Family Day Trips from Bristol: Longleat, Wiltshire
In 1966, Longleat opened as the first drive-through safari park outside Africa, with visitors paying £1 to see a pride of 50 lions which were housed in 100 acres of the Longleat House estate. Today it is home to over 1,100 animals in 9,000 acres of the Wiltshire countryside, and is one of the UK's most popular tourist attractions. We travelled from Bristol via the A4 and A36, and it took us just over an hour to get there on a sunny Sunday morning.
Despite the fact that it's an easy drive from Bristol, I hadn't been to Longleat for over a decade, when my eldest son was just a baby! So I was really excited to be invited to visit as part of the #SummerinBristol campaign recently. We arrived at around 10.30am and there were only a few cars ahead of us at the entrance gates. There is a magnificent view of Longleat House as you drive down towards the park, and you start to get a sense of just how impressive the huge estate is.
There are four main parts to the park and we chose to drive through the Safari first. We followed the signs to the separate entrance - it can take 15 minutes to drive from the main car park, so make sure to allow enough time, especially if you visit later in the day. Once you reach the Safari entrance, you need to show your admission tickets and you are given a complimentary CD guide to play in the car as you drive around. Narrated by Kate Humble, we found this was a brilliant added bonus - the kids loved listening to all the facts about the animals as we approached the different areas of the Safari.
The safari took us around two hours to complete and it was brilliant (before we'd finished, my son was asking to do it again!) You can go at your own pace and there are plenty of places for cars to overtake, so we didn't feel rushed when we wanted to stop and take a few more photos. The African Village is at the start of the Safari Drive-through and you can park up there first to explore - there is a Giraffe Viewing Platform, Lemur Walk-through, a cafe, shops and toilets (make use of these, or the toilets next to the Safari Drive-through entrance, as there are no more available once you begin driving around).
Once you're back in your car, you'll have great views of a wide variety of animals, including Giraffes, Zebras, Wildebeest, Camels, Hippos, Deer (you can buy food to feed them through your car window), Tigers, Lions and Cheetahs. And of course - Monkeys! The Longleat Monkeys' reputation is fully justified - they WILL jump on top of your car, and they WILL try their luck at dismantling something from it. We removed our car aerial before we entered the safari, and luckily our car emerged unscathed (the car in front didn't and left with one less windscreen wiper than it started with!) If you'd rather not take the chance, you can bypass the Monkeys altogether but that would be a shame - they are hugely entertaining and seeing them jump up and hitch a ride on our car was definitely one of the highlights of our day at Longleat.
Once we'd finished the safari, we parked back in the main car park and made our way over to the Animal Discovery area. Everything is within easy walking distance, and is very flat, accessible, and well spaced out, so although the park was quite busy, we never felt stressed, or experienced any really big crowds. We headed to the Jungle Cruise first, and despite a bit of a queue, we soon boarded the boat which took us on a cruise around the lake, spotting gorillas, colobus monkeys, and Longleat's resident hippos Spot and Sonia who have been at the Safari Park since 1976. But it was the sea lions who definitely stole the show! You can feed them (for a small fee) and this is highly recommended as it was great fun watching them jump up (and splash!) alongside the boat to catch the fish - another memorable moment from our day.
Back on dry land, we explored the rest of the Animal Discovery area and we saw Giant Otters, Crocodiles, Pythons, Armadillos, Red Pandas, and Meerkats, to name just a few. But we were most excited to visit the new Koala Creek exhibit. This is the ONLY place in England where you can see a group of Southern Koalas. It was a really impressive experience as we were able to see these iconic animals up close in their smart new home, along with a Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat and a group of cute Long-nosed Potoroos. There is lots of information throughout the exhibit, all presented in a child-friendly interactive format, and we all learnt a lot about these cuddly Australian animals that we'd never had the chance to see in person before.
It's not just about the animals at Longleat however. The Adventure Zone just off Main Square houses an array of attractions including a fantastic Hedge Maze, Little Explorer's Garden, and a Rockin' Rhino ride for younger children, as well as Longleat Railway, a 15 inch narrow gauge miniature railway, which takes you on a 1 ¼ mile journey around the park’s scenic woodland. But it was the Adventure Castle which I was most impressed by. This is a fantastic, recently refurbished, enclosed children's playground with zip wires, climbing frames, tube slides, and even a wheelchair swing. I really liked the fact that the play areas were clearly marked by age groups (wise owls, brave badgers and noble wolves!)
There are also lots of areas to sit down whilst the kids burn off some energy, including plenty of covered picnic areas, which were very welcome in the heat of the afternoon sun. The only problem was getting the kids to leave! We eventually headed to the Longleat Grounds (don't miss the cute King Arthur's Mirror Maze!) to explore the Formal Gardens which were absolutely beautiful and such a relaxing place to wander around. We sadly didn't have any time left to explore Longleat House, but that will be first on my list for our next visit.
Verdict: Longleat is a fantastic option for a family day trip from Bristol. Obviously the animals are the main attraction, and the Safari Drive-through is still really impressive, even after all these years. It's incredibly exciting to be able to drive past so many large animals, like Lions, Tigers and Rhinos, and be able to see them up close (a far different experience to observing them at a zoo).
And with the addition of new and exciting exhibits such as Koala Creek, plus a great playground for the kids, the stunning gardens, and an English stately home to explore, there really is something for all the family to enjoy. It definitely won't be ten years before I visit again!
THIS CITY MUM'S TOP TIPS FOR A GREAT DAY OUT AT LONGLEAT
Arrive early - this really is a whole day (or more!) attraction. Longleat opens at 10am every day and it stays open until 7pm during the summer. See opening times for your visit here.
Keep your tickets with you - you will need them to be able to access certain attractions such as the Jungle Cruise and Adventure Castle (bear this in mind if your family splits up as you will need to show your individual tickets).
Do the Safari early or late - the queues begin to build up around late morning/lunchtime, so I recommend arriving as close to opening time as you can, and doing the Safari Drive-through straightaway. Or enjoying all the other attractions first, and saving the Safari until near the end of your visit (just make sure you leave enough time so you don't have to rush round!)
Take snacks for the car - the Safari takes around two hours to drive around, and there is some waiting involved in certain holding areas, so little ones can get restless. Load up the car before you leave, and you can always finish your picnic once you've returned to the beautiful grounds around the house.
Don't miss: Safari Drive-through, Koala Creek, Jungle Cruise, Adventure Castle.
This is the first article in a series exploring day trips from Bristol. Keep your eyes peeled for the best trips to Gloucestershire and Wales - coming soon!
Disclaimer: Complimentary family entry was provided by Longleat in return for an honest review, plus social media coverage, as part of the Visit Bristol #SummerinBristol campaign in July 2019. All thoughts and photos are my own.