Gracefully spread out across six counties, the Cotswolds are the epitome of charm. If you’re looking for the perfect day trip from London, look no further than the tangle of golden villages, thatched-roof cottages, quaint little town churches, ancient mansions as well as a plethora of cream teas and organic local produce. The Cotswolds are the epitome of stupid pretty towns in Europe and it doesn’t get more picturesque than this!
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About the Cotswolds
You might ask, “Where are the Cotswolds?” or “What is the Cotswolds?” The Cotswolds has been an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) since 1966 which runs through 5 counties (Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Wiltshire). The area was developed during the medieval wool trade and is the second largest protected area after the Lake District in England. An intertwined networks of picturesque villages over rolling hills, most of which is farmland with little sheepies extending from north of Chipping Campden to the south of Bath, most of which is located in Gloucestershire. The name ‘Cotswolds’ means “sheep enclosure in rolling hills” which explains the amount of sheep which can be found in the region. The sheep are also often referred to as “The Cotswolds Lion”. The area is also defined by the unique color of stone which many of the villages have been built with. A soft yellow Jurassic limestone rich in fossils and when weathered is often described as a honey or golden tone.
Each town in the Cotswolds is like its very own little fairy tale village, yet each one is slightly more charming than the last, as if such a thing was even possible, creating the ultimate picture perfect storybook kingdom! And if ever there were a place that would be practically impossible to set down your camera, then it would be the Cotswolds.
Which towns should you visit in the Cotswolds?
Entirely up to you, honestly! We divided our two and a half day weekend in the Cotswolds between the North and South Cotswolds. If it’s your first time to the area, you can do the classic Cotswolds driving tour like we did and visit the most popular, most picturesque villages in the Cotswolds: Bibury, Burford, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold, Broadway and more. If you’re short on time and are looking to do a tour of the Cotswolds, then consider joining The Secret Cottage Tours who pick you up from a set location and drive you around to secret villages you may not have heard of or have access to, or consider their Mystery Cottage Tour. But there is absolutely no need to stick to the most popular villages when there are many, many more pretty villages in the Cotswolds!
I personally spent hours combing through Pinterest, Instagram and my travel guides to decide which towns I wanted to see. I had at least 10 towns on my list I wanted to see, 5 in the north, 5 in the south but once we were there, we cut several out (Insert cringe here) and slowed down a bit. I felt that this really wasn’t the area to cram in as much as possible. Instead we cruised between towns listening to some classics like Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and some not so classics like Norah Jones. It just seemed wrong to listen to anything else and I had a “Two for the Road” kind of feeling. We strolled hand in hand through the towns, not rushing through them and even found the time for a cream tea – scones with strawberry marmalade or lemon curd, with a tea.
When is the best time to visit the Cotswolds?
Without a doubt, Spring! If you prefer mild weather and villages decorated in Wisteria flowers, snowdrops, and tree blossoms, then Spring is the right time for you! But, I can personally only imagine the road traffic on the back roads getting from town to town and how busy these charming villages are. By summer in July and August, this is peak season and schools are still out for the summer. Autumn is also a particularly nice time to visit (according to photos I’ve seen of the vegetation).
We, however, despite wanting to visit in April/May, had a change of plans and we found ourselves visiting the Cotswolds in March. While this is considered early spring, and some flowers like daffodils were in bloom, much of the vegetation was still quiet dead as England was enduring it’s second round of “The Beast from the East” (cold weather from Russia). However, visiting at this time meant in many of the villages, we practically had them to ourselves, give or take a few locals and the oddball tourist. I was personally afraid that the villages wouldn’t be pretty without the flowers and blue skies, but I have to say, the Cotswolds definitely didn’t disappoint! After all, I think it’s impossible for the Cotswolds to even remotely be “ugly” let alone be used in the same sentence!
How to get around the Cotswolds?
Considering that you’ll be out in the English countryside, for obvious reasons, driving a car will be the easiest and most convenient for town hopping. With a car, it gives you the freedom to come and go as you please at each town. However, some towns are very limited on parking but not impossible especially during off-season in the Cotswolds. During peak months, this could be much more difficult.
However, if you’re visiting for a day trip, you can also chose to to enjoy unlimited travel by bus and train in the Cotswolds from just £10 and tickets can be purchased at any UK mainline station and participating bus stations.
Where to Stay in the Cotswolds?
Prices vary greatly depending on what type of accommodation you’re looking for in the Cotswolds. If you’re wanting to stay directly in any of the villages, you risk paying higher prices than somewhere out in the countryside. However, the Cotswolds is a great place to think outside the box! You also have the option of staying in a B&B, a farm stay, manor houses, guesthouses, vacation homes or even a cottage!
The Crown Inn ⭐⭐⭐⭐ – We opted to stay in a lovely 17th-century ‘cider house’ with log fires and traditional home cooked meals and locally brewed ales in the small Cotswold village of Frampton Mansell. The pub had an authentic, rustic feel about it with log fires and the staff were incredibly friendly and accommodating! The hotel room itself looked like a recent add on with simple but cozy decor!
Main Sights to See in the Cotswolds
(Which we made it to) I’ll begin with the northern Cotswolds towns we visited which were of utmost importance to see first and foremost! Day 1 hit all the major towns we were suggested to visit while Day 2… I’m not sure what happened there and why we only managed to see 2 towns, despite the fact that Cirencester and Castle Combe are a 45 minute drive apart, one way.
Day 1 Cotswold Northern Itinerary: Bibury, Burford, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold
Day 2 Cotswold Southern Itinerary: Cirencester, Castle Combe
Often described by the likes of Huffington Post as “the quaintest village in England“, the small picturesque town of Bibury is a cluster of stone cottages along a tiny riverside that belong on a postcard!
Arlington Row is the epitome of rustic charm for which Bibury is most famous for. These houses were converted from a 14th century wool store to weavers’ cottages in the 17th century. The row of stone houses with shingled roof tops overlooks Rack Isle, a riverside wild refuse with the occasional swan resident. Although they are owned by the National Trust, they are still private homes so walking through here requires respecting the privacy of the residents.
It is thought that Arlington Row is one of the most photographed streets in Britain, and for good reason: It’s so bloody perfect! I know I say this too often, but it was really like something out of a fairy tale! Though there isn’t much to do in Bibury, the journey alone to see this one street is absolutely worth it!
There are many quick facts about the Cotswolds I stumbled upon, but the funniest I found was that Henry Ford is said to have loved Bibury soooo much that he wanted to buy Arlington Row, dismantle it stone by stone and rebuild it in the US, but luckily for everyone, the National Trust bought it and it stayed right where it belongs!
With more time, take a stroll through Bibury’s Trout Farm and catch your own dinner or visit the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. We also strolled around a further portion of Bibury until we came upon a classic English red telephone booth just hanging out in the middle of the town. Be sure to enjoy a home cooked meal at the Swan Inn, a beautiful 17th century inn!
Of interest to movie lovers who may want to park their bags now, a few films have even been filmed here, most notably Stardust and Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Just a 15 minute drive away from Bibury is the next charming town of Burford often nicknamed “the Gateway to the Cotswolds“ nestled in the hills along the River Windrush. Slithering down a steep hill, the bustling town of Burford has changed very little since its glory days at the peak of the wool trade, minus the unfortunate traffic of cars flowing through the town.
The town is a remarkable mix of stone cottages and Elizabethean or Georgian houses, lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. Jut off from the High Street in Burford into a small archway and you’ll find more antique shops, chitzy tearooms and boutiques selling nostalgia and quintessential English shabby chic knickknacks. Much to my husband’s dismay I found myself shopping for little silver tea spoons, bunting and you’re typical house quote.
We opted to enjoy a cream tea at Huffkins, a historic tea room and bakery in the Cotswolds that has been around since 1890! With scones fresh out of the oven and a loose girlie grey tea infused with vanilla, I instantly felt refreshed and toasty warm before heading back out into the blustery cold weather we were enduring! Needless to say, I came home with a pack!
Luckily, Burford’s charm isn’t just limited to its high street. Just off a side street, near the parking lot of Bibury, you can also visit the St. John the Baptist’s Church which has managed to survive the Reformation. Inside, you’ll enjoy a fan-vaulted ceiling as well as its 15th century spire and grand tombs.
Though it isn’t exactly a “canal city” it is still often nicknamed the “Little Venice” of the Cotswolds, the main attraction here really is the lovely little River Windrush which causally flows through the town for which sits along its banks with a few low, arched stone bridges. Ducks paddle hither and tither and an elderly couple sits on the bench together watching the show. The local ice cream parlor the busiest place in town on a semi-nice Spring afternoon. An interesting fact about Bourton-on-the-Water is that sometimes there are more visitors than residents, especially if there is an event taking place and is the most visited village in the Cotswolds!
Possibly one of the largest villages in the Cotswolds, the High Street is flanked with tea rooms, antique stores, bakeries and restaurants bring a slight hustle and bustle here. We meandered through the town, down winding alleys and back up enjoying what looks like a chalk painting Burt draws in Mary Poppins capturing the simplicity of good ol’ British charm.
If you’re looking for some kid-friendly activities to do in Bourton-on-the-Water, for both children and adults who have yet to loose their child-like innocence, then a visit to the The Model Village is a definite must. The Model Village is one of the main attractions in Bourton-on-the-Water and is a 1:9 miniature replica of Bourton-on-the-Water with all the major sights and buildings. You can stroll through the village museum and have a bird’s eye view over the most charming village in the Cotswolds! The funniest thing is that within the model village of the village is yet another model village of the model village! (There is also a paid parking lot here – cash only!)
Other things to do in Bourton-on-the-Water also include the Dragonfly Maze, Cotswold Motoring Museum & Toy Museum, The Cotswold Farm Park, The Cotswold Brewing Company and the Birdland Park & Gardens.
Before we moved on, we stumbled upon The Cornish Bakery which serves award-winning, hand-made proper Cornish pasties. We opted to try a Traditional, the Beef & Stilton as well as a sausage roll. Each was unique in their own way, but needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of Stilton (a type of cheese). An interesting fact about Cornish pasties: while they are from Cornwall, to be considered authentic, they only need to be made in Cornwall, not baked!
Just a 12 minute drive away from Bourton-on-the-Water is the highest of all the Cotswolds towns with the unfortunate nickname “where the cold winds blows”. Stow-on-the-Wold is situated around a large market square encircled by handsome buildings and walled archways once used to shuffle sheep into the fair. Fun fact about the Cotswolds: Stow-on-the-Wald is home to The Porch House – England’s oldest inn which dates back to 947 AD!
Normally, I am drawn to towns because they are picturesque, have a cute cafe or something local to the area I want to try, but for Stow-on-the-Wold, I was drawn here by a very mystical-like door. Yes, a door. At the rear of St. Edward’s Church in the heart of the town, is a door that looks like something you’d find more in a fairy tale book than at the back of church. Flanked on both sides of the door, are two 275 year old yew trees which have grown to frame the door. You might think this so-called “doorway to the elf world“ would lead you down some dark passageway into another realm, but instead, the inside of St. Edward’s Church is just your average town church. Sorry to disappoint!
Having grabbed a tea to go to break some change for parking, we chose not to have a cream tea at Lucy’s Tea Room as I had wanted to do as I had heard many wonderful things. The traditional English tea room serves home baked cream teas, soups and light packed lunches which would have actually been perfect for our day of sightseeing in Stow-on-the-Wold. And for future reference, Lucy’s Tea Room is also a Bed & Breakfast!
Whether or not you’re interested in visiting Stow-on-the-Wold because of an old mystical door, the town is still worthy of a visit. The stone cottages are as picturesque as anywhere else, screaming to having their picture taken. however, the only thing that kills the town’s charm is the endless stream of cars flowing through it. But if you can look beyond that, you’ll find simply yet another charming town in the Cotswolds!
(Pronounced Siren-sester for my fellow Americans) An affluent and most significant market town in the Cotswolds, Cirencester is elegent yet still refreshingly down to earth. Often referred to as “the capital of the Cotswolds”, it was at one time second in terms of size after London under the Romans. Though is it larger in size and feels more like a small city, it still retains much of its picturesque charm. Beautiful Victorian and Tudor buildings beautifully blend in with the honey-colored stone which show the harmonious evolution of the buildings over the eras.
Dominating the town center is the superb church, St. John the Baptist’s Church, built with the funds of the success of the wool industry. Besides the church, its easy to get lost exploring the town’s maze of tiny picture perfect streets. We jut down every little street to find more of the town’s charm, though we didn’t actually find many things to do in Cirencester that didn’t require a ton of walking. (Was trying not to over due it with my heel spur).
Not far away is one of few timbered-framed Tudor style restaurants in Cirencester, The Fleece, which we stepped into to enjoy a bite of traditional English cuisine before discovering that it is also a hotel and much larger than it appears. The Fleece is full of history and charm that goes way back to 1651 when King Charles II hid from Cromwell’s troops in the building.
Hopping back in the car, we cruised the 45 minutes south to Castle Combe. Upon first arrival to Castle Combe, I thought this is NOT right, and looks nothing like the pictures I had seen. Well, turns out that Castle Combe has two parts: the upper village called Upper Castle Combe while once down the hill, the second part is in the narrow valley of the By Brook.
Of all the honey-colored cottages and towns that are spread over the awe inspiring rolling hills and sheep fields, this is one town you do NOT want to miss! You will kick yourself stupid if you do! I’d seen the photos and simply thought, “There’s no way this can be real”. Boy how I was wrong…
While the town might look straight out of a movie set (and has been used in Stardust, The Wolf Man and The War Horse by Stephen Spielberg as well as a few scenes from Downton Abbey), it is a quintessentially English village often named “the prettiest village in England“ probably giving Bibury some stiff competition.
There aren’t many things to do in Castle Combe other than drool at its ridiculous beauty. You will, however, find the Market Cross and St. Andrew’s Church which dates back to the 13th century near the town’s water pumps and an old mounting stone – you know, just in case you came by horse!
After strolling around, we stumbled upon a 14th century country manor house, The Manor House, an exclusive hotel and golf club. For those who can afford to pay a pretty penny, they can enjoy “authentic England”.
After admiring its magnificent glory, we walked though its gardens where I found the perfect place to build my own charming Cotswolds village! I could honestly live here and be happy for the rest of my days! As long as there’s wifi!
Parking is very very limited in Castle Combe, so you may need to park up at Upper Castle Combe and walk down.
Overall Experience of the Cotswolds
I’m not sure much more could top that, honestly. I just wish we had had better weather and the flowers were in bloom. If only we could have visited 1-2 weeks later. Coulda, woulda, shoulda I guess. Two days was definitely not enough as I could have visited each and every village without getting bored. However, for just the basic Cotswold experience to hit up the most popular towns was enough for a first time visit. But I do know, we willlllll return over and over and over again until I’ve seen each and every village.
If you’re interested in visiting London and are looking for more information, I highly recommend using the Lonely Planet England Travel Guide! I’ve recently converted to LP’s more thoroughly detailed travel guides which I find way more useful, but I am still a big fan of DK Travel Guides!