Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Family Fun

Up to 150 balloons adorn the sky at various times over a three day period.

Up, Up and Away…

If you are looking for things to do in Bristol during the summer months, cast your eyes up-wards you may be greeted with the magical sight of one or two brightly coloured, hot air balloons gliding gracefully across the sky. As they drift on the thermals and gradually move closer you will hear a  “whooshing” sound as gas is fired from the cylinder to keep the balloon, and its’ seemingly tiny figures peering out of its giant wicker basket, high in the sky.

Imagine this sight multiplied by a hundred and you have some idea of the treat in store when you visit the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta  at Ashton Court Estate  on the outskirts of Bristol. Now in its 35th year, this Bristol attraction brings thousands of spectators every year - over half a million alone in 2012. Up to 150 balloons adorn the sky at various times over a three day period and not surprisingly, the event was the winner of the Tourism Event of the Year at the South West Tourism Excellence Awards 2011-12.

So what should you expect if you come to the fiesta? Certainly the balloons are the highlight but don’t just expect to see just the usual run of the mill hot air balloons at this annual balloon festival. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the balloon pilots are competing for a prize for coming up with the most outlandish quirky design. Over the years they have treated us to some amazing feats of balloon design and manufacture! Balloons shaped as Bertie Bassett, Rupert the Bear, a champagne bottle, a supermarket trolley, a house and even a Scottish Piper have all taken to the skies in the early morning and evening, as they take their place in the now traditional mass balloon ascents from Ashton Court. On occasion some of the more outlandish and massive balloons seem to struggle to get off the ground but once afloat bring exclamations of wonder and rapture from onlookers both on site and from viewpoints around the city. 

Great Balloons. Credit Flickr: mattbuck4950Great Balloons. Credit Flickr: mattbuck4950A balloon in flightA balloon in flight

At ground level, as these wonderful shapes gently make their way across the skies above Bristol, the pace is more frantic as the recovery vehicles take on the sometimes difficult task of tracking their individual quarries along circuitous routes across the city to journeys end. Once the recovery vehicles have returned back to base with their cargo intact, the Saturday evening fiesta goers may feast their eyes on the fabulous sight of these magnificent balloons glowing in the dark. This surreal “night glow” takes place twice during the fiesta weekend. The gas canisters are fired and the tethered balloons glow majestically to a musical accompaniment. Afterwards, just when you think it can’t get any better, the sky erupts with a most spectacular firework finale – a fitting celebration to mark the end of another wonderful day.

But there is more than balloons to this weekend of fun. Between balloon lifts fiesta goers can revisit their childhood days on the fairground rides, spend to their hearts delight at the arts and crafts stalls, eat drink and be merry at the food and beer stalls and enjoy a packed programme of events in the main arena. The icing on the cake however has got to be a mind boggling aerobatic display by the world famous Red Arrows that usually takes place on the final day!

Balloon Night Glow. Credit Flickr: Richard StoweyBalloon Night Glow. Credit Flickr: Richard StoweyThe "Up" balloon and turtle balloon at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. Credit Flickr: mattbuck4950The "Up" balloon and turtle balloon at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. Credit Flickr: mattbuck4950

So what do you need to know if you are planning to come to the Balloon Fiesta? Here is some helpful information and a few tips:

1. Dates for the 2013 Bristol International Balloon Fiesta are Thursday 8th August- Sunday 11th August. The event starts with a special shapes ascent, nightglow and fireworks display on the Thursday

2. The roads around Ashton Court become extremely busy during the Fiesta and if you come by car it can take forever just to get out of the car park at the end of the night. My recommendation would be to either park near Clifton and proceed on foot over the Clifton Suspension Bridge  (see point 3) or park in the city centre and walk (about 20 minutes). Otherwise take advantage of one of the special fiesta bus services running from central Bristol and Bristol Temple Meads Station.

3. The Clifton Suspension Bridge closes to vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians during the evenings of the two nightglows -Thursday 8th and Saturday 10th August 2013 from 6pm – 2am.

4. You don’t actually have to go to Ashton Court to see the balloons. A fantastic view can be had from anywhere around the Clifton Suspension Bridge- the terrace at the White Lion pub  is a favourite but you need to get there early to bag a table – otherwise find a spot of grass near the bridge and take a picnic. Good views can also be had just about anywhere around the harbourside  .

5. Bristol has enjoyed a love of ballooning over many years. The balloon makers, Cameron Balloons are based in Bedminster and have made more than 8000 balloons since 1971.

6. Several companies offer hot air balloon rides at the fiesta. For around £180 you can be up there amongst all the action! Be aware that ballooning is weather dependent and if the thermals are not favourable your flight may have to be rearranged for another date.

7. Entrance to the Fiesta site is free. Car parking is charged by the day.

8. With so many visitors to the city accommodation  in the area tends to get booked up for the Fiesta so make your reservations in good time to avoid disappointment. Camping on the site is not allowed.

All in all, Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is a highlight in the calendar  - one not to be missed by me at least.