing space for painters, ceramicists, illustrators, and sculptors, events at Jamaica Street Studios and its gallery KIT FORM are sure to offer a plethora of visual delights.

Providing a regular exhibition space for studio holders and the wider creative community, Centrespace is an essential place for visual artists to show their work to the public, through exhibitions, open studios, and workshops.

Also in the heart of the city centre, The Island hosts over 100 resident artists, and boasts onsite training spaces for dancers, musicians and circus artists as well as an art gallery.

With a broad remit to house artists, makers and creative businesses, Estate of the Arts, down in the south of the city, hosts makers’ markets, open studios, and live music events. Another multi-hyphenated space, In Bristol Studios offers workshops from a wide range of creatives, including puppeteers, basket-makers, and storytellers.

Finally, run by local jeweller Bethany May Silver, Silver and Steel Jewellery Studio offers jewellery-making courses and workshops by resident makers and holds exhibitions in its dedicated gallery space.

And if there’s not something happening when you visit? Many artists and makers welcome visits, so long as you make an appointment. Our top tip is to keep some room in your weekend bag, just in case you end up taking a new piece of art or craft home on the train!

There’s Family Fun down by the Harbourside

For a day of family-friendly activities, head to Bristol Harbourside. With a collection of exciting, accessible cultural venues and amenities, Harbourside is just a 20-minute walk or 7-minute bike ride from Bristol Temple Meads. Set alongside the River Avon and its historic shipping basins, it’s not hard to fill a day here with visual arts and adventure.

Newly relaunched, Bristol Beacon is primarily a music charity and renowned venue for music education. However, it has an extensive programme which includes courses, workshops, exhibitions, family events, as well as the gigs and concerts for which it's known.

With a regularly rotating exhibition programme, a free study space, a fantastic bookshop and excellent café, Arnolfini offers something for all the family - including teens. In view of Arnolfini, but across the water, is M Shed, a museum all about Bristol, which explores the city through time, including its places, people, and their magical stories. With permanent displays and a changing exhibition programme, the city’s best social history museum will be sure to put you in a Bristolian’s shoes for a day.

For a totally different experience, but equal in its optic wonder, Bristol Aquarium is a high-tech venue, home to thousands of aquatic animals from across the world. It's well worth a stop-off to experience an underwater adventure from the chilly British coast to the exotic tropical seas.

It’s Full of History

After wandering around the city centre, taking in the historic building facades, step off the streets into one of Bristol’s numerous museums. Offering a closer encounter with the city’s history, many offer free entry. The Red Lodge, located in the heart of the city, is a 400 year old building that has been both a home and a school house. It features incredible original and restored interiors - including elaborate wood panelled walls - and beautiful Elizabethan-style garden.

Constructed at the same time as The Red Lodge, Clifton Observatory was originally built as a windmill on the site of a Celtic settlement. Opened to the public in 2017, visitors can take in panoramic views of the city, Clifton Suspension Bridge and the river Avon.

Founded in 1844, the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) is Bristol’s first art gallery and holds work dating from this period as well as a large collection of work by RWA Academicians including Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. With a mission to inspire the public and nurture artistic talent, the RWA runs a programme of contemporary exhibitions platforming local, national and international artists. The current show “These Mad Hybrids: John Hoyland and Contemporary Sculpture” is a great example of this, showing work from Olivia Bax, Anna Reading, and Hew Locke alongside Phyllida Barlow and John Hoyland RA.

→ The South West Art Travel Companion: A GWR-Partnered Guide to Exploring the South West, West, and South Wales

Thanks to our partnership with GWR, this guide brings the art-filled landscapes of the South West, West, and South Wales to your doorstep. Travel from one art exhibition to another, discovering how art transforms within the context of its environment. Embrace the convenience of booking ahead and travelling during quieter times with GWR Railcards, tailored for explorers young and seasoned. Plan your journey here.

→ More exhibitions and events in Bristol, Exeter, Falmouth, Swansea, Plymouth and more

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