Winter in Bath: 10 unmissable things to do this season
The UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath is special any time of year, but arguably it’s at its best in the winter. They certainly used to think so back in Georgian times: the fashionable resort had a winter, not a summer, season.
Some 200 years on, bathing in the natural thermal waters is still a big draw. But there’s lots else besides to lure visitors in the winter months, from artisan Christmas markets, ice-skating and panto to first-rate exhibitions and refreshing walks in the hilly countryside on the city’s fringes. As a long-time Bath resident and tour guide, here are my top 10 recommendations of things to do in the city during the winter season:
1. Skate in Bath on Ice, a winter wonderland
Bath on Ice, the city’s annual winter ice rink, occupies a great spot at the edge of Royal Victoria Park – it’s below, though not in sight of, The Royal Crescent. The rink is nearly as big as four tennis courts, and it’s all very festive, with upbeat pop and Christmassy music to get you in the swing of things. Book ahead for your timed one-hour slot, and if you’re coming with a young child, consider adding a “Sled skate aid” – a sit-on plastic support – to your booking.
Alongside the rink there’s a massive Alpine-themed après-ski bar, heated and under cover, serving mulled wine, hot chocolate, pizzas, hot dogs and churros. And while the ice rink is open, on the adventure golf course next door (which is run by the same folk as the skating) you can try your hand at night-time Glow Golf. The holes are prettily lit up, and you play with glow-in-the-dark balls.
2. Enjoy Bath's Christmas magic
Bath offers a pair of festive markets daily in the run-up to Christmas, with stalls selling enticing hand-made gifts and crafts, plus locally-made or sourced food and drink. Head to Abbey Green, York Street and Kingston Parade (the square alongside Bath Abbey) for the wooden chalets of the Artisan Makers of the Abbey Quarter Market, and to Queen Square for the Bath Artisan Market.
Every evening throughout December the facades of key buildings such as the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey, along with picturesque parts of the city centre such as Milsom Street and Abbey Green, are thrilling illuminated in various coloured hues. Follow the Christmas Light Trail on an interactive online map, or just wander round the city centre to see what you can find.
3. Wonder at Bath Abbey's moon
Bath Abbey is always worth a visit, not least to admire its wonderful fan-vaulted ceiling and to explore some of the many hundreds of memorials on the floor and walls. The Abbey also programs special exhibitions, such as 2021’s Museum of the Moon. The artwork by Luke Jerram – seven metres in diameter, inflated, internally lit and featuring NASA imagery of the lunar surface – hangs suspended in the centre of the church.
It’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful sight, whether viewed during the day or after dark. Accompanying the exhibition is a “surround sound composition” – a mix of music and recorded communication with astronauts. As well as being able to take it all in during the abbey’s normal opening hours, on some evenings there are Moonlight Lates events, with astronomers to chat to and the option of moon- and star-gazing tower tours.
4. Immerse yourself in a Georgian Christmas
No1 Royal Crescent takes up a whole townhouse at one end of Bath’s most famous crescent. Run by the estimable Bath Preservation Trust, the museum does a splendid job in revealing how people – the rich and their servants – lived in Bath back in the late 1700s.
During December, it lays on an imaginative and immersive experience called “12 Tales of a Georgian Christmas.” In various rooms, stories bring to life what might have gone on in the house several hundred years ago over the Christmas period. You hear about shopping in the dining room, games in the withdrawing room and over-indulgence in the gentleman’s bedroom. Santa will meet children in the Servants Hall on some days.
5. Take in a festive show in The Theatre
Opened in 1805, The Theatre Royal Bath is one of the most beautiful Georgian theatres in the country. The theatre is known for family-friendly fare around the holidays, like its 2021 production of “Cinderella,” a slapstick-filled, innuendo-sprinkled, traditional panto, in the main auditorium.
With younger kids, do also consider a trip to The Egg, the Theatre Royal’s award-winning, intimate, purpose-built children’s theatre. Upcoming shows this winter include “Five Children and It,” a new reworking of the classic E. Nesbit story.
6. Soak in Bath`s natural thermal waters
Bath’s hot springs are the underlying reason why the city is here, and people have been coming to bathe in the thermal waters for at least 2,000 years. Regular sessions at Thermae Bath Spa, the snazzy modern complex, give you access to two large pools, one indoors, the other outdoors on the rooftop of the building.
Soaking in the open-air pool is especially memorable during the winter, when the air is cold and steam rises from the naturally warm waters. Though the water is around 45 degrees Celsius when it comes out of the springs, Thermae Bath Spa lets it cool down to a more comfortable 34 degrees Celsius in the pools.
During the standard two-hour session you can also spend time in the Wellness Suite, which includes Roman- and Georgian-themed steam rooms and a Celestial Relaxation Chamber inspired by William Herschel, a Bath-based astronomer who discovered Uranus in 1781.
7. Learn all about how the Romans bathed
A visit to The Roman Baths in winter is the perfect time to explore the gym, which opened to the public for the first time in the fall of 2021. The experience is brought to life by projections on the walls of “Romans” exercising, and a laconicum, a rare example of a circular steam room. There’s lots else to see in the 2,000-year-old leisure complex, including various baths, the remains of the temple to Sulis Minerva (goddess of the hot springs) and fascinating finds from excavations.
You need to book ahead for a timed entry slot, and all the slots fill up on busy days. Consider going late in the day: Torches are lit around the Great Bath from around 4 p.m., making it very atmospheric. Allow at least 90 minutes to take everything in, and be sure to use the excellent audio guides.
8. Make the Fashion Museum a shoo-in
Bath’s Fashion Museum houses a world-class collection of noteworthy items of clothing, from the 16th century to the present day. The museum is in the basement of the Assembly Rooms, where the balls took place in Bath in the late 1700s.
The supremely elegant Ballroom, Tea Room and Great Octagon have been restored to look much as they did in their Georgian heyday, and if no events are taking place in the rooms, you can explore them with the aid of an audio tour.
Don’t miss the Shoephoria! exhibition, which runs through late April, 2022. The 350 pairs of footwear on show range from boots worn by Queen Victoria to Nicola Adams’ dancing shoes in Strictly Come Dancing.
9. Go for a country hike near Bath
One of the joys of living in Bath is being able to walk from pretty much anywhere in the city and be out in lovely countryside within 10 or 15 minutes at most. A great option for a clear-the-cobwebs wintry hike is the National Trust’s Bath Skyline Walk on the south-eastern side of the city.
The signposted trail delivers panoramic views across Bath, and takes you via open meadows, beech woods and hidden valleys on its varied, six-mile-long circular route. Boots, or at least sturdy footwear you don’t mind getting muddy, essential.
For a less taxing urban/rural option, do the Walk to the View route, a three-mile circuit from the city centre via Great Pulteney Street (Bath’s grandest Georgian street), a scenic tranche of the Kennet and Avon Canal and Bathwick Fields meadows.
10. Hole up in the city's cosiest old inns
In Bath you are spoilt for choice for historic and snug pubs that are just perfect for taking refuge for a couple of hours on a chilly winter’s night. Snuggest of the lot has to be the Star. Licensed in 1760, and with a feel that not much has changed since, it has a set of small, panelled rooms, one with a roaring fire. If you’re planning on settle in for the evening and you’ve got company, the thing to do is order your beer in a sharing jug.
If you want to embark on a pub crawl of cosy old boozers, also stop by The Bell for free live music most nights, then head on to the tiny, ultra-traditional Old Green Tree. End up at The Raven, which has a great selection of local beers and ciders and food-wise specialises in hearty, locally-made meat and vegetarian pies.
*Prices and opening times were checked in Dec 2021 and can change without notice.