From the Romans to Jane Austen tragics, many have made their mark on this west country hub, writes David Whitley.
There's a dearth of good budget accommodation in Bath. In summer, solo travellers are best off taking advantage of university accommodation through Beds at Bath (386 622, www.bath.ac.uk/hospitality /beds). Prices start at £21 a night, or £50 a night with en suite. For hostels, Bath Backpackers (13 Pierrepont Street, 446 787, hostels.co.uk, from £15.50 a night) has the vibe, colour and location, although the dorm rooms are cramped and a little dingy. The Bath YHA (Bathwick Hill, + 44 845 371 9303, yha.org.uk, from £10 a night) is in a lovely old mansion but it has seen better days and is a fair trek from the city centre.
Brocks Guesthouse (32 Brock Street, 338 374, www.brocksguesthouse .co.uk) is in a prime position near Royal Crescent and is surprisingly good value, from £79 a night. It has character with service to match and is highly praised by almost all who stay there. The best deals can be found slightly south of the centre, however. The superb Athole Guest House (33 Upper Oldfield Park, 320 000, atholehouse.co.uk) and Dorian House (1 Upper Oldfield Park, 426 336, dorianhouse.co.uk) offer contemporary furnishings, excellent service and laid-back guesthouse informality, from £70 and £65 a night, respectively.
The Macdonald Bath Spa Hotel (Sydney Road, 444 424, macdonaldhotels .co.uk) is set in sumptuous grounds and has an impressively equipped pool and spa complex. Rooms can be grabbed from £128 a night online, which is excellent value for the quality of rooms and service. The Queensberry Hotel (4-7 Russel Street, 447 928, thequeensberry.co.uk, doubles from £130 a night) marries eccentricity and individuality with great quality — it's the coolest place to stay in Bath. The Halcyon (2 South Parade, 444 100, thehalcyon.com, from £115 a night) is new and steers away from starched formality with touches such as jars of gummy bears in the rooms. It's very stylish but larger rooms wouldn't go amiss.
You're undoubtedly paying for the address at The Royal Crescent Hotel (16 Royal Crescent, 823 333, www.royalcrescent.co.uk) but the four-poster beds and coal fires in the rooms give the right feel. Suites in the main building overlooking the famous lawn cost from £520 a night. The Bath Priory (Weston Road, 331 922, www.thebathpriory.co.uk, superior rooms from £235 a night) plays the grand building and impressive grounds card well, appealing to the afternoon tea in the drawing room crowd. Lucknam Park, in nearby Colerne (742 777, lucknampark.co.uk, from £315 a night), provides the classic country-pile experience, with 200 hectares of parkland to explore, a highly regarded spa and horse-riding lessons.
Bath's Christmas Market (bathchristmasmarket.co.uk) is arguably the best in Britain and while it doesn't rival those in Germany, it still has charm by the bucketload. It runs from late November to mid-December in the city's historical centre. The Bath Farmers' Market (bathfarmersmarket.co.uk) was the first to set up in England and runs at Green Park Station every Saturday. A disappointing contrast, the regular Bath Guildhall Market on High Street (bathguildhallmarket.co.uk) has seen better days, although the lonely specialist food stalls are worth a look.
Walcot Street is the arty end of town, with the Bath Aqua Theatre of Glass (105-107 Walcot Street, 311 183, bathaquaglass.com) the showpiece. You can watch glass-blowers in action and buy discounted pieces in the factory shop. Milsom Place (milsomplace.co.uk) has a few interesting stores among the restaurants, such as the environmentally friendly liquor outlet Vom FASS and stylish homewares shops. For shopping centres, the sprawling SouthGate centre (southgatebath.com) is the new big thing but it's mostly chain stores. The smaller Podium Shopping Centre (thepodiumbath.com) has a more independent streak.
The Bell Inn (103 Walcot Street, 460 426, walcotstreet.com) is a magnificent pub, with ales and a loveable beer garden complemented by a live music roster that veers from rock to electronic via folk. Big-name acts tend to play either in nearby Bristol or at the Bath Pavilion (North Parade Road, 486 902, bathpavilion.org). Moles (14 George Street, 404 445, moles.co.uk) is the happy medium — music is the focus and it's the place to see bands on their way up. It has that cool cellar indie-club vibe and is the best hangout in town for young music fans.
Bath is hardly one of the world's clubbing capitals. You're better off heading 17 kilometres up the road to Bristol if you want serious nightlife. Still, there are late-night bars and, of the clubs, Second Bridge (10 Manvers Street, 464 449, www.secondbridge.co.uk) is the classiest option. It's not ground-breaking but it's smart on a Saturday night and the music is reasonably credible. BlueRooms (York Buildings, George Street, 470 040, bluerooms.net) is the sort of place that provincial England specialises in — a suspiciously young clientele, drinks promos, cheesy music and a meat-market vibe.
The city's name isn't an accident and the thermal springs here have drawn visitors for millenniums. The excavated Roman Baths (Abbey Church Yard, 477 785, romanbaths.co.uk, £12) give an ancient perspective as you walk around the surprisingly huge complex. A more modern take can be found at the Thermae Bath Spa (Hot Bath Street, 331 234, thermaebathspa.com, from £25), with its levels of thermal pools and treatment rooms. The rooftop pool is the real winner, however. Royal Crescent, meanwhile, is one of the most prestigious streets in England. The grand Georgian architecture overlooking the large, sloping lawn is an undeniably arresting sight.
Bath isn't shy of playing up its Jane Austen connections and The Jane Austen Centre (40 Gay Street, 443 000, www.janeausten.co.uk) explores her life and works in slightly scant detail. It's best left to the devotees, who lap it up. The Jane Austen Festival in September (expect to see lots of people in bonnets) is one of many festivals in Bath's cultural calendar. Others include a Mozart festival in November, the Literature Festival in February-March and the International Music Festival in May-June. For regular doses of high culture, the Theatre Royal (Sawclose, 448 844, theatreroyal.org.uk) is the prime spot.
The old towpaths of the Kennet and Avon Canal and the views alongside the River Avon can be combined in a tranquil loop via the Sydney Gardens. It's about four kilometres of shoe leather all up. For directionless strolling, Prior Park is the best. It's an 11-hectare landscaped garden with superb views of the city and it lies just to the south of the city centre. Volunteer guides (477 411, bathguides .org.uk) provide free walking tours most days at 10.30am and 2pm ( 10.30am only on Saturdays), concentrating on the city's history and architecture.
Follow the leader
The hugely popular Bizarre Bath comedy walking tour (335 124, bizarrebath.co.uk, £8) is an entertaining, if often oversubscribed, romp through Bath's tall stories and legends. It's a good way to get a less po-faced take on the city. For fans of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion — both set in Bath — specialist walking tours around sites linked to Jane Austen operate at 11am on Saturdays and Sundays (443 000, www.janeausten.co.uk, £6). Meanwhile, you can cruise the city's waterways aboard the Pulteney Princess (+ 44 7791 910 650, www.pulteneyprincess.co.uk, £7).
Jika Jika (4A Princes Buildings, George Street, 429 903, jikajika.co.uk) is feisty about its principles of good coffee, has deceptively Tardis-like dimensions and throws leather armchairs, bookshelves and wall sloganeering into the mix. It somehow works. Adventure Cafe (5 Princes Buildings, George Street, 462 038) next door concentrates more on smoothies and milkshakes but has arguably the best outdoor garden area in Bath. For something more classical, The Pump Room (Stall Street, 444 477, searcys.co.uk/thepumproom) at the Roman Baths has pianists, cellists and violinists giving the expensive cream teas and opulent central chandelier a fitting soundtrack.
Paxton & Whitfield (1 John Street, 466 403, paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk) specialises in cheeses, branches into artisan breads and oils and shows them off to time-poor passers-by in the form of drool-inducing sandwiches. Yum. Chandos Deli (12 George Street, 314 418, chandosdeli.com) is part of a small chain but who cares? The sandwiches are top-notch, the pesto and jams are wallet-endangering and the ice-cream is liable to lure dieters on to the rocks. They've got no chance at Patisserie Valerie (20 High Street, 444 826, patisserie-valerie.co.uk), however. The croissants and croque monsieurs look good but the wall of cakes and fruit tarts is verging on the magnetic.
Top of the town
Bath's most upmarket options are inside the pricey hotels. Lucknam Park is the only place with a Michelin star, with three-course dinners at the Park restaurant starting at £66 ($101.55). Bath Priory Hotel's restaurant (£84 for tasting menu) has a picky dress code to keep denim-clad riff-raff out but does serve highly regarded and locally sourced dishes. For a big-name chef without the big price tag, Jamie's Italian (10 Milsom Place, 432 340, jamiesitalian.com) is the spot. It's Jamie Oliver's latest venture. The food is simple but good and mains are available for between £10 and £20.
By the glass
You can hear the wood creaking at The Raven (7 Queen Street, 425 045, theravenofbath.co.uk) but it's a brilliant old-fashioned pub with a great selection of real ales and an amazing menu of pies to tuck in to. The Grappa Bar (3 Belvedere, Lansdown Road, 448 890, grappabar.co.uk) concentrates on wine and cocktails (as well as good-value gourmet pizzas) and manages to hit the right balance between sophisticated, homely and cool. Then there's The Porter (15 George Street, 424 104, theporter.co.uk), which has all manner of endearing quirks, including an open-mike night, some odd local beers and an entirely vegetarian menu.
Bath is popular with visitors who travel by tour bus, many of which come from London on day trips. If you're planning to take in the major attractions, such as the Roman Baths, Royal Crescent and the Abbey, it's best to do so first thing in the morning while tour groups are still on their way west. During peak hours, switch to some of Bath's smaller but, in many ways, more fascinating museums, which cover everything from fashion and east-Asian art to astronomy and Americana.
Qantas, Emirates, Etihad and Malaysia Airlines all fly from Sydney to London, priced from $1700, 13 31 33, flightcentre.com.au. From London's Paddington station, Bath is about a 90-minute train trip.
Visas and currency
Australians don't need a visa to enter Britain. The currency used is the pound. £1 = about $1.55.
The international dialling code is + 44; the Bath city code is 01225. The zero is dropped when calling from abroad, so when calling the six-digit numbers listed on these pages from Australia, add + 44 1225. Non-Bath numbers are listed in full.
David Whitley was a guest of Bath Tourism.