The quintessential Victorian spa town, prim and pretty Harrogate has long been associated with a certain kind of old-fashioned Englishness – the kind that seems the preserve of retired army majors and formidable dowagers who take the Daily Telegraph and vote Tory. They come to Harrogate to enjoy the flower shows and gardens that fill the town with magnificent displays of colour, especially in spring and autumn. It is fitting that the town’s most famous visitor was Agatha Christie, who fled here incognito in 1926 to escape her broken marriage.
And yet, this picture of Victoriana redux is not quite complete. While it’s undoubtedly true that Harrogate remains a firm favourite of visitors in their golden years, the town has plenty of smart hotels and trendy eateries catering to the boom in Harrogate’s newest trade – conferences. All those dynamic young sales-and-marketing guns have to eat and sleep somewhere.
Top Things to See in Harrogate
Royal Pump Room Museum
You can learn all about Harrogate’s history as a spa town in the ornate Royal Pump Room, built in 1842 over the most famous of the town’s sulphurous springs. It gives an insight into how the phenomenon of visiting spas to ‘take the waters’ shaped the town and records the illustrious visitors it attracted. At the end, you get the chance to sample the spa water, if you dare.
The ritual of visiting spa towns as a health cure became fashionable in the 19th century and peaked during the Edwardian era in the years before WWI. Charles Dickens visited Harrogate in 1858 and described it as ‘the queerest place, with the strangest people in it, leading the oddest lives of dancing, newspaper-reading and dining’ – sounds quite pleasant, really.
The most attractive part of town is the Montpellier Quarter, overlooking Prospect Gardens between Crescent Rd and Montpellier Hill. It’s an area of pedestrianised streets lined with restored 19th-century buildings that are now home to art galleries, antique shops, fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants − an upmarket annexe to the main shopping area around Oxford and Cambridge Sts.
Plunge into Harrogate’s past at the town’s fabulously tiled Turkish Baths. This mock-Moorish facility is gloriously Victorian and offers a range of watery delights – hot rooms, steam rooms, plunge pools and so on. A visit is likely to last about 1½ hours. There’s a complicated schedule of opening hours that are by turns ladies-only and mixed, so call or check online for details. If you prefer to stay dry, there are also guided tours of the building.
Hotels near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England