The SS Great Britain – Bristol’s No. 1 Attraction

SS Great Britain Bristols number one attraction

Sometimes we don’t realise what historical gems we have right on our doorstep. Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol has been on my UK bucket list for ages, and I can finally cross it off my list.

This summer, I was invited along to Bristol to visit the SS Great Britain and see the incredible acrobatics and feats being performed by the Invisible Circus. Dressed in period costume the 6 members of the crew juggled, flipped upside down, and downside up and entertained the visitors with their antics.

Invisible Circus at the SS Great Britain

A little history about the SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain was the inspiration of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and he was also the Chief Engineer. He tried out innovative designs and ideas including the screw propeller and sculpted iron hull. Brunel’s SS Great Britain was hailed as ‘the greatest experiment since the Creation‘ when she was first launched in 1843. She was able to cross the Atlantic in a record 14 days.

In her sea-going days, the SS Great Britain travelled 33 times around the world via both the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa and Cape Horn in Chile. Negotiating nearly one million ocean miles and calling at more than 15 ports around the world.

In her long history, the SS Great Britain has been an ocean-going passenger ship and a floating warehouse before being left to rot in the Falkland Islands. After mouldering away for 32 years, she was finally rescued in 1969 and towed back to the UK in an 8,000 mile audacious but successful venture.

The SS Great Britain was finally brought back to her home on the Great Western Dockyard in 1970. This grand old lady of the sea has been lovingly restored and painstakingly preserved.

Great Western Dockyard

Great Western Dockyard lifeboat and barrel

Step onto the dockyard and you are instantly transported back to the 1840s when the SS Great Britain first set sail. Barrels, chains, weathered wood and even canons are stacked on the ground, as horses wait patiently in the stables to transport cargo or passengers.

Authentic costumes

Dry Dock

The SS Great Britain appears to be floating in the dock, but actually, it is fixed in position just below the waterline.  Reinforced glass covered with water acts as a ceiling to the temperature-controlled dry dock beneath.

The iron hull of the SS Great Britain in dry dock underneath a glass plate with struts holding it up

Iron and water don’t mix, and as you walk around the hull you will notice the damage the SS Great Britain has sustained over the 180 years since the hull was first created. In order to stop further damage, the air under the glass shield is kept at a constant 20% humidity; the optimum aridity to minimise any degradation of the hull.

Dockyard Museum

The Dockyard Museum at the SS Great Britain

The dockyard museum will take you through the history of the SS Great Britain working backwards from 1970, when she was rescued, right back to her launch in 1843. Be entranced by the letters, pictures and personal items as well as the artefacts from the ship.

Embossed stamp on cream card Discover the Different Lives of the SS Great Britain

The museum is filled with videos, interactive activities: match the stamps on the time gates with the SS Great Britain through the ages; use to the handles to winch up the giant propeller or dress up in period costume. Near the end of the museum, are passenger boarding cards, where you can follow in the footsteps of 36 different people. Maybe you will choose independent and creative Elizabeth Parsons, an artist travelling in Second Class from London or fashionista and dressmaker Rachel Henning who was a keen chess player and was a First Class passenger? Who would you choose?

The boarding card for the SS Great Britain of Hester Baird who was a Stewardess from Stranraer, Scotland

The Ship

Walking up the stairs from the Dockyard Museum and across the walkway, you reach the upper deck of the ship.

The Upper Deck of the SS Great Britain with black and cream sides tall black funnel and rigging with nautical flags. A person is climbing the rigging and the skies are grey.

The Upper Deck or Weather Deck

The upper deck looks similar to how it was in when the SS Great Britain first launched. The areas for second and third-class passengers are the first-class passengers had their reserved area marked by a white painted line on the deck.

First Class Passengers only sign on the Upper Deck of the SS Great Britain

To help with supplies of fresh eggs, milk and meat, cows, chickens and pigs were also kept on the upper deck and you can hear them mooing and oinking as you pass by.

The yellow cowshed on the SS Great Britain with a black and white cow peering out. In the background someone is climbing the rigging and you can see blue sky behind the clouds.

The masts and rigging are decked out in colourful nautical flags which flap in the breeze and if you are feeling brave enough, have a go at climbing the rigging!

Go Aloft – climb the rigging like a Victorian sailor

Go Aloft climb the rigging

For those brave enough and with a head for heights, you can get rigged up with helmet and harness and clamber up the rigging on one of the masts.

Sadly for health and safety reasons, you cannot take up any cameras or video equipment. The view from the top is breathtaking, a full 360° round the docks and beyond. For the extra brave, you can inch your way across the yardarm.

On your arrival back on deck, you are presented with a Certificate of Discharge to prove you did it.

Age limit: over 10s only
Height: at least 4’5” /1.4m
Weight: maximum of 18 stone/114kg

Go Aloft is extra to your entrance ticket and can be booked at the booth on the top deck. You will need to fill in a health Price is free for under 18s and £10 for over 18s.

*Price correct at August 2019

Down Below

Promenade Deck

For first class passengers who didn’t want to get wet or blown about on the upper deck, the Promenade Deck was the place to see and be seen. You could dance, talk, flirt and enjoy yourself.

Cabins

bunks in the cabins

Either side of the Promenade Deck are cabins where you can meet some of the first-class passengers who sailed on the SS Great Britain between 1845 and 1875. The cabins for second and third-class passengers were not quite as luxurious and were mainly bunks.

Eating on the SS Great Britain

Table set with blue rimmed plates with white napkin in a gold napkin ring and wine and champagne glassed with a display of fruits piled in the background.

Once they were over the seasickness, the passengers and crew looked forward to freshly prepared meals. First-class passengers ate in their own dining room on the lower deck, complete with SS Great Britain china, linen napkins and glasses.

The Galley

Old fashioned kitchen on the SS Great Britain, with copper pans hanging on the walls. Eggs on the counter and pies being made. The cook has an apron around his waist and is wearing braces.

The galley was kept busy with 600 hungry mouths to feed though not all the ingredients were fresh and had to be salted and dried to keep over the journey. Every day bread was baked in the bakery and the aroma of fresh bread drifts out as you pass by.

Engine Room

The cogs and wheels of the engine room on the SS Great Britain

To power the mighty SS Great Britain, the engine room had to be up to the job. Although the original parts have been replaced by lighter weight replicas, you can still get the sense of what conditions might have been like as you smell the coal and oil and hear the sounds of the coal being shovelled.

Being Brunel Museum

Inside the Being Brunel Museum

On the opposite side of the ship to the Dockyard Museum is the Being Brunel Museum. The SS Great Britain was not the only feat of engineering for Isambard Kingdom Brunel; he was also instrumental in the Great Western Railway and for building the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

The Being Brunel Museum brings all the aspects of his life together, home and working and gives you an insight into the great man. You start off in a replica of the dining room from his home at 8 Duke Street in London. Brunel commissioned paintings of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and the room became known as the ‘Shakespeare Room’. Here, with his wife, Mary, he entertained guests and family and friends.

As you move further through the museum, you can learn more about the different sides of Brunel, the Engineer, the Entrepreneur, the Celebrity and Brunel the Artistic Designer. Finally, watch the audio-visual show and see the world as Brunel saw it as each of his projects come to fruition.

Authenticity at the SS Great Britain

The restoration of the SS Great Britain has been carried out meticulously and great care and attention to detail have been taken in all areas to give you a genuine feeling of what it was like to be on the ship as a passenger or member of the crew. Various characters are in period costume including Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself!

Man dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel in black frock coat, waistcoat with fob watch, trousers and black cravat, raising his top hat with a cigar clamped in his teeth. He is standing in front of a wooden building.

Your entrance ticket or “Passenger’s Contract Ticket” is similar to the ones given to passengers travelling in 1867.  The sounds of the engines, smell of the coal, cracking of the fires in the galley and the aroma of freshly baked bread in the bakery are all so evocative of a bygone age.  The lady being sick in her room while being eyed by an unwelcome stowaway rat make you feel as if you are sailing with them.

The Lowdown on Tickets & Travel

Ticket Prices

Your ticket gives you unlimited return visits for a whole year from the date of purchase.

Adults:
Child (5-16 yrs):
Nipper (4 and under):
Senior (65 plus):
Student (with valid ID):
Family ticket (2 adults or 2 seniors with 2 or 3 children):

£18.00
£10.00
Free
£15.00
£15.00
£48.00

You can book your tickets in advance and get 5% discount on the website.

Is your name Isambard??? If you are lucky enough to be called Isambard, you get free entry to the SS Great Britain!! Just bring along your birth certificate, drivers licence or other personal identification! Read the Ts and Cs on the SS Great Britain website.

*Prices correct at August 2021

Opening Hours

10.00 hrs to 18:00 hrs         April to October
10.00 hrs to 16:30 hrs          November to March

Open daily except 24 and 25 December 2019 and 13 January 2020

Getting To the SS Great Britain

The Gates of the Great Western Dockyard

By Car

The address of the SS Great Britain is:
Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Great Western Dockyard
Gas Ferry Road
Bristol BS1 6TY

Parking

There is parking just outside the SS Great Britain for cars and coaches. Prices for parking start from £2.00 for 2 hours. When you buy your ticket to enter the SS Great Britain, you can get up to half your parking ticket refunded on production of the slip.

By Train

The nearest train station is Bristol Temple Meads. You can then choose from a 30-minute walk, ferry or bus ride to the Dockyard.

By Ferry

The ferry runs every 40 minutes from Temple Meads Station and various other stops around the harbour – see Bristol Ferry Boat website for more information or Number Seven Boat Trips which run from Hotwells to Temple Meads stopping at Brunel’s SS Great Britain on the way or between

By Bus

The new Metrobus m2 route from Temple Meads stops at the ‘SS Great Britain’ bus stop, located on Cumberland Road close to Spike Island. From here you can walk five minutes to Brunel’s SS Great Britain.

Click for more information about getting to the SS Great Britain.

If you are looking for more things to do in Bristol, check out the Get Your Guide trips around Bristol.

This post about the SS Great Britain was created in collaboration with SS Great Britain team.

Don’t forget to pin this article so you can come back to it later

Visiting the SS Great Britain one of Bristol's No.1 Attraction. Learn about Isambard Kingdom Brunel's amazing ship.
Visiting the SS Great Britain one of Bristol's No.1 Attraction. Learn about Isambard Kingdom Brunel's amazing ship.
Visiting the SS Great Britain one of Bristol's No.1 Attraction. Learn about Isambard Kingdom Brunel's amazing ship.

50 thoughts on “The SS Great Britain – Bristol’s No. 1 Attraction

  1. Avatar of Anna
    Anna says:

    I’ve been in Bristol a few times, but never on SS Great Britain. It seems like a nice place, your post gives a very good overview of what to expect. Thank you!

  2. Avatar of TIna
    TIna says:

    Had never heard about this before, will definitely add it to my Bristol-list. Historical places like this is always a priority for me when I travel, thanks for all the useful information 🙂

  3. Avatar of SuBhaSun
    SuBhaSun says:

    Any place I visit love to explore history of the place first. SS Great Britain is full of history. I would love to visit that Dockyard and the museum.

  4. Avatar of Yukti
    Yukti says:

    I never knew about Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol but it would great to visit this place and see the historic way of cruising. Children would also love this trip. It is good that they provided freshly baked breads to overcome sea sickness. Also visiting engine room must be a nice experience.

  5. Avatar of Renata - www.byemyself.com
    Renata - www.byemyself.com says:

    This is so cute! I’ve been to Bristol – of course, mainly for the street art, therefore, I’ve missed this jewel. Since I intend to go back, I make sure to visit – sooo fun!

  6. Avatar of Vanessa Ball
    Vanessa Ball says:

    Brunel’s SS Great Britain looks so well preserved and how cool that they do historical performances there. I didn’t really know the history behind this ship so it was great to gain some knowledge. The museum must be fascinating to see the artefacts and personal items from the ship.

  7. Avatar of Bernadette Jackson
    Bernadette Jackson says:

    I enjoyed the look below the waterline at the hull. And those passenger cards are an interesting way to look around; the Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa do a similar thing, and it’s fascinating. I think Aloft would have to be done by someone with a better head for heights than me though!

  8. Avatar of Anna
    Anna says:

    Great post! I enjoyed reading about SS Great Britain. So informative and so many details!
    Thank you for sharing! Just wondering what was your favorite part?

  9. Avatar of Louise
    Louise says:

    I’m planning a trip to Bristol in the new year so this has come in very handy! I love visiting historic places and this will defo be on my list when I visit! Very informative post!

  10. Avatar of Pauline
    Pauline says:

    It must have been so fascinating to do this attraction! Full of history and seeing how people were living on the boat is pretty amazing! I’ve not been to Bristol yet but when I do, I’ll want to visit this.

  11. Avatar of Paul Healy
    Paul Healy says:

    Great when these old gems are lovingly restored like this. I’ve never heard of the SS Great Britain. Just another reason to spend a bit more time exploring Bristol I think

  12. Avatar of Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Saving this as our boys would LOVE to visit here! They had a huge obsession with ships when they were younger and they still love history- so this is definitely a place we’d visit!

  13. Avatar of Randy Baker
    Randy Baker says:

    This experience looks like my cup of tea. As an old Navy man, I always enjoy walking the deck of historic ships (much to my family’s chagrin, at times). Years ago, when in Portsmouth, I failed to visit the HMS Victory and still kick myself for that one. Maybe a nautical themed trip should be in my future.

  14. Avatar of Joanna
    Joanna says:

    I have been many times to Bristol but I never had enough time to explore the SS Great Britain. It looks like an amazing ship and walking around it surely does make you feel like taking a stroll to the past.

  15. Avatar of GGeorgina
    GGeorgina says:

    Wow! Sounds like a great place to visit! I live in London and Bristol is easily accessible. I like the dining experience and will definitely enjoy the “flipping”. An excellent read.

  16. Avatar of Mindi Hirsch
    Mindi Hirsch says:

    After enjoying a tour of the HMS Victory in Portsmouth, I now need to add this tour to my list when I visit Bristol. It looks like an informative, fun experience.

  17. Avatar of Graham Farley
    Graham Farley says:

    Omg ? thank you Larch Gauld, this is on my “to do” list next time we head over from Australia

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