The UNESCO Heritage City of Bath
Bath is one of those places that never tires people of. I don’t say just because I am in love with UK and I lived here, but because it a truly a unique charming town rich in history and culture, featuring stunning architecture, breathtaking landscapes over the green hills and great places to dine or spend the night out!
The name of the city clearly rings a bell about what this place is most famous for: natural thermal waters. Bath has been for century a religious and spa destination founded by Romans and famous for the alleged healing powers of its thermal springs, still attracting today people from all over the world.
A bit of history and legends
Bath is today a lively university town and with its 300.000 inhabitants (plus the thousands tourists coming here during all seasons) is the biggest town of the Somerset county.
According to the legend, the origin of Bath dates back to the 863 BC when Prince Bladud, son of the Britons, contracted leprosy travelling to Greece and was expelled from the court by his father, doomed to roam in the valleys with his ill pigs for the rest of his days. One day, Bladud sees the pigs rolling in some muddy bubbling waters and he realises they have healed. So he does the same and goes back to court cured claiming his throne and founding the city of Bath on the three thermal springs (Hetling spring, Cross spring, King’s spring) on which the city is still today.
In reality, the original Roman name of the city was “Aquae Sulis” meaning “waters of the goddess Sul or Minerva”. Romans came here during the 5th century AC and built a spa complex and worship area for the soldiers to heal and pray. SPA is the acronym for “Salus per Aqua” meaning “health through water”.
Unfortunately the place fell into ruin for centuries when the Romans got replaced by the Anglo – Saxons who didn’t have the same spa culture.
The waters were said to heal skin and muscular diseases, infertility, rheumatism etc. it used to be prescribed as a medicament to drink three or fours times per day during the 17th century. Queen Anne was the first one who started this tendency ate the beginning of the 1700s: she went to Bath to improve her bad health after 17 pregnancies and the nobility quickly followed her. The city became more and more a thermal destination for wealthy people who started buying houses in the countryside to relax and enjoy a better climate.
Many casinos, assembly rooms, gamble rooms and entertainment places have been built during the 17th century to amuse the nobles who came here to promenade, show off and take the waters.
Bath is the perfect destination for a week-end if you want to see the top attractions but it can easily be a primary holiday destination in itself: with its museums, fine restaurants, scenic hikes and scenery, cocktails lounges it is hard to get bored and it is only one hour away from Bristol airport and well connected by train 1h30 away from London.
The Top Things to See and Do In Bath
1.Free Walking tour of the city centre
Bath it’s a small city jam packed with things to visit and the best way to explore it is walking. I advise you at the beginning of your stay to take a free walking tour typically led by the “Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides” which will give you an overall idea of what the main highlights of the city and will make you discover its rich history hidden behind every stone and detail. Tours start twice a day everyday (10 AM and 2 PM) in front of the Roman Baths entry. The guides are voluntary and they do not accept tips! You will truly enjoy this interesting and funny 2 hours tour as much as they do.
2. The Roman Baths
Built around 70AD, this bathing and socialising complex is the core of the World Heritage City of Bath and it attracts thousands of tourists every year who come here to see the one of the best preserved examples of Roman Baths and taste the thermal waters containing more than 43 minerals . The steamy waters reach 46°C and keep on filling the site with more than 1,700,000 litres a day. This is the reason why Bath was awarded by the UNESCO Heritage in 1987 and why the city is so appealing since centuries. The museum is interactive and features multilingual audio guides will make step back in time revealing you the treasures of the incredible site. Roman live characters walk around the pool and entertain the youngest.
Don’t forget to sample the natural spa waters from the King’s spring water fountain and test the alleged healing properties!
An experience not to miss is going to the Thermae Bath Spa, a modern spa complex with incredible views over the city. This glass modern building features a lazy river indoor pool, steam and sauna rooms, different treatments rooms to pamper yourself with a restorative massage after a long day walking and the cherry on the cake: immerse yourself in the misty waters of the top open air terrace and feel like British royalties in the 18th century. To avoid the crowds go early in the morning or at sunset to enjoy the best views without queuing for hours!
The Abbey standing just besides the Roman Baths is one of the most beautiful and luminous cathedrals in England and the result of multiple refurbishing and reconstructions following the each attack. This fantastic Gothic Cathedral features a bell tower that you can visit joining a guided tour from where you can enjoy marvellous views over the sweeping green valleys and hills surrounding this beautiful city.
According to the legend, the church facade was inspired by a vision of the Bishop of Bath, also called Oliver King, at the beginning of the 16th century. The church presents the Holy Trinity with angels ascending to heaven using a ladder and there is an olive tree on the left hand side and a crown: in his dream a voice says: “Let an olive establish the crown, let the the King restore the Church” meaning that the Bishop will rebuild the building from scratch and also reestablish the Church authority. Unfortunately the Abbey didn’t last long due to the monasteries’ dissolution ordered by Henry VIII in 1539.
4. The Pump Room
The Pump Room is the place to be to enjoy elegant traditional afternoon teas in a luxury setting delighted by some live piano concert and drinking the thermal waters, in the past like in the present. Erected in 1706, The Pump Room in Bath became the most fashionable place for the aristocracy of that time in order to see and be seen, socialise and be healed by the waters.
The Pump Room is mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels and she will get inspiration from the years spent living in Bath to give a detailed portrait of what daily life used to be at that time. A little curiosity: the Greek inscription carved on the facade is a quote from the Greek philosopher Pindaro translating into “Water is best” suggesting the healing waters properties.
5. Sally’s Lunn Eating House and Museum
In the medieval part of the city a few meters away from the Roman Baths, you will see the iconic little bakery where the original recipe of the Sally’s buns, soft sweet or savoury brioches, is still religiously followed. It is considered the oldest house of the city (1482) but it was surely existing before that date and used as kitchen of a Benedictine Monastery in 676 AC.
According to the tradition, the name of this bakery refers to Solange Luyon, a French Huguenot refugee escaping religion persecutions in France. She found work in this bakery and started making her buns according to her secret recipe becoming extremely famous. Jane Austen used to come here to buy these irresistible soft ” Bath Buns” and mentions them in her letters to her sister and in her novels.
Today this little tea shop and restaurant is always packed with tourists and it’s worth a stop to sink in the unique British atmosphere and enjoy a cup of tea with one of those legendary buns topped with lemon curd, jam or butter!
6. The Pulteney Bridge
Built in 1774 by the architect Robert Adam in Palladian style, this bridge is one of the four bridges in the world featuring shops inside. The architecture was influenced by Adam’s travels to Italy and it is a copy of the “Ponte Vecchio” in Florence starring eleven small shops on each side and Venetian style windows.
The bridge was commissioned by Sir William Pulteney to connect his estate in Bathwick on the other side of the river to the town city centre. Unfortunately the bridge was partly destroyed during a major flood in 1800 and damaged during WW2. It has successively been refurbished during the 1950’s.
Today the bridge is dotted with quirky coffee shops boasting gorgeous views over the river Avon and little antiquities sellers leading the way to the scenic Holburne Museum.
7. The Circus
This interesting rounded square was the main project of the architect John Wood the Elder, one of the main characters of Bath during 18th century. Inspired by the shape of the Colosseum, John was fascinated by Rome’s history and wanted to rebuild a small replica in the city of Bath.
The project started in 1754 but was finished by his son only in 1768. The Circus was supposed to be a residential luxury area as it is today for nobles coming from the City to the countryside on holiday.
Originally known as the “King’s circus”, this three-entry square makes a perfect equilateral triangle seen from the sky, another clear reference to masonic symbols which constitute one of the many interests of the architect.
The Circus features three levels of columns (starting from the bottom Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) decorated with more than 525 carved mysterious images representing maybe the professions of the inhabitants or references to masonic symbols.
Curiosity: many important celebrities have been living here such as Nicolas Cage or Johnny Depp!
8. The Holburne Museum
This beautiful building located in the public Sidney Gardens used to be a renowned hotel in the 19th century famous for its banqueting rooms, balls, billiard, coffee and cards room. Nowadays the museum is home to a huge collection of Art portraits especially those made by the famous painter Thomas Gainsborough who at the time was highly recognised and demanded for his portraits.
The collection once belonged to Sir William Holburne. After abandoning his naval career, he started an eighteen-month Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Italy, the Alps and the Netherlands while he collected all sorts of art objects especially bronze sculptures, silver, porcelain and Dutch landscapes.
Sir William never married and lived with his three unmarried sisters in Bath. He decided to leave all his treasures to the city at his death and today is one the most interesting and beautiful museums I have never visited surrounded by lush gardens.
9. The Royal Crescent
Another iconic symbols of Bath, the Royal Crescent was the masterpiece of the architect John Wood Junior. Completed in 1775, this semicircular outstanding building used to be a scenic block of residence with stables surrounded by the Victorian Gardens. Today the number 16 is occupied by the Royal Crescent 5* hotel offering stunning views over the hills. Number one royal Crescent is occupied by a beautiful well preserved house-museum featuring perfect furniture staff wearing Victorian dresses and guiding you through the different rooms and stages.
This is a very synthetic list of all the must-see landmarks of this lovely town that stole my heart completely! To know more read my upcoming articles about the most yummy Italian restaurants, or the most scenic gardens of the city, and the top interesting museums and activities for Jane Austen’s fans and the best quirky pubs and cocktail lounges of the city and much more!
If your time in Bath is short it may be a good idea to book this hop on hop bus tour taking you uphill!