Often when people think of England they imagine the hustle-bustle of London, or bucolic villages of thatched roofs, cobbled streets, and rolling hills populated with grazing sheep and ponies. If the latter is the England of your daydreams, then the Cotswolds is where you need to be. There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of villages in this AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and you could easily spend weeks exploring them all. But if you only have a few days, I’ve outlined our favorites along with an easy driving itinerary. Driving in the Cotswolds can be an adventure all on its own with narrow twisting roads and dodging horse riders, cyclists and hikers. If you want to leave the challenge to someone else, there is a wide range of private tour or bus options.
We made Cheltenham our home base, which is just on the western edge of the AONB but has a train station, lots of restaurants and many hotel and vacation rental options. We rented a big comfortable flat that was on a park and quiet. It was perfect for the two of us, but also has a second bedroom for another couple or the kids.
Cheltenham: More of a town than a quaint village, with a good selection of restaurants, pubs and shops. We used this town as our base as the vacation rental options were better than the small villages. In addition to being a good central base for exploring the Cotswolds, Cheltenham has a lot going on including multiple art and music festivals, horse racing, and a football club.
Painswick: Lovely small 11th century village with free parking. Very easy to walk. The main attraction is the St. Mary’s church with its 99 manicured yew trees that invite a leisurely stroll. There are a few small inns here as well as the Falcon Inn, built in the 1500s which also has a friendly pub with a working fireplace for those chilly evenings. From the pub windows you can see the yews of St. Mary’s.
Winchcombe: Larger than Painswick, you will find more food and drink options here. We enjoyed strolling this pretty town and admiring the well cared for homes and gardens. Sudeley Castle is just over a mile from the town of Winchcombe and is an excellent way to spend the afternoon. The gardens are renowned for their roses and Queen Catherine Parr is buried here. Please check the website for openings as the castle is still a private residence and only opened on specific dates. After you’ve finished shopping and sightseeing, stop by The Lion Inn for a great meal; the space is charming and the food upscale, but the service is casual and relaxed.
Broadway: This small village of 2500 residents has been a bustling town since the 11th century. The main attraction in Broadway is its high street which is loaded with antiques and artists shops and a few pubs. There are some narrow lanes behind the main street that offer some nice photo opps, and for furniture enthusiasts, the Gordon Russell museum. We stopped for pints at the Swan, an upscale sort of pub and also at the town’s main hotel, The Broadway Hotel. While strolling along the High Street we witnessed a mother running her errands with her child in tow, on a pony. So very British.
Chipping Camden: A perfect little country village. It wasn’t very crowded and had just enough shops and pubs to keep you busy for an hour or two. The old Market Hall dates back to 1627 and a main street is flush with honey colored limestone buildings. Very picturesque and quiet.
Stow-on-the-Wold: A lively village with a generous main square that provides lots to see and do. Parking in the square is possible although in the high season may be difficult. A must see in Stow is the oldest Inn in Britain called The Porch House. The food here is quite good and there are two dining rooms and a pub. Stow was the site of one of the last battles of the English civil war, and the town hosts numerous festivals throughout the year. We stopped in Stow last year for a quick pint as we were trying to arrive in York before dark, and we were so enchanted we came back for a second, more extended visit.
Bourton-on-the-Water: Another village we visited briefly last year and wanted to see more of. The main street in Bourton has the River Windrush trickling through it, with small bridges crossing at different spots. There are lots of lanes and backstreets to explore here, as well as a couple good pubs. A popular attraction in Bourton is its Model Village (they close early in the winter so check their website for hours!). Bourton is a popular town and can be crowded with tour buses so arrive early to miss the crowds, or perhaps come in the afternoon and stay for dinner at one of the few restaurants in town.
Bibury: This was our favorite stop in all the Cotswold’s. The Swan Hotel has a restaurant and pub with an outdoor terrace if you want some refreshment, but the best part of this town is just wandering the lanes and admiring the precious houses and gardens. Its famous Arlington Row is pictured on the inside of British passports! If you visit Bibury, please take care to respect the privacy of the homeowners. As beautiful as their homes and gardens are, you should not breach their gates for pictures.
One of the more famous towns near the Cotswold’s is Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We did not have time to explore this town, but did have dinner here at a wonderful place called The Old Thatch Tavern and we walked around for a few pictures. We will definitely return for a proper visit another time!
If the crowds and traffic of London aren’t your cup of tea, then the England of your dreams is waiting for you in the Cotswolds!