WHAT TO DO
Widely considered England's most attractive small city, Bath is famous for and named after its 2000 year old Roman baths. The Romans called this spa town Aquae Sulis, which in Latin means 'the waters of Sulis' - the goddess Sulis, the local goddess of the thermal springs that feed the spa baths. Nestled in the valley of the River Avon, within the beautiful county of Somerset, Bath is about 100 miles west of London. It is also well known for its perfectly preserved honey colored Georgian buildings. Today, some 500 of the city's structures are lauded for their historical and architectural importance. Bath became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and was later added to the transnational World Heritage Site known as the 'Great Spa Towns of Europe' in 2021. With its delightful hot springs, lovely architecture, marvelous museums and outstanding restaurants, Bath is a traveler's dream.
Begin your adventure at Bath Abbey. Soaring above the city center, Bath's massive abbey church was built between 1499 and 1616 - making it the last great medieval church built in England. Its most striking feature is the west facade, where angels climb up and down stone ladders, commemorating a dream of the founder, Bishop Oliver King. Be sure to book the 50 minute tower tour that leaves on the hour from Monday to Friday. Climb the 212 steps to the top and check out the abbey's fan vaulted ceiling and bell chamber. The views from the roof of the city and surrounding countryside are superb. Note: tours can only be booked at the abbey shop, on the day. Adjacent to Bath Abbey is the historic Roman Baths. While the ancient Romans are credited for having established Bath's ancient hot springs as a place of relaxation and rejuvenation, legend has it their healing powers were discovered some 500 years earlier by a British king. But it was the Romans who left their mark, building the city's famous Roman Baths and Temple of Sulis Minerva in 70 AD around the largest of the city's three hot springs. The baths now form one of the world's best preserved ancient Roman spas, and are encircled by 18th and 19th century buildings.
The heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a lead lined pool filled with steaming, geothermally heated water from the so called 'Sacred Spring' to a depth of over 5 feet. More bathing pools and changing rooms are to the east and west, with excavated sections revealing the hypocaust system that heated the bathing rooms. After luxuriating in the baths, Romans would have reinvigorated themselves with a dip in the circular cold water pool. The King's Bath was added sometime during the 12th century around the site of the original Sacred Spring. Beneath the Pump Room are the remains of the Temple of Sulis Minerva. Look out for the famous gilded bronze head of Minerva and a striking carved gorgon's head, as well as some of the 12000 or so Roman coins thrown into the spring as votive offerings to the goddess. The complex of buildings around the baths was built in stages during the 18th and 19th centuries. John Wood the Elder and the Younger designed the buildings around the Sacred Spring, while the famous Pump Room was built by their contemporaries - Thomas Baldwin and John Palmer, in neoclassical style, complete with soaring Ionic and Corinthian columns. The building now houses a posh restaurant, which serves magnificent afternoon tea. You can also taste free samples of the spring waters, which were believed in Victorian times to have curative properties. Note: tickets and time slots for the Roman Baths should be booked online in advance. Also, the water here is completely untreated and is not safe for swimming.
If you would like to enjoy the same bathing experience as the ancient Romans, you are in luck. A dip in the waters of Thermae Bath Spa, located across the street from the Roman Baths, is a unique opportunity to experience the same thermal waters that have drawn people as far back as the Celts to the area for thousands of years. The facility itself is a pleasing architectural blend of a new modern glass faced structure built in 2006 and original Georgian era buildings. The main bathing area, the New Royal Bath, consists of a stunning open air rooftop swimming pool plus an indoor pool, two thermal baths, two steam rooms, as well as an 'ice chamber' and an original 18th century 'hot bath.' Just around the corner from Thermae Bath Spa (and operated by the same company) is the Cross Bath. This historic spa facility provides a unique opportunity to take a dip in the city's ancient waters. A highlight of a visit to this fully renovated 18th century building includes having access to the original open air thermal bath. Adding to the enjoyment is the fact that only 10 guests are permitted at a time. Note: as with the Thermae Bath Spa - robes, towels and slippers are included with your visit to the Cross Bath.
From the baths, make your way to the Victoria Art Gallery on Bridge Street. Since opening its doors to the public for the first time in 1900, this world class gallery has remained one of Bath's most visited museums. Named after Queen Victoria, who that same year celebrated her diamond jubilee, the museum contains superb collections of works by the likes of such well respected artists as Gainsborough, Turner and Sickert. Additional exhibitions feature items from the gallery's impressive collections of pottery, porcelain, glass and watches. Nearby is one of the most recognizable pieces of architecture in town. Elegant Pulteney Bridge has spanned the River Avon since the late 18th century and continues to be a much loved and much photographed Bath landmark (the view from Grand Parade, southwest of the bridge, is the best). Browse the shops that line both sides of the bridge or have a rest and a Bath bun in the Bridge Coffee Shop. Pulteney Bridge opens onto Great Pulteney Street, with its beautiful Georgian era homes. Note: the bridge also acts as the departure point for a variety of fun river excursions.
Sir William Holburne, the 18th century aristocrat and art fanatic, amassed a huge collection, which now forms the core of the Holburne Museum, in a lavish mansion at the end of Great Pulteney Street. The museum houses a roll call of works by artists including Reynolds, Stubbs, Turner and Thomas Gainsborough, as well as 18th century silver, porcelain and early period furniture. Note: the museum is open daily from 10a-5p. The Holburne Museum overlooks lovely Sydney Gardens - famous as Britain's only surviving 18th century pleasure gardens. Enjoy a stroll and take in the serene settings of manicured lawns, bridges and waterways. Next, head to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy at 19 New King Street. Housed in a beautifully restored Georgian townhouse, this museum contains numerous artifacts related to the acclaimed musician and astronomer, William Herschel. Notable things to do at the museum include viewing original pieces of music and numerous instruments, as well as many references to his greatest achievement - the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781. This groundbreaking feat was made using a telescope Herschel designed and constructed himself in this very building.
The Bath Assembly Rooms can be found at 19 Bennett Street. When they opened in 1771, these stately rooms were where fashionable Bath socialites gathered to waltz, play cards and listen to the latest chamber music. Today, they are unfurnished; rooms that are open to the public include the Great Octagon, tearoom and ballroom - all lit by their original 18th century chandeliers. Note: the city's fine Fashion Museum is in the basement. Established in 1963, this museum displays a variety of themes such as men's and women's wear, day and evening dress, as well as modern alternative fashion. It contains a world class collection of contemporary and historical clothing, including 150 dressed figures and more than 30000 original items dating from the late 16th century to the present day.
The Museum of Bath Architecture is located at The Vineyards, off The Paragon. This unique facility located in a former private chapel perfectly demonstrates how classical design influenced the city's buildings. It's also home to the incredibly detailed Bath Model - a magnificent 1:500 scale architectural model of the historic city center. Note: the museum is currently closed to the public. From there, walk to the northwest section of the city, where most of the best Georgian architectural examples are found. Check out Queen Square and Gay Street, with their beautifully symmetrical facades dating from the early 18th century. Next, head to The Circus - a perfect circle of three story homes with different classical orders (column types) on each level. Built to John Wood the Elder's design and completed in 1768, it's said to have been inspired by the Colosseum in Rome. Finally, there's Royal Crescent. It does not get any grander than this monumental semicircular terrace of majestic town houses overlooking the green sweep of Royal Victoria Park. Designed by John Wood the Younger and finished in 1775, the houses appear perfectly symmetrical from the outside, but the owners were allowed to tweak the interiors, so no two houses are quite the same. No 1 Royal Crescent offers you an intriguing insight into life inside. It was given to the city by shipping magnate Major Bernard Cayzer and has since been restored using only 18th century materials. Among the rooms on display are the drawing room, several bedrooms and the huge kitchen - complete with massive hearth, roasting spit and mousetraps. Costumed guides add to the heritage atmosphere. Note: the museum is open daily from 10a-5p.
Conclude your tour of Bath with a relaxing boat cruise on the River Avon (departures are just below the Pulteney Bridge) and/or a visit to the majestic Theatre Royal. Opened in 1805 and host to some of the biggest stars of live theater ever since, the spectacular Theatre Royal was completely renovated in 2010. Today, it's considered one of the finest examples of surviving Georgian architecture in England. In addition to the opportunity to enjoy first rate theatrical and musical performances, a visit will expose you to the building's stunningly decorated interior. Highlights include the ornate plasterwork, plush seating and large chandelier in the 900 seat auditorium - notable for its three separate galleries. It's also rumored to be haunted, its most famous ghost being the perfumed Grey Lady. Note: a number of annual events are also held here, including the popular Shakespeare Unplugged Festival.
WHERE TO EAT
Bath has several great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at Sally Lunn's, located at 4 North Parade Passage. Set in the oldest house in Bath (c 1482), this quaint tearoom is home to the famous Sally Lunn Bun - a semisweet bread topped with homemade cinnamon butter. The Welsh Rarebit (traditional cheese sauce served over slices of toasted bread) is also quite tasty, and pairs nicely with proper English tea, brewed in bone china teapots. There are more splendid spots to enjoy a Bath bun, as well as other select baked goods. Thoughtful Bakery can be found at 19 Barton Street, Bertinet Bakery is tucked away at 1 New Bond Street Place and Landrace Bakery is at 61 Walcot Street. Down the road at 31 Walcot Street is The Fine Cheese Co. This excellent cheese shop and cafe will wow you with its selection of fine British and the best of Europe cheeses and charcuterie. For the top coffee in town, head to Colonna & Small's at 6 Chapel Row. This contemporary coffee shop and roaster with a minimalist decor offers specialty coffees that change weekly, alongside various yummy cakes. If you're in the mood for a dynamite bagel, make your way to Taylor's Bagels and Coffee on the northern end of the city center at 6 London Street. Do try the bacon, cream cheese and chili jam on an everything bagel. Note: the coffee and pastries are also top notch - the salted caramel biscoff buns always sell out.
The Circus can be found at 34 Brock Street. Chef Ali Golden has turned this bistro into one of Bath's destination addresses. Her taste is for British dishes with a twist: rabbit, Wiltshire lamb and West Country fish are all infused with herby flavors and rich sauces. For outstanding fish and chips, visit The Scallop Shell at 22 Monmouth Place. This modern seafood grill serves up traditional favorites like lightly battered, flaky cod with fresh cut chips, mushy peas and homemade tartare sauce. There's also oak smoked salmon and prawn fishcake with cocktail sauce and Cornish monkfish with gremolata. If you crave vegetarian, do try Oak at 2 North Parade Passage. This cozy Georgian room is fitted with mustard and cream paneled walls, dried Somerset flowers and soft lighting. Choose the five course meat free feast to try a variety of new flavors, with the option of small batch natural wines to match. Highlights include crisp panko covered arancini with an aubergine center, chickpeas tossed in a creamy, smoky vegan pine nut sauce with crisp pangritata and greens, and springy pieces of homemade sourdough cavatelli pasta tossed with vibrant heritage tomatoes.
Noya’s Kitchen presents some of the most authentic Vietnamese food in England. Located at 7 St James's Parade, the interior of this place consists of a welcoming cafe aesthetic that is perfect for a sit down lunch or an intimate dinner. Go with the five course set menu, where you'll be introduced to several freshly prepared dishes ranging from pho to red and green curry to marinated pork belly. If you are in the mood for Italian, visit Sotto Sotto at 10 North Parade. Located inside of a candlelit grotto beneath arching stone walls, this spot is one of the trendiest restaurants in town. Specials like the pollo e salsiccia, consisting of strips of chicken breast and Italian sausage sauteed with white wine and aged balsamic, is simple and delicious. If you fancy French, then Chez Dominique at 15 Argyle Street is your place. This attractive space close to Pulteney Bridge does modern French fare along with a full wine list. Start with the Devon duck and orange terrine with cumberland sauce, and finish with the sirloin steak with cafe de Paris butter and pommes frites.
For afternoon tea and some midday indulgence, make your way to the Pump Room - located next to the Roman Baths on Stall Street. Elegance is everywhere in this tall, Georgian room, from the string trio and Corinthian columns to the oil paintings and glittering chandeliers. It sets the scene perfectly for the dainty sandwiches and cakes of its famous afternoon tea. The Pump Room has been the social heart of Bath for more than two centuries, and boasts amongst its previous patrons Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Michael Lichtstein. Note: be sure to sample the spa water from the fountain. Nearby at 3 Church Street is Charlotte Brunswick Chocolates. This lovely shop offers an array of gourmet chocolates, truffles and sea salted caramels. Legend tells us that Charlotte Brunswick was the first and finest chocolatier in Bath during the 18th century.
For dinner, head to Chequers at 50 Rivers Street. A tasteful crowd inhabits this classy Georgian gastropub which serves up traditional ales, a vibrant wine list and chic cocktails - all complementing a stunning menu of classic British cuisine. For starters, do the pan seared scallops with cauliflower, crispy bacon, sourdough crisp and lemon beurre blanc. For the main, go with the treacle glazed venison haunch with kohlrabi fondant, artichoke puree, baby turnip and carrots. Save room for dessert and enjoy the honeycomb rolled chocolate marquise with cider poached berries, almond praline and clotted cream. Clayton's Kitchen is located at 15 George Street. This handsome eatery beloved by locals occupies the ground floor of a Georgian townhouse. Under the expert command of chef Robert Clayton, the modern Mediterranean menu is consistently excellent and changes with the season. I enjoyed the white onion and thyme soup with croutons, crispy shallots and thyme oil, along with the grilled sea bass over a langoustine sauce. I finished with the salted caramel chocolate mousse and marmalade ice cream. Note: the restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday and bookings are advised.
The Elder can be found within the Hotel Indigo at 8 South Parade. This is Bath's best new high end restaurant. It spreads through cozy, masculine dining rooms full of taxidermy and hunting scenes hung on olive colored paneled walls. The cuisine is modern British, with venison from the company’s private estates the specialty of the house. The Elder is the brainchild of Mike Robinson, one of Britain’s leading authorities on wild food and game. Though this is meat eating heaven - to start things off you are served a glass of bullshot tea (warm venison stock with sherry). Save room for something sweet as the Valrhona chocolate with dulce de leche, coffee ice cream and hazelnut is out of this world. Note: the restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday and reservations are recommended. My favorite dining experience was at the Olive Tree, found below the Queensberry Hotel at 7 Russel Street. Holding Bath’s only Michelin star, this outstanding restaurant is an unassuming, wood paneled space that happens to serve the city’s most delectable food. Start with something completely original from chef Chris Cleghorn, like raw Orkney scallops with wasabi and dill or smoked Devon eel with leeks and tarragon. Then move through mouth watering tasting menus ('six' or 'nine'), finishing in splendid style perhaps by pairing a slab of baked chocolate and peanut malt ice cream with a glass of plum saki. Note: the restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday and bookings are essential.
End your evening in Bath with a drink or two. The Raven can be found at 7 Queen Street. This traditional old English pub has a welcoming atmosphere and an always changing selection of ales and ciders - the hearty meat pies are awesome too. Wash one down with a pint of Raven dark ale or Stan's Big Apple cider. A few doors away at 3 Queen Street is The Canary Gin Bar (Bath Distillery). This snug bar bathed in red has over 200 gins to choose from. Try the new Bath Gin, it is flavored with 10 botanicals including burnt orange peel and cardamom. From there, make your way up to The Star Inn at 23 The Vineyards, off The Paragon. Few pubs are registered relics, but The Star is just that and it still has many of its 18th century bar fittings and wooden benches. It's the brewery tap for Bath based Abbey Ales; some ales are served in traditional jugs and you can even ask for a pinch of snuff in the 'smaller bar'. Nearby at 103 Walcot Street is The Bell Inn. Strike up a conversation at this laid back locals favorite bohemian music pub and garden. Conversation starters include the table football, bar billiards, backgammon and chess, and there's live music ranging from acoustic, country and folk to blues.
Hidden away at 1 Lilliput Court is The Hideout. This upscale haunt features a nice selection of whiskeys and imaginative cocktails in a tiny, stone walled nook. You can't go wrong with the House Old Fashioned (house whiskey blend, sugar, bitters, rocks). Note: the bar is open daily from 5p. Circo Cellar Bar can be found at 18 George Street. Walking down the stairs to this basement bar conjures a slight sense of heading into a speakeasy. It's dispelled on arrival - a cool soundtrack, fireplaces and Chesterfield sofas create a classy atmosphere. The cocktail list is impressive, I fancied the Tomfoolery (hendricks gin, apple, lemon, elderflower, cucumber, mediterranean tonic, rocks). Note: the bar is open Monday through Saturday from 5p. My favorite spot in town is The Dark Horse, located at 7 Kingsmead Square. This totally rad basement cocktail bar has a seasonal menu that focuses on fresh and local ingredients. The staff is super cool and the drinks are top notch. One of several adult beverages that I enjoyed was Selene (beefeater gin, pink peppercorn, aperol, fresh lemon, egg white, tonic water). Note: the bar is open daily from 5p.
WHERE TO STAY
Bath offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is The Gainsborough Bath Spa, located at Beau Street. Set in a landmark Georgian building in the heart of town, this upscale spa hotel is near the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey. All of the refined rooms offer free WiFi and minibars. Other amenities include flat screen TVs and Nespresso machines. Upgraded quarters add separate living areas. Guests can enjoy complimentary access to the Spa Village, with thermal pools, saunas and a steam room. There is also a contemporary brasserie, a lounge and a stylish bar with Georgian overtones.
A second option is The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa, located at 16 Royal Crescent. Situated in the middle of the famous Georgian Royal Crescent, this elegant boutique hotel overlooks Royal Victoria Park and is a short walk from The Circus. Individually designed rooms have flat screen TVs and WiFi, while some include fireplaces and four poster beds. Upgrades add chandeliers, picture windows and views over the crescent. Other perks include a posh restaurant that offers afternoon tea and secluded gardens with an incense filled spa and bath house.
Bath is full of amazing history, spectacular architecture, charming lanes, wonderful museums and superb cuisine. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.