2012 marks the British city's 25th year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Celebrate and explore with these things to do for free, says Katherine Price
The iconic half-moon is often what first springs to mind when thinking of Bath. The crescent-shaped set of 30 Georgian houses designed by architect John Wood, built during the 18th century, is an easy walk up from centre. It’s particularly striking because of its photogenic near-perfect symmetry and Ionic columns.
It stands within a beautiful area of grand, historic architecture that looks truly glorious when bathed in sunshine, and offers a wonderful view over the town centre.
Competing with the Crescent for Georgian architectural prowess, The Circus is a set of 18th century houses encircling a small central green (which once provided water to the houses). Its pillars evoke the classical style of the Roman Colosseum, yet in what is a thoroughly British, Georgian setting.
Like the Royal Crescent, The Circus was designed to symbolise the soleil-line – the sun and the moon – and from the air, when seen with its connecting streets, resembles a key.
Locals often argue over which is better: the Crescent or the Circus. See both, and make up your own mind.
Below the classical, ornamented architecture of the Royal Crescent sits the Royal Victoria Park; a large, scenic park opened in 1830. While a great location for a picnic, it’s anything but empty with a boating pond, golf course, botanical garden and sometimes even open-air concerts.
During the summer, hot air balloons take off from here in the early morning and late evening; watch the balloons bob along the sunset after a romantic picnic.
Having been renovated in 2007, the park is certainly worth a visit, and is as historically fascinating as its architectural overseer. A Temple of Minerva, constructed for the British Empire Exhibition, was rebuilt within the botanical gardens in 1926, and Russian guns from the Crimean War were once laid at the Obelisk of the Victoria Majority Monument.
Dotted with pubs along the way, the Kennet and Avon Canal runs through Bath, going out into the countryside one way and joining the River Avon at the other. It is very bike- and pedestrian-friendly thanks to renovations and is a great walk to further delve into Bath’s extraordinary history.
A walk along the canal can take you to Pulteney Bridge (see below) and is home to the second-deepest canal lock in the UK (aptly named ‘Deep Lock’). It also runs past Sydney Gardens and Cleveland Tunnel and Cleveland House – the former headquarters of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company. Here you can spot the trap door where paperwork was exchanged between clerks and bargees.
For those inclined to a spot of ale, the Bath Ales Brewery is worth a visit, and is fast gaining a sterling reputation (as well as several awards). Relatively accessible, about half way along the Bath to Bristol cycle track, the brewery is small but has a bar, which serves its award-winning ales for sampling.
Along with the Royal Crescent, walking to Pulteney Weir is one of Bath’s best highlights. The weir itself dates back to 1603 and sits in one of the prettiest areas of the city.
Just upstream from the weir is Pulteney Bridge, a wonderfully Venetian bridge built in 1773 and a grade I-listed feature of the city. Designed by Robert Adam, it was inspired by Florence's Ponte Vecchio and Venice's Ponte di Rialto. It is one of only four bridges in the world with shops spanning both sides, which are worth a window-shop.
Although it isn’t free to enter the city’s Grand Pump Room in the Abbey Church Yard, it is free (and worth it) to observe the stunning exterior of the Roman baths. Started in the 18th century, and built with the warm, honey-coloured Bath stone, the building is another of Bath’s iconic features and one of the primary reasons for it being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bath itself was founded by the Romans as a thermal spa site, and its neoclassical architecture expanded from there under George III.
Although the concrete architecture of Bath University isn’t quite the Georgian marvel of the Crescent or Circus, the hilltop university has nevertheless become part of the city – even part of the tours that groan up the hill just to see it.
The main university building and campus are easily accessible without hassle (it takes only 15 minutes to walk from one end of the campus to the other). As are the university’s excellent sports facilities of the Sports Training Village; used by some of the UK’s top Olympic athletes and Team Bath FC.
For the best views over the city, there’s the Bath Skyline; a 10km hilltop walk across the university hill dotted with an Iron Age hill-fort on Little Solsbury Hill, Roman settlements, forests, limestone flowers and open meadows. If you’re lucky you may spot a skylark in late spring, many of which have taken residence in the area.
A story goes that a rich inhabitant of the city many years ago desired to look up to the hill and see a castle, and so paid for the trees to be parted and the entrance of a castle built for his viewing pleasure. The gate still sits atop the hill, and has one of the best views over the town.
Bath has two fantastic museums, both of which have free admission, depending on your tastes: The Victoria Art Gallery and The Holburne Museum.
The Victoria Art Gallery is a family-friendly visual spectacle. Despite being a 19th century building, it blends in with the Georgian-style architectural landscape of the city. It houses over 1,500 paintings and sculptures.
Although The Holburne Museum is a true 18th century installation, you’d be surprised by its contrasting modern rear extension. It displays similar fare to the Victoria, with Gainsboroughs and portraits on show, but has a wider range of contemporary artists, such as David Fisher, as well as a few Turners. Whether your appetite lusts after the classical or the contemporary, either museum caters.