If asked to picture quintessential rural England, chances are your mind’s eye will conjure a Cotswolds landscape. Covering a stretch of south-central and southwest England and the West Midlands, the region is strewn with handsome hamlets nestled in river valleys, and elegant history-rich towns that radiate English country charm. Read on to discover the 10 prettiest Cotswolds villages to visit. For further inspiration for things to do in this picturesque pocket of England, take a look at our Rough Guide Staycations Cotswolds guidebook.
Built on a series of terraces above the valley of the Knee Brook, beautiful Blockley offers a window into England’s medieval landscape. Speckled with grazing sheep, the open pastures on the hill opposite the village look pretty much as they did back then, when sheep were brought to Blockley to be sheared before their wool was woven in mills at the bottom of the valley. In time, the woollen mills were converted to process silk, a legacy you’ll see today during a scenic stroll around the village’s maze of paths - look out for the Old Silk Mill and the Ribbon Mill buildings.
Testifying its idyllic English charm, Blockley’s vicarage and St Peter and St Paul's church were used as locations in the Father Brown TV series. As for other sights, Blockley is known for its elegant English country gardens, with Mill Dene Garden a must-visit for romantics and horticulturists. With a beautiful stream, and a garden terraced into the steep valley, the panoramas offer awe-inspiring views across the rolling Cotswold landscape. There’s also a Fruit Garden and herb potager, plus an enchanting grotto to relax in.
Thanks to the elegant 18th-century bridges that cross the River Windrush that flows through its heart, Bourton-on-the-Water is known as the Venice of the Cotswolds. While it’s definitely one of the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds to visit (and England as a whole, for that matter), it’s also home to attractions that will keep the whole family happy, among them the Old New Inn's fun Model Village that depicts Bourton as it was in 1937. You can also book a stay at the inn - the rooms ooze warm and welcoming country elegance.
Set in nine acres of woodland, Birdland is another child-pleasing Bourton highlight. Home to over 500 birds - from owls and pelicans, to flamingos and ibis - it also boasts England’s only King Penguin breeding group. With an area devoted to parrots (the Pandemonium of Parrots), a Jurassic Journey woodland experience replete with life-sized dinosaur models, plus the indoor Discovery Zone (perfect for rainy afternoons), it’s easy to spend an entire day here without hearing a single “I’m bored!” complaint.
Check out the maps listed below to discover the highlights and best places to visit while walking and driving in picturesque Cotswolds locations. You'll find full descriptions of the routes, plus much more, in the Rough Guide Staycations Cotswolds guidebook.
Often referred to as the “Gateway to the Cotswolds (it’s part of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds region), Burford boasts an outstandingly beautiful high street, with attractive 17th- and 18th-century houses descending to a packhorse bridge over the River Windrush. Half-way down the hill, the 16th-centutry Tolsey building houses the Tolsey Museum. As you descend, look out for the oldest pharmacy in England - Reavley's which has operated as a chemist since 1734 and dispenses tried-and-tested traditional remedies to this day.
The vista around the river is dominated by a huge cathedral-like church, considered so important that its substandard 19th-century restoration prompted William Morris to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. If you fancy basing yourself in Burford (and why on earth wouldn’t you?), Burford House comes highly recommended - a 17th-century Cotswold stone inn with exposed beams, leaded windows, cosy log fires and four-poster beds. The hotel’s cream teas aren’t bad either. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to sample local teatime treats during a day trip, consider booking a guided full-day tour of the area that ends with enjoying exactly that in enchanting Burford.
Tucked in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in north west Wiltshire, Castle Combe is often called “the prettiest village in England." It's certainly one of the prettiest Cotswolds villages to visit. With no new houses built here since the 1600s, Castle Combe has a decidedly fairy-tale feel - honey-hued houses, a faceless 13th-century clock, a picture-perfect bridge over a babbling river. Little wonder, then, that it's long been used as a location for all manner of movies and TV shows, from Bridgerton and The Wolf Man, to Stardust and War Horse. It also featured in the original Dr Doolittle film.
As for what to do in crazily quaint Castle Combe, after snapping an obligatory shot of the bridge, head up The Street from Market Place and follow the footpath onto the woodland trail - a lovely 5.5-mile loop along which you might spy woodpeckers, owls and buzzards. Then head back to Market Place to enjoy a well-earned pint in the most picturesque of surroundings. Take your pick from The White Hart or The Castle Inn, both of which also serve great grub, and have stylish rooms to overnight in.
Situated at the start of the national Cotswold Way Trail, Chipping Campden is the quintessential Cotswold town, with its buildings and old-time ambience having been preserved by the fastidious Campden Trust since 1929. No messy telegraph and power cables sully the attractiveness of the high street here - all wires are buried underground or else brought into the backs of houses. Intrusive shop fronts are banned too.
Another of Chipping Campden’s quirks (and attractions) is the huge variety of architectural styles that have endured through the centuries - from the 1627 National Trust Market Hall that looks like an Italian Renaissance loggia (but with Cotswold-style gables), to the dramatic Jacobean gatehouse to Campden Manor, also known as Old Campden House.
The town is also dappled with boutiques devoted to exquisitely-made crafts, in part a legacy of the Guild and School of Handicrafts, which was established in East London in 1888 before moving here in 1902. Head to Robert Welch’s on the Lower High Street to see contemporary incarnations of the Guild’s design excellence ethos. Otherwise, visit the Court Barn Museum of Craft and Design to learn about the Guild and buy beautifully-made pottery, textiles and jewellery. As might be expected of Chipping Campden, this makes for an exceptionally scenic shopping experience.
Back in the day, when it was founded in the 1st century AD, Cirencester was the second largest city in Roman Britain - only surpassed by London in size. Today it’s a thriving market town in which locals are well-used to unearthing Roman pottery in their gardens. Talking of which, visit the Corinium Museum to marvel at incredible archaeological finds representing Cotswold life over the course of 12,000 years - it’s an enthralling experience for all ages, kids included.
The mega-pretty Cirencester Park Mansion © KayRansom/Shutterstock
Other Cirencester sights include Cirencester Park. Known locally as The Mansion, and set in a 3000-acre woodland and pasture park, its screened from the town by the tallest yew hedge in the world, no less.
Cirencester is also a great place to shop, not least for craft lovers. New Brewery Arts, for example, is one of the finest centres of contemporary craft in southern England, with a gallery and studio shops to peruse, and a coffee house to kick back in.
Could a village be more perfect? Stanton is definitely one of the prettiest Cotswolds villages to visit and (you know the drill by now) that’s really saying something. A parish in Gloucestershire’s Tewkesbury Borough, Stanton sits sleepily in the slopes of Shenbarrow Hill, its narrow streets framed by impossibly attractive thatched stone cottages. Head to the 17th-century Mount Inn to enjoy a post-walk, locally-brewed pint, and stirring views towards the Malvern Hills and Welsh mountains.
Arty types might want to check out the summer schools held in Stanton Guildhouse, with expert-led courses on everything from making stained glass and pottery, to woodturning and watercolour painting.
After exploring Stanton, head to Snowshill Manor and Garden - Stanton and Snowshill are connected by a wonderful walking trail that will make you feel like you've stepped into the pages of a picture book. This charming - and unique - National Trust property was designed by eccentric Charles Wade, who was hugely influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. His playful passion for hand-crafted objects is clear to see from the curios on display - everything from unusual musical instruments to flamboyant masks.
The highest town in the Cotswolds, Stow-on-the-Wold is also a highpoint for visitors seeking a spot of retail therapy. And it was ever thus here - the town has been an important trading centre since Roman times.
With a huge market square showing the scale of sheep trading that took place between 1107 and the 1980s (check out the wooden stocks that once served as a warning to wrong-doers), Stow is rich in classy antique shops, galleries, delis and independent boutiques peddling country style products. A lively Farmers Market is held on the square on the second Thursday of the month. Stow is also within easy reach of Batsford Arboretum and the Cotswold Falconry Centre, both of which delight kids and adults alike, with (respectively) wild woodland trails to explore, and the awesome Owl Experience.
If compelled forced to pick the prettiest Cotswolds villages, The Slaughters (Lower and Upper) might just nab the number one slot. Connected by the tiny River Eye stream, a tributary to the river Windrush, both villages boast traditional Cotswold limestone cottages, with the Eye flowing and tinkling beneath a series of stone bridges.
Fascinating fact - while the name might conjure images of a bloody historic battle, Slaughter actually derives from the Old English word for a miry, muddy place - a “slough” or “slothre” - which describes the land on which the villages lie. Lower Slaughter’s Old Mill is a must-visit beacon of loveliness, with long history to boot - the 1086 Doomsday Book records a mill on this very site. Today it houses a museum, craft shop and tearooms, plus a parlour famed far and wide for its home-made ice cream.
To reach Upper Slaughter, follow the lane that follow the Eye upstream, looking out for the Elizabethan manor on your right as you approach the village. Set in 8 acres of gardens and parkland with a river meandering through its gorgeous grounds, this 17th-century former rectory is now Lords of the Manor Hotel - well worth staying in if you fancy living it large, aristo-style.
If you’re visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, chances are you’ll want to take-in all (or at least some) of its many Shakespearean sights. We’ll begin at the beginning by suggesting a visit to the Bard’s Birthplace on Henley Street. Next up, put Shakespeare’s life in context through exploring the award-winning Tudor World museum, before heading to the site of his New Place home. Demolished in 1759, it’s been reimagined so visitors can walk in Willy’s footsteps, with artefacts relating to his life here exhibited in neighbouring Nash’s House.
To see where Shakespeare first put quill to paper, you could join an informative, interactive tour of his schoolroom. Alternatively, if you’re pressed for time, nothing beats the convenience (and fun) of an open-bus tour around Stratford-upon-Avon. Several other Shakespearean attractions can be enjoyed close to town, among them Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (the aptly romantic family home of the Bard’s bride-to-be), and Mary Arden’s Farm. Home to Shakespeare’s grandparents and the childhood home of his mother, Mary Arden, the farm has plenty to entertain the whole family - from falconry displays and nature trails, to “meet the animals” experiences and 16th-century-style entertainers.
For more inspiration - and practical information - take a look atRough Guide Staycations Cotswolds. Written by Jackie Staddon and Hilary Weston, it’s packed with ideas about what to see and do during your Cotswolds staycation, with a focus on tours and walks. As a bonus, purchase of the print guidebook comes with access to a free eBook - handy if you want to travel light while on the road.
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Header image: it's not for nothing that Castle Combe in the Cotswolds is known as “the prettiest village in England” © Shutterstock
Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her