Bath’s raison d’etre is the thermae complex in the city centre that was built 2000 years ago by the Romans. Considering its age, the Roman Baths is a very well preserved complex that includes several baths and a museum that provides an insight into Roman Britain.
A temple was built here by the Romans between 60 and 70 CE and a small settlement, known as Aquae Sulis, developed around the site and the bathing complex was gradually expanded over the following 300 years. The Roman Baths were in use from this period up until the 5th century when Roman rule ended in Britain. Around a century later, the complex fell into ruin although it was redeveloped a number of times during the Early and Late Middle Ages and many of the more visible parts of the complex are recent additions built in the 18th century.
The water originates from rainfall in the Mendip Hills and is filtered through limestone before being heated by geothermal energy and rising through fissures in the limestone and entering through the Sacred Spring at a rate of 1,170,000 litres (240,000 gallons) per day.
The Roman Baths complex is a World Heritage Site and Grade I listed building.
What to see at the Roman Baths
There are four main areas to see at the Roman Baths: the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and a museum that displays artefacts from the site.
Visitors enter the complex through a grand hall girt with marble corinthian columns. This space is a former concert hall that was built in 1897 by JM Bryson as an extension of the adjacent Grand Pump Room.
After passing through the main entrance, you enter the terrace that overlooks the Great Bath. The main terrace is a more recent addition that was constructed during the Georgian period, although the bath itself dates back to Roman times. During peak hours, there are often actors dressed in Roman costumes in this part of the complex.
The East Baths and West Baths lie to either side of the Great Bath. This area comprises the main part of the Roman Bath House and includes secondary bathing pools, heated rooms and changing rooms. There are projections here that depict how these rooms would have appeared during Roman times.
There is a fountain in the West Baths where you can taste the spa water; however, this is currently not functioning.
The water enters the site through the Sacred Spring at a rate of 1,170,000 litres (240,000 gallons) per day heated to a constant temperature of 46°C (115°F). The Romans believed that this phenomenon was the work of their gods and many objects (including over 12,000 coins) were thrown into the spring as an offering to the goddess Sulis Minerva, to whom the spring was dedicated.
Water from the Sacred Spring is used to fill the pools in the complex and excess water leaves the complex through an original Roman drain that leads to the River Avon, 400m (1,300 ft) away.
There is a suspended walkway that takes you over the ruins of the temple courtyard, which would have originally been a focal point of the complex.
The museum features artefacts from the Roman period as well as displays depicting life in Aquae Sulis and exhibits showing objects that were thrown into the Sacred Spring as offerings to the goddess Sulis Minerva. The museum also features parts of the Roman temple that originally stood on the site and artefacts from the Beau Street Hoard. Discovered in 2008 while building a new pool for the Gainsborough Hotel and Spa, the Beau Street Hoard is the fifth-largest hoard found in Britain, consisting of around 17,500 silver Roman coins.
The visitor experience features information boards detailing the history of the site and is accompanied by an excellent audio guide.
Although visitors can tour the baths and the adjacent museum, you are not able to enter the water. However, nearby Thermae Bath Spa is a more modern complex where visitors can enjoy the thermal baths and visitors can usually taste the water at a fountain in the West Baths and at the Grand Pump Room next door.
Visiting the Roman Baths
The Roman Baths are located right in the heart of the city centre and most points of interest in the city centre are no more than a 10-minute walk away.
It is a fairly expensive attraction; however, it is a very significant historic site that is worth the expense. It is a little cheaper if you visit on a weekday.
Free audio guides are available in 12 languages (English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish). The English-language guide also features the additional Bryson at the Baths guide, written and narrated by Bill Bryson.
There are also free guided tours that depart from the lower level of the Grand Bath. These include the Trowel tour, which chronicles the archaeological excavation of the site, and the Hammer and Chisel tour, which focuses on the geological aspects of the site.
Due to the historic nature of the Roman Baths, the complex is not completely wheelchair accessible. However, 90% of the site is accessible to visitors in wheelchairs and there are also procedures that have been put in place to assist visitors with other disabilities including visitors with hearing impairments, visual impairments, autism, claustrophobia, dementia and stroke survivors. Visitors with additional access requirements should visit between 10am and 3pm as wheelchair-accessible lifts may not be available outside these hours.
The Pump Room restaurant is operated as part of the Roman Baths complex. It occupies the Georgian-era Grand Pump Room, which is located adjacent to the Roman Baths. Like the Baths, the Pump Room is also a Grade I listed building and it is an opulent space to enjoy afternoon tea. The Pump Room is much more than a museum restaurant and it is a sight that is worth visiting in its own right. The Grand Pump Room played a major role in Georgian-era Bath society and it has been used as a setting in two of Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
There is also a fountain in the Grand Pump Room where visitors can normally taste the waters, which have a unique taste due to the 43 minerals that are naturally present in the water. The spa water costs 50p per glass (it is free from the fountain in the West Bath) but is free if you are dining in the Pump Room.
There are also two gift shops on the site, one on the lower level near the Great Bath and another near the exit.
The Roman Baths is a major attraction with a lot to see and you should allow at least two hours to visit the site.