You can have an extremely pleasant time in Bath wandering the streets, admiring the peerless Georgian architecture and reliving history through the words of Jane Austen. For culture, pick from the dozen or so museums – if you do just one of the best things in Bath, make it the Roman Baths. For exercise, venture out into the countryside on the city’s fringes. Cycle along the Kennet and Avon canal and walk in National Trust meadows with far-reaching views across the city. For a relaxing treat, have a revitalising soak in Bath’s hot thermal waters at Thermae Bath Spa.
Tour the Roman Baths
The Roman Baths are fascinating for visitors of all ages, with not only the Great Bath to take in (the surrounding statues are Victorian additions), but also the remains of the temple to Sulis Minerva, hypocaust (underfloor heating) systems, and more hot and cold baths. The audio guides are excellent – particularly the commentary for children. Screens show bathers going about their business, and live actors play out the lives of merchants and stonemasons. Set aside around 90 minutes for the visit. In the peak summer weeks, the baths stay open till 10pm and are atmospheric and usually quiet in the evenings.
Learn about the World Heritage Site
Tucked away behind the Roman Baths on York Street, Bath’s free-to-enter new World Heritage Centre does a pretty good job at explaining why the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Colourful and interactive information boards flag up the key attributes – the hot springs, Roman remains, Georgian lifestyle and architecture, and the city’s lovely green setting. You can also learn a little about how and why Bath is part of second UNESCO listing, The Great Spa Towns of Europe.
Insider’s tip: The centre stocks an informative map and a family trail marked up with the key sights associated with the city’s World Heritage Site status, and there’s also a related app to download. Everything is free.
Explore the grand Bath Abbey
There’s been a church on the site of Bath Abbey as long ago as Saxon times. What you see now dates from 1499 – it is one of the last ecclesiastical buildings in England constructed in the Perpendicular style – and, despite its name, it is in fact just a parish church. Highlights inside include the fan-vaulted ceiling and hundreds of memorials on the walls and floor. A £19 million restoration project has stabilised the collapsing floor and has involved harnessing the city’s hot springs to provide eco-friendly underfloor heating. Tower tours are very enjoyable.
Insider’s tip: Outside on the west front, look either side of the main window at the ascending and descending angels on ladders – probably alluding to Jacob’s ladder in the Book of Genesis. Also note on the far left- and right-hand sides of the west front the rebuses (pictorial puns) showing the name of Bishop Oliver King, who ordered the church’s rebuilding in 1499.
Soak in natural waters at Thermae Bath Spa
A two-hour session at the Thermae Bath Spa’s New Royal Bath, the complex’s main spa, grants you access to the 34-degree Celsius waters of an open-air rooftop pool and the larger indoor Minerva Bath, along with steam rooms and saunas. On weekday mornings you can also book a session in the spa’s historic and much more intimate Cross Bath, which can accommodate up to 10 people.
Insider’s tip: You can pre-book the two-hour session at the New Royal Bath, but spaces are also kept available on the day. At busy times, if you haven’t pre-booked, visit the spa early in the day to maximise the chances of getting a slot. Packages, some with treatments, are also on offer and need booking ahead.
Discover Bath’s link with Frankenstein
Mary Shelley wrote much of Frankenstein while living in Bath from September 1816 to March 1817 – hence the presence of Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, a multi-faceted attraction on Gay Street just up from the Jane Austen Centre. As well as explaining about Shelley’s tragic life, galvanism (the concept of bringing bodies to life with electricity), the creation of the horror story and its portrayal in popular culture, there’s a memorable eight-foot-tall version of the monster complete with heaving chest, and a gore-filled basement to explore. Not suitable for children under 12.
Insider’s tip: The house where Mary Shelley stayed in Bath 1816-1817 – 5 Abbey Church Yard –is no longer there. It was knocked down in the 1890s and replaced by an extension to the Pump Room. There’s an information board to the left of the Pump Room entrance explaining all.
Imagine living in the Royal Crescent
The Royal Crescent is arguably Bath’s most singularly impressive piece of architecture. It is, in fact, a half-ellipse, not a crescent. When it was built by John Wood the Younger between 1767 and 1775 it was on the edge of the city, overlooking fields. Its 30 houses are now mostly divided up into apartments. No 1 Royal Crescent is a museum maintained by the Bath Preservation Trust and furnished in period style, including the servants’ quarters. Its engaging ‘immersive experience’ uses film and sound projections in each of the rooms to help evoke what life was like in Bath in Georgian times.
Insider’s tip: Get another view of the crescent by booking an indulgent afternoon tea at The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa. The tea is best enjoyed on a warm summer’s afternoon out on the lawns of the hotel’s expansive, hidden garden.
Take in Georgian architectural masterpieces
Be sure not to miss the circular Circus, with a group of vast plane trees at its centre. Note the carved motifs on the houses’ facades, some of which are masonic, and the acorn finials on the roofline, which reference Bath’s mythical founder Bladud, who looked after pigs (pigs like acorns). Just a few steps away lie the Assembly Rooms, prime focal point of entertainment in Bath in Georgian times. The building was badly damaged in an air raid in World War Two but subsequently restored to its former glory. The beautifully proportioned Ballroom, Tea Room and Great Octagon card room evoke Jane Austen’s Bath better than anywhere else in the city – she attended balls here, and two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, have scenes set here.
Insider’s tip: The Assembly Rooms is closed to visitors for the foreseeable future. The National Trust has plans to redevelop the historic rooms into a new “immersive experience”. The Fashion Museum, which was in the Assembly Rooms’ basement, has also closed, and will be moving to a new location in the city centre.
Tour the Jane Austen Centre
Jane Austen moved from rural Hampshire to Bath with her family in 1801, and she lived in a number of houses in the city until leaving for Southampton in 1806. All her novels mention Bath, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are primarily based in Bath. The Jane Austen Centre will tell you much more. A visit includes an introductory talk about the Austen family, a permanent exhibition detailing her time in Bath and what people got up to in the city in its Georgian heyday, and a watchable 15-minute film.
Watch hot air balloons float over the park
Spreading over 57 acres westwards from below the Royal Crescent, the vast and beautiful Royal Victoria Park offers something for everyone and is the city’s main green lung. Its highlights include a pretty, nine-acre botanic garden dating from 1887 and one of the biggest and best children’s playgrounds you’ll find anywhere.
Insider’s tips: It’s fun to watch hot air balloons launch from the park on a fine summer’s evening; they take off daily between March and October, weather permitting. Take a flight yourself with Bath Balloons to gain a bird’s-eye view of the city’s architecture and its seven hills.
Learn about Bath’s famous star-gazers
In 1781, William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus through a home-made telescope from the back garden of 19 New King Street, his home in Bath. As well as an astronomer, William was an acclaimed telescope maker and highly accomplished musician; his sister Caroline, who lived with William in Bath, was also a pioneering astronomer, renowned for her work on comets. All is beautifully documented in the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, which takes up the charmingly modest 18th-century townhouse.
Insider’s tip: Be sure to examine the full-size replica of the seven-foot telescope used by Herschel to discover Uranus, along with a model of a 40ft telescope that he designed, which was the largest in the world.
Scope out fine art at the Holburne Museum
The Holburne Museum was built as the grand reception building for Sydney Gardens, elaborate pleasure gardens in Georgian times. The permanent collection mostly focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries, and many of the paintings and much of the decorative art, which includes silverware, pottery and textiles, have Bath connections. There are works by Thomas Gainsborough, the best-known artist to work in Bath in the city’s Georgian heyday. Excellent temporary exhibitions are also shown, and there’s an attractive café in a glass atrium at the back.
Insider’s tip: Jane Austen lived in a townhouse across the street from what’s now the Holburne’s car park from 1801 to 1804. No 4 Sydney Place is the only dwelling where Jane lived in Bath with a plaque acknowledging her residency.
Explore an 18th-century garden at Prior Park
The National Trust grounds of Prior Park Landscape Garden are laid out below Prior Park mansion. Now a Catholic school, it was built as a very grand home for Ralph Allen, whose quarries in Combe Down on the outskirts of the city supplied the honey-coloured Bath Stone out of which Georgian Bath was created. The garden is in part designed by Capability Brown and Alexander Pope. It takes about 40 minutes to walk around the woodland-flanked valley that sweeps down to the delicate Palladian bridge and lake. You may well spot deer on the way, and the views across Bath are sensational.
Insider’s tip: It’s a steep, uphill one-mile walk from the centre of town to the garden. There is no on-site parking at the garden and nearby street parking is tricky. The No 2 bus takes you to the entrance from stop BK on Dorchester Street.
See Bath from the countryside
One of the joys of Bath is that it is flanked by hills, meadows and woodland. The Bath Skyline Walk is a well-signposted, enjoyable six-mile circular trail that starts on the south-eastern fringes of the city above Bathwick and Widcombe – the most scenic section of the walk, with fantastic views. The circuit then skirts Prior Park, the university and a golf club.
Insider’s tip: If you only have 90 minutes to spare, try the shorter, circular three-mile Walk to the View route from the city centre. It takes in Great Pulteney Street, Sydney Gardens, a pretty section of the Kennet and Avon Canal and the meadows of Bathwick Fields.
South and East
Cycle through former train tunnels
The Bath Two Tunnels Circuit is a satisfying and immensely varied 13-mile loop that leaves the city via two dramatically lit former train tunnels. The Combe Down Tunnel is Britain’s longest cycle tunnel. The circuit then passes through the village of Monkton Combe, before returning to Bath along the towpath of a scenic section of the Kennet and Avon Canal.