Bath, an entire city colour-coded in golden local stone, boasts a spa fed by the only naturally warm springs in Britain.
The many other reasons to visit this masterpiece in the west include the original Georgian streets, where Jane Austen and her characters walked, as well as a rich variety of shops and restaurants.
1. The Royal Crescent
The glorious vision of Bath’s 18th Century designers would impress a time-travelling Roman emperor. They used golden stone from local quarries for everything, and today’s builders must follow suit. Their two masterpieces are the Royal Crescent, a great curving grandstand of townhouses overlooking a sloping green, and the nearby Circus, a circular street mimicking Rome’s Colosseum. The open-top bus tour is a good way to link these splendid landmarks. But I preferred a quiet route to the city centre – chancing upon cafes, restaurants and specialist shops – past Milsom Street’s designer shops to another Bath wonder, Pulteney Bridge, Britain’s answer to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
2. The Roman Baths
The city’s main claim to fame is its Roman spa, set over the miraculous, warm waters that oozed endlessly up from the swamp that was Bath. The free audio player you get in the museum at the Roman Baths (www.romanbaths.co.uk) does a great job explaining how the entire baths complex once looked. It’s amusing to learn that there were rule-breakers even then: ‘Always someone jumping in with a tremendous splash,’ wrote Seneca. The best-known object in the museum’s collection, the Gorgon – a mythical creature with snakes for hair – packs power, but my biggest tingle came before the bronze head of Minerva, once mother goddess in these parts. If there’s time, fit in the American Museum, the (free) Victoria Art Gallery, and the Fashion Museum in the Assembly Rooms.
As you would expect in such an elite destination, there are lots of good restaurants and tea rooms – the illustrious Sally Lunn’s waist-popping toasted buns (www.sallylunns.co.uk) are a real treat. Enjoy fabulous seasonal menus at The Circus Restaurant www.thecircusrestaurant.co.uk Situated on Brock Street between two stunning landmarks The Royal Crescent and The Circus
4. Jane Austen
Bath was a starring location in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Jane lived there from 1801 to 1806. Her characters came for bonneted sophistication, gossip, the efficacious waters – and to bump into eligible men on city centre pavements. Retailers remain in her eternal debt for her line: ‘There are so many good shops.’ The Jane Austen Centre (www.janeausten.co.uk) does a fine job charting her life here, including her own near-miss with matrimony. And you can follow Jane around with a free audio walking tour.
5. The Thermae Spa
Drifting at sunset in a rooftop, open-air pool, in waters naturally heated – more than a mile underground – to 91F (33C), is one of the rarest pleasures in Britain. Thermae Bath Spa (www.thermaebathspa.com), a great glass cube of a building next to Bath Abbey, opened in 2006 to recycle raindrops that fell here 10,000 years ago. This is indulgence not to be rushed. A range of packages, starting at two hours, give you the run of the complex, including the Minerva Bath, the Rooftop Pool, and the Steam Rooms. Treatments are an optional extra. The top ticket is the Twilight Package, three hours including a meal for £42.