Established as “Aquae Sulis” by the Romans in the 1st century, the city of Bath is named for its thermal mineral springs, percolating through limestone from a depth of 4,800 metres.
The site of the Roman bathing complex is today a world-class museum peering into life in the city 2,000 years ago.
Bath came into its own in Georgian society when it became fashionable to “take the waters”, and the city found itself on the social circuit.
Around this time, ceremonious architectural ensembles like the Royal Crescent and Circus took shape, all built from the trademark Bath Stone.
Quarried around the city, this oolitic limestone is an intrinsic part of Bath’s character and has a rich honey gold tone.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bath:
1. Roman Baths
The Roman bathing complex has been redeveloped many times over the centuries, and you can visit the museum there now to rifle through the many layers of history.
Above ground the current buildings mostly date to the 19th century and there are statues of Emperors and the Governors of Roman Britain on the terrace.
The first-rate museum here takes you below street level to the Roman Sacred Spring, Temple of Minerva and Roman Bathhouse, and shows off the many wonderful finds made around the spring.
Some 12,000 Roman coins have been recovered, along with all manner of everyday implements, the skeleton of a Roman man and the bronze head of the goddess Minerva.
Curses were also made too and these were scratched onto lead-tin alloy tablets and thrown in the water.
Around 130 have been pulled out of the water, many beseeching the Goddess Minerva to punish people who have stolen personal possessions from the bathhouse.
2. Bath Abbey
An shining piece of Perpendicular Gothic architecture, Bath Abbey is mostly from the late-Middle Ages and was then reworked during a thorough restoration in the 1860s by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
Most captivating of all is Abbey’s fan vaulting.
At first this was produced only in the choir in the 15th century by the master stonemasons Robert and William Vertue.
But when George Gilbert Scott came carried out his restoration in the 19th century he added fan vaulting to the nave, in line with the intentions of the 15th-century Bishop of Bath and Wells Oliver King.
On the west facade, carved in 1520, there are two ladders climbed by angels.
This refers to Jacob’s Ladder, but is also believed to have been inspired by a dream experienced by Oliver King.
3. Royal Crescent
Facing south on a rise over the Avon Valley, the Royal Crescent is a semi-circular terrace of 30 uniform Georgian townhouses.
It was designed by John Wood, the Younger and constructed from 1767 to 1774. The ensemble is held as one of the greatest pieces of Georgian architecture in the UK and the facade has hardly changed over the last 250 years.
The first and second-storey windows are framed vertically by Ionic pilasters and the entire terrace is crowned with a balustrade.
Some of the Royal Crescent’s notable former residents are William Wilberforce, who stayed at no. 2 and was one of the leading English abolitionists, and the writer Christopher Anstey who lived at no. 4 for 35 years up to his death in 1805.
4. No. 1 Royal Crescent
The building on the eastern tip of the Royal Crescent is the cornerstone of the development and is considered the pinnacle of Palladian architecture in Bath.
In the 20th century this house was split from its service wing to become two separate properties.
These were reunited in 2000 and a restoration in 2012-13 returned the building to how it would have looked when Jane Austen was in Bath.
In those days No. 1 was a luxury place for aristocrats to stay while engaging in the social season and taking Bath’s waters.
Each room is appointed in the Georgian style, with authentic carpets, portraits, furniture, wallpapers and fabrics.
You’ll soak up the splendour of the bedrooms, withdrawing room, dining room and gentleman’s retreat, but also go beneath the plush veneer to the servant’s corridors, kitchen, coal-holes, Servant’s Hall and Housekeeper’s Room.
5. Royal Victoria Park
This regal park beside the Royal Crescent was opened in 1830 by an 11-year-old Princess Victoria, seven years before she became queen.
On a gentle slope these 57 acres have tall mature trees, a cherry tree avenue and a nine-acre botanical garden.
In the north is the Great Dell on the site of a former limestone quarry, which in the 1840s was planted with exotic trees like conifers from North America.
The Royal Victoria Park also has some worthwhile monuments within its borders, like an obelisk to the Crimean War and the Temple of Minerva, set up at Wembley for the British Empire Exhibition of 1926, and relocated here the following year.
Victoria famously never returned to Bath.
The story goes that she held a grudge against the city after being told that a local had made a derogatory comment about the thickness of her ankles!
6. Prior Park Landscape Garden
You can walk or catch a bus up to this marvellous estate around a Palladian mansion.
That house was built by the entrepreneur and postal reformer Ralph Allen, and has hosted a school since 1830. The grounds that flow down the valley are sublime and now run by the National Trust.
These gardens were laid out in the English landscape style by the poet Alexander Pope, while Capability Brown made additions in the 1750s and 1760. You’ll meander down the slope, through mature woodland until you reach a delightful Palladian bridge, one of only four of its kind in the world.
Graffiti has been etched into the stone by pupils over the last 200 years.
Another masterpiece of 18th-century architecture, the Circus is a few steps east of the Royal Crescent and predates its neighbour.
This circular development, now Grade I listed, was drawn up by John Wood, the Elder and completed in 1768. A curious fact about the Circus is that Wood designed it to have almost the same diameter as Stonehenge as he believed that Bath had been a centre of druid activity in the Neolithic Period and Bronze Age.
According to one rumour, The Circus is meant to represent the sun while the Royal Crescent is the moon, and you can identify arcane symbols of acorns and serpents in the houses’ stonework at the Circus.
Wood, the Elder passed away within months of the first stone being laid, and his son John Wood, the Younger took over the project.
8. Pulteney Bridge
Crossing the Avon, the Palladian Pulteney Bridge is the work of the Scottish architect Robert Adam and dates to 1774. The monument grabs your attention for the rows of shops along its 45-metre span and is of the most photographed monuments in Bath’s World Heritage centre.
The bridge is named for Frances Pulteney, the wife of William Pulteney, who funded this and many other projects around the city, and was rumoured to have been the richest man in Britain at the time.
The south facade is the most striking, built from Bath’s signature limestone and centring on a temple-like bay with Doric pilasters.
In response to floods, the bridge was altered several times during the 19th century, but was returned to its original layout in the 20th century after being designated an “ancient monument” in the 1930s.
9. Fashion Museum
In the majestic Assembly Rooms (1769) is a museum revealing the changes in fashionable clothing from the end of the 16th century to the present day.
The collection was begun in the 20th century by the fashion historian Doris Langley and has since grown to more than 100,000 pieces.
The museum has an army of mannequins dressed in anything from Georgian finery to the looks that changed fashion of the 20th century.
Among the designers represented are Mary Quant, John Galliano, Giorgio Armani and Donatella Versace, to name just a few.
Youngsters and grown-ups can also dress up in Georgian attire (tailcoats, high collars, bonnets and corsets), and have their photo before a backdrop of the Royal Crescent.
10. Holburne Museum
The former Sydney Hotel at the east end of Great Pulteney Street is a refined setting for Bath’s first public art museum.
This splendid Neoclassical building was completed in 1799 and has housed the museum since 1882. Appropriately for Bath the museum’s collection offers a taste of Georgian culture.
In the art collection are works by from the Golden Age of British painting, by Thomas Gainsborough, Johan Zoffany and Francesco Guardi, while there’s also sculpture, porcelain and a wealth of other decorative items.
The museum’s most beautiful space is the former ballroom, adorned with portraits, silver and china under a resplendent chandelier.
In 2011 a multimillion modern extension was unveiled, with additional galleries and a cafe with a view of Sydney Gardens.
11. Great Pulteney Street
After crossing the Pulteney Bridge, this grand, dead-straight artery will conduct you northeast to the Holburne Museum and Sydney Gardens.
Like the Pulteney Bridge it was commissioned by Sir William Pulteney, and is named after him.
The designer was Thomas Baldwin, who contributed a number of streets to Bath, as well as monuments like Guildhall and the Grand Pump Room.
What will strike you about Great Pulteney Street (1789) is its proportions, at 300 metres in length and a stately 30 metres wide.
At the far end you’ll see the portico of the Sydney Hotel, and there’s a pleasing uniformity to the continuous rows of townhouses.
An interesting side-note about these properties is that Baldwin only designed the front wall, so hardly any of the houses are configured the same inside.
12. Bath Street
Thomas Baldwin was also responsible for the street leading east to the Roman Bath complex.
Bath Street was plotted in 1791 and is one of the most distinguished thoroughfares in the city.
The way is flanked by two-storey houses with mansard roofs and Ionic colonnades at ground level.
Looking up, a number of the windows have pediments above decorative friezes and corbels.
The whole scene feels like it’s been frozen in time for the last 230 years, so it’s no shock that Bath Street is often used for period dramas like the 2006 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
At the west end is the Cross Bath, also designed by Baldwin and serving as an intimate open-air bath replenished by water that bubbles from the earth at 46°C.
13. American Museum in Britain
Open from March to October, this museum is at the Grade I listed Claverton Manor, commanding the Limpley Stoke Valley and the Kennet and Avon Canal.
To burn a few calories you can get there from the centre of Bath by climbing the elegant Bathwick Hill.
Founded by two antique collectors in 1961, the museum contains the most complete collection of Americana beyond the country’s shores.
John Judkyn, one of the founders, was a Quaker, so the collection eschews weapons and militaria for furniture and decorative arts from 1690 to 1860. The textile room displays 50 quilts and coverlets from a collection of 200, while outside there’s an arboretum with North American trees and a reproduction of George Washington’s garden at Mount Vernon.
14. Herschel Museum of Astronomy
This townhouse on New King Street was the home of the German-born brother and sister, William and Caroline Herschel, who were leading British astronomers in the 18th and 19th century.
The Herschels lived here from 1777 to 1784 (William left in 1782), and in 1781 William discovered Uranus using a 7-inch telescope that he built with his own hands in the workshop outside.
The museum opened in 1981, exactly two centuries after that discovery.
You can take an audio tour of the house, which contains original possessions like William Herschel’s dining table, and the workshop, where you’ll find his treadle lathe and a touch-screen display pointing the role of each instrument.
The Caroline Lucretia Gallery is an extension using the same ashlar stone, and is used for temporary exhibitions.
15. Bath Skyline
Bath is in a valley bounded by high limestone slopes that rise to a maximum 238 metres.
Visiting the Prior Park Landscape Garden you can take the opportunity to get onto the Bath Skyline, a six-mile looped trail that runs along the ridge above the city.
Prior Park is on the southwest corner of the circuit and from there you can set off on a hike through unfrequented valleys, beech forest and meadows with wildflowers.
There are sites with Roman history and the remnants of long disused quarries.
Take a picnic on a sunny day and there will be countless places to stop, catch your breath and contemplate the city from above.
Maybe the most picturesque setting is Little Solsbury Hill on the site of an Iron Age Fort.