When an entire city is made a World Heritage Site, it's a good indication that it offers something special, and small, perfectly formed Bath in southwest England certainly does. History hounds will make a beeline for the Roman baths that gave the city its name. Literature lovers will explore the Jane Austen connections. Architecture aficionados will swoon like an Austen heroine at the Georgian buildings. And after all that, this is also an ideal place for anyone who just wants to relax, unwind and indulge – not least because of an acclaimed modern take on Bath’s oldest attraction.
The Romans made the most of Bath's naturally heated water, and the result can still be visited today © joe daniel price / Getty Images / Flickr RF
Any visit to Bath should start where the city itself began – the Roman Baths. Today one of the most popular attractions here, the baths were built around AD 70 as a place for public bathing and socialising. Over one million litres of steaming spring water filled the site every day, naturally heated to 46°C.
While water still flows to the original baths, visitors are no longer able to take a dip, so nowadays the best way to enjoy the experience is to treat yourself at the Thermae Bath Spa. Derived from the very same underground source as the original Roman baths, the water here is rich in minerals. Relax in the indoor Minerva Bath, enjoy the views from the open-air rooftop pool, sweat it out in the steam rooms and saunas, and book one of the 40-plus spa treatments available.
Thermae Bath Spa offers the chance to take the famous waters while enjoying a spectacular view © Ben Birchall / PA Images / Getty Images
Admire the abbey
Iconic Bath Abbey sits at the centre of the city, proudly sharing its beautiful architecture and peaceful presence with everyone who visits. Start by taking a walk around the outside, looking up to see the elaborate carvings that depict biblical scenes and local history, then head inside to admire the spectacular Victorian Gothic interior.
One of the most striking features is the fan-vaulted ceiling of the nave, which helped it to gain listed building status from Historic England. If you have the energy, you can climb the 212 steps to the top of the tower for unforgettable views of the city, countryside and the church from above.
It's worth the crick in your neck for a look at Bath Abbey's beautiful ceiling © Marc Guitard / Getty Images
Take in the view from the bridge
The stats about Pulteney Bridge – three sweeping arches above the River Avon with a narrow street running along its 45m length – don't capture the appeal of this Palladian-style bridge built from Bath limestone and a scenic focus of city life. It’s one of just four bridges in the world that has stores on both sides of its entire length, meaning an amble over it can easily be combined with a shopping spree at one of the independent retailers or a cake stop at the Bridge Coffee Shop.
Stroll along the Grand Parade, a road with Georgian buildings on one side and, on the other, a balustrade with a miniature colonnade that you can look over to see the weir. Alternatively, descend down the outside staircase to the left of 10 Pulteney Street and follow the path to get riverside access. Here, you can sit on a bench, watch the water go by, board a river cruise and take some excellent photos.
Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon is especially photogenic at sunset © bento42894 / Shutterstock
Watch a show at the Theatre Royal
It would be easy to walk past the Theatre Royal without noticing it; its limestone exterior blends in with the surroundings, and it’s slightly tucked back from the rest of the buildings nearby. Once you step inside, it’s a very different story, with an eye-catching rich red and cream auditorium facing the grand proscenium-arched stage. Shows here range from West End productions from London to touring shows featuring well-known actors, as well as lots of entertainment for little ones.
Theatre-goers can enjoy top shows at the wonderful Theatre Royal © Charles Bowman / Getty Images
Time-travel amongst Georgian architecture
Throughout the Georgian era (1714–1837), the number of people living in Bath grew enormously. This led to a lot of building development in the city, the majority of which was done using wonderful cream-coloured Bath stone. Look out for buildings with stylish columns, friezes depicting literary scenes, finials (knobs that decorate roofs and ledges) and parapets.
For a walk past plenty of Georgian gorgeousness, stroll from the Pump Room via The Circus (a historic circular street of townhouses) to the Royal Crescent. There, you can go into the museum-house at No 1 to see how Georgians lived – the inside is just as impressive as outside. A joint ticket for the house gets you into the Museum of Bath Architecture, which has an excellent scale model of the city made with painstaking attention to detail.
The graceful curve of the Royal Cresecent is just one of Bath's many Georgian gems © chris dorney / Shutterstock
Retrace the footsteps of Jane Austen
If you love Jane Austen, a trip to Bath offers many opportunities to indulge your passion. The famous author lived here from 1801 to 1806, and the city has celebrated its connections to her ever since. The Jane Austen Centre gives visitors the chance to learn all about the woman behind the books, see trinkets and mementos from her past and try on some Austen-esque clothes.
Elsewhere, see the Assembly Rooms (a grand social spot mentioned in two of her novels), go on a Jane Austen walking tour or join in with literary events. Truly devoted fans will want to visit in autumn when the Jane Austen Festival takes over the city with Austen-inspired shows, talks, activities, concerts and events, including the Grand Regency Costumed Promenade, when guests dress up as characters before parading through the streets.
Dress up as your favourite Jane Austen character and literally follow in her footsteps during the annual Austen Festival © Matt Cardy / Getty Images
Ride the open top bus tour
If you want to take in the sights of Bath quickly and easily, ride on one of the open top bus tours. Every city has one of these, but Bath's is particularly good as it takes you out of the city centre to places less easy to visit on your own. There are many drop-off points, you can hop on and hop off as you please within a 24-hour period, and running commentary gives you historical titbits as you take in the sights.
The City Tour takes you around the main tourist spots in central Bath, while the Skyline Tour takes you into the surrounding area with stops at Prior Park, the Bath Skyline Walk, Holburne Museum and lots of beautiful lookouts over the valleys and hills that surround the city.
See the sights without punishing the feet on a bus tour of Bath © Geography Photos / UIG / Getty Images
Where to sleep, eat and drink
Bath is an easy day trip from London, but squeezing so much into a day can make things feel rushed, so to enjoy the city at a more leisurely pace, spend the night and eat at one of the following highly recommended places.
- No 15 Great Pulteney Top-class hotel on one of Bath’s fanciest streets. Rooms and hallways are decked out with pieces by modern artists, while indulgence comes in the form of comfy beds, outstanding treatments in the on-site Spa 15 and fine dining at Café 15.
- Harington’s Hotel A more affordable option in the heart of the city with individually styled rooms, warm service and private hot tub access.
- Menu Gordon Jones Theatrical, sensational, surprising dining – book well ahead to be sure of a space.
- The Circus English classics meet European flair – one not to miss.
- Acorn A restaurant that puts vegetables at the front and centre of creative fine dining. You’re guaranteed to leave feeling amazed, full and eager to return.
- The Marlborough Tavern Queen of Bath's gastropubs.
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