Bath’s gracious streets and golden-stone buildings are world renowned, but the best way of breathing in this UNESCO heritage city’s beauty is by soaring above it all in a hot-air balloon…
It’s summertime in Royal Victoria Park and there is a strange puffing sound overhead. For those unfamiliar with Bath, the historic park spreads like a picnic blanket beneath the city’s famous Royal Crescent. When daffodils raise their heads and the magnolias are studded with fresh buds, the park lawns are used to launch the year’s first hot-air balloons. The magnificent balloons fire up – weather permitting – with an emphatic puffing noise and rise majestically above the trees for an aerial view of the Crescent’s sweep of perfectly aligned townhouses.
A hot-air balloon flight is a great way to fully appreciate this graceful street and the Georgian architecture within this UNESCO World Heritage city. From April 2023 onwards, the Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa, which sits at the very centre of the Crescent, will launch exclusive flights for two in its own balloon. Guests who take to the skies can enjoy an afternoon tea afterwards, picking over an assortment of delicate sandwiches, buns and pastries while sipping Champagne in the hotel gardens.
The arrival of sunshine and balloon flights makes summer an appealing time to visit Bath, and the Royal Crescent Hotel is the city’s premier address. There is nothing quite like stepping out of its front door onto the Crescent, especially if you can stay in a fourposter bed in one of the hotel’s newly refurbished suites. Their grand windows look onto the Crescent’s curve of butter-stone buildings and the park beyond.
Bath’s historic streets have played a winning supporting role in a number of films, including last year’s Persuasion, a Netflix remake of Jane Austen’s classic love story. The smash television drama Bridgerton was filmed here too.
The streets are lined with refined buildings. A short walk from the Crescent are The Assembly Rooms, where Georgian balls used to attract up to 1,000 guests. Sadly, these rooms, which were once a hub for high society, are currently closed for refurbishment. The chandeliers would have sparkled in the candlelight on a winter’s evening, which was when the Georgian social season ran.
A central hall leads to a card room, once used for gambling, and to the tea room, where weary dancers and sharp-eyed socialites would have descended to enjoy sweetmeats, jellies, wine, biscuits and tea.
Kick-start an indulgent weekend in Bath with a glass of Buck’s Fizz and brunch in the grand Pump Room, which is set beside The Abbey. The Pump Room building dates from 1795 and a fountain flows with natural spa water inside. The Abbey itself has an elaborate facade, with carved angels climbing ladders high above the square in front of it, a Victorian Gothic interior and a splendid fan vaulted ceiling.
Bath’s thermal springs and mineral-rich waters are a big draw for visitors, and the ancient site of The Roman Baths is fascinating. Through its ruins and artefacts, it reveals how people used to bathe (and enjoy a sauna) in the city 2,000 years ago and it recently uncovered a new section that was once part of a gymnasium.
The most exciting stop for art lovers sits in another of Bath’s notable buildings. The pillared Holburne Museum has temporary art exhibitions, a collection of fine art and its own Georgian pleasure gardens out the back.
Sydney Gardens was loved by Jane Austen – who once lived opposite – and the park has recently been revitalised, with shocks of wildflowers and a playground built from natural materials added. The gardens are still a genteel place for a stroll, leading up to pretty iron bridges that span the Kennet and Avon canal. Summer is a good time to hire a narrowboat for a pootle along the canal, and Bath Narrowboats can organise one for you.
With so many buildings to admire, it’s no surprise that Bath residents have an eye for beautiful things. Shoppers should explore the higgledy-piggledy paved lanes to find sustainably made womenswear at BIBICO, or browse the eclectic design treasures at Found, a boutique on Pulteney Bridge. Berdoulat is a cafe-turned-interior-design shop with restored 18th-century shop counters, while Always Sunday has a collection of eye-catching, artisanal homeware.
Head afterwards to Parade Gardens, where in balmy weather you can sit among manicured flower beds. Overlooking the River Avon as it spills across Pulteney Weir, this is yet another elegant space to relax in. If a summer stroll sounds more agreeable, make for Prior Park, a landscaped garden south of the city centre. There are fine city views from the hilltop before the garden rolls down to a Palladian bridge, serenely reflected in a lake below.
Dining out in Bath is always a pleasure, with high-quality ingredients produced in the surrounding countryside. There is one Michelin-star restaurant, Olive Tree, which serves delectable, immaculately presented food – for example, a plate of trout with wasabi and Granny Smith apple.
The Elder restaurant has also won rave reviews. Inside, you will find leather banquette seating and taxidermy but there are also tables on the front terrace near St John’s church. Restaurateur Mike Robinson is known for his experience with game, and The Elder’s cooking brings creative finesse to this traditionally used meat. A starter of deer tartare with masala and apricot on brown butter crumpets had flavours and textures that were spot on, while a main of wood pigeon came with a rich and fruity Moroccan pastilla of confit pigeon leg.
Newer still is Beckford Canteen, which has taken over a Georgian greenhouse and is the new place to try this summer. Choose from plates of technically clever food, such as fancy sardines on toast or monkfish with curried butter.
Bath has an abundance of cosy cocktail bars hidden in the basements of its townhouses. Dark Horse takes its mixology seriously and is a particularly seductive space.
Or settle upon a bistro table on the cobbles outside Beckford Bottle Shop. This candlelit wine shop has red leather sofas inside, charcuterie boards and shelves heaving with great bottles to sample.
When it comes to choosing a hotel, Bath has an array of luxurious options. The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa is a memorable choice, or try the modern, yet still characterful, independent hotel The Queensberry, which is home to the Michelin-starred Olive Tree restaurant, mentioned above. Its bedrooms are spacious, colourful and contemporary.
Summer is the perfect time to appreciate the warmth of a dip in the city’s steaming, thermal waters. For an exclusive, private soak, a line of stone colonnades leads from the Pump Room to the Cross Bath, where 46°C thermal springs bubble up to the surface.
This small but historic open-air bath can be hired by groups (with sparkling wine available too). Alternatively, treat yourself to some pampering at the main Thermae Bath Spa. The modern complex houses pools on different levels, as well as a sauna and steam rooms. Treatments, such as Roman themed scrubs, massages and facials, are very good but the rooftop pool is the star of the show. It is a photogenic spot and somewhere to contemplate Bath’s chimneys and church spires. Nothing beats the view from above this city, which has inspired writers and romantics for centuries.
Double rooms at The Royal Crescent from £330 year-round with breakfast included. royalcrescent.co.uk
For more information take a look at visitbath.co.uk
There are two unsurpassed reasons to stay at The Gainsborough Bath Spa. Firstly, location, location, location… you just can’t beat the hotel’s locale – you’re smack dab in the centre of Bath, just a few minutes’ walk from all the action; bars, restaurants, museums, shops, attractions and more.
Secondly, there’s its incredible spa and the opportunity to soak in Britain’s only naturally warm waters in much more privacy than across the road at Thermae Bath Spa. The Spa Village as its known, might not have breathtaking views of the city from an openair rooftop pool, however, the mostly beige four-storey glass atrium is also a pretty spectacular sight, with natural light giving an open-air feeling. The experience perfectly echoes that of the Romans; with pools and rooms of varying temperatures and humidities, the atmosphere is peaceful and the music soothing. It’s invigorating; sliding into a swimming pool of 35°C waters, just as Jane Austen once did in the Roman Baths from a passage beneath the Pump Rooms.
Along with the usual massage beds and jets, there’s an ice alcove and an elegant relaxation terrace. Treatments (with ELEMIS products) of a high standard are brilliantly delivered. Plus, there’s the opportunity to enjoy the natural thermal waters entirely privately, either by booking a treatment in a VIP Suite or by staying in one of the hotel’s exclusive spa rooms.
Elsewhere in the pristine 99-bedroom hotel you will find yet more marble and columns, and staff who seem to stand as proud as the grandiose pillars on the exterior. The Georgian masterpiece is an example of Bath’s stage-set-worthy architecture at its very best, dating back to the 1820s. The hotel was formerly built as a hospital and, more recently, a college. Reception is a scene of calm precision, with none of the usual hassle. Supremely efficient valet-parking is the norm.
Well-staffed and managed, the hotel succeeds in maintaining an elegant and glamorous ambience without being overly stuffy. The decor and lighting is modern, but restrained, and dining at the Gainsborough is, like everything else, classy and sophisticated but managing to remain light and somehow informal. Afternoon tea is served in the intimate Canvas Room, breakfast and dinner is in the Socialize restaurant, which serves British cuisine, and where there is original artwork (by college students) and an impressive wine wall. Locally sourced produce is combined with divine flavours to produce innovative dishes. Pre-dinner cocktails are whipped up in the chic Gainsborough Bar overlooking Spa Village.
Nightly rates at The Gainsborough Bath Spa start from £290 on a room-only basis.
Text by Natalie Paris