How to visit the SS Great Britain, Bristol’s historic ship

Few tourist attractions are quite as iconic as the SS Great Britain.

Dominating the skyline of Bristol Harbour, this historic vessel was once the largest passenger ship in the world, and was one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s biggest projects. 

Nowadays, the ocean liner lives in Bristol’s dry dock and is open to the public as one of the best maritime museums in the country.

Here’s all the information you’ll need if you’re thinking of visiting the SS Great Britain! 

SS Great Britain History

SS Great Britain in Bristol

Isambard Kindom Brunel was the mastermind behind the SS Great Britain; he also created the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Tamar Bridge which connects Devon to Cornwall. 

She was initially a luxury liner, dating back to 1843. 

Built to transport passengers between London and New York, she’s known as “the world’s first Great Ocean Liner“, and her conception marked a pinnacle of maritime history. 

She used a steam engine, which meant that she was extremely powerful when at sea, and was actually dubbed “the best invention since the creation”! 

In 1852, she was purchased by Gibbs, Bright & Co for migrant transportation to the antipodes during the Australian gold rush. Her engine was replaced and she was given a new upper deck so she could hold more passengers. 

Plus, while her steam engine was still operational, the sails were mainly used instead to save money. 

From 1882, she acted as a windjammer and was used to transport cargo between England and the West Coast of the USA. 

She encountered treacherous sea conditions and was damaged by storms in Cape Horn (this was before the Panama Canal, so all boats heading to the west coast of America had to travel all the way around South America, virtually to Antarctica before circling back). 

She was assessed, and as she was so damaged, she was ultimately sold to the Falkand Islands Company in 1886, where she was used for offshore storage. 

In 1933, she was so damaged that she could not be used for this, and she was left in the Falklands to rust away.

But in the latter 20th century, people developed a passion to bring her home, back to Bristol Harbourside, where she was created and belonged. 

An extraordinary rescue mission took place, and she was refloated and returned to England as part of a team, headed by marine architect Ewan Corlett. 

She arrived back in Bristol in 1970, after journeying 8,000 miles on a floating platform pulled by tug boats, and returned to her position in the harbour. 

Nowadays, she stands as a piece of history in the heart of Bristol city, a reminder of incredible maritime technology and, of course, a tribute to Isambard Brunel! 

Things to do at the SS Great Britain

Aerial panorama of the city of Bristol in the southwest of England in cloudy day

So, what exactly is there to see at the SS Great Britain? Here are all the things to look out for and expect:

SS Great Britain Museum 

The SS Great Britain Museum details the story of this fascinating ship, including why she was such an architectural marvel (it was the fastest and largest ship in the world when it was built!), her years as a migrant clipper and how she turned into a cargo ship. 

Plus, it relays the ship’s return to Bristol floating harbour! 

This will be the start of your tour around the boat. 

Explore the ship

The inside of the SS Great Britain has been remade to look as it did when it was an migrant ship. 

Tour around the cabins, see the bunks that people slept on for weeks as they made the journey to Australia, and smell some lifelike odours coming out of the toilet… 

The experience is complete by looking in the kitchen to see the food from the time and hear the chef telling off the ship’s resident rats and cats! 

Of course, you can also climb up to the deck of the ship and take in a gorgeous view of the harbour. 

Being Brunel Museum

The Being Brunel Museum focuses on the life and times of I. K. Brunel, the architect behind the SS Great Britain (and the Clifton Suspension Bridge!). 

It details his childhood and how he became such an acclaimed architect, plus his many successful – and failed – projects. 

Entry to this museum is included in your ticket, and it’s well worth a look around once you’ve explored the ship! 

The Dry Dock

Not that many visitors to the SS Great Britain know that you can actually go underneath the historical ship! 

In the dry dock, you can see the bottom of the boat, which is fascinating if you’ve never seen this kind of thing before; it’ll give you a real sense of the architectural expertise that went into creating this Victorian ship. 

Go Aloft!

At certain times of the year, you can actually climb the rigging on the SS Great Britain. 

This is called Go Aloft. You’re hooked into a harness (so it’s completely safe!), and you just climb the rigging like a ladder, ending up at the top where one of the team is waiting for you. 

Then, you can go out onto the masts. I tried this last summer – I didn’t go too far onto the masts (although I made it to the top!), as I found it a tad scary, but other people in the group went much further! 

A great activity for teenagers or anyone who wants some adrenaline, this helps you see the ship from a completely different angle!

Seasonal events

If you’re visiting at a particular time of year – such as Halloween, Christmas or the summer holidays – there’s usually something going on at the SS Great Britain!

Halloween sees the terrifying turnip trail, there are parties and Victorian Christmas weekends at Christmas and Victorian-themed activities throughout the summertime. 

SS Great Britain opening times 

The SS Great Britain is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm in the summer and 10:00 am to 4:30 pm in the winter. The attraction is closed on Mondays. 

How much is the SS Great Britain? 

Tickets cost £19.50 for adults and £12 for children (aged 5-15). 

The tickets are valid for a year, so if you live in Bristol, you can visit time and time again! 

Is the SS Great Britain National Trust? 

No, the SS Great Britain is an independent company, so you won’t be able to get in with your National Trust Membership

When it comes to historic ships, the SS Great Britain certainly takes the crown for one of the most impressive.

It’s without a doubt one of the best things to do in Bristol, summer or winter, and a must-do if you’re on a weekend break here.

Whether you’re visiting with kids or as a group of adults, you’ll have a fantastic visit – there’s something for everyone on board!

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