The city of Bath is one of England's most popular visitor destinations. Bath is a town of supreme harmony constructed mostly during the 18th century with beautiful cream-colored limestone in the Georgian style of architecture. Along with the urban beauty there are numerous historic sites, museums, monuments and many quiet lanes containing hundreds of little shops that create an awesome combination that will keep you happy for several days.
First we shall take you on a walking tour of the center, then go inside the two main historic attractions, Bath Abbey, the thousand-year-old church, and the Roman Baths, nearly 2,000 years old.
The town center has a human scale with lowrise buildings and quiet streets lined with shops and galleries ideal for strolling, all contained in a relatively small area only about 1000 meters in one direction and 500 meters in the other. Typical of our walking tours, we like to take you out of the way, and bring you to the main highlights.
A nice place to start walking is the Abbey Churchyard, just in front of the Bath Abbey we shall come back to see in detail later. Walk from the Abbey Church Yard through the columned arcade onto Stall Street, one of the commercial ceners of town. You will be tempted by attractive roads leading off in each direction, so you will undoubtedly come back to this pleasant spot a few times. Most of the streets throughout this central area are fascinating to walk along, so the best strategy for the savvy traveler is to stroll up one direction and back down another, crisscrossing the side streets in a semi-organized way we will suggest here until all the possibilities are covered.
The small Abbey Green is a peaceful courtyard with a large tree in the middle and historic old buildings all around. This courtyard is quite central, just one block over from the Bath Abbey, yet is easily missed because it's really not very conspicuous. The picturesque cobbled courtyard has a few shops and pubs around a large tree and green open space in the center.
Just around the corner are Evans, a traditional fish and chip bar, and a teashop and small kitchen museum in Sally Lunn's House, the oldest house in town (1482), on North Parade Passage, another quaint pedestrian lane. Browns, another fine mid-price restaurant located on the Green, is a very reliable English chain that has renovated the old Bath Police Station and has cells available for viewing. The Abbey is just a block away.
Parade Garden is a pretty park along the Avon River, set about 18 feet below the main level of the city streets. This shows the original level of the town, which has been built up over the centuries in a typical process as land was filled in and buildings constructed on top of earlier rubble, which also helped lift the city above the flood levels of the river.
It's very easy to navigate when you're walking around in Bath because there is one main street -- it's about a kilometer long. It changes names a few times variously called Milsom, Union, Stall and Southgate streets, and it has different characters you go from one end to the other, but throughout this one street is a fascinating and fun place to walk.
You are guaranteed to see quite a few street performers as you walk along in the lanes of Bath. There are jugglers, there's clowns, musicians, there's bubble blowers and all sorts of activities to keep you entertained, and if you are amused they will accept your tips.
The southern end of this main pedestrian street is an excellent example of urban redevelopment. It's Southgate Street, which is kind of like a shopping mall in the middle of the historic center. It blends in very nicely with the pedestrian lanes around it and is anchored by department stores and a nice variety of clothing stores and eateries in a very well-organized and clean place.
The street itself was actually purchased by the private developers who have transformed it into a new town center. It's marvelous how the Southgate Mall blends seamlessly into its extension further north on Stall Street and into Union Street, which is really the busiest part of town filled with locals and tourists alike. Most of the other street surrounding this main lane are also fascinating to walk along.
The best strategy for the savvy traveler is stroll up one direction and then back down another street, crisscrossing the side streets in a semi-organized way until all the possibilities are covered.
Perhaps you'll be drawn into Bath Street lured by the arcades on both sides and tempting shops along the way. Bath Street is only one block long, ending in a small, curved intersection called Cross Bath with more columns. Take a look through the archway to the tranquil courtyard of St. John's Hospital and then look up to see the rooftop pool of the Therme Spa, where you can get a full treatment in naturally heated mineral-rich waters.
Walk a block over through St. Michael's Place to Westgate Street another attractive road with more shops on both sides. It's called Cheap Street on the east end, but this side seems more for locals than for tourists.
This leads to Kingsmead Square, another local gathering place, nicknamed Seven Dials due to the converging streets around it – recently renovated with wide sidewalks outdoor cafés and bike lanes. It's a very popular place to hang out and a great example of urban preservation and reuse located only three blocks from the tourist center, but most visitors never get here.
A block north brings you to Theater Royale, the main venue for plays and live musicals in town. They usually have something going on most evenings ranging from comedies to concerts to drama. The theater has its own restaurant and in the side lane, Garrick's Head Pub, part of a cozy neighborhood with quiet streets and more restaurants. Then turn around and walk back towards where you started in the center by the Abbey into a lovely tangle of small pedestrian alleys lined with shops.
Between High and Union streets there are several little pedestrian malls with more shops including the Corridor, Northumberland Place and Union Passage. You could easily miss them but they're worth looking for. Too often in life we stay on the main road when the real treats are just nearby on those side alleys. One could spend several fun hours shopping and exploring these small lanes that wind through the commercial heart of town. These little malls are easy to find, so close to the Abbey, but their entrances are sometimes inconspicuous.
The Guildhall was built in 1776 as the Town Hall and it still used today as Council Chambers and for special events like weddings and concerts. Adjacent you'll find the Guildhall Market, an old covered arcade with 25 small shops and food stalls open from 9:00 to 5:30 every day except Sunday.
The market has some craft people such as for knitting supplies and for having a custom leather belt cut. "What's the price range of an average belt?" "They go from 30 up to about 45 depending on how wide they are really." "And how long does it take to cut one and fit it?" "Well if it's already made it's a five minute job to cut it." Guildhall Market the oldest shopping venue in Bath. It's been in action for the last 800 years on the same location.
One block over continuing on Bridge Street you arrive at Pultney Bridge across the River Avon but you never realize it's a bridge because it's completely lined with shops that block any view of the river down below. It's one of only three major bridges in Europe covered in shops along with the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the Rialto in Venice. Here you will find a cornucopia of jewelers, souvenirs, clothing boutiques, antiques, cameras and much more.
If you feel up to it, you might walk a few blocks along Great Pulteney Street, the widest, straightest road in town, laid out later in the 1780s in the Regency architectural style with classical lines. It is primarily a long row of townhouses built with the traditional pattern of servants upstairs and the wealthy owners living downstairs. However, there are no shops or restaurants along this uniform stretch, so a mere glimpse should suffice.
The River Avon flows through the center of town creating a delightful watery ambience with parks along both sides and boat rides on offer. A narrow staircase descends from the far side of the bridge down to the River Avon, where you can amble along the delightful Riverside path enjoying some splendid views across the water. Relax with a refreshing drink or meal at one of the outside tables at The Boater Pub facing the weir, the terraced horseshoe-shaped rushing cascade of water. One-hour boat rides also leave from this spot.
Also along the river you'll find a rugby stadium which can hold nearly 14,000 people. During the summer when the rugby season is over they remove some of the stands and it becomes a cricket pitch and an open recreation ground for the people of Bath, also used for hockey, croquet, football, volleyball, lacrosse, tennis and drama. However a conflict has developed because the rugby club wants to expand the stadium and many in the public want to expand the park grounds.
At the next block on Northgate Street you'll come across a modern shopping complex The Podium, a small multilevel indoor mall tastefully clad on the outside with typical cream-colored Bath stone, but featuring sleek escalators and contemporary décor inside. There are several medium-priced restaurants to pick from in The Podium.
New Bond Street will tempt you until it intersects with Old Bond Street, another short pedestrian mall lined with shops. This is the very center of Bath's shopping district with main roads, little alleys and small indoor malls providing lots of temptations, so take your time wandering about in a major shopping break. It really helps when they remove cars and convert streets to pedestrian areas.
When you are ready for another gallery and a river walk, make your way a few blocks back to Bridge Street. Here, art fans would enjoy a brief visit to the Victoria Art Gallery, a free museum with a small permanent collection of paintings in two rooms, and a larger space for special exhibits.
More traditional scenarios of traffic and wide sidewalks lined with shops also works well such as along Milsom Street with historic architecture retaining character from previous centuries. Take your time walking along Milsom, enjoying its many tempting shops and picking one of the cute cafes for a snack break. There is an excellent museum of photography just on the right in a venerable old building called The Octagon at number 46, featuring early cameras and the photos they took, along with contemporary exhibits. Shires Yard is a two-level indoor mall to note, and Jolly's which has been at 7 Milsom Street since 1831, the first department store in the nation.
For many years Milsom was the main shopping venue in Bath, but in recent decades the development along Southgate, further south along Union Street has really shifted the center of gravity and balanced things out nicely, so that they're all doing very well. At the top you come to George Street, with raised paving that elevated patrons above the mud and horse splatter of past centuries. It's another fine shopping and café venue.
Make a quick left into Bartlett Street, a prime location for antique shops, with 50 dealers and 160 showcases in the Antique Center. It leads to Saville Row and the Assembly Rooms on Bennett Street. The Rooms were a prime social center of 18th century society and are open today as an exhibit area for paintings, original chandeliers and various furnishings of that era. In the lower level you will find the extensive Museum of Costume, the largest of its type in the world, which displays 400 years of clothing design, including 200 dressed figures and 30,000 items illustrating changing styles from the 16th century through today.
Make a detour two blocks east if you wish to visit the Building of Bath Museum, which tells the story of the creation of Georgian Bath, using models, reconstructions, tools, dioramas, illustrations and computers to inform you about the evolution of this historic town. The displays also cover design, technology, economics and the social dynamics of the 18th century, including an account of the connection between Bath and Asia. Extensive trade with China brought many Oriental furnishings here, which became the rage for home decoration. Architectural walking tours through the city can also be arranged with the museum's experts. The building museum is housed in one of the few Neogothic structures in town, a beautiful chapel from the 18th century, commissioned by the Countess of Huntingdon in 1765.
Gay Street is nearby, another accomplishment of architect John Wood. Here you will find the Jane Austen Centre, a small permanent exhibition about the famous author's life in Bath, where she resided from 1801 to 1806. Two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, are largely set here and several of her other books make reference to life in Bath. The museum is located between Queen Square and the Circus on Gay Street, on the same block where Austen also lived briefly in 1805. Her main residence was on Queen Square, where she wrote Northanger Abbey. Walking tours of Austen's Bath are given daily at 1:30pm from the museum in July and August and on weekends during the rest of the year.
Two of the most famous housing complexes in the world, and are among the most important sights to see in Bath, the Circus and Crescent
This circle of thirty-three elegant townhouses is an ideal example of town planning, with beautifully designed buildings that efficiently use the land yet also provide open green space for the residents with private yards in the back. The homes are arranged in three graceful crescent sections that wrap around a small circular park with a grove of trees in the middle. Admire the frieze running the entire length of the facades, with 528 low-relief carvings representing the arts and sciences, taken from a 17th century book on fortune telling. Notice the three orders of classical columns, with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian accenting each level in turn, just like the Colosseum in Rome, which provided inspiration for this circle, as did Stonehenge. The Druids are also represented by stone acorns above the parapet.
The Circus was designed in 1750 by John Wood the Elder and completed by his son, John Wood the Younger, who created most of Bath's superb 18th century architecture. Altogether, this adds up to one of the most harmonious apartment complexes ever built. No wonder some of England's most illustrious citizens have lived here in the past, including William Pitt and Thomas Gainsborough.
As wonderful as the Circus may be, it is eclipsed by the even more famous Royal Crescent curved housing complex, designed in 1767 by the younger Wood. Together, they are said to symbolize the sun and moon in the Wood cosmology. It is only two blocks from the Circus to the Crescent walking along Brock Street, but do make a detour into a pedestrian lane called Margaret's Building for a delightful scene of little cafes and shops -- with a collection of Antiquarian bookstores, contemporary ceramics, arts galleries, jewelers, antique shops, designer clothes and handcrafted baggage. You might even continue into the quiet residential neighborhood around Catherine Place and Circus Mews if you feel like widening your explorations.
It's just two short blocks further to the Royal Crescent, one of Bath's most famous sites. The Royal Crescent is the crowning achievement of the city and has become the symbol of Bath, with thirty homes connected in a graceful arch. This outstanding Georgian-style landmark was the first housing crescent built in Europe, inspired by another masterpiece in Rome -- the curving colonnade in front of St. Peter's designed by Bernini.
Servants lived in the top floor, with kitchens in the basement, and they would haul in water from an outdoor pump in the park in front. Wealthy owners, then and now, maintained their living rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms upstairs. To get a feeling for the elegant life of those days you could spend the night here at the very expensive, five-star deluxe Crescent Hotel in the center of the curve, or have a meal in their pricey restaurant, Pimpernel's.
It is worth visiting the museum at Number 1 Royal Crescent, the Georgian House operated by the Bath Preservation Trust. This was the first house built in the complex and has many original furnishings and authentic decoration typical of an 18th century Bath townhouse. There are friendly guides inside who will give you a little tour and answer questions.
Typically, your guide will be an older lady who has lived in Bath all her life and volunteers to share information and have a chat with those visitors who are interested. Don't pass up this opportunity to talk with a local, which rarely happens in our modern travels. You just might enjoy being with that host even more than looking at the old furniture, statues and paintings. Ask a few questions, actively listen and add your own comments to get the most out of this brief, passing friendship.
Inside the Georgian House you will see several floors of rooms displaying items of daily life that give you a real feeling of how it was to be a rich person in the 18th century. The visit takes you up and down the stairs, through the kitchen, parlor and bedrooms, transporting you back a few centuries.
RETURN TO THE CENTER
For a pleasant route back towards the town center that will get you off the city streets for a while, enter the leaf the Gravel Walk and stroll through Royal Victoria Park, which then becomes the Georgian Garden, lushly landscaped with many flowerbeds and towering trees.
Notice, in the broad open field on your right, the "ha-ha" wall, a sunken terrace, named after the surprised reaction of those coming upon it. This clever wall kept grazing animals away from the mansions without spoiling the view. Revealing glimpses on the left into the private yards and backsides of the elegant townhouses show a different face of ramshackle patchwork, for the strict design of buildings was only regulated on their facades.
You'll exit through the garden gates at Queens Parade which is connected to Queen Square. This green park occupies one block in the heart of town surrounded by elegant homes and a fine hotel, The Francis, part of the luxurious Sofitel M Gallery collection. It replaced townhouses bombed in World War II. The park and a obelisk in the center date back to the early 18th century, as do the buildings along the north side designed by John Wood the Elder.
The park and obelisk in the center date back to the early 18th century, as do the buildings around it. The town's main architect, John Wood the Elder, designed the square and the elegant lineup of seven Palladian-style houses on the north side, and lived in a house on the south side so he could admire the view.
There are four more little streets to look at just to the east of Queen Square: Wood, Quiet, Queen and Trim. Each one is only a block long, so you should have enough energy left for a look. Notice the little arch at the end of Queen Street, forming an impressive gateway. Pass straight through the arch one short block to Upper Borough Walls where you can see the only remaining fragment of medieval wall that once circled the town. Stroll a few blocks over and you'll reach the Assembly Rooms, a prime social gathering place for the 18th-century music and dance gatherings of high society.
That completes the main highlights of a Bath walking tour, and from here you can just stroll back towards the city center soon arriving at the intersection of John, Wood, Quiet and Queen streets.
Typical of many old European towns, there is an ancient church in the center, the Bath Abbey, with many old cobbled lanes around it, rich in sights to explore. Abbey Church Yard, in front of the church, is a delightful place to get started, with lovely views of the church façade, the Roman Bath Museum and the Pump Rooms all around. Comfortable benches provide a good vantage to watch the passing parade of people, and there are generally street performers singing, dancing, juggling or joking with the crowd for some added entertainment. This is where you will find the Tourist Information office, which is always a handy place to pick up free maps, brochures and information about local events and entertainment. Free two-hour walking tours of town leave from here every day at 10:30am, and again at 2:00pm, Monday through Friday, conducted by the Mayors Honorary Guides. You can start planning an excursion out of town with booklets from tour operators and discussion with the helpful staff; and if you don't have a hotel yet, or are not satisfied with what you've got, they can fix you up.
Looking up, you will see the Abbey standing high above the buildings around it. It is the third church built on this location: the first was a small, stone church built by the Saxons -- very important in British history because it is where Edgar, the first king of all England, was crowned in 973. Later, a Norman abbey was constructed around 1100 and finally replaced by the church we see today. Parts of the original Saxon and Norman churches have recently been uncovered inside the Abbey during the ongoing restoration program. Bath Abbey is the last major pre-Reformation Tudor church built in England, started in 1499 by Bishop Oliver King who dreamed of angels going up and down a ladder while hearing a voice telling him to build a church. When you look at the façade today, notice the stone carving of angels on Jacob's Ladders and scenes from the Bible, fully realizing the bishop's vision. The Abbey is sometimes called The Lantern of the West because sixty percent of the walls are stained glass. It is built with dramatic flying buttresses on the outside that look quite old but were added in Victorian times to stabilize the building.
When Queen Elizabeth I visited the Abbey it had no roof because her father, Henry VIII, had plundered all the churches and stripped them of everything valuable, including the lead roofs and windows. Elizabeth led a movement to restore the building and raised funds throughout the land to put another roof on the church. She also issued a municipal charter in 1590 that reinvigorated the town. The 78-foot-high ceiling became one of the finest parts of the church, further enhanced by the elaborate fan vaulting that was added later in the 19th century. Only a few other English churches show such detailed stone tracery, the final manifestation of the late gothic perpendicular style, built high and narrow, leading your eye up towards heaven.
The heart of Bath was built on top of the original Roman baths, on the site of the main hot spring, which is an ancient geological feature that has been bubbling for millennia. A comprehensive museum has been built on the site, incorporating many of the original Roman structures along with hundreds of artifacts in a fascinating display that reveals how civilized they were 2,000 years ago.
Upon entering the museum, head for the outdoor terrace overlooking the King's Bath and walk all the way around for different views looking into the pool, across the rooftops of the center city and at the tower of the adjacent Bath Abbey. The statues and columns around the terrace look ancient Roman but are Victorian additions. However, the pool and paving around it are original Roman, as are most of the objects inside the museum.
Roman conquerors arrived in the Bath area in 43AD and remained until 410AD, so during that time things were generally peaceful. The Romans were clever occupiers who allowed the local people to continue their traditional customs and religion, even adopting some of the local gods, as they did with Sul, a Celtic sun god, who was combined with the Roman god Minerva to form a new deity that all could worship. A bronze head of Sulis Minerva was discovered in excavations here and is now on display in the museum.
A town was founded here because of the hot springs, which the Romans prized highly. Although they controlled all of England, this was the only place that had a natural hot spring, so it was extremely valuable to them. The Romans constructed baths in all their main settlements and went through the effort of building furnaces to heat the air and water, but here the heating was done naturally, deep in the earth with steaming, 117-degree water that still gushes out of the ground at the enormous rate of one half million gallons per day. Another unusual aspect of this bath was its large size -- big enough to swim in, unlike other smaller Roman baths that were merely intended for soaking, and it is perfectly preserved today as the centerpiece of the museum.
Of course, Romans were not here just to bathe but to plunder the wealth and send it home, especially lead, which was mined in the hills just 30 miles away and sent to Rome for use in plumbing and to process silver. They also sent corn home from this "granary of the north" which produced great harvests because of rich soils and mild climate. From nearby Cornwall they took tin and copper. Roman engineers built an extensive network of roads, fortresses and spas to transport the goods and to support their advanced lifestyle. Of course the unfortunate Britons were forced to do most of the physical work, but the country benefited in many ways from Roman innovations and control.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, the soldiers picked up their spears and suddenly left Britain, creating a power vacuum that was soon filled by invading Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes who were not interested in the hot baths. The thermal springs fell into ruin until the Normans in the 12th century built the King's Bath, which is the structure visible today around the main bathing pool.
During the 18th century the hot springs were further expanded using the same foundation and many of the original Roman stones, and the town became very fashionable as a place to bathe as a cure for your aches and pains. Archaeological excavations later in the 19th century discovered more of the ancient Roman pools, along with many artifacts that had been very well preserved in all the mud and muck that covered the site. Careful steps were taken to preserve these valuable historic treasures, and they are now beautifully displayed in the museum. A thorough visit of the bath and museum takes nearly two hours if you want to read all of the information posted with the various displays and listen to the audioguide included with your admission charge.
Next door, built on top of part of the original baths, you will find the elegant Pump Room, opened in 1706 and re-built in the 1790s. This is still a fashionable gathering place where people come to drink the sulfur-laden mineral water that has oozed up out of the ground in hopes it will cure their ailments. It costs less than a dollar to stand and try a glass of the special water, or you can sit in the restaurant for tea and a light meal. Usually there is live classical music played by the Pump Room Trio, creating a relaxed, elegant atmosphere. The entire experience is quite similar to that which took place in this same room in the 18th century. "Taking the waters" to improve your health is the reason why Bath was founded here by the Romans in the first place and why it became such a fashionable resort during the 18th century. Tea and light meals, accompanied by live, classical music, have been offered in this delightful room for centuries.
You can take a free guided tour with Mayors Honorary Guides Walking tour in Bath, England with an expert guide showing major highlights in the center of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As in most tourist towns, there is a worthwhile bus tour of Bath that covers the main sights, although impressions of a small town like this are best gained on foot, so don’t fall into the trap of the lazy tourist and let the bus substitute for the walks through town. Most cities in Europe now have these terrific double-decker buses with no roofs -- a fine way to get an easy overview of the town.
Bath is not very big, so you don’t really need a bus tour to cover it, but this service provides a nice supplement to your walking tours. It delivers a summary of the sights -- Bath in a nutshell -- and can point out more things you might want to cover on foot later, or provide a new perspective on places you've already walked through.
You can catch the tour bus at any stop along its route, but the main terminus is behind the Abbey at Orange Grove, next to the Parade Gardens. Hopefully the weather is nice so you can sit upstairs in the open-top bus for a lovely unobstructed view.
There are a couple of companies offering what amounts to the same service. The bus drives around the city for 50 minutes showing you many of the important attractions in an easy ride, and then a second leg included on the same ticket brings you into the nearby suburbs for a taste of rural life. So two different routes – you take one route then you get off and transfer and catch the second route all on one ticket. We will show you both in this brief description.
The walking tour we just took provides more detail, showing you the shopping lanes, going inside the historic sites – but the bus tour is a fun way to take in the big picture quickly and easily.
We will be crossing over by the Avon River, so the city routing really does take you right around through the center of town. If you are only going to do one of the two legs offered by the bus tours, it would be the city route that's really the more interesting one, but that second leg into the countryside is also fun too. Passing the parade gardens in the center of town right along the River Avon.There is a token admission fee that gives you access to the lawn and deck chairs and you can bring your own picnic and there's also a café with outdoor seating in the gardens. Relaxation while sitting on the bus is a nice contrast for all the walking around you have been doing in the city.
Now we shift to the second bus route out into the rural areas, the suburban surroundings of Bath they call the Skyline Tour and this also takes about 50 minutes.We’re driving along Great Pultney Street, lined with elegant old townhouses continuing on past the Holburne Museum and then out along Beckford Road.It's almost like a mini excursion way out into the countryside even though you're just 10 or 15 minutes from downtown. You're going to see some sheep grazing.Well it's nice and green and clean out here. You can see some beautiful homes and there's been some recent expansion of the suburbs. There is a five-star hotel and a branch of the University in the area as well. And before you know it, the bus tour is over.
ARRIVAL and LODGING TIPS
The train from London to Bath takes 90 minutes, leaving from Paddinton Station. This is fast enough that you could visit Bath as a day-trip, but as you have just seen, there is so much here, it is worth staying a few nights. You ride through some very pleasant country scenery, stopping a few times along the way. You can get up and walk around on the train. Tickets can cost as little as $50 for standard class, which is perfectly comfortable. You don't need to pay for first class on this journey. It's a direct ride, so you do not have to change trains. The train station in Bath is located right in the historic center, making an easy walk from the station to most hotels.
I have been happy with Abbey Hotel, a five-minute walk from the train station and just a block from Bath Abbey. It's nice the hotel is not part of a big chain, but independently owned by Ian and Christa Taylor, who have maintained it in a positive and excellent way. The breakfast included with your room rate is spectacular – you've got all of the usual trappings of Continental and you can get a cooked breakfast, the full English style – eggs anyway you want them, baked beans, tomatoes, bacon, you've got breads and fruits and juices to go with it along with a lot of coffee or tea – a perfect place to stay.