Bath… 1h30 from London by train. The Romans built it for its thermal source, Jane Austen adopted it for 5 years, the Georgians gave it a stunning architecture. Why resist? You are bound to fall under its spell! Here is an express guide to explore most of it in a day – you will also find a Google Map listing all the addresses at the end of the post. Happy city break, my friends!
The Roman Baths
The story starts a long time ago, around year 60 AD. The Romans had stumbled on a thermal source, nestled in the Avon Valley. Was it, maybe, a divine gift? After all, this water seem to be have therapeutic qualities… The source was therefore considered sacred, baths built, a temple dedicated to Sulis Minerva, the healing goddess. The place is, at that point, only named Aquae Sulis (Sulis’water) but in a way, Bath was already born.
These baths will remain used through centuries but do lose their glory… until the 17th century. Thomas Guidott, who studies chemistry and medicine, sets up his practice in Bath. Fascinated by the water curative properties, he finally writes A discourse of Bathe, and the hot waters there. Also, Some Enquiries into the Nature of the water in 1676. Intrigued, the aristocracy gives it a try, word of mouth will do the rest. With money now flowing in easily, Bath becomes more elegant, more refined. New luxurious structure for the baths, gorgeous neo classical facades, fashionable shops, theatre, balls to spend the evening dancing. In Georgian and Victorian times, Bath is the place to be.
The Roman Baths have since been turned into a museum, presenting both the Roman foundations, the remains of the temple to Sulis, the source still flowing throw, the artefacts found on the site – all amazingly well preserved. Actors in costume (priest, soldiers, slave, noble lady…) add to the atmosphere too. But really, the most poetic part is the central bath, filled with blue-green water in which the building reflects. In winter, you will get this beautiful mist suspended above it in an ethereal way. It’s easy to forget about time entirely, sitting along it.
There is another experience awaiting at the end of your visit, right in the Pump Room. For the last 200 years, the fountain there has been delighting guests with Bath water, still warm from the source and rich, it is said in 43 minerals. Wondering what to expect? Slightly earthy and metallic but not unpleasant notes. This Georgian lounge also serves as a restaurant and even serves afternoon tea, with a pianist or musical trio often playing in the background…
Good to know : with more than a million tourists stopping by each year, this museum is quite the star of Bath. But if you come right when it opens in the morning, you will avoid the crowds/big groups/school trips and probably even have it almost all to yourself. Alternatively, between June and August, it stays open till 10pm.
You can’t miss it – it is right by the Roman Baths, less than a 30 seconds walk. Take a minute to admirer the quite unusual facade first, with its two ladders leading to Heaven, and angels climbing it, a reference to Jacob’s ladder. The best part is inside though – the fan vaulting ceiling simply is magnificent… Look for the quire angels frieze, each flapping their wings differently, holding different instruments. One even plays the pipes! The abbey always has a few art pieces on show too: often complex, colourful and surprisingly modern embroidery or even, at the moment these sweet little butterflies. Fancy going behind the scenes? Then join the Tower Tour. You will get to sit right behind the clock, make a few bells ring and enjoy, from the roof, the best view over the city. Not to be missed.
Try the Bath Buns
Feeling hungry after climbing a couple hundred steps? Head toward North Parade to indulge in Bath buns. There are two iconic tea rooms there to choose from. Look for Sally Lunn first: the oldest house in the city, named after a young Huguenot baker who settled there in 1680. He is said to have invented these treats, which are still served on site, cut in 2 and topped with butter and honey. The size is quite generous so you might want to share one! On the other side of the street, The Bath Bun serves, since 1761, what I call the adopted version: sprinkled with sugar pearls and currants. Both are equally good, 2 stops are in order!
Keep walking along North Parade until you reach the river. It’s the best view on Pulteney Bridge, built in 1773 in a Palladian style. It’s one of only 4 in the world to a road lined with shops! Home accessories, fashion, even a florist… Stop at the Bridge Café there to enjoy a different sight of the river (and to try their oh-so-fragrant rhubarb rooibos infusion).
Good to know: Once you have crossed the bridge, continue a little longer, up to the roundabout. You will find the most adorable hexagonal Victorian letterbox there, a style called Penford. There are only 20 or so left in the whole of the country. Nearby also is an old fashioned chemist, A.H. Hale, dating back to Georgian times. Do step in: the vintage bottles are all lined up on a shelf still…
The Bridge Café | 17 Pulteney Bridge, Bath BA2 4AY
A.H. Hale Chemist | 8A Argyle Street, Bath BA2 4BQ
Victoria Art Gallery
Trace your steps back and cross the bridge again. At the corner of the street is the Victoria Art Gallery – give it a try, the entry to the permanent collection, on the first floor is free! Once up the stair, do look up: the rotunda has a gorgeous golden ceiling with all 12 astrological signs in the centre. The large upper gallery, with its curved angles, its bright blue walls and Wedgwood style frieze is a Victorian masterpiece… The small upper gallery features over 400 delicate Georgian drinking and colourful Bohemian glass, stunning British porcelain and more quirky gems.
Victoria Art Gallery | Bridge St, Bath BA2 4AT
Next door to the gallery (not kidding) is a tiny covered market. The building dates back to the 18th century but there has been stalls here for over 800 years. Forget grandiose, it has an authentic, quaint feel that is simply heart-warming. Choose from second hand books, freshly roasted coffee, local cheese and bacon and more…
Guildhall Market | High St, Bath BA2 4AW | Du lundi au samedi
Lunch at The Garrick’s Head
A fantastic find, especially if you want to escape the tourist crowd. Beau Nash, England’s most famous dandy and fashion trendsetter in the 18th century, used to live there. Today an elegant pub, The Garrick’s Heads served beautiful, refined dishes… without breaking the bank! The lunch offer (12h-14h30) is at £15 for 2 courses, £16.50 for 3 while the pre-theatre offer (17h30-19h) is £17.95 for 2 courses, £20.95 for 3. Quite a good deal! I fell for their pan fried scallops served over a Jerusalem artichoke purée and cubes of black pudding, followed by pan fried stone bass, pickled fennel and green sauce. Delightful… They also have 5 local ales on draft.
The Garrick’s Head | 7-8 St. Johns Place, City Centre, Bath BA1 1ET
Jane Austen Centre
The famous author lived in Bath with her family between 1801 and 1806 and this is the best place to earn all about it. You first sit down to listen to your guide – a very interesting minutes presenting her family, life story and books linked to the city. Then is an exhibition giving you more information on the places Jane used to live in and love here. Don’t miss the Regency tea room on the first floor nor the souvenir shop (they even have I love Darcy badges!) on the ground one.
Good to know: Trace Jane Austen’s steps and find the 5 houses she stayed at > 1 Paragon, 13 Queen Square, 4 Sydney Place (you can rent a boutique apartment there!), Green Park buildings and 25 Gay street (a little higher in the street than the museum).
Jane Austen Centre | 40 Gay St, Bath BA1 2NT
The architect John Wood, convinces that Bath had been the centre of Druid activity in the country, started by visiting Stonehenge… then applied the same diameter when he designed this incredible Circus. Divided into three arches of equal length, each lined with splendid Georgian houses. In the middle, the lawn used to be cover a reservoir used to supply water to the buildings around.
The Assembly Rooms
In the 18th century, guests met here to dance, drink tea, play cards and listen to music. Jane Austen was one of them! The ground floor, open to the public, gives you a chance to get a glimpse of these luxurious rooms. The first floor now hosts the fashion museum.
How about shopping?
All the high street brands are there, of course. I prefer Broad Street and Walcolt Street’s independent shops… The Bath Hat Company for fun hats, Rossiters, so big it feels like Ali Baba’s cave, for British china and everything you need for beautiful dinner parties, The Yellowshop for vintage fashion, The Fine Cheese Co. to try the Bath soft cheese (they also have a tearoom next door serving fantastic quiches and cakes)… Don’t miss the gargoyles on Walcot Street. These modern versions are not without a sense of humour.
Before you leave…
You’ve started the day at the Roman Baths… why not finish it at Thermae Bath Spa, which used the water from the sacred source too? Fragrant steam rooms and two sumptuous pools, one indoors, one on the rooftop. Quite a view on the town from there! This is what it looks like from the tower of the abbey.
Thermae Bath Spa | The Hetling Pump Room, Hot Bath St, Bath BA1 1SJ | £35 for 2 hours of happiness
How to get there? From Paddington station in London, it only takes an hour and a half if you jump on an express train. And Bristol (think Brunel’s masterpieces and street art murals) only another 10 mn train.
Good news: you can now book your flights, hotels and train tickets via Expedia.co.uk. To celebrate this new option, Visit Britain and Expedia have come up with a calendar of inspiring events all around the country. Check it out!