England: Bath Without the Madding Crowd
Bath, one of England’s Top Tourist Draws: Tips on the Best Time to Visit
By Mary Charlebois
Hot springs and baths soothed the aches of Romans. Jane Austen and her cast of characters came “to take the waters.” Bath is a legendary place in English history. It stands out still in modern day.
Fashionable architects designed elegant rooms for seasonal guests; assemblies, ballrooms, markets, galleries, museums, and promenades. Bath is an ancient city, bathed in golden light reflected by Bath Stone buildings.
The River Avon winds through town, passing settlements as old as the river, under bridges, past churches, docks, weirs, and falls. Bath is the ‘full Monty;’ stunning, historical, elegant, mysterious, and packed from stem-to-stern with tourist.
Four Million Visitors a Year
Bath receives almost 4-million tourists a year. That’s nearly 11,000 per day. All in very tight quarters. Narrow streets make driving congested and slow.
Parking is non-existent in the old part of the city, and most of those 11K visitors are getting on and off a 60-seater tour bus outside the Roman Baths.
It is possible to enjoy Bath and avoid the madding crowds.
Best times to enjoy and best times to avoid
Choose weekdays over weekends. Weekdays after a holiday are even better. Rates can be lower at that time as well. Summer is the busiest time of year.
To avoid crowded streets and attractions, stay away from 9 AM until 5 PM. These are the hours that tour buses come and go non-stop. Lines can keep you standing for over an hour to enter the Roman Baths, Bath Cathedral, or Jane Austen Center.
Best time to enjoy the city center is before 9 AM and after 5 PM. These are the hours before and after tour buses arrive.
Bath is a city that plays late and sleeps late. An early morning stroll through the streets of Bath is a solo adventure. If you see anyone at all, it will be a baker, cook, or shop keeper arriving to begin the day.
The sun rising over crowd-free narrow streets and allies; open parks, sunken gardens; gothic and medieval buildings, and the River Avon are a reward for early risers. The morning golden-hour is exquisite. Sunrise and sunset in Bath are world-class photo ops. Bath Stone glows brilliantly in the sun. The first and last of the day’s rays turn the buildings to gold.
In the evening between 5—9 PM, Bath has emptied out. The tour buses are gone, and visitors staying in the city return to their lodging to prepare for dinner.
Not only do you have a chance to get a seat at that charming sidewalk café, but you can also see attractions line-free. Most are open. The Roman Baths stay open until midnight every night. Crowds are minimal, especially on weeknights.
The right tour can be the highlight of your trip, a bad one can turn you off to a destination for life. Tours are ubiquitous in Bath.
Around the city during daylight hours, you’ll encounter tour groups everywhere. Most are from those tour buses I mentioned earlier.
To avoid being herded past attractions like cattle, keeping up with a huge groups, lackluster tour guides, and a canned narrative, try an alternative tour experience.
Take a day tour to the countryside. Bath is surrounded by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, hidden villages, ancient places of worship, centuries-old gardens, historical landmarks, agriculture, pubs, and Inns.
Get off-the-beaten-path in Bath. Take a tour that does not cover the usual tourist destinations.
Take a night tour of Bath. The crowds have fled and spectacular lighting adorns the magnificent architecture.
Day Tours in Bath
Around and About Bath is a tour company offering, small-group, in-depth, immersive tours, and local experiences. The Hidden Cotswolds is a full day tour. You’ll visit parts of the area you would never find on your own. The tour docent/driver has in-depth knowledge of history and culture of the region which is shared in a lively interactive manner.
You’ll stop for tea, have a pub lunch, and learn some forgotten US history involving George Washington. This is the best tour I’ve had anywhere. You’ll learn about Bath and the surrounding countryside that supports the sophisticated city.
If you can’t spend a whole day, try Behind the Façade: Bath’s Backstories & Backstreets. You’ll spend the morning in a small group visiting the backstreets learning the ‘stories behind Bath’s stories.
Learn why the doors are different colors in the Circus, visit a silversmith selling Jane Austen era treasures. See and smell a centuries-old bakery. You’ll also visit hidden graveyards, ancient chapels changed to art galleries, and visit The Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, now a museum illuminating Bath’s many eras and layers of archecture. website
Bizarre Bath is a highly rated after dark tour. Part history, part comedy show, there is never a dull moment with this group.
Along the 90-minute route, actors appear from out of nowhere and perform fractured versions of historic events. It’s accessible and loads of fun for all ages. website
Sleep and eat far form the crowd
A place to escape from mobs of chaotic tourist is a 20-minute walk from the Roman Baths. Tasburgh House is an elegant red brick manor-house sitting above a split-level patio and terraced gardens. In the valley across the River Avon, the lights of Bath flicker. At Tasburgh, it’s quiet.
A Teddy in each of the 17-rooms holds a book and wears a costume representing the English author for which the rooms are named. There are 7-acres of gardens to roam. My room, the Hardy, was spacious, beautifully appointed, and overlooked the gardens. The bed and linens were a cloud.
An elegant and sumptuous breakfast is served in the atrium. A short walk takes you to a local pub on the Kennet and Avon Canal. This is prime canal-boat viewing territory. Just a little further, a dinner house serves locally sourced delights. In the evening, the lounge and cocktail bar at Tasburgh is open for guests to enjoy a nightcap. I recommend the host’s G&T with house garden rosemary and juniper berries. website
Sleep and eat near the crowd
Tucked away on Abbey Green, a tiny square, 2-blocks from the action at the Roman Baths and Bath Cathedral, sits Three Abbey Green. The lovely tree-shaded square is quiet and pedestrian-only – no cars, busses or scooters. It’s an escape from the throngs. The award winning guest house is an ideal hideaway without going to far away from the action
A cooked to order breakfast is included with your room. It’s exceptional. Everything is cooked in-house and locally sourced, with daily featured baked goods, sweet and savory.
Three Abbey offers a variety of lodging. Choose from suites, rooms, and self-catering family apartments. website
On the square surrounding Three Abbey, are shops and pubs where food and libation can be found. Within three or four blocks of the front door are dozens of restaurants. Eateries range from traditional English to exotic.
I tried Tangine Zhor just around the corner. The Moroccan food and décor were wonderful. The staff was open-hearted and helpful, I felt at home. They helped me decipher the menu. It was my first Moroccan meal. website
Come to Bath via train. There are direct routes from London and other cities. The train station is about ½ mile from the city center.
If you drive, park your car in a Park and Ride Car Park. There are two located on the outskirts in Lansdown and Odd Down. Parking is free. For about £3 ($5) roundtrip, a shuttle takes you to and from Bath’s center. website
For more information about Bath, tours, lodging, and transportation visit the Bath tourism website Visit Bath.
Mary Charlebois is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her home base is on California’s Mendocino Coast. She travels by train, plane, bus, boat, shoe sole, and auto. She digs into the culture, people, and history wherever she goes and isn’t opposed to a little adventure along the way.