Honey-coloured, history-worn Bath is one of Britain’s most elegant cities, thanks to its days as a stomping ground for 18th-century high society. But that doesn’t make it stuffy. Skip the tea shops and scratch beneath the surface to find a folksy, laidback city that, while catering for international tourists, also treasures its independent cafes, restaurants and bars. Bath’s Georgian architecture is unrivalled, yes, but it also has a street dedicated to artisans and a lively vegetarian and vegan food scene.
And with the 70th Bath Festival (11-27 May) showcasing music, literature and a day dedicated to feminism, don’t judge Bath until you’ve tried it.
What to do
Live like a Roman
In 70 AD, the baths were where people went to wash, relax and socialise – 1,170,000 litres of hot spring water still fills the site today. On top of the usual tour, visitors can, on selected Wednesdays, explore tunnels beneath the streets to see Roman remains; tickets £16.50. Don’t miss gothic Bath Abbey, with its beautiful ladders of angels, while in the area.
Soak your cares away
To bathe in Bath’s naturally steaming water yourself, visit the Thermae Spa. A two-hour session allows you to slip between a mineral bath, a new multi-sensory wellness suite, an ice chamber and a glorious rooftop pool; from £36.
Lace up your bonnet
Bustles on 18th-century dresses should be sturdy enough to “carry a good-size tea tray” according to an exhibit at the Fashion Museum (£9). Should dressing up in corsets, skirts and bonnets appeal, you can do so here as well at the Jane Austen Centre (£12). Above the Fashion Museum are the Assembly Rooms (free), the ballroom of which Austen wrote about in Northanger Abbey.
See art in a garden setting
The Holburne Museum sits on the edge of Sydney Gardens. With a glass-walled cafe looking onto mature trees at the back, it is a relaxing escape as well as a place to view a collection of fine and decorative art, including some Gainsboroughs and Turners, alongside temporary exhibitions (around £10).
Drift down the canal
There are many ways to see Bath from the picturesque Avon and Kennett canal and a good selection of traditional pubs to stop at for lunch. Bath’s narrowboats offer the most peaceful voyage, from £80 for a half-day hire for six people from Sydney Wharf in Bathwick.
Where to stay
The Abbey Hotel comprises three historic, art-filled townhouses and has its own bar and restaurant not far from the church. Doubles from £99, room only.
No 15 Great Pulteney sits on one of Bath’s grandest streets and is a boutique charmer, a smart townhouse with jewellery-inspired interiors by Martin Hulbert and fabulous cocktails. Doubles from £99, room only.
The Thief is a contemporary styled inn in the centre of things, attracting a younger crowd. All rooms have Egyptian cottons, smart TVs and wireless speakers. Doubles from £75, room only.
Where to eat
Craft beer cafe Hunter & Sons does a mean brunch in an airy, canteen-like space.
For somewhere less boozy, The Kingsmead Kitchen is a rustic cafe looking onto Kingsmead Square offering all-day breakfasts and locally sourced dishes on little marble tables.
Chapel Arts Cafe, attached to an arts centre, has a loyal following and an array of salads, sourdough sandwiches, tortillas and flatbreads.
Pizza restaurant Dough is all about the base, with nine flour types on offer, from hemp to gluten free or venus black rice. Pizzas around £12.
For dinner, Pintxo has tall wooden stools and exposed light bulbs, serving Basque bites and a range of sherries. Tapas £5-6.
Nourish is a breezy new restaurant re-imagining international cuisine for vegans – try the bbq jackfruit tacos and tofu laksa. Mains around £13.
Vegetarians might also want to visit Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen, known for its technically astute bistro cooking. Three courses for £36.95.
There’s also a vegetarian menu available each day at Henry’s, as well as a regular menu of modern, seasonal dishes, served in a stylishly-decorated townhouse. Four courses for £50.
Where to drink
Coffee lovers are spoilt in Bath. Colonna & Small’s are experts in beans so head here for an informed choice.
Picnic Coffee, meanwhile, stocks local ale, cider and wine too and is open until 9pm Thursday to Saturday.
Craft beer drinkers should try Chapter One, a hipster pub in the north of the city which focuses on independent breweries. In the centre, The Bath Brew House has an onsite microbrewery and a cavernous beer tent.
For more traditional pubs try the snug Old Green Tree (01225 448259) with its wood panelling and bearded regulars or 18th-century The Star Inn.
Le Vignoble makes wine-tasting fun, giving customers credit cards to fill up their glasses from wine fridges, with even expensive bottles available to sample for £1 or £2.
End the night at Walcot House, a large new venue with leather banquette seating and an RnB room.
Where to shop
For such a compact city, the shopping in Bath is exciting and varied. Found (foundbath.co.uk) is a boutique selling cool designer jewellery, accessories and homeware. Magalleria is another little gem, offering an eclectic spread of specialist magazines.
For vintage and crafts, head to Walcot Street, referred to as the “artisan quarter”, where you can pick up antiques, interior pieces, take a pottery class or browse the Saturday flea market. Somerset cheeses can also be found here at The Fine Cheese Co.
Pick up a bottle of Bath Gin, which is produced and sold at The Canary Gin Bar.
For mainstream shopping, all the better high-street fashion retailers are represented at and around the modern Southgate centre – look out for cajun street food nearby from LJ Hugs.
Bath is full of Georgian marvels, most notably the majestic Royal Crescent and the dizzying Circus. No 1 Royal Crescent is a museum showing you inside a period home.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
10-12 per cent.
What’s the time difference?
Bath is easily navigable on foot.
Bath is surrounded by gentle hills and the 90-minute Walk to the View National Trust route takes you up from the city centre to Bathwick Fields. From here you can see across the tops of spires and beyond.
Frome’s independent market has been making waves recently but Bath’s Artisan Market attracts many of the same stall holders. See it at Green Park Station on the second Sunday of every month and on the last Sunday of the month at Queen Square.
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