Bath is one of Britain’s most visited small cities, and with good reason, as it is a charming place with a history dating back two thousand years.
During Roman times, Bath was a popular spa town known as Aquae Sulis and the Romans built the baths and a temple on the site of hot springs in around 60 AD. The baths were known throughout the Roman empire and have continued to play an important role in the city’s development.
After the fall of the Roman empire, Bath became an important religious centre and Edgar, the first English king, was crowned in Bath Abbey in 973. Bath Abbey was rebuilt in the 11th and 16th centuries and underwent a major restoration in the 18th century and it continues to be one of the city’s top attractions.
In the early 18th century, Bath got its first theatre (which was later rebuilt to become the Theatre Royal) along with important institutions popular with Bath’s high society such as the Grand Pump Room and the Bath Assembly Rooms. By the beginning of the 19th century, Bath had a population of over 40,000, which made it one of the largest cities in England at the time.
Bath became a very fashionable city during the Georgian period, attracting the cream of society and some of the leading figures from the arts. During this period, a number of notable people lived in and made extended visits to the city including artists Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Thomas Lawrence and John Maggs and writers Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley.
The presence of these important literary figures meant that many important works of literature from the period were either written in, or influenced by, Bath. These include Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Bath is an important site for literary tourism with Austen fans coming here to visit the Jane Austen Centre and to visit locations mentioned in her novels. Fans of Mary Shelley aren’t left out either, with the new Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein located just a couple of doors down from the Jane Austen Centre.
Bath is notable for its Georgian architecture, most of which is built with the distinctive honey-coloured Bath stone. Notable examples of architecture from this period include the rows of townhouses on Royal Crescent and The Circus. Most of central Bath, including the city centre, the area immediately north of the city centre and the Bathwick neighbourhood across the River Avon, is dominated by architecture from this period and the city is often used as a film set for period dramas and parts of Vanity Fair (2004), The Duchess (2008), Les Misérables (2012) and Bridgerton (2020–21) were filmed here.
Nowadays Bath is a vibrant historic city of around 90,000 people and its historical importance has left it well-endowed with museums and other cultural institutions, which means that it has a lot to offer the tourist for a relatively small city. It is also home to several art galleries including the Holburne Museum, the Museum of East Asian Art and the Victoria Art Gallery as well as several museums including the American Museum, the Fashion Museum, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, the Museum of Bath Architecture and the Museum of Bath at Work.
Bath is well connected to other destinations in the south of England. It lies on the Great Western main line, which links Bristol with London Paddington with two trains per hour in either direction. It also enjoys excellent bus connections including frequent local services in Somerset and nearby Wiltshire.
Central Bath has a clean air zone, which means that polluting vehicles have to pay a charge to drive into the central area of Bath. Most vehicles, including cars and motorcycles, are exempt from the charge; however, there is a £9 per day charge for most vans (including campervans) and a £100 per day charge for larger vehicles such as buses, coaches and lorries. The charge is based on a calendar day, which means that you would be charged for two days if you enter the zone at 11pm and leave at 1am. Most travellers won’t be affected by the charge, as regular cars are exempt, but you may want to consider staying outside the zone if you’re travelling in a van. You can read more about the clean air zone here.
There is a good choice of places to stay in Bath and, like many other historic English cities, most of the hotels are relatively small. It can be a pricey place to stay and many hotels require a minimum two-night booking if you’re staying over a weekend.