“They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs… She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.” —Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
I studied abroad in Bath in the autumn of 2002 and spring of 2003, and it was one of the best years of my life. Since moving to London, I’ve been back several times: with my husband, E, and in-laws; with my friend Shelby; with my friend Emily; and with my parents just a couple weeks ago. It’s a perfect day trip from London. It only takes an hour and a half by train, and Bath is so small and walkable that you don’t need a car there.
One of the great things about Bath is that the Georgian buildings are so historic and therefore protected, so not much has changed since I lived there—crikey!—15 years ago, except for a noticeable uptick in Chinese tour groups. Oh and the video rental place is no more, c’est la vie. Tourists with selfie sticks aside, going to Bath will always feel a bit like coming home to me.
Here are my recommendations for what to see and do on your first visit to Bath, in no particular order:
(Note: All these opinions are purely my own, I have not been paid or offered anything in exchange for a review.)
Beth’s Top 10 Things to Do in Bath
1. The Mayor’s Corps Free Guided Walking Tour
This 2-hour walking tour is offered every day, no need to book ahead, and is totally free, they don’t even accept tips. It gives a good overview of the city and lots of historical anecdotes. It leaves a couple times a day from outside the Roman Baths/in front of Bath Abbey. See the tour meeting times here.
2. The Royal Crescent and Circus
For the most famous examples of Bath’s Georgian architecture, walk uphill to the Circus and Royal Crescent. Head up Milsom Street (main drag lined with shops), turn left on Gay Street, then cross over and turn right on George Street, and you’ll come to the Circus, which is literally a circle of townhouses, designed by architect John Wood, the Elder.
Exit the Circus to the left and walk down that road and you’ll come to the Royal Crescent, designed by John Wood, the Younger. You can pay to tour No. 1, which is made to look like these houses would have looked like back in their heyday. I haven’t actually toured it, so I can’t say whether it’s worth the money or not.
If it’s nice out and you’re happy to wander, there is a big park in front of the Royal Crescent, and there are botanic gardens tucked away down there as well.
3. Theatre Royal
Check out the Theatre Royal website and see what’s playing when you’re planning to visit. I’ve seen several shows there; it’s not the same level as London’s West End, but if you’re staying overnight and looking for evening entertainment, this is a good choice. Bath can be a bit quiet after the day-trippers and tour buses have left and the shops have closed. (Notable exception: stag and hen parties.)
They can get some fairly big names, too; when I saw Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” there, two actresses from “Downton Abbey” were starring: Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Zoe Boyle (Lavinia Swire).
4. Roman Baths
The Roman Baths are the main thing to see in the town named for them. I recommend getting the audio guide, and allowing about an hour and a half to tour. If you’re put off by the queues outside the entrance, walk to the front door and check—those are usually tour groups, and individuals and families can walk right in.
5. Thermae Bath Spa
If you’re traveling without children, don’t forget to pack your swimsuit, because the Thermae Bath Spa is incredible. It was being built back when I lived there, and opened just a couple months after I left, and that’s probably for the best, because my dad would have had to freeze my credit card to keep me from going every week.
I recommend booking ahead, otherwise you could end up queuing outside with a long wait before you can get in.
You can do two hours at the spa with no treatments for £39. You get access to the two pools and the Wellness Suite. When you arrive and check in, you are given a robe, towel, and flip-flops (you can keep the flip-flops), as well as a wristband that works to lock your locker and that you can use to buy food or drink at the café.
The spa facilities are arrayed over several levels. There’s the Minerva pool at the bottom (indoor) and a rooftop pool at the top (outdoor), featuring the healing (maybe) thermal waters that originally drew people to Bath.
There are no phones allowed inside (thank goodness!) so the photos here are from the website.
Grab a couple pool noodles, then lie back and float, and just feel your body being cured of that pesky gout.
The Wellness Suite is a set of rooms and showers with various features. There are two steam rooms with varying levels of light and different aromas; aromatherapy showers with coloured lights and music; an infrared sauna; an ice room with menthol mist and a giant trough of crushed ice you’re meant to rub all over your body after doing the heat treatments*; and a “celestial relaxation room,” which consists of some heated, tiled loungers in front of a television screen displaying images of the cosmos set to ambient music, and which I like a surprising amount. It’s a great place to just… space out (sorry).
When my friend Emily and I went, we did the “Sunday Taster” package, which gave us two hours in the spa and then a meal with a glass of wine in the café. When my mom and I went last month, we did the two hours in the spa and then a 50-minute “De-Stress” massage, which the heavily accented guy at the reception desk pronounced like “distress.” My immediate thought was, no! I don’t want that kind of massage! That is NOT how I want to feel!
Fortunately, I left feeling de-stressed, not distressed. After relaxing for a few more minutes with a cup of herbal tea, it was time to head to the showers.
The one kind of strange thing about this spa is that the changing area and showers are unisex. There are individual, private stalls for changing, but you shower in a big open shower room with other people, both men and women (with swimsuits on). I felt a bit strange soaping myself up surrounded by strangers, but that’s just me. It wasn’t as awkward as my Moroccan hammam experience, at least.
Things to bring with you: a swimsuit (if you forget yours, there are several department stores very close by), a change of clothes (or at least underwear), a hairbrush and any toiletries you might need after showering, and a plastic bag for your wet swimsuit. Flip-flops, towel, robe, and shampoo/conditioner/shower gel are provided.
*Pro tip: Grab your handful of ice from the top of the pile where the fresh stuff is coming out of the ice maker; I’ve seen too many people rub ice all over their face and bodies and then drop it back into the trough rather than on the floor.
6. Jane Austen Centre
For fans of Jane, Bath is a pilgrimage destination. She lived here for some time, and used it as a setting for some of her books.
My friend Emily is a huge Jane Austen (and Mr. Darcy) fan, so we were definitely planning to go to the Jane Austen Centre museum.
When we arrived in Bath, there were two people in period garb holding up a sign advertising a free Jane Austen walking tour. Well, perfect! We ended up doing a 30-minute (maybe it was less) walking tour with a woman dressed as Anne Elliott, who took us around to sites with connections to Jane, and dropped us at the Jane Austen Centre.
If you don’t want to pay to do the museum, you can still pop into the gift shop, or just nab a selfie with Jane out front.
7. Sally Lunn’s
Even though it’s usually filled with tourists, I never leave Bath without a stop at Sally Lunn’s, the oldest house in Bath (1482), for tea and a Sally Lunn Bunn.
My top choice is the “Bath Cream Tea,” which is a delicious cinnamon butter topping on the bunn, served with clotted cream and your choice of tea. If I go for lunch, I get a savoury bunn with soup.
8. Picnic in Parade Gardens
When the weather is nice, I like to grab a baguette sandwich or Cornish pasty from one of the little takeaway cafes around the Abbey (or pick up provisions at the big Waitrose grocery store on High Street or the Marks & Spencer) and have a picnic in Parade Gardens, on the bank of the River Avon.
There’s a small fee to enter (I think £1.50), but there are lounge chairs, and restrooms/toilets, and it’s a very pretty garden to sit in by the river and munch your lunch. Or take silly photos with the statues. If that’s your thing.
9. Have a Proper Pint in a Pub
Bath is a town of atmospheric pubs, so choose one and order a pint and chat up a local. If English ale isn’t your thing, try 20-year-old Beth’s drink of choice: a pint of cider or “cider black”—cider with blackcurrant syrup added to it. (You can also order just a half pint.) Saracen’s Head (claims to be the oldest pub in Bath), The Huntsman, Garrick’s Head, Pig & Fiddle… just type “pubs in Bath” into Google Maps and take your pick.
We weren’t impressed by the food, but the Crystal Palace pub has a fabulous back garden, so if the weather is good that’s a nice place to have a drink.
If gin is more your thing, pop into the Bath Gin shop and bar, featuring a cheeky winking “Gin Austen” on the labels.
10. Bath Abbey
Check the Bath Abbey calendar and see if there are any events on while you’re in town. Sometimes you can hear a concert there, and I think that’s an enjoyable way to see the inside of the Abbey.
Otherwise, you can go in for a self-guided tour for a suggested donation of £4, or attend a church service. There’s an additional charge to climb the tower, which I don’t think I’ve actually ever done.
Additional Tips for Visiting Bath
Check the Visit Bath website to see if there are any festivals on while you’re planning to be there. If you’re there in November or December, there’s a lovely Christmas market on the square next to the Abbey. There are also often literary festivals and other events. When I took Shelby, the Jane Austen Festival was on, and when I went in May with my parents, the Bath Festival was on. My mom had purchased some tickets for a couple of the festival lecture events, so she and I went to “Tea With Jessica Fellowes,” author of The Mitford Murders and niece of “Downton Abbey” creator/writer Julian Fellowes.
I am not great at dining recommendations for Bath, because when I lived there I was a 20-year-old student, so I wasn’t exactly dining at the city’s finest establishments. But in the last couple years, I have had nice dinners at both The Circus Restaurant and Clayton’s Kitchen.
There are lots of shops in the centre of Bath, so do some wandering and pop into the shops. Most are chains also found in London, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The main shopping drag runs down Milsom Street (which becomes Union Street and then Stall Street), and spills over into little side streets off of it.
Personally, I like to visit the Cath Kidston shop and get a treat at Ben’s Cookies (the milk chocolate and orange cookie is the best).
I hope you have a wonderful time in my dear Bath!