West of London, the numerous honey-colored stone buildings attract travelers to the picturesque villages in the Cotswolds. While you can visit on a day trip from London, it’s best to stay overnight to explore more than one town.
The Cotswolds is an area with roaming hills, and serene landscapes often painted by Turner and Constable. In 1966, the region was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and you can understand why, since it has the prettiest villages.
These villages operate at a different pace from the metropolitan cities. The majority of buildings are made from stone from nearby Cotswolds quarries. Some homes have thatched roofs, giving the villages a charming persona.
The best Cotswold villages attract the crowds in the summer months, who come to browse their antique shops, dine in quaint tea shops, and enjoy the history of the wool trade. If you prefer to avoid the bustle, plan to visit in the shoulder season.
The market town of Cirencester offers a great jumping point to see smaller villages nearby. Often called the “Capital of the Cotswolds,” I have visited this great place often since my father lives there.
The Parish Church of St. John Baptist dominates the Market Place, and the town’s market square, with its medieval layout and architecture, still stands today.
Further down the street, The Fleece at Cirencester offers bed and breakfast lodgings in a 17th-century Tudor structure, within walking distance of everything.
Cirencester showcases diverse historic architecture from medieval to Victorian periods, with notable buildings like St. John the Baptist Church, Market Hall, and Old Grammar School.
The beautiful village has a rich history, as displayed in the Corinium Museum. On the outskirts of town, ancient Roman walls grace the countryside.
The Cirencester Obelisk and the remains of an amphitheater demonstrate the Romans’ dominance centuries ago.
Its Roman amphitheater, one of Britain’s best-preserved, hosted gladiatorial contests, animal fights, and spectacles, symbolizing the city’s Roman importance and grandeur.
Located west of town, Cirencester Park becomes a haven for sunseekers on a warm day. It’s also one of the best villages to walk dogs. The park encompasses 3,000 acres, owned by Lord Bathurst. Within the park, you’ll find the UK’s oldest polo field.
Polo is still played today, and it’s not unusual to see riders exercising their horses in the park. Sometimes the polo matches attract royal players, such as King Charles III and Prince William.
Of all the villages in the Cotswolds, Bourton-on-the-Water might be considered the most touristy and the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon. Located in north Cotswold, travelers arrive by bus in the summer, and the tiny village can become saturated with people.
However, its charm comes from the River Windrush, which flows through the high street. Moving slowly under small bridges, the river attracts children and dogs who play in its shallow waters, gaining the nickname “Venice of the Cotswolds.”
Its clear waters were harnessed to power several watermills in the past. These mills played a vital role in the village’s economy, particularly in grain processing and the production of various goods.
Its biggest attractions are The Model Village, the Cotswold Motoring Museum, and Birdland Park and Gardens. The Model Village, has a one-ninth scale replica of the village itself.
Constructed in the 1930s, it provides visitors with a glimpse into the architectural heritage and layout of Bourton-on-the-Water throughout different historical periods.
Throughout the village, honey-colored houses invite visitors to explore niche shops for British souvenirs. One has a perfumery, another a model railroad, and each one is more unique than the last.
On a warm day, there’s nothing better than enjoying lunch or traditional afternoon tea at one of the many patio restaurants, under the shade of a willow tree.
The “Queen of the Cotswolds” is a fitting name for Painswick. The quintessential village oozes romance with its narrow streets, historic buildings, and charming church.
There is much to love; the quaint shops that invite you to wander, the old buildings with donkey doors, and the views that go on forever. Back in the 1250s, the small market town prospered from the surrounding woolen mills.
Painswick played a notable role in the English Civil War, with skirmishes occurring in its vicinity. Its enduring legacy lies in its ability to transport visitors back in time, showcasing the beauty and heritage of rural England.
Today, informational plaques show the previous use of the buildings. Some collected wool from the mills, one was a slaughterhouse, and another a hospital. On St. Mary’s Street, I found some spectacle stocks, which date from the 1840s.
But, the most notable structure in Painswick is its Parish Church and grounds. Its churchyard features the village’s main attraction, an impressive collection of yew trees, manicured to perfection. After seeing them, you’ll agree it’s a horticultural masterpiece.
Expect to spend half a day in Painswick, and consider combining your day with a visit to Gloucester Cathedral. Just 8 miles north of Painswick, the cathedral is best known for its cloisters, which were featured in Harry Potter movies.
4. Castle Combe
Located in Wiltshire in south Cotswold, Castle Combe has commonly been called the “prettiest Cotswold village.” With old weaver cottages and a babbling stream, it attracts photographers and artists who aim to capture its romantic façade.
Like Painswick, Castle Combe became a thriving market town during the Middle Ages, attracting traders and merchants from the surrounding areas. The village’s market cross served as a central point for commercial activities, and remnants of it can still be seen today.
But what makes this village unusual is that the village has preserved all its ancient structures. With no new construction, not much has changed in centuries.
The village was named after its castle, which was constructed shortly after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Castle Combe Manor was owned by various lords, including the Earls of Lancaster and the Hungerford family.
The village’s timeless beauty have made it a popular filming location. You can see its historic charmed captured in movies and television series, such as the original Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011).
If you’re looking for things to do in Castle Combe, visitation is more about absorbing yourself in the environment. Consider a stroll in the surrounding countryside, or enjoying a brew at a local pub.
The Market Cross and St. Andrew’s Church are great places to take photos and delve into the village’s history. Nearby, the Castle Combe Circuit appeals to car enthusiasts.
5. Chipping Campden
Like many other villages in the Cotswold, the buildings in Chipping Campden are constructed with beautiful Cotswold stone. G.M. Trevelyan, a historian described Chipping Campden as “the most beautiful village street now left in the island.”
Parts of the village date back to the 7th century, and it was one of the largest wool trading towns in Europe. As money flowed from wealthy merchants, the village expanded with construction.
Travelers can still view iconic buildings such as St. James Church, the Market Hall, Woolstaplers Hall, and Greville House.
In the 1620s, the 1st Lord of Campden, Sir Baptist Hicks built an impressive market hall. The open-sided structure allowed light to flood the structure when it was in use as a market stall.
The rectangular building features arched openings and a gabled roof. Today, the historic building is still used by vendors peddling their wares.
If you walk further from the high street, Chipping Campden features some beautiful thatched cottages. Quintessentially English, there’s something fascinating about thatched roofs, and the way they’re constructed.
Beyond the developed area, rolling hills and meadows encompass the village, providing potential habitats for various wildlife.
Located near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, the buildings in Winchcombe differ slightly from the surrounding villages.
Dotted between the Cotswolds stone structures, black and white Tudor properties add character to the usual monotone streets.
Winchcombe is in the center of several popular walking trails. These include the Gloucestershire Way, Winchcombe Way, and Cotswold Way.
When visiting Winchcombe, consider visiting Sudeley Castle too. Located just outside town, the private residence is the peaceful resting place for Katherine Parr, one of King Henry VIII’s wives.
If you want to extend your stay, consider lodging in one of the Sudeley Castle’s cottages. With names like Anne Boleyn, Queen Mary, Princess Elizabeth, and Prince Rupert, you’ll feel like royalty during your stay.
Another popular attraction is the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway. It allows riders to travel to Broadway or Cheltenham Racecourse.
Stow-on the-Wold is a small town with a population of just under 2,000 people. It’s located in the north west of the county of Gloucestershire. There are lots of things to do here, such as walking, cycling, fishing, golfing, horse riding, and much more.
Stow-on-the-Wold has a higher elevation and played a large role in the English Civil War. During the Stow-on-the-Wold Battle, survivors were imprisoned in St. Edward’s Church.
While the church has undergone some restorations, its north doorway attracts visitors to see its unusual entrance. On either side, two oak trees have grown around the door, giving it a gnarly look, reminiscent of a fairytale.
Throughout the Cotswold village, there are many examples of Stow’s history. The market cross, wooden stocks, and market square allow you to soak up the area’s ambiance.
While the sheep markets and traders are gone, the character of its humble beginnings still remains.
With a population of under 6,000, Tetbury still retains its small-town charm, and can be reach on a short drive from Cirencester. To relive its history, Tetbury hosts Wool Sack Day and has wool sack races.
Held in May, the function attracts almost as many people as live in the village. The family fun event invites individuals to carry a 60 lb wool sack up Gumstool Hill.
It’s quite a task seeing as the hill has a 1 in 4 gradient. The wool sack race has no shortage of participants, who help to raise money for charities.
But, the small village of Tetbury might best be known for its royal resident who owns a home nearby. Highgrove, found on the outskirts of Tetbury, was once owned by King Charles III has now been passed to Prince William, the new Prince of Wales.
The Chipping Steps are one of the most photogenic spots in this picturesque Cotswold village. The stairs run between The Chipping and Cirencester Road.
On either side, the Cotswold stone homes were once housed carpenters, weavers, and masons. If you visit in spring and summer, the steps may be adorned with colorful blooms.
On the outskirts of town, St. Mary’s Church features England’s fourth highest spire. The 18th-century structure welcomes visitors daily.
9. The Slaughters
Lower and Upper Slaughter might be strange names for villages. However, the name dates back to the 7th century and comes from the word “sloghtre” or slough.
It was given to areas where people lived by a muddy spot. The River Eye connects both villages and today, there are no signs of mud.
Since they are located one mile from Bourton-on-the-Water, these Gloucestershire villages are often passed up in favor of the more touristy cousin. Of the two, Lower Slaughter is more commonly visited than its neighbor upstream.
With only one mile between the villages, consider a leisurely walk instead of taking the car. Lower Slaughter has a lovely 12th-century St. Mary’s Church and an Old Mill Museum, which dates back to 1086.
Until 1958, the building milled flour. Since 1995, the mill has opened as a museum and also has a lovely tea room. While the mill no long grinds flour, you can admire the old machinery that performed the job.
Locals know the Old Mill for its organic ice cream. They serve flavors such as lemon meringue, brown bread, and ground coffee, to name a few. While I can’t eat ice cream because I’m lactose-intolerant, it’s rated s one of the best around.
The village of Lechlade or Lechlade-on-Thames lies next to the headwaters of the River Thames. A Roman-era crossing point on the Thames, it became a vital trade hub, connecting the Cotswolds to London.
It played a key role in developing the Thames as a transportation route. The construction of the Thames and Severn Canal in the 18th century expanded its significance, linking it to the wider canal network.
Lechlade is the highest town on the river where you can navigate watercraft. The Bell Inn provides lovely rooms with a complimentary English breakfast.
The village gets its name from the River Leach, which joins the Thames at the Trout Inn. Here, you can enjoy traditional pub food with a draft beer.
If you stroll along the river eastwards from the Riverside Pub, you’ll see St. John’s Lock and some narrowboats. Here, a cement statue of Father Thames overlooks the locks. Then, cross the river via the bridge and head back on a wooded trail.
From the Riverside Pub, smaller boats can navigate the narrow river up to The Round House Lechlade. Here, the River Coln joins the River Thames.
In the warmer months, consider a boat trip on the River Thames. Alternatively, hire some fishing gear and try your luck catching the big one in the local rivers.
Along the main road, the stone buildings house antique dealers and modern-day shops. Dominating the skyline, St. Lawrence Church of England dates back to 1476.
Broadway is larger than the surrounding villages. Like Cirencester, it’s an ideal place to stay, to explore other areas. The Lygon Arms offers a comfy stay in a centuries-old building. Alternatively, The Dormy House focuses on wellness and has a magnificent spa.
Unlike most villages with narrow streets, Broadway’s high street boasts a widened carriageway. However, the grand aspect doesn’t detract from its appearance as a charming Cotswold village.
Initially a staging post on the medieval route known as the Worcester-Bath road, Broadway flourished as a bustling market town during the Middle Ages, thanks to its strategic location.
No visit to Broadway is complete without seeing the Broadway Tower. The three-story Broadway Tower stands as a beacon in the Cotswolds countryside.
If you climb the stairs to the top, you can see the resident red deer, which were established in the area, in the 1980s. At 312 meters high, you’ll also enjoy panoramic views of the Cotswold hills.
When traveling from London, Burford will welcome you as the first Cotswolds village. Located in Oxfordshire, a few miles east of Gloucestershire, the town was built on the River Windrush. During its prime, it was one of the wealthiest towns in medieval England.
The area around Burford is rich with Jurassic limestone, creating lush pastures. Cotswolds villages use this buttered-colored rock on buildings, adding to the area’s charm.
The sloping high street offers picturesque views, and the village meticulously maintains its historic buildings. Burford has a few stand-out buildings worth visiting.
The Church of St. John The Baptist dates back to the 15th century. While the initial structure dates from the 12th century, wealthy wool merchants reconfigured the design.
When in Burford, consider a 6-mile drive east, to the tiny village of Minster Lovell. Here, you can explore a lovely ruin, next to the River Windrush.
While not as grand as some of the crumbling castles in England, the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall are quite imposing. Where there once stood a magnificent manor house surrounding a courtyard, today, only ruins remain.
You’ll find one of the most photographed Cotswold places in Bibury. Arlington Row features a picturesque row of limestone weavers’ cottages, once featured in British passports.
One visit, and you’ll agree, that it’s a vision from a fairytale storybook. The village is surrounded by beautiful countryside where you might find wild rabbits and deer.
Unlike most Cotswolds homes which are privately owned, the National Trust owns the houses on Arlington Row. Most are rented to private tenants, and tourists can stay in one as a vacation rental.
If you can’t book Arlington Row, the Swan Hotel offers a picturesque stay by the babbling River Coln. Guests can choose between staying in the ivy-covered hotel, or one of their suite cottages.
Nearby, you can spend an afternoon fishing at the Bibury Trout Farm. Established in the early 1900s, it’s one of Britain’s oldest operational trout farms. If you’re unsuccessful at catching any fish, their café has several trout dishes on the menu.
Visitors to the Cotswolds tend to congregate towards popular choices like Bourton-on-the-Water, Cirencester, and Castle Combe. However, by visiting an underrated gem, you’ll avoid the crowds, and might discover something new.
Stanton is one of those rarely visited villages. While it’s tiny, it doesn’t lack the charm you come to expect from a Cotswold village. Stanton doesn’t have major tourist attractions.
Stanton’s historic significance lies in its well-preserved Cotswold stone architecture. The village boasts a collection of stunning medieval and Tudor buildings, including the Church of St. Michael, which dates back to the 12th century.
Staying in Stanton allows you to enjoy its one quaint pub, Jurassic limestone buildings, and gorgeous countryside. With train accessibility from London’s Paddington Station, Stanton makes the ideal weekend destination.
Located in Gloucestershire, the area of Swell may not be widely known but carries its own historic significance. Swell was an agricultural community, relying primarily on sheep rearing and farming, due to fertile lands.
Swell is made up of two tiny villages called Upper and Lower Swell. Both Cotswolds villages are built on the River Dikler.
Upper Swell is the more predominating village, which centers around a church and manor house. The Anglican church of St. Mary’s dates back to the 12th century. The listed grade I building features intricate stonework and stained glass windows, reflecting the era’s craftsmanship.
A much newer building, the Cotswold stone manor house was built in the 16th century for the purpose of entertaining.
As tiny villages, there are no real tourist attractions. Most who visit, go to enjoy the outdoors. There is no shortage of walking trails or places to ride a bike. It’s simplicity and tranquility at its best.
While Swell may not have the same level of recognition as some of its neighboring villages, its historic significance lies in its ability to preserve the authentic Cotswolds’ spirit and provide a glimpse into the region’s agrarian past.
Are These The Prettiest Cotswold Villages?
The Cotswolds offer a myriad of charming villages. Some are so small that if you blink, you might miss them. No matter the size, they all provide a sense of peacefulness, lacking in large metropolitan cities.
With many villages being in close proximity to others, you can explore the Cotswolds on day trips and see more than one place.
Are these the most beautiful villages in the Cotswolds? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder. You may prefer an off-the-beaten path destination with rolling hills. Others, may steer to larger towns with more amenities. For me, it’s the buttered-colored buildings that cradle ancient history.
But no matter where you explore you’ll have plenty of choices of quaint tea houses, English pubs, and cafes, to enjoy some authentic British food.
Happy travels ~ Karen