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Why go now?
The entire city centre is celebrating 25 years as a Unesco World Heritage Site – and, in 2012, Bath is looking brighter than ever. The site of Britain's only hot springs is now an exuberant source of indulgence, culture and architecture – with the signature Bath stone, in shades of honey and straw, bestowing grace and character on the city.
Bath Spa railway station (1) is an awkward building site at present, but it has good connections to London Paddington, Cardiff, Salisbury and Southampton, with less frequent arrivals from Exeter, Plymouth, Weymouth and Gloucester. From other stations, change trains at Bristol Temple Meads or Reading. Call 08457 48 49 50 or see nationalrail.co.uk for times and fares.
By air, Bristol is the nearest airport – though there are no direct links, so again you have to go via Bristol Temple Meads. Driving and parking in Bath is difficult and frustrating.
Get your bearings
The historic centre of Bath is compressed into a small area north and west of a curve in the River Avon, with the Abbey (2), Roman Baths (3) and Pump Room (4) at the heart. The tourist office (5) is just south of the Abbey (0844 847 5257; visitbath.co.uk); it opens 9.30am to 5.30pm daily (10am to 4pm on Sunday).
The main shopping thoroughfare begins in the north as Milsom Street (1) and changes to Burton , Union and Stall Streets as it heads south (though not so you notice). Then it fragments into the modern Southgate retail warren. The most elegant Georgian architecture lies beyond the centre, with the Royal Crescent (7) and the Circus (8) particularly notable.
Bath routinely tops hotel-price surveys, with average rates even higher than in London. The Francis Hotel (9) on the south side of Queen Square (01225 424105; francishotel.com) has just reopened after a five-month, £6m refurbishment that has qualified it for membership of Accor's elite MGallery Collection. John Wood the Younger's elegant Georgian townhouses – later hammered by a half-ton German bomb in 1942 – have had a Regency makeover with modern twists. A "classic" double typically costs £199, with the sumptuous breakfast an extra £15 per person if you book it in advance.
Across the city centre, the Halcyon (10) at 2-3 South Parade (01225 444100; the halcyon.com) is another townhouse conversion but is smaller, with a more friendly and relaxed boutique feel. Rooms are available for £99 per double including "luxury Continental breakfast" off-peak, but £138 is more usual at weekends.
The very central and surprisingly handsome Travelodge (11) at 1 York Buildings, George Street (0871 984 6219; travelodge .co.uk) was previously the Royal York Hotel. It advertises rooms "from £19," but on summer weekends £110 double, excluding breakfast, is a more likely rate.
Take a view ...
… and a bath at the same time. Thermae Bath Spa (12) (0844 888 0844; bathspa.co.uk) is the only place in the UK where you can bathe in natural, hot spring water. If you arrive at opening time, 9am, for a two-hour session (£26), you'll enjoy the spectacular city views from the open rooftop thermal pool in isolation.
Take a hike
Walk north through Georgian backstreets: past the Chapel of St John's Hospital, jink across Westgate Street to Bridewell Lane and continue up Trim Bridge and cobbled Queen Street to Wood Street. Turn left to discover Queen Square, one of John Wood the Younger's 18th-century confections.
Proceed north up Gay Street, pausing at the Jane Austen Centre (13) at No 40 (01225 443000; janeausten.co.uk; 9.45am to 5.30pm daily; £7.45) – she lived here from 1801 to 1806. Now branch off left, and climb the steps to a gravel path that takes you past a Georgian Garden (14) – maintained by the local council as an example of 18th-century horticulture (10am to 4.30pm daily, free). Bear right to reveal the glorious arc of the Royal Crescent, perched over the valley. No 1 Royal Crescent (15) (10.30am-5pm daily; £6.50) reveals Georgian life upstairs and downstairs.
Go east to the Circus (8), built by Wood the Younger and his father between 1754 and 1769. It comprises three curves of fine houses wrapping around a verdant hub.
The Assembly Rooms (16) around the corner houses the Fashion Museum (01225 477789; fashion museum.co.uk; 10.30am-5pm; £7.50).
Lunch on the run
Forage for a picnic at the Paxton & Whitfield cheesemonger (17) on the corner of Quiet Street and John Street, and the Bertinet Bakery (18) at 6 New Bond Street Place (01225 445531; bertinet.com) and take it to the Parade Gardens (19) – though you must pay £1.20 to enter. Otherwise, Jamie's Italian (20) at 10 Milsom Place (01225 432340) is a reliable option.
Go to church
Saturday, rather than Sunday, is the day to visit the 15th-century Bath Abbey (2), which rises from the ruins of a Norman predecessor. The hours are longer (9am to 6pm rather than 1pm to 2.30pm and 4.30 to 5.30pm; £2.50 donation), and you can also visit the tower, with tours every half hour. Buy the £6 ticket, in advance if possible, from the Bath Abbey shop (01225 422462; bathabbey.org).
Hall & Woodhouse (21) is both the name of a Dorset brewery, and the title of an auction house at 1 Old King Street (01225 469259; hall-woodhousebath.co.uk) now converted to a spectacular four-storey bar and restaurant. It gets crowded from 7pm at weekends, but escape up to the roof.
Dining with the locals
Linger for dinner at one of the communal tables at Hall & Woodhouse or try the stylish Brasserie Blanc (01225 303860), part of the Francis Hotel (9). Main courses, such as Toulouse sausages and "priest strangler pasta", are priced below £10.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
Bath has always had an "alternative" streak manifest at the Wild Café (22) – a bright parlour with pink and green chairs and a hyperactive kitchen, tucked away on the corner of Queen Street and Wild Street (01225 448 673; wildcafe .co.uk). "Wild brunch" (from 10am on Sundays, 9am Saturdays, 8am other days), includes avocado on toast (£3.50) or a complete breakfast – attributed to Jane Austen as "the bestest full English I've had in town" – for £6.95.
Many city-centre stores open around 11am on Sundays – including the Itchy Feet (23) travellers' store at 4 Bartlett Street (01225 337987; itchyfeet.com).
The Victoria Art Gallery (24) is an accessible, attractive and free museum on Bridge Street (01225 477 233; victoriagal .org.uk; 1.30-5pm on Sundays, from 10am other days, closed Mondays). Graham Dean's Fitter, Quicker, Longer exhibition of Olympic watercolours runs to 2 Sept; buy a big painting for £10,000, or a postcard of the same image for 60p.
Follow the majestic Georgian thoroughfare of Great Pulteney Street over Pulteney Bridge (25) – lined, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with shops. Your target is the Georgian building at the far end, the Holburne Museum (26) (01225 388569; hol burne.org; 11am-5pm Sundays, from 10am other days). Sir William Holburne – an 18th-century English eccentric and explorer – collected some impressive Golden Age paintings and silverware. You can see his passport, full of stamps and officialdom, on the first floor. The second floor exibition is Presence: The Art of Portrait Sculpture, opening with a waxwork of Henry Moore and ending with Ron Mueck's eerily enlarged model of a human head (£6.95 admission).
A walk in the park
Behind the museum, and its excellent café, the old Sydney Pleasure Gardens (27) spread up one of Bath's seven hills. The park is strewn with Neoclassical oddities, and bisected by Brunel's Great Western railway line, and the Kennet & Avon Canal. On a fine day, head up towards Sham Castle (28), close to the Golf Club – a Victorian folly with an excellent city view.
Icing on the cake
Daytime crowds are fierce at the city's steaming soul, the Roman Baths (3) (01225 477785; romanbaths.co.uk) –but in July and August you can visit to 10pm, see the source of the 46C spring water, and explore the Roman remains of Aquae Sulis (£12.50, or £15.75 with the Fashion Museum).