Timeless beauty in the Avon Valley
Bath is a real head-turner – just walking its World Heritage streets can lift your spirits. The photogenic Georgian architecture has a warm, sunny glow, while the sweeping crescents and terraced Circus make your head spin. Its biggest draw, the Roman Baths complex, cleverly makes the most of the city’s ancient foundations, while the words of former resident Jane Austen bring more recent history to life.
Today, Bath remains a centre for wellness, with a modern, multi-level thermal spa that taps into its underground vein of rich mineral waters. Such beautiful surroundings attract creative types and there is a wealth of independent shops, markets and eateries. The surrounding countryside bears quality produce in abundance, so Bath is brimming with semi-rural farm shops, artisanal coffee houses, vegan and vegetarian bistros, contemporary brasseries and gourmet restaurants. In fact, it is one of Britain’s leafiest cities, ringed by wooded hills and split by the River Avon and Kennet & Avon canal.
Hot right now . . .
Natalie Paris, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to eat and drink this season.
On Walcot Street, Landrace Bakery is a popular and inventive new bakery and café, with loaves made from stoneground wheat, milled by two British farmers. There is simple seating for up to 25 and a blackboard listing breakfast and lunch options. Try the exemplary bacon bap, set in a milk bun with rhubarb ketchup.
8 Holland St (8 Margaret's Buildings; 01225 336 585) is an idiosyncratic new gallery and design shop with a sister in Kensington. Paintings and homeware sit beautifully within a 19th-century interior, which features a wrap-around gallery, Victorian mahogany counter and display cases. The shop was once home to the Bath Oliver Biscuit.
Another great new addition to Bath’s interiors and design scene is the Francis Gallery (3 Fountain Buildings, Lansdown Road; 01225 443220), which occupies a calming, minimal space of muted tones. It shows thoughtful works from upcoming international artists – including paintings from Rosemarie Auberson – alongside furniture, ceramics and antiques.
It may have opened last winter but Bath’s boutique Tivoli Cinema (6-8 Dorchester Street) has become a firm favourite among all who love sophisticated interiors and film. It's fun to visit just for a cocktail too – the large, sumptuous lounge has a brass and marble-topped bar. In screens, velvet chairs have drinks tables and individual lampshades.
48 hours in . . . Bath
Go early (at 9am or 9.30am in winter) to avoid the crowds when visiting the superb Roman Baths (Stall Street; 01225 477785) and the adjacent remains of the Temple to Sulis Minerva. It’s an interactive experience, with films of actors having a dip or a massage projected onto the walls at various points, plus an audio commentary from Bill Bryson. The view across to the Abbey from above the Great Bath is architecturally splendid.
You can take a closer look at the gothic masterpiece afterwards by climbing up the tower of the Abbey (01225 422462); tours last 50 minutes. Then settle down to lunch at Corkage (5 Chapel Row; 01225 423417), a short walk north of here. An affable, casually-attired sommelier will chat through your wine preferences and pair something delicious with the delectable small plates on offer, such as Dorset crab on toast.
Delight at Bath’s Georgian marvels by approaching (and photographing) the majestic Royal Crescent from Royal Victoria Parkjust beneath it. The museum at No.1 Royal Crescent (01225 428126) takes you back to how the interiors might have looked in a fashionable Bath home in the late 18th-century.
After a look inside, walk to the nearby Circus, with its ring of houses and intriguing stone motifs. The grand Assembly Rooms (Bennett Street) around the corner were favoured by high society. Dance a quick waltz in the ballroom, while listening to a passage from Austen’s Northanger Abbey on the audioguide. Afterwards, dine at the Michelin-starred Olive Tree (4-7 Russel Street; 01225 447928), a smart restaurant in The Queensberry Hotel, serving modern British food crafted from seasonal, local ingredients. Picture the likes of pasta with Hungarian honey truffle or a delicate but delicious plate of Orkney scallops with pink grapefruit granita.
Move on to The Star Inn (23 Vineyards; 01225 425072), an atmospheric old pub a few minutes walk away. Beer here is still served by the jug; one holds four pints of locally brewed Bellringer and costs £15.20. For live music and dancing, take the narrow steps nearby down to Walcot House (90b Walcot Street; 01225 314938), a bar and club open on Friday and Saturdays only, with table service followed by DJs until 3am.
For something more rough and ready midweek, see what’s on at The Bell Inn (103 Walcot Street; 01225 460426), a much-loved stalwart of the city’s music scene that plays everything from blues, to swing and folk, slightly further up the street.
Start the day at one of Bath's many great cafés, such as Darcy's News Café (34 Gay Street; 01225 425308) – a newsagent served sunny side up. Well stocked with reading material, it also offers tempting all-day breakfasts such as eggs on sourdough or French toast, alongside Lavazza coffee and loose leaf teas.
Then strike out from Pulteney Weir across Pulteney Bridge (popping into the odd boutique shop along the way, such as Found, for funky homeware, and The Antique Map Shop) to the Holburne Museum (Great Pulteney Street; 01225 388569), which backs onto Sydney Gardens. The museum houses old masters, porcelain and ornaments.
If the weather is fine you could cut short your visit and set off along the canal that cuts through Sydney Gardens for an easy, hour-long walk up to Bathwick Fields and back, for views of the city's smartly-laid out terraces and spires. These meadows are part of the National Trust’s Walk to the View and Skyline walks. The circular walk drops back down to the canal and re-enters the city further south.
Stop for lunch on the corner here, at The Green Rocket (1 Pierrepont Street; 01225 420084), a café serving warming, wholesome vegetarian food, such as fried polenta with a tomato and lentil ragu.
Give yourself the afternoon off and indulge, as the Romans once did, in the UK’s only naturally hot spa. Thermae Bath Spa (Hot Bath Street; 01225 331234), a five-minute walk away, has two steam rooms, an ice room, an infra-red sauna and a steaming, show-stopping rooftop pool with views across spires and chimneys to the hills beyond. Try to come midweek when it’s quieter and bring sunglasses if it’s sunny. Spa treatments are also available, including a Watsu water treatment.
Float to dinner afterwards at The Beckford Bottle Shop (5-8 Saville Row; 01225 809302). This fairly new, candlelit wine shop has a handsome restaurant attached, which serves a fabulous, British-made charcuterie board and small plates that include breadcrumbed and deep-fried Bath chaps.
Comptoir + Cuisine (5 George Street; 01225 684733) is nearby, serving champagne cocktails and French cheese boards in an underground room full of velvet sofas and vintage posters. A jazz pianist often plays at the end of the week. If the night still feels young, round things off at the Dark Horse (7a Kingsmead Square; 01225 282477), a sultry, subterranean cocktail den, generally open until at least 12.30pm. It serves not one but two Somerset cider brandy cocktails. The Eden, for example, is like biting into a slightly tart apple.
Where to stay . . .
The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa encompasses two townhouses in Bath's showpiece Georgian crescent, plus a large and beautiful garden and further buildings to the rear. The elegant tone is set by curvaceous staircases overseen by classical busts, lounges with chandeliers and oil paintings, and extravagant suites with elaborate stuccoed ceilings.
Doubles from £236. 16 Royal Crescent; 01225 823333
The owners of No.15 Great Pulteney have blended the original fittings and features of this hotel with some quirky, idiosyncratic and creative touches, from artworks by students at Bath Spa University to hand-blown glass lights, chandeliers made out of earrings and collections of kaleidoscopes.
Doubles from £149. 15 Great Pulteney Street; 01225 807015
Henrietta House is a lovely b&b that occupies a handsome, double-fronted Georgian townhouse. Its bedrooms are furnished with a sprinkling of art and antiques, and have an elegant simplicity that allows the character of the property to sing through. At breakfast, you can look forward to homemade granola, jams, cake, a juice of the day, fruit salad, croissants and an extensive cooked menu.
Doubles from £117. 33 Henrietta Street; 01225 632632
What to bring home . . .
Make your own mothers’ ruin at the Canary Gin Bar (3 Queen Street; 01225 462457). In one of the two-hour masterclasses, you'll create a bespoke bottle after sampling and experimenting with different flavours; reservations are essential. Or just pop in and buy various infusions of Bath Gin.
You can watch glass being blown at the Walcot Street branch of Bath Aqua Glass (105-107 Walcot Street; 01225 428146) and buy a vase, some simple pale blue tumblers or a piece of jewellery afterwards. Glass-blowing and paperweight-making classes are available too.
When to go . . .
You will find Bath at its most genteel and welcoming during the week. Accommodation is often cheaper and you will find it easier to book for a single night’s stay, as some hotels and b&bs demand a two-night stay at weekends. Queues for the Thermae Bath Spa are also much reduced on weekdays, though if you book a treatment you don’t need to wait. A weekday visit also means you can avoid the noisy stag and hen parties that prowl the city centre at weekends, though some might find the streets rather too empty in the evenings midweek.
Weather-wise, Bath is a pleasure to visit year-round. In summer, hot air balloons rise above the rooftops and visitors get to appreciate the city’s green surroundings, enjoying walking, boating and kayaking.
In winter, the Christmas market (held over the first two weeks of December) is one of the country’s best, though be prepared for big crowds who flock to stalls set up around the Abbey. The colder, wetter months are the time to tour the city’s museums and galleries, before warming up in one of the historic pubs.
Know before you go . . .
Tourist information: visitbath.co.uk – lots of ideas and deals, and a good 'What’s on' section. The Bath Visitor Information Centre is at Bridgwater House, 2 Terrace Walk, Bath BA1 1LN; open 9.30am-5.30pm Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm Sun.
Where to go
It is easy to walk around Bath’s sights, though plan ahead to ensure you don’t criss-cross back and forth too much. The Royal Crescent and Circus are in the top half of the city centre, as is the city’s “artisan quarter”, which stretches out further north.
The Roman Baths, Abbey and Thermae Bath Spa are in the southern part, closer to the train station and main shopping streets. Cross Pulteney Bridge, to the east, and you will find the Holburne Museum and Sydney Gardens.
Further north-east, on the canal, is the starting point for boat journeys back into the city, while some of the best views and walks are found to the south, in the hills on the far side of the canal (for example, the National Trust’s Bath Skyline walk).
Since moving to Bath, Natalie has spent her time supping coffee in honey-hued cafes, boating on the river and strolling between village pubs – confident to have found the perfect combination of city and country.
With contributions by Fred Mawer
Experience Bath with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours and holidays in Bath, tried, tested and recommended by our Bath experts.