Bath is an iconic city bursting with British culture and history; somewhere that I was lucky to live in for a year. Although it’s beaten to the title of the cheapest city in Britain by pretty much everywhere other than London, it’s a delight to visit – the quaint architecture and complex stories over the years which have evolved it into the city it is today make for the perfect historical break.
Bath has had two huge booms – one in Roman times, when the hot springs were discovered and a community built up around them, and another during the Georgian period when most of the buildings that we see in the city today were constructed. Because of this, and due to its fascinating Abbey which is built upon the site where the first King of England was crowned, it has gained a reputation of one of the nation’s finest historical cities, which gloriously represents several different eras.
Now, as I mentioned, Bath is pretty expensive. However, don’t despair – even though prices are high, there are plenty of free things to do in Bath. Many of them involve being outside to try to visit Bath on a fine day if you can. If it does rain – and let’s face it, in England it likes to do just that – there are some undercover options as well!
Free Things to Do in Bath
You can go into it (donation only) and even go up it, but a great deal of the Abbey can be appreciated by just standing outside. Known as the ‘Lantern of the West’ because of the light that floods it, it is a fine example of Tudor and Elizabethan (and earlier) architecture.
As soon as you descend into Bath City Centre, the magnificent building looms in front of you, dominating your vision. The building deserves its prestigious status; there has been an abbey on the grounds since Norman times, and the site is actually where the first King of England was crowned in 973 (look for the Edgar Window, which depicts the coronation).
The Norman Abbey fell into disrepair, however, in 1499, Bishop Oliver King had a dream about angels travelling between heaven and earth and an olive tree – and took this as a sign that he should be the one to restore the great building. Work was started but halted during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, during which the Abbey lost its status.
However, Elizabeth I ordered the complete restoration of the building during her rule. Take a look at the West Front, where angels travelling on ladders and an olive tree (wearing a crown!) are engraved into the stone wall, which represent Oliver King and his dream. The restoration was completed in 1611 – when it was no longer called an abbey, but parish church for Bath, which it still is to this day.
No clowns or trapeze artists hang out here I’m afraid! Named after its circular shape, The Circus was constructed by John Wood the Elder and was the pinnacle of his career. Wood was fascinated by prehistoric stone circles and this perfect circle of houses mimics the Colosseum in Rome.
Sadly, Wood died in 1754, shortly after work began on his masterpiece, but his son oversaw the construction of the buildings which finished in 1768. It remains one of the country’s best Georgian structures, containing 33 inward pointing houses in a large circular formation. Look out for the acorns on the parapets, which represent Prince Bladud and his pigs.
The Royal Crescent
A few minute’s walk away from the circus is the renowned Royal Crescent. A set for many movies and TV shows, the crescent is the finest and most famous of its kind (although there are many in Bath). Construction of the Crescent began as soon as The Circus was finished, and contains 30 terraced houses connected with Ionic columns, looking out onto the Avon Valley and part of Royal Victoria Park.
If you do have some money, a nice extra is No1 Royal Crescent. It’s a living museum with furnishings from the period 1776 – 1796, when the crescent was built.
The Bath Skyline
The Bath Skyline Walk gazes down at the beautiful city from a vantage point far above. It’s the location for the weekly Bath Park Run, which is one of the best free things to do in Bath on the weekend – it takes place at 9am every Saturday morning. But even if you’re not there on a Saturday, it can still be enjoyed any time of the week. The National Trust trail takes you through woodlands and meadows, helping you see the city in a whole new light. The official walk is 9.6 kilometres, but of course you can just do segments of it. It is a dog-friendly trail, and you’ll no doubt see a few walkers and their pooches en-route.
British universities are always quite pleasant to check out, and although Bath University isn’t quite Oxford or Cambridge, it is still worth a visit. The university is historic – it was established in 1885. This history can be discovered at the university, and the grounds are nice to stroll through. There is also a vegan and vegetarian deli on-site, called The Patch.
Pulteney Bridge & the Weir
Pulteney Bridge was the beginning of a plan that never completely unfolded. Frances Pulteney inherited the whole of Bathwick (now a residential area the other side of the river) in the 18th century and her husband wished to construct a neo-classical garden suburb upon it. These plans halted due to the War with France, but the Pulteney Bridge had already been built; it was the first step in the construction of the suburb. It was quite clearly based on the Italian Ponte Vecchio and Rialto, and was completed in 1773.
Sydney Gardens & Holburne Museum
Just over the bridge are the Sydney Gardens, a picturesque and tranquil area of the city which was loved by Jane Austen (one of Bath’s notable residents).
The Holburne Museum is located in a Grade I listed building within the gardens, which is a delightful collection of various artworks from around Britain – with some special features from elsewhere in the world. Porcelain, paintings and sculpture all serve to represent Bath and Britain through the galleries. There is also an exhibition about the Golden Age of British painting, which describes Bath’s rise as a fashion and artistic capital. On site is the Garden Cafe, which serves fresh, seasonal, local food.
Royal Victoria Park & The Botanical Gardens
Bath’s largest park, 57 acre Royal Victoria, is a stone’s throw away from the city centre and contains beautiful ponds and grasslands. Nestled in the park are the Botanical Gardens, a beautiful landscaped area which makes for a stunning walk in the grounds.
The garden was opened in 1830 by the young Princess Victoria who was 11 years old at the time. It was the first park to carry her name, and there’s an obelisk dedicated to her by one of the entry points. Nowadays, it is frequented by dog-walkers, joggers, picnickers and families, and makes for a pleasantly serene respite after exploring the city centre.
The Bath – Bradford on Avon Cycle Path
If you’re up for a 7 mile/ 11 kilometre run/ walk/ bike ride (or if you want to walk a bit of it and then turn back, of course!), check out the Bath – Bradford on Avon Cycle Path. It is part of the larger Kennet and Avon Canal Route, and will take you past some delightful colourful canal boats and around the tranquil river. There are lots of great things to do in Bradford on Avon, as well – it’s a good day trip from Bath. It’s another great way to escape into nature, right by the city centre. It is also possible to walk, run or cycle the other way to Bristol.
Victoria Art Gallery
The Victoria Art Gallery is home to free permanent exhibtions, perfect for checking out if the weather isn’t so kind! It features 1500 art objects in total, including paintings from across the centuries including oil paintings from 1700 onwards. There are often special exhibitions, but these generally cost a little.
Do A Free Self-Guided Tour
By downloading the free app, you can do one of two self-guided tours in Bath. One is a world heritage site audio tour, which takes you to some of the places mentioned above, and the other is entitled ‘in the footsteps of Jane Austen’ and takes you around Bath from her perspective. Both are really interesting free ways to get a feel for this beautiful city!
Visit the Bath Christmas Market
Christmas is a magical time of year in Bath. (BTW, Halloween isn’t, it’s non-existent there – if you’re in Bath for that time of year, go and party in Bristol). The Bath Christmas Markets are the best place in the area to do your Christmas shopping – here you’ll be able to purchase hand-made gifts and local food for your loved ones. There’s plenty of festive decor and tunes, and a bar where you can enjoy a steaming mulled wine or cider.
Bath Open Topped Bus Tour
This isn’t a free thing to do in Bath, but the hop on hop off open topped bus tour can really help you see the best of the city – and it can also serve as your transportation! If you are only going to spend money on one Bath attraction, make it the open topped bus tour. Click here to reserve your spot.
Resident in Bath? Get Your Discovery Pass
Bath’s Discovery Pass is free to all residents (you have to prove that you have a BA postcode) and it means that your list of free things to do in Bath is extended! You’ll get to enjoy the Fashion Museum and the Roman Baths completely free year-round, as well as discounts in the Pump Room and Roman Baths kitchen – and many more places. You can enjoy the card in selected outlets across the whole of BANES (Bath and North East Somerset, if you’re not down with the lingo 😉 ).
Where to Stay in Bath on a Budget
Hostel Option: YHA Bath
Set in an Italinate mansion, YHA Bath is located close to the city centre and offers a variety of room sizes. It has a communal kitchen – so you can save some money by cooking there – and is a great place to meet some travel friends. The hostel is rated 9.3/10 on HostelWorld. Check out more information and book here.
Cheap Hotel in the Centre: Parade Park
This clean, cosy hotel offers cheap rooms near the centre of Bath. Most room rates include breakfast, which helps your money go that little bit further. The property has WiFi and a bar, and each room has a TV. For rates and to book, click here.
Cheap Guesthouse out of the Centre: The Wheelwrights Arms
Located in the tranquil village of Monkton Coombe, The Wheelwrights Arms is in a lovely country setting, yet is just 5 minutes drive from Bath City Centre. Breakfast is included in some room rates, and all have an en-suite bathroom, free WiFi and a flat screen TV. The downstairs pub makes finding dinner or a drink in the evening easy! Click here for rates and to book.
If you’re looking for a full list of cheap places to stay in Bath, check out my cheap hotels in Bath city centre post.
How to Get to Bath
Bath is semi-well connected to the rest of the UK, especially the west and Wales. Bath Railway Station serves varios major cities – sometimes with a change in Bristol – but be aware, trains in the UK are expensive.
The National Express serves Bath from London, Bristol, Birmingham and more. This is without a doubt the cheapest way to get to Bath.
If you’re keen to explore some more of Somerset, car rental might be an option. Hertz provide competitive prices for your time in and around Bath.
Bath on a Budget
Bath may be expensive, but there’s plenty to look at for free! A stroll around the town is fascinating, as you gaze up at the buildings and imagine how people lived all those centuries ago. Bath is a city that seems unchanged by the modern world; a slice of Roman, Medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian history all perfectly intertwined together and standing gracefully by the River Avon.
While you’re in South West England, be sure to visit Bristol, the biggest city in the region bursting with exciting things to do and gorgeous sights and check out the things that make the West Country famous! For somewhere off the beaten path, spend a day in Bradford on Avon, a stunning Wiltshire village bursting with history.
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