Many tourists only spend a day, or even just a few hours, in Bath. But there is much more than you could see in a day, and if you take the opportunity to explore the surrounding countryside, you could easily spend a week here. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is jam-packed with history, museums and 18th century architecture.
Why is Bath a World Heritage Site?
The City of Bath became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The first part of the inscription is the Roman remains and the natural hot springs that led to the foundation of the city. Then there is the unparallelled example of Georgian town planning, the magnificent Palladian-style architecture, and the social importance of the city in the 18th century. The final criterion is the “green setting of the city”, with parks, terraces and skyline views.
Roman Bath and the Hot Springs
Bath’s natural hot springs prompted the Romans to found a city which they named Aqua Sulis. The Roman Baths were redeveloped in the 18th century and became a major attraction for visitors. Today the Baths, and the adjoining museum which shows the remains of the Roman city, are very popular with tourists. If you are in Bath during the summer months a good tip is to visit in the evening, when the Baths are torchlit and the day-trippers have gone home, leaving it much less crowded. (Read more about the Roman Baths.)
Although you can no longer bathe in the Roman Baths you can still experience the hot springs. The Thermae Bath Spa allows visitors to bathe in a number of historic and modern pools based around the springs. It also has a visitor centre where you can learn more about the spa from Roman times to the present day. And guests at the Gainsborough Bath Spa hotel can enjoy the spa facilities, including natural thermal pools.
Exploring the Architecture of Bath
Two things will strike you as you walk around the city. Firstly, that so many buildings in Bath were built in the 18th century. And, secondly, that they were all built from the characteristic yellow Bath stone. This stone is still used today, giving the architecture a remarkably homogenous appearance.
The so-called “Upper Town” was built in the 18th century on the slopes that rise from the river valley. This area was formally planned, and designed to provide views and a healthy environment for wealthy visitors, and to remove them from the beggars and pickpockets who frequented the Lower Town. The plans followed the contours of the hills that surround the city, resulting in a series of squares, terraces and crescents. Most famous are the Royal Crescent, with its parkland and sweeping views, and The Circus, a circle of terraced houses. But there are several other crescents, and many of the smaller streets (especially the mews that served the grand houses) are equally worth exploring. Close to The Circus are the Assembly Rooms, once a meeting place for fashionable society.
The “Lower Town” is the heart of the city, centred around the Abbey and the Roman Baths. Although it is based on the medieval (and earlier Roman) town plan, the Lower Town is also full of 18th century buildings. Don’t miss the Pulteney Bridge, based on a Palladian design, and one of only four bridges in the world with shops on both sides.
Medieval and Victorian Architecture
It may seem as if all traces of the medieval period have disappeared from Bath. However, apart from the 15th century Abbey, there are a few fragments from the Middle Ages if you look hard enough. There are bits of the old city walls, and the Parade Gardens contain the remains of the medieval Monks Mill. Then there is Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House, dating back to 1482 (there is a small museum in the basement where you can see the old kitchen and the even older Roman foundations).
If your taste is more for Victoriana, walk through The Corridor, a covered shopping arcade built in 1825. Or go into the Guildhall Market, an indoor shopping space built in the 1860s on the site of the medieval market.
Literature, Museums and Festivals
Because Bath was so fashionable in the 18th century it attracted lots of writers and other notable people of the time. Most closely associated with the city is Jane Austen, but several other writers lived or visited here (read more about Literary Bath).
The extraordinary intellectual activity of the Georgian period left its mark in a wealth of museums. Many of these are small and specialised, like the house of William Herschel, the astronomer and musician. (Read more about the Museums of Bath.)
Another legacy is the numerous arts festivals that take place throughout the year. Apart from the main Bath Festival in May these include the Mozartfest, Jane Austen Festival and the Bath Comedy Festival.
Nature in the City
The green setting of Bath is a part of the UNESCO inscription. The city is full of parks and green spaces. These include the Parade Gardens in the town centre (there is a small entrance charge in the summer), the historic Sydney Gardens, and Prior Park, an uphill walk from the city centre. There are walks along the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon Canal. And the city is surrounded by hills topped with trees and agricultural land.
There are several places where you can get spectacular views over the city. A good option is the Bath Skyline Walk, a 6 mile route incorporating woodland, fields and views. Keen hikers might also like the Two Tunnels Circuit, a varied 13-mile loop (unlike other walks in Bath this one is mostly flat, and can also be cycled). Then there is the Cotswold Way, a long distance trail that starts at Bath Abbey but soon moves into countryside.
Eating and Drinking in Bath
Bath is very well provided with places to eat and drink, including lots of historic pubs. The oldest is the Saracens Head, but there is also The Raven (real ales and great pies), and the quirky Bell Inn, a co-operative venture with live music and a pizza stand in the garden. Many of the restaurants also combine great food with historic settings, most notably the Pump Room, once an 18th century social hub, now a place to enjoy lunch or a cream tea. You may find grandeur in surprising places: for instance the unassuming entrance to the Grand Eastern Indian restaurant leads to an 18th century ballroom…
The city also has a few culinary specialities. The Bath bun – a sugary bun with raisins or currants – was supposedly invented here by a physician, William Oliver. He went on to invent the Bath Oliver, a dry, savoury – and presumably healthier – cracker. Another famous bun is the Sally Lunn, a sort of brioche that is served with various toppings. Then there is the Bath chap, a cut of meat taken from the cheek of a pig. If you are minded to try this, Bath chaps are on the menu at The Garricks Head, a pub and restaurant that was once the home of Beau Nash, a famous Master of Ceremonies in the 18th century.
Day Trips from Bath
Bath is ideally situated for a variety of day trips. It is on the edge of the Cotswolds, a beautiful area of hills and medieval villages. There are prehistoric sites, several chalk horses, and historic towns. You can take a boat trip, or visit a vineyard or cider farm.
Potential days out include the medieval town of Bradford on Avon, or Lacock, a preserved village that has appeared in many film and TV productions. You can visit Stonehenge (if you must), but a better alternative is Avebury, which is less crowded and has more to see. Then there is the city of Bristol, just 12 miles away. This is another place where you could spend several days, but take a day trip for museums, street art or a trip on the Waterbus.