Bath's UNESCO World Heritage Site status covers the entire city – a very rare honour that reflects Bath having a number of distinct special features. The first – and the reason why Bath exists – is the city’s unusually hot springs. By wallowing in the thermal waters at Thermae Bath Spa, you will be following the habits of visitors over the past two thousand years. Second notable attribute is the very substantial remains of the Roman Baths, which, along with its associated temple complex, form one of the most important Roman sites in the country.
For more reasons for Bath’s World Heritage status, fast forward to the 1700s, when Bath blossomed into an elegant resort, with harmonious Georgian terraces, squares and groundbreaking crescents built out of the soft-hued local Bath Stone. This urban landscape provides the perfect backdrop for scenic wanders, and you can drop in on places such as the Assembly Rooms and Pump Room, just as Jane Austen did when she lived in Bath in the early 1800s. The city is often used as a scenic backdrop for period costume dramas – lots of the Netflix Regency romp Bridgerton was filmed in Bath.
The city’s beautiful setting, in a bowl surrounded by seven green hills, is a further attribute that UNESCO highlights. Bath is wonderfully compact: you can walk out from the centre into lovely countryside within 10 or 15 minutes.
Bath’s heritage was given a further big boost in summer 2021 when it was awarded a second World Heritage Site listing as part of The Great Spa Towns of Europe, a “transnational” inscription covering 11 historic spa towns in seven countries.
The Cleveland Pools, Britain’s oldest lido, has undergone a massive and costly restoration project, and is due to open fully in 2023.
If all this is not reason enough to come, be drawn by the city's digestible galleries and museums, the excellent shopping – Bath has done better at retaining independent shops than most city centres – and the wide choice of individual cafés, cosy pubs, sophisticated cocktail bars and gourmet restaurants.
Begin with an exploration of the superbly displayed Roman Baths, and the adjacent remains of the temple to Sulis Minerva, goddess of the hot springs. Use the excellent audio guides, and have a glug of the mineral-rich, thermal water from a fountain at the end of the tour – it tastes yucky but is supposedly health enhancing.
Back outside on Abbey Churchyard, take in the richly decorated west front of Bath Abbey. Then pop inside to admire the magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling and some of the memorials – the most moving is the Waller tomb in the south transept, created by a Civil War general for himself and his wife.
Grab a light bite (you'll be eating plenty a few hours later) from a café in the pleasantly old-fashioned indoor Guildhall Market. Then head up Milsom Street, Bath's most elegant shopping thoroughfare, cross over George Street, and pass by the grandiose Assembly Rooms, where the balls were held in Georgian times. It's just a few steps to the Georgian roundabout that is the Circus. Always a prestigious address, the Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage owned No7 from 2007-10.
Three minutes' walk down Brock Street brings you to the palatial sweep of the Royal Crescent. One of the 30 townhouses, No 1 Royal Crescent, is a museum whose meticulously recreated interiors (including servants’ quarters) and audio-visual presentations convey what life was like in Bath in the late 1700s.
Stroll back down to the city centre along Gravel Walk, much used in Jane Austen's time for promenading. Treat yourself to a full-blown afternoon tea in the grandiose Georgian salon that is The Pump Room; Europe's longest-established resident classical ensemble will entertain you as you eat.
Time for a civilised pub crawl. From the city centre, wander down slightly funky Walcot Street to the venerable Bell Inn, where you might catch some spirited live music. It's a five-minute stroll past St Swithin's Church – Jane Austen's parents were married and her father buried in what is Bath's only Georgian church – to The Star Inn, an unimprovably snug, turn-the-clock-back hostelry with a “death row” bench for its elderly regulars; draft beer can be ordered by the jug.
Have supper in one of Bath's gastropubs. The Marlborough Tavern does reliably good food. Lying just behind the Royal Crescent and Royal Victoria Park (Bath's main green lung), the pub is well located to combine with an amble on a long summer's evening.
Start your day with a relaxing session at Thermae Bath Spa. The highlight is soaking in the naturally hot waters of the open-air rooftop pool, taking in the views across the city's rooftops.
If you're an Austen fan, spend an hour in the informative Jane Austen Centre. You may want to have your photo taken with jolly Martin Salter: the Regency-dressed greeter is one of Bath's best-known faces.
For lunch, treat yourself to very superior fish and chips or seafood at The Scallop Shell. Then cut across town and over Pulteney Bridge: completed in 1774, it is unique in Britain for having shops – quaint, skinny affairs – on both sides. The best view of it and the weir below is from down the steps on the bridge's eastern side.
Walk the length of Great Pulteney Street, far and away Bath's longest, widest and grandest Georgian street. Your destination, at the entrance to Sydney Gardens, is the Holburne Museum, a beautifully presented and digestible collection of mostly 18th and 19th paintings and decorative art; take a break in its light-filled café.
If you're still feeling energetic, you could follow a pretty stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal from the rear of the gardens, cut up to the meadows of Bathwick Fields for a superlative panorama right across the city, then return to the centre via North Parade. The National Trust's Walk to the View details the route.
Start the evening with a snifter at the ever-popular Bath Distillery Gin Bar. Then pop up the street to Olé Tapas, a buzzing little first-floor tapas bar, for moreish plates of honeyed aubergine fritters and baby cuttlefish.
If you want a conventional meal, it's a short walk on to Clayton's Kitchen, an upmarket but casual and contemporary-styled restaurant with consistently high-quality British/French dishes. You could finish with a nightcap at The Hideout, a hidden-away bar specialising in whiskies.
In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the heroine Catherine Morland is unimpressed by the view from the top of Beechen Cliff, on the south side of the city. But the panoramic view over Bath is in fact spectacular. Take it in from the belvedere on the edge of Alexandra Park, which perches on top of Beechen Cliff. You can walk up via a zig-zag path, or drive up via the Wellsway and park in the park.
The King’s Bath, a pool dating back to medieval times filled with bubbling thermal water, is viewed on the tour of the adjacent Roman Baths. But you can also get a free view of the King’s Bath, without buying a ticket to the Roman Baths, if you go in the entrance on Stall Street to the left of the Roman Baths shop, and politely ask the staff on duty if you can have a peek.
Walcot Street, running north from the city centre, is Bath's so-called artisan quarter, populated with independent businesses. As well as browsable antique, furniture and interiors stores, there are inviting food shops and cafés such as the Fine Cheese Co and Landrace Bakery, Bath Aqua Glass glassblowing studio and factory shop, the spirited Bell Inn and Walcot House, a trendy restaurant/bar.
Did you know?
Pollution is a big problem in Bath, not least because there is no bypass. The city recently introduced a Clean Air Zone – the first in the UK outside London; commercial vehicles that do not meet the required emission standards are charged to enter the city, but charges to not apply to private cars.
The Bath Priory is a great choice for a summer stay, as its pristine gardens are the best of any hotel in Bath. The four acres include magnificent old trees, hidden nooks, a croquet lawn and a heated swimming pool (there's an indoor pool too).
More places 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.
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Lying on Great Pulteney Street, Bath’s grandest Georgian street, No.15 by GuestHouse successfully blends 18th-century townhouse fittings and features with a plethora of quirky modern art and curios. Bedrooms are equipped with record players – there’s a library of LPs to choose from – and rates include access to a pantry stocked with treats.
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Eight features uncluttered, contemporary-styled bedrooms and an excellent, intimate French/Italian restaurant. The location, split between a pedestrian lane and cobbled square in the city centre, is a delight too.
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What to bring home
Apple juices, cheeses, charcuterie and other edible local treats from Bath Farmers' Market. Open Saturdays 9am-1.30pm in Green Park Station, a former Victorian railway station, it claims to be the oldest farmers' market in the country.
Jane Austen-themed tea towels, mugs, cards, jewellery and much else besides from the shop at the Jane Austen Centre.
When to go
There's a lot to be said for coming to Bath on weekdays. Sundays to Thursdays, accommodation tends to be much cheaper than on Fridays and Saturdays and single-night bookings are usually possible – at weekends many of the best hotels and b&bs insist on a two-night minimum stay. Sunday to Thursday nights are also much quieter when out and about – the centre of Bath can be quite rowdy on weekend nights with hen parties and students. Lastly, the Roman Baths and Thermae Bath Spa are generally much less busy on weekdays.
If you do plan to come at a weekend, you may want to avoid a date when Bath Rugby is playing at home (unless, of course, you want to attend a match): city centre pubs are packed on match days, though not in a rowdy way.
In terms of seasons, there’s no bad time. If it’s warm, there are lots of outdoorsy attractions, such as parks, the National Trust’s enjoyable Bath Skyline Walk, river trips, canal strolls and hot air balloon rides. If it’s cold and wet, a host of tempting museums awaits, along with plenty of snug pubs and cafés to hole up in. The Bath Christmas Market, held late November through to mid-December, is large and very atmospheric, with chalets spread around the city centre, but at peak times it gets uncomfortably crowded.
Know before you go
Tourist information: visitbath.co.uk
Where to go
You may be able to walk everywhere if you stay in or near the centre. A car is really not needed and parking is expensive, so come by public transport if you can – Bath Spa train station is very central.
Right in the city centre are the Roman Baths, Bath Abbey and Thermae Bath Spa. Ten to 15 minutes' stroll to the north brings you to the key Georgian set pieces of The Circus and The Royal Crescent. Just east of the centre, across the River Avon and Pulteney Bridge, lie Great Pulteney Street, the most impressive Georgian street, and at its far end the Holburne Museum, Bath's premier art museum.
Further afield, the main enticements are other Georgian crescents and, on Bath's southern fringes, Prior Park Landscape Garden and the Bath Skyline Walk, offering fantastic views.
Fred Mawer is Telegraph Travel's Bath expert. He has lived with his family in Bath for many years, and loves being able to walk from the front door out into the countryside with his dog. As a professional Blue Badge qualified tour guide, he spends much of his time taking visitors on walking tours around the city – more information on fredmawertours.co.uk.