Planning a trip to the UK and wondering where to visit? You’ll probably be tempted by London, England’s sprawling capital city, a melting pot of international influence. Or perhaps the long sandy beaches and surprisingly balmy climate of Cornwall will call your name. Of all the UK’s many destinations, two cities stand out. Edinburgh, Scotland’s historic capital city and the lusciously green and bohemian city of Bristol. But Edinburgh or Bristol, which one will you choose?
Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since the 15th century. The centerpiece of the city is Edinburgh Castle, a 900-year-old fortress that towers over the old town. It’s a city of gothic architecture, fringe comedy, and often bone-chilling weather. Bristol, on the other hand, is in Southwest England, not far from the border with Wales. Owing to its ethnically diverse nature, Bristol is a city of great cultural vibrancy. From the street art of Banksy, to the sounds of Massive Attack, it’s art and culture that puts Bristol on the map.
So, how do the two cities compare? Read on as we take you through the delights that each city has to offer.
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The main sights
Edinburgh or Bristol – which city has more to see?
With its ancient buildings and winding cobblestone streets, Edinburgh is a truly beautiful city. The castle is perhaps its most striking landmark. Built in 1103 atop Castle Rock (a rocky hill that was formed from an ancient volcanic eruption millions of years ago), the ancient castle looms large over Princes Street, the city’s main shopping street.
Also in this part of town, you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery, an impressive building housing Scotland’s national collection of fine art. Then there’s the Royal Mile, a collection of streets that cut through Edinburgh’s old town, lined with many important government buildings, olde worlde pubs, shops, and cafés. For more adventurous sightseers, a trip up Arthur’s Seat is a must-do. This craggy hilltop just a short distance from the center of town is actually an extinct volcano. It’s a short but steep hike to the top, which is thoroughly worth it for the unrivaled views over the city.
Bristol’s central landmark is the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge. Designed by civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 19th century, the bridge spans the Avon Gorge. Whether you’re sitting looking at the bridge, or standing on the bridge looking out, you’re guaranteed a spectacular view.
Another great viewing point in Bristol is Cabot Tower, which stands in the gorgeously manicured gardens of Brandon Hill Park. Climb the 108 steps for panoramic views of the green hills that surround the city. Bristol Cathedral is another key landmark. Dating back to the 10th century, this imposing building is a masterpiece in gothic architecture. And finally, for a less traditional view of Bristol, you could take a walking tour of street artist and Bristol native Banky’s artworks, which are scattered throughout the city.
While both cities promise a wealth of interesting sights, the history and grandeur of Edinburgh takes our pick as the city with the best sightseeing options.
Arts and culture
Both Edinburgh and Bristol have strong reputations for their contributions to art and culture. Every year, throughout the month of August, Edinburgh is invaded with stand-up comedians, actors, and performers, who come to take part in the legendary Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This is truly the best time to come to Edinburgh.
Throughout the month, venues across the city host a wide variety of shows, from free gigs by those just starting out, to audiences with leading names in comedy. The festival has helped launch the careers of some of the UK’s most loved performers, such as Emma Thompson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Steve Coogan, and Mike Myers. In addition to its vibrant theatre and comedy scene, Edinburgh has many brilliant galleries, particularly for fans of modern art. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art houses works by Dada and Dalí, while Edinburgh Palette often hosts pop-up exhibitions from local artists and art students.
Bristol has a similarly thriving art scene. Anyone interested in contemporary art should head to the Arnolfini, a waterside gallery that hosts everything from art exhibitions to poetry and book readings and music events. For those with more traditional tastes, The Royal West of England Academy has an extensive collection of fine art, housed in an opulent, Grade II listed building in Clifton. And Bristol’s artistic flair is not contained to galleries. Many of the city’s streets are adorned with impressive works of street art. Head to the trendy neighborhood of Stokes Croft to witness some of the city’s best open-air artworks.
Besides art, Bristol is famous for its music. Pioneered by groups such as Massive Attack and Portishead in the late 90s and early 00s, Bristol is considered the birthplace of trip-hop, an atmospheric blend of electronic music and hip-hop beats. There are plenty of bars, clubs, and venues that condition the city’s rich musical tradition with all sorts of live music experiences. Live music festivals are a regular fixture in Bristol during the summer months.
Edinburgh or Bristol – which city takes the arts and culture crown? We’d say this one is more or less even. If you’re a big fan of comedy and theatre, Edinburgh is the city for you, but Bristol will certainly appeal to those with a less conventional and more experimental taste in art.
As one of the greenest cities in the UK, nature lovers are spoilt for choice in Bristol. There are many beautiful parks and vast swathes of countryside to explore. From Clifton Downs, an expansive area of grassy down, it’s possible to see right across the Avon Gorge towards the Severn Bridge, which connects England to Wales.
Leigh Woods is a popular walking spot on a spring day when bluebells give the woodland a purple hue. Eastwood Farm, to the East of the city, is a wonderfully serene riverfront area teeming with local wildlife. A stroll through the 850-acre Ashton Court Estate is a must for deer-spotting, city views, and a ride along the miniature railway (for kids). And if you love the seaside, there’s a wide array of beaches less than an hour’s drive from the center of Bristol, too.
There’s also plenty of nature to enjoy in Edinburgh. Its most famous natural landmark is Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano-turned hiking hotspot famed for its unbeatable views of the city. Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens are another highlight, with 72-acres worth of rare and beautiful plants to discover.
But those who enjoy more rugged natural beauty might prefer a trip to the coast. There are plenty of gorgeous, sandy beaches just a short drive from the city center. For example, Aberlady Bay in East Lothian is a spectacular nature reserve and beach 30-minutes’ drive away from the city center. With many different habitats, including salt marshes and sand dunes, this reserve is a prime place for bird spotting. In the Autumn months look out for Icelandic pink-footed geese, who stop off here to feast before making their way further south.
Bristol or Edinburgh, which city is best for nature? This one’s really tricky, but we’d say Edinburgh just nudges it. I mean, where else in the UK is home to ancient extinct volcanoes, rugged sandy shorelines, and a world-leading collection of plants?
If you’re more into partying than nature, you’ll be pleased to hear that both Bristol and Edinburgh have thriving nightlife scenes. Which city’s nightlife is best for you really depends on your tastes. If you’re into your dance music, Bristol is definitely the top choice. In fact, Bristol is credited with having one of the most important underground dance music scenes in the UK.
In terms of the clubs to visit, there’s Lakota, the ideal club for those whose idea of a great night out involves rave shades, heavy bass, and not a cheesy lyric in sight. There’s also Motion, a huge warehouse-style club that attracts world-leading DJs, and the tiny basement dancefloor of Cosies for fans of dub. But it’s not all dance music in Bristol. Fans of a cheesier club scene should head to Clifton Triangle, the home of student favorite establishments such as Lola Lo’s and LGBTQ+ club, OMG. Expect plenty of throwback hits, and of course, a cheeky kebab on the way home.
Edinburgh also has plenty to offer in terms of both underground and mainstream clubbing, but what sets the city’s nightlife apart is its collection of quirky bars. Take, for instance, Frankenstein Bar. This kooky establishment, housed in a 19th-century church, has a giant TV that plays the original, black and white Frankenstein movie on repeat. Or why not try the Cauldron – a magic-themed bar where cocktails arrive in a bubbling cauldron?!
If you’re less into gimmicks, you’ll probably prefer the opulent settings of The Voodoo Rooms, tucked away between Princes Street and St Andrews Square. Whatever your taste, there’s a wealth of cool and quirky places to indulge in some pre-dinner drinks in Edinburgh.
Finally, which city has better day trips – Edinburgh or Bristol?
There are many spectacular destinations in close reach of both cities. The quaint seaside town of St Andrews is just over an hour’s train ride from Edinburgh, while the vibrant city of Glasgow is 50-minutes away by train. Head to North Berwick, a 45-minute drive away, for spectacular coastlines and delicious seafood, or perhaps take the 50-minute train south to the North Eastern neighboring cities of Newcastle and Durham.
From Bristol, the beautiful Roman city of Bath is just an 11-minute train ride away. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you could cycle the distance on the Bristol-Bath cycle path. However you get there, Bath is worth the short trip from Bristol – a historic city of stunning Roman architecture and cobbled streets awaits. To the other side of Bristol is the border with Wales. Cardiff – Wales’ capital city – is less than an hour’s drive away. The dramatic cliffs of Cheddar Gorge are a 40-minute drive, and so is the seaside town of Weston Super-Mare.
All in all, where’s best to visit – Edinburgh or Bristol?
This one is tough, both cities are brilliant destinations with a broad range of things to see and do. However, while Bristol is a lively city with natural beauty by the bucketload, there’s something majestic about Edinburgh that makes it a truly special place to visit. If you’ve only got a limited amount of time in the UK, we’d say head to Edinburgh. But with so much to discover in each place, it’d be worth your while to make time for both!
Fancy learning about other places to visit on England’s south coast? Don’t miss our comparison guide to Bournemouth vs Brighton!