This lovely pocket-sized West Country city first attracted tourists two thousand years ago for its hot thermal springs. Roman Bath was known as Aquae Sulis and it thrived in ancient times, with people coming from far and wide across the Roman Empire to take the waters and worship at the Temple of Sulis Minerva.
The city fell out of favour for many years before it regained its popularity at the beginning of the 18th century, when Queen Anne discovered the healing properties of the waters at the Pump Room and Britain’s aristocracy quickly followed suit. A new period of expansion began, and as Bath’s wealth grew, so did the magnificence of its buildings. Constructed between 17¬67-75, the Royal Crescent represents the very pinnacle of Georgian architecture.
Bath came to further glory in Victorian times, when both the Kennet and Avon Canal and the railway ran through the city, bringing tourists, industry – and revenue for building art galleries and museums. Today it’s the only city in Britain to be a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site; its 96,000 residents welcome 4.5 million tourists annually to revel in the golden-stoned Georgian architecture, cobbled shopping streets and dramatic Gothic abbey.
The Roman Beginnings
Britain’s only natural hot spring attracted travellers from across Roman Europe to seek cures in the gently steaming thermal waters; these waters still flow at a natural 46.5?C in Bath’s extensive Roman Baths. The Celts discovered the thermal spring and the Romans later dedicated it to Minerva, goddess of healing, building a temple on the site. Spring water was channelled into a lead-lined chamber and a full-scale bath complex grew around it, complete with plunge pools and exercise hall. With the introduction of Christianity into Britain in the second century AD, the baths fell into disrepair and were covered over for many years. Bath became a holiday hotspot again in Georgian times, when people flocked to take the waters, but what we see today was largely rebuilt in mock-classical style in the 1880s. The sacred spring, Minerva’s temple and the steam-filled Great Bath, where Victorian statues gaze impassively down on the tourists, are all open to explore. Abbey Church Yard, BA1 1LZ. 01225 477785. Open daily. www.romanbaths.co.uk
The Georgian Town
Palladian in style, Royal Crescent’s sweep of 30 majestic terraced mansions perch on a hillside overlooking vast tracts of the city. The architect was John Wood the Younger, who was responsible for much of Bath’s neo-Classical renaissance. No.1 Royal Crescent is now a fascinating museum of Georgian life. Other characters who presided over Bath’s Georgian regeneration include Beau Nash, the renowned dandy and master of ceremonies in the Pump Room; he commissioned the obelisk in Queen Square in honour of the Prince of Orange’s visit to Bath to take the waters in 1734. The wealthy Pulteney family paid distinguished architect Robert Adam to build Pulteney Bridge in 1770; its three arches are modelled on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with shops lining both sides as it crosses the weir on the river Avon. A walking tour of Queen Square, the Circus and the Upper Town, taking in the Royal Crescent, gives a taster of the elegance and style of Georgian Bath. Afterwards take tea alongside Bath dowagers in the genteel Georgian Pump Room in Stall Street. www.royalcrescentbath.co.uk – www.visitbath.co.uk
The Victorian Legacy
The advent of the canal and railway brought industry and money to Bath and along with it a burgeoning art scene. 1882 saw the bequeathing of English paintings and artefacts to the city, now housed in the excellent Holburne Museum; stars of the show are a collection of Turners, Gainsboroughs and Stubbs. The Victoria Art Gallery followed in 1897, nestling in colonnaded splendour next to Pulteney Bridge and offering a romp through artworks from 15th century to present, including paintings by Sickert and contemporary sculpture. Highlighting the ingenuity of Victorian engineering, the six-lock Widcombe Flight swoops nearly 50 feet down from the Kennet and Avon Canal to the river Avon; a pleasant morning stroll from the city centre.
Holburne Museum: Great Pulteney Street, BA2 4DB. 01225 388569. Open daily. www.holburne.org
Victoria Art Gallery: Bridge Street, BA2 4AT. 01225 477 233. Closed Monday. www.victoriagal.org.uk
The Modern City
Powered by naturally hot spring water, Bath’s extraordinary glass-built Thermae Bath Spa took years to build, came in way over budget and was panned by critics. Today its striking contemporary architecture is universally adored. The open-air rooftop pool, where Jacuzzi jets bubble every few minutes, has a bird’s-eye view of the cathedral and the city’s sandy rooftops. One floor down, the blissful steam baths come in a variety of flavours, from lavender to eucalyptus, centred on a waterfall shower that is almost painful in intensity, plus state-of-the-art treatment rooms. On the ground floor a lazy river drifts idly around another pool, and there are whirlpool, spa, and massage treatments available for an extra cost. Hot Bath Street, BA1 1SJ. 0844 888 0844. Pen daily. www.thermaebathspa.com
The choice is endless. Here are three places that won’t let you down.
Brasserie Blanc ££
The latest addition to Bath’s restaurant scene brings flair from our favourite French chef. It’s smooth of service and gives value for money for very decent brasserie cooking – especially the lunch menu. Dishes change monthly.
Ground Floor, Francis Hotel, 6-11 Queen Square, BA1 2HH. 01225 303860. Open daily. http://www.brasserieblanc.com/locations/bath.php
The Seven Stars ££
A fabulous gastro-pub within easy stomping distance of Bath and with a great selection of local Wadworth and Bath Ales as well as Stingray from the pub owner’s Devilfish microbrewery. Thursday night is seafood night – expect piles of mussels, scallops and home-smoked prawns.
Bradford Road, Winsley, BA15 2LQ. 01225 722204. Open daily. www.sevenstarswinsley.co.uk
Yum Yum Thai £
A Thai café with a simple menu and no puddings. All dishes are cooked from scratch using local produce and organic meats. Fantastic value for money and a great buzzing atmosphere, perfect for pre-theatre supper as it’s just around the corner from Bath Theatre Royal.
17 Kingsmead Square, BA1 2AE. 01225 445253. Open daily. www.yumyumthai.com
Being such a magnet to visitors, Bath is predictably crammed with hotels of all grades and prices. These are consistently good.
The Royal Crescent Hotel £££££
Extravagance, romance and luxury found in a series of Georgian mansions at the heart of Bath’s iconic new town. There’s a cracking restaurant too, under the leadership of chef David Campbell.
16 Royal Crescent, BA1 2LS. 01225 823333. www.royalcrescent.co.uk
Three Abbey Green £££
Some rooms in this posh Georgian townhouse B&B have four-poster beds. All have spanking new bathrooms and most have views over a leafy courtyard or Bath Abbey. There are plenty of restaurants on the doorstep.
3 Abbey Green, BA1 1NW. 01225 428558. www.threeabbeygreen.com
Milsoms Hotel ££
A tiny boutique hotel with great charm and cosiness. It’s very central, a short walk from the Roman Baths and Abbey and great for shopping in Jolly’s department store and the unusual stores in Milsom Place.
24 Milsom Street, BA1 1DG. 01225 750128. www.milsomshotel.co.uk
Bath is 90 minutes from London Paddington by train, just over three hours from London Victoria by coach or an easy hop west on the M4; leave at junction 18 and follow the A46 into the city centre. From Bristol airport Bath is a pleasant 20-mile drive through rolling countryside and pretty villages.