Weekend Getaway to Bath, England by train

There are places in your travels that you go back to over and over, never tiring of seeing the same sights.  Instead they feel like home to you, and have a calming effect on your psyche. Bath is one of those places for my husband and I. 

Bath is a small, southern Cotswold town that simply grows on you. It seems quaint enough when you arrive by train and stand on the old platform, with the simple sign, "Bath Spa".

But when you leave the station on bus-filled Dorchester Street, instead of an initial view that spells CHARM in capital letters, you look out on a busy street and some formidable buildings that spring, like a city wall, from the pavement.

You carry on despite this initial somewhat disappointing impression, and cross the road, walking through the Southgate outdoor shopping mall, complete with H & M and other mass merchants lined up, side by side, as if these stores are the welcoming committee. 

You begin to question whoever told you that Bath was amazing, and even the red flower box phone booths appear incongruous.

But, proceed as you must to wherever your hotel or AirBnB is, settle in, and then go wander….. and as you wander, Bath, with its ubiquitous cream colored Georgian limestone architecture, slowly begins to win you over, and by the time you leave, (and yes, you must leave eventually), you do so with reticence and with the knowledge that you will be back, again, again and again. 

Jeff and I have been to Bath (The train station and university is called Bath Spa) five times in 9 months. And we already have another trip planned. That isn’t to say that we know it well…. but that won’t stop us from taking you on a little weekend adventure, so come with us and see if you aren’t a bit taken by Bath’s charms!

For the purposes of our tour, I'm going to assume you arrive by train, and that you start first thing in the morning. Please read to the end because I will give you a couple side-trip options that I highly recommend.

There are FIVE things you MUST do or see when you come to Bath. At the top of the Bath Shortlist are:

#1 The Roman Baths

#2 the Thermae Bath Spa

#3 Bath Abbey and Bell Tower Tour 

#4 The Bath Crescent 
Image result for Bath Crescent photos

#5 the Pulteney Bridge

8:30 A.M.
Let's start the morning out right with a coffee and breakfast at coffee-mecca Kingsmead Square. With four coffee shops on the square (Bath Coffee Company, Society Café, Boston Tea Party and Kingsmead Kitchen), it is definitely a place to watch this sleepy town wake up!

9:00-9:30 a.m. 
Roman Baths

On the way to the Roman Baths, make a quick segue to the Thermae Bath Spa (which opens at 8:30), and get tickets for a 3 hour late afternoon session. I would recommend a session between 4-7, or coordinate to include sunset. (see below for info on the various options.)

We arrive at the Roman Baths when they open, so that we can have it to ourselves for great photos and a bit of peace before the crowds hit. (Note: It is best to book your advance tickets online, with a timed entry slot. I recommend purchasing the Museums Saver Ticket, which gets you into The Fashion Museum and Victoria Art Gallery during your stay, but there are many interesting package options on their website: https://www.romanbaths.co.uk/special-offers )

Bath has claim to Britain’s only natural hot springs, used as early as 863 B.C. by Celtic tribes. However, it wasn't until the Roman Conquest in AD 43 that the Romans began to build a spa complex around these springs. The baths were the center of the community, and as you follow the self-guided audio tour that comes free with admission to the Roman Baths, you are truly transported back to those Roman times. I’d recommend spending about 2 hours here, and if you are like me, you will enjoy following the various audio-guide characters in their daily routines. Tip: listen to the add-on stories, they are fascinating!

The Roman Baths have a consistent 33.5º celsius or 92º Fahrenheit temperature, have 42 minerals and pump out one million liters each day. No wonder the Romans loved them so much!

11:30 A.M.
When you finish with the Roman Bath Tour, high-tail it to the Bath Abbey Gift Shop and sign up for a Bell Tower Tour. The tour costs £8 per person, and occurs on the hour. Tickets are only available for purchase on the day of entry, beginning when they open at 10am. Space is limited to either 8 or 16 people, depending on the number of guides they have. If you are lucky enough to get a 12:00 tour, enjoy some time first exploring the abbey, otherwise, take an early lunch, and do the tour at 1:00.

The Bath Abbey dates over a thousand years, to 757 A.D., and it was the home of the Benedictine Monks until the 1300's. This was where King Edgar, the very first King of England, was crowned in 959.  Make sure to take note of the beautiful fan ceilings and the crypt plaques on the floor.

You will actually be standing on this ceiling when you go up into the Bell Tower tour. Created by master stoneworkers Robert and William Vertue, these ceilings were constructed without mortar, and the masons were quoted as saying, "There shall be none so goodly neither in England and in France." The work was so beautiful that the masons later were commissioned to construct the ceilings of the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

Bell Tower Tour
Please don't miss this bell tower tour, even if you have done one before, someplace else---This one is exactly what a bell tower tour should be. You get to go in places that you are pretty sure shouldn’t be open to the public, and more than likely, won’t be in a couple years—for instance, standing next to the big bells as they chime, or sitting directly behind the clock! Maybe you'll even get to ring the bell, like our daughter, Lauren did!

There is a great tale about the big Tenor Bell. Make sure your guide tells you about it (sometimes they forget) Back in the day, the bell broke, and after the town scraped together just enough to get it fixed, it was returned to Bath out of tune-- turned out the bell repairer was tone deaf. The town was devastated: they had spent all their funds, and had nothing left.  They tried every means, but came up short.  Finally, a certain Lady Hopton offered to donate the funds, but insisted that the following inscription be placed on the bell: "All of you Bathe that hear me sound, thank Lady Hopton's hundred pound". She promptly up and died, leaving her heirs to foot the tab, but the bell was eventurally restored, in time for a peal to be rung for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. 

After climbing the 212 step spiral staircase to reach the top, you have a beautiful birds eye view of all of Bath. Looking north, you see the community offices, Jane Austin’s family church, and The Crescent. To the East are the square, the Roman Baths and Thermae Spa’s rooftop hot tub. To the South and West are the hills of Bath.

1:00 p.m.
If you were lucky enough to tickets for the 12:00 tour, you will probably be starving by now, so let's take a break for lunch. There is no shortage of places to grab a bite in the surrounding squares, or in the small streets surrounding the Abbey. You can even pull up a seat on one of the benches in the squares and picnic, while listening to some very good street musicians.

Recommendations? We do have a couple favorites. If it is nice weather, why not enjoy outdoor dining at The Pump Room, right in the Abbey Churchyard? 

Or, if you are in the mood for pub fare, we like the Crystal Palace, and recommend their burgers and lunch specials. Crystal Palace is located on Abbey Green courtyard, a small sunlit square just down the hill from the Abbey and Roman Baths. 

While you are in this area, you might as well stop into Sally Lunn’s Tea House, the oldest building in Bath, and head downstairs to the tiny museum, showcasing Sally’s original below street level kitchen. Note: there may be a queue, but that is usually to eat at their restaurant. You can purchase one or two of her famous buns downstairs in the museum without having to stand in the upstairs food line. 

2:00 - 4:00 pm 
(make sure to allow enough time to grab your swimsuit at your hotel!)
One of the most enjoyable things to do while in Bath is to wander the streets. Now that you’ve had your bell tower tour and you are well fed, let's get lost in Bath's meandering streets and alleys. 

It seems like around every corner, there is a narrow lane just calling your name, whispering that you lose yourself within its grasp. A good place to start is from the arches near The Pump Room, and head up Stall Street. 

If you have a sweet tooth, Bath has lots of candy shops. One of our favorites is the fudge shop in the Abbey Square--they give out free yummy samples!

4:00 p.m.
We like to finish our first day at the Thermae Bath Spa. A modern take on the Roman Baths, the Thermae Bath Spa actually uses the same spring water source as the Roman’s did 2000 years ago, only now, it goes through a purification process.

I've gotta tell you, you are going to love this experience. I have dry skin and don't usually like to get wet, but this is one fabulous spa. The Thermae Spa has a rooftop pool, a wellness suite,  the Minerva Bath, a separate New Royal Bath/Gross Bath and over 40 spa treatments available, including facials, massages including stone massage, water massage and even a rain forest massage. 

When you arrive, you are given a towel, a rubber wristband and sandals. You will have a private cubicle to change in, and a locker to store your belongings. They do have blow driers and swimsuit dryers for your use. 

There are no advance tickets, but if you just turn up, you may have to wait an hour or two in line during busy times. (yikes, not my idea of fun). There are a couple ways around this:

a. If you book a treatment, you go right in. (We did this the first time and the treatments were wonderful, of course!) 
b. Sign up for either a Twilight Package or a Saturday/Sunday Taster and get a 3 hour pass, which gets you a beverage, meal and a timed entry to the spa for £49. You may be able to do this in advance if you call them, or you can go early in the morning and purchase this. Probably best to call during busy times.

The cost of entry to the spa is £36 on weekdays, £40 on weekends. A spa + facial will set you back £79. You can gain entry to the Gross Bath for £18-20, or rent it exclusively for £200. 

At last check, you could not book anything online. You have to call them, and weirdly, they don't always answer their phone. For more info on packages, check out their website: https://www.thermaebathspa.com/treatment-prices/spapackages/

7:00 P.M.
Can you spell RELAXED? I know you are, after a couple hours at the Thermae Bath Spa. You may just want to relax for the rest of the evening! Or choose from one of the great restaurants listed below if you feel the need for a dinner. We have had luck without advance reservations at the incredible Thai restaurant, "The Balcony", which is located in Kingsmead Square. Try the flamed prawns!

Day 2
8:30 a.m.
Back to Kingsmead square for coffee and breakfast, and watch the vegetable sellers set up shop in the square. Why not try a different coffee shop today?

9:30 A.M.
Let's head up the hill and explore some of the other key sights of Bath. Make your way to Gay Street, stopping briefly in Queens Square (designed by John Wood the Elder), and the Jane Austen Center (£11 for before noon early bird ticket), before heading to the Circus, a historic street also designed by John Wood, the Elder who meant to mimic Stonehenge in the construction of a circle of townhomes with almost exactly the same circumference. He died just after the first stone was placed, and construction was completed in 1768 by his son, John Wood, the Younger. Thomas Gainsborough, the famous painter lived in #17.

From the Circle, let's leave on Brock Street and head 2 blocks to the Royal Crescent. This semi-circle of 30 townhouses is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian Architecture. It was constructed by John Wood, the Younger and completed in 1777. Of note: ten of the thirty still remain as full size homes; #1 is the Royal Crescent Museum, and #16 houses the Royal Crescent Hotel and Spa.

11:30 A.M.
Working our way back the way we came, let's visit the Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum, which can be located by leaving The Circus on Bennett Street (opposite Brock Street).

The Assembly Rooms (home of the Fashion Museum) were completed in 1771 by John Wood the Younger, as a new venue for balls and public functions. Upon opening, it became a center for fashionable society, and was frequented by royalty  and others, including Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. It was bombed during the war, and later restored. Owned by the National Trust, the bottom floor houses the Fashion Museum.

The Fashion Museum houses a world-class exhibition of attire, dating from the 14th century to modern times. The Fashion Museum offers an audio tour, which I recommend for the historical background of the Assembly Rooms, as well as detail on the clothes from the various eras. We particularly like the end, where you can dress up in period costumes. It’s so fun to see people of all ages enjoying themselves as they dress up in the historical garb!

Have you worked up an appetite? Try Café Lucca (1 Bartlett Street), just down from the Fashion Museum. (Take a left when you leave the Fashion Museum, and head down the narrow unnamed street, then take another left to Bartlett Street).
This cute café shares a space with a wonderfully curated fashion/home boutique, The Loft. Café Lucca serves up a great light lunch of locally sourced salads, bruschetta and panini sandwiches, wine and beer. Love love love the food, the ambiance, the comfy chairs, and the shopping!  

2:00 P.M.
Now it's time to head to the banks of the River Avon. We take Milsom Street or Broad Street down the hill to Bridge Street and to the famous Pulteney Bridge.

This bridge is one of four bridges in the world that have shops lining both sides--the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto Bridge in Venice and the Kramerbrucke in Germany are the other three. The bridge was named after Frances Pulteney, whose family commissioned the bridge to access and develop their estate across the river. 

You can wander through the bridge shops, and then go down the steps to the river, possibly stopping at B Bakery for a sweet or afternoon tea, before taking a boat ride along the river. The river tour lasts about an hour, or longer if you choose to get off at the turn-around point and enjoy a beverage at the Bathhampton Mill before taking the return trip.

Once you have disembarked from the boat, you may wish to wander on the other side of the Pulteney Bridge. The Holburne Museum, Henrietta Gardens and Sydney Gardens are very enjoyable. Here, you can enjoy a tea or snack in the beautiful garden setting. 

As you leave the bridge, and head back into town, you will be face to face with the Victoria Art Gallery. The museum has two permanent galleries as well as a changing exhibit. It's worth a visit for the Gainsborough paintings alone! (Walk-in cost is £5, unless you have purchased the Roman Bath Combo Pass). When we went, there was a wonderful exhibit called "A Celebration of Flowers" that included quirky large ceramic sculptures and beautiful floral quilts. 

Now, let's walk along the Grand Parade, next to the river. It's been another full day, and here you can enjoy the pastoral view over the Bath hills, or chill like the locals, relaxing in a striped canvas sling-back chair in the Parade Gardens along the riverbank.

7:00 Dinner Time! Why not enjoy a wonderful dinner one of the two cave restaurants, Sotto Sotto or La Perla. (see below for information)

Day 3  
9:00  A.M.
Sadly, this is the day you must leave beautiful Bath. But many people use Bath as a starting point for branching off to Bristol, or some of the other Cotswold towns and villages before they board the train back to London. We have done a nice half day tour on our last day, before boarding the 2:00 train to Paddington.

Here are some close towns that you might wish to visit:

Bristol: 8 minutes by train, or 35 minutes by car. A charming seaside town. It is at the top of our list for places to visit.

Tours of the Cotswolds
There are small group tours, like Mad Max tours (https://www.madmaxtours.co.uk/) which run either 1/2 or full day tours and cost about £45. We are taking a tour with this company in September, since Ian (below) is already booked. It looks nice, and gets great reviews.

Or you can do a customized private tour for 6 with Ian at Cotswold Tours and Executive Travel for 6 people, £300 for 4 hours, covering 3 villages. We did this tour and Ian was fantastic. It was also nice to be in a very small group.
Here are some photos from our fab tour with Ian. We went to Lacock, Tetbury and Castle Combe.

Castle Combe, my favorite:

and Lacock, where they filmed Downton Abbey:

and Tetbury:

Salisbury is another great option: 1 hour by train, 45 min by cab or car. Salisbury is home to Salisbury Cathedral and guards a copy of the Magna Carta.

Stonehenge: Either a 45 min cab ride from Bath to Stonehenge for about £130 (nice if there are 6 of you), or take the one hour long train ride from Bath to Salisbury (£18 per person), then cab from Salisbury to bath (£40), 10 more minutes. You may be able to find a car service that will wait for you?  Note: Check with the Stonehenge Ticket Office before they close--they will graciously call a cab for your return.

Insider Tip on Stonehenge/Salisbury.... if you can swing it, I very much recommend seeing Stonehenge on your first evening, BEFORE you arrive in Bath. It is easy to take the train to Salisbury from Waterloo Station, running every half hour. The trip is about 1 1/2 hours and costs about £24.  From Salisbury, you can easily cab to Stonehenge. Then return to Salisbury and take the train to Bath. 

Or, if you fancy staying in town another day, there are still PLENTY of things to do in Bath:

Why not visit a local’s hangout, the Green Park Farmer’s Market, located just across the corner from the Apex City of Bath Hotel, on Charles Street. This covered market has 200 years of history, and is home to antiques fairs, farmer's markets and assorted shops and restaurants.

►Bath Aqua Glass offers Glass Blowing every day at 11:15 and 2:15, or you can take a class in stained glass window making. www.bathaquaglass.com

Try a fun escape room experience, in the heart of Bath:
two companies to choose from:  escape4fun.co.uk and bathescape.co.uk

Visit a fake castle! Called Sham Castle, you can see the ruins from the top of Bath Abbey. It was built as a folly in the 1800's, and you can hike or cab up there to see it for free.

Paddleboard or Kayak down the River Avon with Original Wild. 

Visit a craft Brewery: Electric Bear Brewing Company, open Fridays through Sundays, from 12pm. 

►Visit Swoon Gelato: This gelato company gets a lot of press for its outstanding flavors, even vegan options: http://www.swoononaspoon.co.uk/

►Go Wine tasting in Bath! 
Le Vignoble has very fun self-serve wine bottles as well as tapas. They also offer classes, DJ night, and "meet the Vintner" evenings. www.levignoble.co.uk 

The Great Wine School offers a whole array of classes, including: Wine and Cheese pairing, Chocolate and Wine, Wine and Vine, and more for £25-35. 

VV Rouleaux is a ribbon and craft store that offers sessions on hat-making, ribbon crafts, invitation making and more. 

Or visit during the Bath Festival, held every May. In 2019, the dates are May 17-26, with the finalé weekend taking place June 1-2. The festival features authors, music, dance, opera and guest speakers on a huge range of topics. 

Getting to Bath Spa by Train:
The train to Bath leaves every 1/2 hour or hour from London's Paddington Station, and takes roughly 1 1/2 hours. We buy advance tickets, as they are less expensive, and we like to get 4 seats facing each other with a table in between. We usually go with a couple friends and have a picnic along the way, which we have picked up from Borough Market and our local M & S store.  Wine, cheese, crackers, fruit, salami are our staples and we lay it all out as if it were the Last Supper!  Advance tickets run around £15 for coach, and £35 for First Class.

We’ve stayed at a few places so far, and can recommend these:

Hiding Space—amazing central location, Scandinavian style interior with a kitchen and games. Just stayed in this hotel and it is great if you are in a group and want to be near each other. We loved this hotel!    www.hidingspace.co.uk/

Apex, City of Bath—-Loved Loved Loved it the first three times. The last time, we had an awful room, and learned a lesson—request an upper floor looking out on the city before you go. It’s a much bigger room, an entirely different experience than the small rooms looking out at a wall. In the future, I probably wouldn't stay at this hotel unless I could get a city-view larger room.

Bath Paradise House: 86-88 Holloway, across the river from the train station. I like to stay in the center of the town, this place is just across the river. We are trying it out on our next stay, because it looks just lovely, and I'm hoping it is as great as it looks! I'll let you know!

Gainsborough Hotel—the Granddaddy of elegance here, situated right next to the Roman baths, with an elegant bar and restaurant. The Gainsborough has its own spa,  and guests can partake in the water from the thermal springs in a more private setting. www.thegainsboroughbathspa.co.uk/

The Balcony: Incredible Thai food in a beautiful surrounding. Try the Flaming shrimp for a special treat! 

Sotto Sotto— Located just near the river, a block from the Abbey, this restaurant features homestyle Italian food. Reservations are a must for this tiny restaurant in a cave setting. Reservations are through email requests; they don’t answer their phone.

La Perla—Just next door to Sotto Sotto, serves spanish Tapas in a cosy cave setting. Reservations recommended.

Eight—contemporary intimate dining. This top rated restaurant serves 8 dishes from their seasonal menu, in a quiet street near the Abbey. Reservations recommended.

Dan Moon at the Gainsborough— Beautiful elegant setting, with prix fixe menu running around £50/person. They do offer a 2 for 1 lunch menu. Reservations recommended.

Clayton’s Kitchen— Contemporary British cuisine, busy, local restaurant. Lunch great, reservations required for dinner. 

Scallop Shell—we’ve heard it has great, fresh seafood. It is one of Bath's highest rated restaurants, and tricky to get into without a reservation. 

Café Lucca- 1 Bartlett Street.  A casual café just down from the Fashion Museum. I love this place for lunch. Great seasonal salads and panini. A favorite with locals. See my notes from the 2nd day.

Giggling Squid—Thai food in a beautiful Georgian building. We haven't yet been to this chain restaurant, but it has been highly recommended to us for its tasty Thai Tapas and beautiful garden-like setting.

The Pump Room for Afternoon Tea, fancy breakfast, lunch or dinner. There is generally loads of room here for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea. For dinner, I would probably make a reservation?

I hope that you have enjoyed taking this weekend getaway with me to 
the lovely town of Bath! 

PS: here is a handy little map for you, courtesy of the Gainsborough Hotel.


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