Day trips to Bath have been fashionable ever since the Roman tourists turned a patch of steamy marshes into the ancient world’s equivalent of a luxury spa resort.
Almost 2,000 years later visitors still flock to this historic spa town. You can still look at the hot baths, you can drink the water and now, thanks to the new day spa, you can jump in too. But apart from the water there’s still plenty of attractions to keep visitors fascinated.
We compiled this guide to spending a day in in this wonderful town, including all the famous sights and a few that only the locals know about too.
9.30am: Roman Baths
It’s amazing to see how Romans transformed a simple hot spring into an entire leisure complex bigger than anything that today’s top luxury hotels can offer.
Arrive early to avoid the crowds that can transform one of the world’s most interesting historical tours into a frustrating scrum reminiscent of Bath’s famous rugby team.
The various pools, passages and chambers make more sense if you use the free hand-held audio commentary sets. And warn the kids in advance not to expect to be able to jump in the pools…
11am: Bath Abbey
The elegant church tower next to the baths is a good landmark if you get lost wandering Bath’s confusing little streets, alleyways and corridors. And it’s worth looking inside too.
Now the west front has been cleaned up you can spot carved angels climbing up ladders to heaven plus some pretty deformed-looking statues. They never recovered from Cromwell’s soldiers’ musket target practice in the civil war.
The Abbey is also the site of the coronation of Edgar, the first king of united England. Outside, the Abbey Yard is a good place to sit at a touristy cafe and watch top quality buskers.
Midday: Pulteney Bridge, The River Avon and Great Pulteney Street
It’s a short stroll to one of the most photographed views in Europe. I defy anyone with a camera not to feel forced to snap the River Avon spilling over the terraced curved weir with Pulteney Bridge behind.
Bath’s Georgian bridge is lined with shops – if you glance from a window at the back of one of the shops a sudden glimpse of river rushing underneath can be disconcerting.
The elegant road on the far side of the bridge is Great Pulteney Street, the equal of any grand boulevard in Europe. Enjoy the view but if you walk right to the end you’ll only find the traffic congested A4. Nevermind, across the road is a lovely period park with the Kennet and Avon Canal flowing through it. It’s a good spot for picnics.
Around Pulteney Bridge is a good area for a lunch break. The Pulteney Arms in Daniel Street serves homely food by original gas lights – www.thepulteneyarms.co.uk
Closer to the Bridge, this part of Bath is dotted with cafes and restaurants. There’s even a cafe right on the bridge.
2pm: Queen Square and Royal Victoria Park
Your afternoon stroll should head north from the Abbey to find the best of the honey-coloured squares, crescents and terraces built by Georgians 200 years ago.
Their building boom was designed to cope with floods of aristocratic visitors when Bath suddenly became the country’s most fashionable resort. For example the impressive houses along the sides of Queen Square could stand alone as an individual royal palaces anywhere else in the world.
In Royal Victoria Park it’s worth hunting out the authentic Georgian garden which has gravel instead of grass to protect the women’s long dresses from staining.
The huge children’s adventure playground at the end of the Park isn’t Roman or Georgian… but it is free.
2.30pm: The Royal Crescent
The world’s best known block of flats is a grand semi-circle of houses, now mainly turned into apartments. Some are even have council tenants. One house is open as a museum showing what life in the original houses would’ve been like.
Two central houses have been knocked together to form the exclusive Royal Crescent Hotel. In the Hotel’s back garden is the newly completed Bath House – you can copy Romans and Georgians by wallowing around in warm pools, steam and sauna rooms but unfortunately it’s only for hotel guests and members.
3pm: The Circus
A short walk away is the complete circle of 30 Georgian houses that once housed dignitaries like David Livingstone, Clive of India and Thomas Gainsborough.
Many houses round here still have metal ‘snuffers’ on their railings so footmen could extinguish their torches.
Alongside you’ll find the Assembly Rooms and Costume Museum. If you’re getting so carried away by the Georgian mood you can see what ladies wore in the eighteenth century.
The lure of Bath’s shops will be getting too difficult to ignore by now.
Just behind the Assembly Rooms you’ll find a walkway lined with interesting traders ranging from handpainted tea pots to antique wardrobes… and that’s just the start of them.
There’s a maze of pedestrian alleyways, streets and arcades leading back to the Abbey with a mix of trendy boutiques, gift shops and quirky junk dealers. There are also unique speciality shops selling everything from teddy bears to historic fireplaces, dolls house furniture to handmade paper.
4.30pm: Tea time
In one of England’s most genteel attractions you really are spoilt for tea time choice. At Sally Lunn’s Refreshment House waitresses in period costume serve distinctive cakes that have been baked there for more than 300 years but my favourite is the Pump Room in the Abbey Yard.
Here you can enjoy a traditional cream tea while being serenaded by the Pump Room Trio. The menu even includes Champagne cream tea (£30 including half a bottle of champers, smoked salmon sarnies, scones and clotted cream). You probably won’t want dinner later.
No local will blame you for missing out on a glass of the spring water dispensed by a man in a Georgian wig. It only costs 45p – but tastes so disgusting it’s amazing the Georgians came here at all.
Bath has plenty of good restaurants including Jamie Oliver’s 15 and Michelin-starred Abbey Hotel, there’s the Georgian Theatre Royal, scores of interesting pubs… and the fabulous new Thermae Bath Spa with the chance to bathe in the warm roof top pool overlooking the floodlit Georgian rooftops.
Whichever you choose try to include a walk. Bath is even more picturesque after the coach trippers have gone. The cobbled streets glow under the street lamps and many buildings are floodlit. Pulteney Bridge looks particularly idyllic on a cold night as steam rises from the river where hot spring water escapes from the baths.