When you visit Bristol you are bound to spend some time exploring the historic waterfront, with its bars, restaurants and museums. For many visitors one of the highlights of this area is the SS Great Britain, the great steamship built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and now fully restored as a museum for all the family.
Why Visit The SS Great Britain?
Built in Bristol, and launched in 1843, SS Great Britain was one of Brunel’s greatest achievements. It was the biggest ship that had ever been built, and included some key technical innovations, including an iron hull, screw propeller and a steam engine.
The ship is a must for anyone with an interest in nautical history, but it is first and foremost a visitor attraction. It has two interactive museums, and you can explore the historic dockyard and the dry dock. There is a programme of special events, a shop and a café, making it ideal for a family day out. It is even possible to climb to the top of the rigging for great views of the city.
History Of The Steamship
The building of the SS Great Britain was a major project, incurring massive expenditure, and as a result it was very soon sold to new owners. They adapted it to run on either steam or sail, and it began to carry passengers to Australia. Thirty years later the ship was adapted again, to carry cargo to America. Storm damage in the 1880s led to the ship being retired to the Falkland Islands, where it was used as for storage. It was eventually sunk in 1937.
By 1970 the SS Great Britain was in an advanced state of decay. However, its historical importance was recognised, and attempts were made to salvage the ship and bring it back to Britain. It eventually arrived in Bristol and a programme of renovation and restoration began. SS Great Britain opened to the public as a maritime museum in 2005.
What To See At SS Great Britain
Any visit must begin with the ship itself, where you can explore the passenger cabins (ranging from first class to steerage) and the grand dining room. You get an idea of what it would have been like to travel to Australia in the 19th century. Models of a pig and a cow on the top deck are a reminder that ships had to carry live food in those days.
When you have finished looking round the ship walk down to the dry dock and look at the impressive hull from beneath. Alternatively you can “Go Aloft” and climb the rigging for a view from above.
The site also includes the extensive Dockyard Museum, which charts the ship’s long history. And you can learn more about Brunel himself at Being Brunel, which showcases the engineer’s work, including railways, bridges and tunnels.
How To Visit The SS Great Britain
- The ship and museum areas are open 362 days a year.
- Tickets can be bought at the site, or in advance. There is an additional charge to Go Aloft. (If you happen to be called Isambard you can get in for free, but I suspect that doesn’t cause too much loss of revenue!)
- You could easily spend half a day exploring the ship and its museums. Tickets are valid for a year, so you can come back another day if you don’t see everything at once.
- Because of the age of the site, some areas may not be fully accessible. However there are alternative routes for wheelchairs and those with mobility issues. See the website for details.
- The ship is situated on the Great Western Dockyard, close to Bristol Marina. It is a popular stop on the Bristol Waterbus route.