When I first saw the SS Great Britain in 2015, I wasn’t too keen to visit tourist attractions, preferring to simply revel in exploring a whole new country after having left the US. With free activities like Clifton Bridge, St. Nicholas Market and the cathedral in Bristol, I didn’t see any reason to pay for a ship in the harbor, the aquarium or the science center. Boy was I missing out! This was my third time going back to the “capital” of southwest England, and my dad and I made it a point to visit Bristol’s Floating Harbor, especially since my dad was once a sailor on the Mediterranean.
Proudly displayed in a drydock in Bristol, the city of its origin, the SS Great Britain shows the world how innovation and design can be years ahead of its time. Launched in 1843, it was the largest ship on the seas, and was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.
Getting to the SS Great Britain
You can take a bus to Bristol from London in 3 hours, or take the train in 2 hours. The SS Great Britain is located on the south bank of the Avon River in the floating harbor of Bristol, so named because all the boats on the harbor are floating. While there is one city bus that goes there, as well as the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus, easier is to take the cross-harbor ferry from the Hannover Quay Landing across the river for £0.90. Better yet, you can get the Bristol Packet Boat Tour, which will stop at the Wapping Wharf where the ship is located. Otherwise, just take the harbor ferry from the city center, which leaves every 40 minutes or so.
What made the SS Great Britain different from other magnificent ship museums I’ve seen, like the Cutty Sark and Vasa, was the original drydock used for the museum. The massive door is closed to keep out the waters of the Avon, and you can walk around beneath the ship to see the hull, which admittedly is slowly flaking away. As it’s all made of iron, there’s no rot as you get with most ships. Instead, the corrosion from the saltwater is slowly eating its way through the inch-thick plates.
The SS Great Britain Museum
After exploring the drydock, we made our way to the large building beside the ship, where two levels provided a detailed timeline exhibit of the ship with all relevant information. There’s a ton to learn, but basically the SS Great Britain started off as a steamship crossing the Atlantic. Later she ferried immigrants from the UK down to Australia. Finally, she was converted into a sailing ship in 1881 until she was decommissioned in 1886 and used as a warehouse in the Falkland Islands. It wasn’t until 1970 that she was returned to Bristol and restored as a museum ship.
Exploring the Ship
From the museum, and gangway leads directly onto the deck of the ship. The ship itself has essentially been restored to show how it was at the time of its service. The dining room is laid out with all the silverware and platters, and fake food is piled on the tables. Bedrooms have their tiny ship beds (and I mean tiny; I couldn’t fit at all), and wax figures appear to be doing their daily tasks.
Many of the rooms are available to walk through, including the kitchen and bakery where they even have fresh bread smells wafting out. You can also see the hold at the front of the ship, which I believe is where the steam engine was before it was removed. Overall it took a good couple hours to walk through all three parts of the attraction.
Climbing the Rigging
One last feature, which I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to do, is to climb up the rigging of the ship to the crow’s nest high on the mainmast. The cost for the attraction is £10, which isn’t included in the entrance ticket. There was a long line of young kids waiting their turn, and while the kid in me would have absolutely loved to do it, I figured I’d better not keep my dad waiting.
The Brunel Museum
On the other side of the ship is the new museum dedicated to Brunel, the ship’s architect. The museum’s building looks like one of the shipping buildings of his day. If you happen to be on a budget, you can also check out the many free activities in Bristol to visit.
- Location: Great Western Dockyard, Bristol, England, UK, BS1 6TY
- Phone: (44) 0117 926 0680
- Website: http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/
- Opening hours: Spring/Summer – 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Autumn/Winter – 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- Ticket Prices: Adults – £14, students – £11, children – £8
- Different activities are going on all the time, so be sure to check their website before you go.
Planning to Visit England?
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
My deepest thanks to Visit Bristol for inviting me to experience the SS Great Britain. As always, views are entirely my own.
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We had visited an old aircraft carrier when we lived in Texas and thought it was fun. Now we are in love with visiting ships. None of the ships we have visited were ever used as a warehouse though, how interesting. I like that they set it up with wax figures so that you can really get a feel for what it would have been like to be on the ship when it was in operation. Since I am afraid of heights, I think I would have passed on the visiting the crows nest!
I certainly hope you get to see the SS GB someday, and perhaps the Cutty Sark in Greenwich as well. They are really great museums and give a great idea of England’s seafaring days.