Sited among verdant hills in the Somerset countryside, the city of Bath offers an excellent long weekend opportunity. With a small town feel but the cultural/culinary/nightlife of a larger city, the honey-coloured streets of this Georgian city are generous to those willing to explore beyond the touristy centre.
Famous for its well-preserved Roman Baths, the city of Bath, situated about twenty minutes off the M4, lies in a natural bowl in the countryside surrounded by agriculture and woodland. Some over-proud locals might point to its seven hills, drawing (frankly ludicrous) comparisons with Rome. Any chance of an equivalency might be found in its history – the Romans made the most of the thermal waters bubbling up beneath this spa city, building a bathing complex that is today housed within a superb museum that remains, rightly, the city’s main tourist draw.
But Bath is much more than just a museum town. There’s colour behind the monochrome elegance, and during a short stay you’ll being to uncover its contrasts – a vibrant city of arts festivals and cavernous nightclubs, but one with a boisterous West Country heart, in touch with the traditions of the verdant green countryside rolling in on its seven hills.
As much live music venue as pub, The Bell Inn (103 Walcot Street) is one of Bath’s must treasured public hostelries. Situated in the city’s artisan quarter (essentially Walcot Street), this community-owned boozer offers live music throughout the week, a selection of local ales, and a sense of warm authenticity often lacking so near to the city centre.
The epitome of an ‘old man’s pub’ that eschews televisions, music (except on Friday evening when the live folk band plays in the lounge), The Star Inn (23 Vineyards) has retained its character over the two hundred and fifty-seven years of its operation (so much so that there’s snuff available behind the bar). With its cosy open fires, it’s perfect for winter warmers and a quiet pint.
A microbrewery and pub just off of lively Kingsmead Square, The Bath Brew House (14 James Street West) is a voluminous venue with a lively vibe, particularly on the weekends. Not shy of tapping into Bath’s local heritage for its in-house tipples, try a pint of Gladiator, Emperor, or even, Jane Austen.
The White Hart (Widcombe Hill), located in the central Widcombe area of the city, has easily the best pub garden in the city. On a sunny Sunday, sit amid the bright bunting and flowerpots eating one of the city’s tastiest – and fairest priced – Sunday roasts. Better yet, rent a room – this close to the centre you’ll be hard-pressed for a better deal.
A subterranean whiskey bar found opposite tourist magnet Sally Lunn’s Buns, The Hideout (1 Lilliput Court) is a bijou drinking den with an outstanding selection of bourbons, and Scottish and Irish whiskeys. The bar staff, in signature flat caps, are chatty and knowledgeable, willing to recommend a single malt or cocktail to match your tastes.
Opium Bar (Spring Gardens Road) is a chic cocktail bar secreted near Pulteney Bridge. The small entryway leads you into a series of interconnected vaults decorated in baroque fashion. This subterranean drinks venue also has a rather swish secret room with private bar and karaoke machine for small group parties.
Tucked into the vaults opposite central Parade Gardens, Sotto Sotto (10 North Parade) is a superb Italian restaurant that, in the grand tradition of Italian cuisine, allows excellent ingredients to speak for themselves. Think fresh chicken liver ragu on Tuscan bread and grilled swordfish with roasted vegetables, rounded off with homemade ice cream, while the wine list will expand your Italian oenophilia. Book at least a week in advance.
Just off the Circus, The Circus Restaurant (34 Brock Street) is a snug, refined restaurant serving ‘modern European food’. Expect seasonal dishes – characterised by mostly French and Italian influences – such as Duck Cassoulet and spatchcocked partridge on a pumpkin risotto with sage brown butter. The line-caught fish is some of Bath’s freshest, delivered overnight from the coast.
A vast upstairs curry hall, The Eastern Eye (8a Quiet Street) has watched many other curry houses come and go while it remains lauded and busy. The friendly service helps, but it’s mostly because of the award-winning food. You’ll find the high street staples are here, but delving into some of the less familiar signature specialities – such as the north Indian Nowabdar – will reap mouth-watering rewards.
Run by Italians (always a good start for a pizzeria), newcomer Dough (14 – 16 The Corridor), located in the maze of lanes behind Union Street, offers a novel approach to this universally loved cuisine: choose from a selection of doughs – including seaweed or turmeric – for your pizza. The ‘Smokey’ with smoked mozzarella, speck and rosemary on a nutty grana arso crust is to die for, although they do your bog Neapolitan-style margarita to perfection also.
Step into Katherine Fraser (Walcot Street) and you’re likely to find the actual Katherine Fraser hard at work behind her loom. This independent artisan shop – stocking a variety of gorgeous handwoven textiles, including small, woven potted cacti that caused a Black Friday-style rush when first placed in the shop window – is typical of the Walcot Street artisan district.
Green Park Station (Green Park Road) is a former 19th century rail station converted into one of Bath’s most vibrant and eclectic spaces. Grab some Thai for lunch from the street stall and browse some vinyl, or in the evening drink Montepulciano with your pizza while listening to the live jazz emanating from the adjoining Green Park Brasserie. Every Saturday, the Farmer’s Market brings in some of Somerset’s best cheesemakers with their raw milk wares – time to get tasting.
Found on a narrow lane off central Milsom Street, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (14 – 15 John Street) is a friendly bookshop perfect for a browse and a chat with the bibliophiles who run it. The shop also runs an event series that often take part above the shop in the evening, in cosy, living room-style surrounds (with wine).
You half expect to find Azlan lounging on a sofa in Rossiters of Bath (38 – 41 Broad Street), so deceptively sprawling is this independent department store housed in the centre of Bath. An excellent stop for gift shopping, or just for an explore through the rambling rooms.
Afternoon Tea & Morning Coffee
Situated on what some describe as Europe’s most elegant crescent, The Royal Crescent Hotel (16 Royal Crescent) serves up an afternoon tea befitting of its starry address. Enjoyed in the garden, expect an artful selection of sandwiches, scones, pastries and cake to be washed down with as much Ronnefeldt tea as you can handle (and a glass of champagne). With it being a five-star luxury hotel, this apotheosis of afternoon tea comes at a price (£35pp).
British fine tea merchant, Comins Tea (34 Monmouth Street) is both a high temple to single estate loose leaf teas as well as an offbeat place to eat. Try Sri Lankan egg hoppers for breakfast, Japanese Dumplings for lunch, and an afternoon tea served with blueberry scones. This is a tea-house with a difference.
A favourite of the Bath’s extensive student body, Society Café (Kingsmead Square) crafts superb flat whites amid a hipster-ish, bike-loving vibe. There are two branches in the city, with the one on Kingsmead Square ideal for sitting out in warm weather, pairing a slice of the magnificent carrot cake with your artisan brew.
Endearingly geeky, the Colonna & Small’s (6 Chapel Row) approach to coffee vaults nerdy and approaches the fanatical. The single origin coffee of your choice is artfully made by the baristas into primly perfect coffees that are Bath’s best. In fine weather, take your sky-blue cup into the bijou walled garden.
A lively little coffee-house en route to excellent country walks around Little Solsbury Hill, The Cheeky Bean (2 Balustrade) provides friendly banter, speciality coffee ‘with undertones of molten toffee’ and, if desired, some fine eats as well. The place is tiny though, so, at lunchtime, expect a warming cup of takeaway pesto and lentil soup rather than being lucky enough to score one of the few seats inside.