Bath: England at Its Elegant and Frivolous Best

Bath has a long history serving as a refreshing break from London.
By Rick Steves

Two hundred years ago, this city of 85,000 was the Hollywood of Britain. Today the former trendsetter of Georgian England invites you to take the 90-minute train ride from London and sample its aristocratic charms and new spa.

If ever a city enjoyed looking in the mirror, Bath's the one. It has more government-protected buildings per capita than any town in England. The entire city, built of the creamy warm-tone limestone called "Bath stone," beams in its cover-girl complexion.

Bath is an architectural chorus line. It's a triumph of the Georgian style (British for Neoclassical), with buildings as competitively elegant as the society they housed. If you look carefully, you'll see false windows built in the name of balance (but not used, in the name of tax avoidance) and classical columns that supported only Georgian egos. Two centuries ago, rich women wore feathered hats atop three-foot hairdos. The very rich stretched their doors and ground floors to accommodate this high fashion. And today many families have a tough time affording the cost of peeling the soot of the last century from these tall walls.

Few towns combine beauty and hospitality as well as Bath. If you don't visit the tourist office, it'll visit you. In summer, a tourist board crew, wearing red, white, and blue "visitor carer" T-shirts, roam the streets in search of tourists to help.

Bath's town square, a quick walk from the bus and train station, is a bouquet of tourist landmarks, including the Abbey, the Roman and medieval baths, the royal "Pump Room," and a Georgian flute player complete with powdered wig.

A good day in Bath starts with a tour of the Roman and Medieval Baths. Even in Roman times, when the town was called Aquae Sulis, the hot mineral water attracted society's elite. The town's importance peaked in 973, when the first king of England, Edgar, was crowned in Bath's Anglo-Saxon abbey. Bath then declined until the mid-1600s, languishing to just a huddle of huts around the abbey, with hot, smelly mud and 3,000 residents, oblivious to the Roman ruins 18 feet below their dirt floors. Then, in 1687, Queen Mary, fighting infertility, bathed here. Within 10 months she gave birth to a son...and a new age of popularity for Bath. The revitalized town boomed as a spa resort. Ninety percent of the buildings you see today are from the 18th century. Local architect John Wood was inspired by the Italian architect Palladio to build a "new Rome." The town bloomed in the Neoclassical style, and streets were lined with wide "parades" rather than scrawny sidewalks, upon which the women in their stylishly wide dresses could spread their fashionable tails.

After simmering unused for a quarter-century, Bath's natural thermal springs once again offer R&R for the masses. The state-of-the-art Thermae Bath Spa spa is housed in a complex of three buildings that combine historic structures with controversial new, glass-and-steel architecture. The only natural thermal spa in the UK, Thermae also has all the "pamper thyself" extras — massages, mud wraps, and various healing-type treatments and classes, including "watsu" — water shiatsu.

For a taste of aristocracy, enjoy tea and scones with live classical music in the nearby Pump Room. For an authentic (if somewhat foul-tasting) finale, have a sip of the awfully curative Bath water from the elegant fountain. To make as much sense as possible of all this fanciness, catch the free city walking tour that leaves from just outside the Pump Room door. Bath's volunteer guides are as much a part of Bath as its architecture. A walking tour gives your visit a little more intimacy, and you'll feel like you actually have a friend in Bath.

In the afternoon, stroll through three centuries of fashion in the Fashion Museum. Follow the evolution of clothing styles, one decade at a time, from the first Elizabeth in the 16th century to the second Elizabeth today. The guided tour is excellent — full of fun facts and fascinating trivia. Haven't you always wondered what the line, "Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni," from "Yankee Doodle" means? You'll find the answer (and a lot more) in Bath — the town whose narcissism is justified.