On the spa trail in Bath

by Graham Spicer

The beautiful West Country city of Bath gives you the chance to explore spas ancient and modern, admiring the old Roman bathing complex before taking to the waters in the 21st-century Thermae Bath Spa

The Somerset city of Bath wasn't made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothing. Along with its honey-toned sandstone Georgian architecture, its Roman Baths are unique to the UK and one of the best-preserved examples in Europe.

Thousands of litres of mineral-rich water still gush up in the city's ancient hot springs each day at a constant temperature of 46.5° Celsius, and have been a source of wonder for thousands of years. If you have just one day in the city, then the Roman Baths are an essential stop - but now you can also immerse yourself in the self-same waters at the Thermae Bath Spa, a 21st-century spa complex that blends contemporary architecture with original Georgian buildings. Combining the two makes a unique day out.

Be amazed by the Roman Baths

While the Celts venerated the springs, it was the Romans, practical as ever, who were the first to actually tap them, in around 50AD. They created the remarkable bathing complex that you can still explore today. Next to the sprawling bath houses they also erected a huge temple to the goddess Minerva, who they believed was the source of the springs.

As there is so much to see, you should give yourself two or three hours for a visit. The route through is imaginatively laid out and there's a free audioguide, which is well worth listening to and helps put the site and its exhibits in to context.

You'll see ancient Latin-inscribed tombstones, a monumental carved gorgon's head (once part of the temple's pediment), the life-sized bronze head of Minerva, and chilling 'curse tablets' that were thrown into the springs in the hope that the goddess would punish thieves and suspected wrong-doers.

The exhibits weave their way around the ruins of the temple and baths themselves, finishing at the remarkable Great Bath, still fed by the hot springs, and particularly impressive on cold winter days, when steam rises spookily into the cool air.

Recharge at Sally Lunn's

You'll need some sustenance to keep you going after visiting the baths, so why not pop round the corner to Sally Lunn's (4 North Parade Passage, BA1 1NX, 01225 461 634), the oldest house in Bath, where they serve the original Sally Lunn Bun, a tasty bread roll topped with sweet or savoury goodies.

Soak up the city atmosphere

You might need a little stroll after lunch, so wander past the soaring Gothic Abbey to Pulteney Bridge, one of only a few in the world to contain shops along its length. From here you'll see the classic view to the elliptical Pulteney Weir on the River Avon.

The whole city is one great ensemble of Palladian-style Georgian architecture, so take a while to soak up the atmosphere - the famous Circus and the Royal Crescent are worth the short walk uphill.

Immerse yourself in the Thermae Bath Spa

After all that activity, the perfect antidote will be a visit to the remarkable Thermae Bath Spa, a stylish centre that opened in 2006 and now allows visitors to soak in the city's mineral-laden hot spring waters. Standard two- or four-hour sessions let you into the New Royal Baths, which consist of the large, curved Minerva Bath and the rooftop pool, where you can float dreamily while taking in stunning views across the city skyline and the grassy hills beyond.

There's also a sauna suite, which utilises aromas such as lavender, eucalyptus and frankincense to put you in the right mood. If you're pressed for time you can opt for a shorter session in the separate Cross Baths, but a longer stay with an additional spa treatment is the best for pure indulgence. Onsite therapists offer a menu of 50-odd treatments.

There's more...

If you're lucky enough to be spending more time in Bath and money is no object, then stay in Georgian splendour at the Royal Crescent Hotel, spend a night at the wonderfully-restored Theatre Royal (one of the UK's best regional theatres), take a boat trip on the Avon with Pulteney Cruises, and take in the boutiques and speciality stores around Milsom Place. There are dozens of museums and galleries in the area, too, including the Jane Austen Centre - the author spent six years in Bath and based Persuasion and Northanger Abbey in the city.

Graham Spicer

When I was a young child a gypsy lady came to our house telling fortunes. She told my mum that one of her sons would become a doctor and the other one would travel. Thirty-odd years later and my brother’s got a PhD and I’ve become a travel journalist. I’ve spent several years of my life living and working overseas, in Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Spain and the Caribbean, and am now based in west London, writing for clients as diverse as Expedia, Emirates, Visit Britain, Culture 24, the BBC, Parliamentary Archives, Hotels.Com, Ten Lifestyle and Vertu.