If asked to picture a 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 12 prettiest Cotswolds villages to visit.
1. Blockley — a picturesque village with glorious gardens
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 Church were used as locations in the Father Brown TV series. As for other sights, Blockley is known for its elegant English country gardens. Mill Dene Garden is a must-visit for romantics and horticulturists. This is an especially great place to visit in the spring,
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.
- For a relaxing family break: Pearl Cottage
- For a charming atmosphere: Middle Rose
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2. Bourton on the Water — the Venice of the Cotswolds villages
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 and one of the most romantic places in the UK.
While it’s definitely one of the prettiest Cotswolds villages 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 is 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 it’s easy to spend an entire day here without hearing a single “I’m bored!” complaint.
- For location: The Lansdowne Guest House
- For couples: Chester House Hotel
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3. Burford - Gateway to the Cotswolds
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.
Halfway down the hill, the 16th-century Tolsey building houses the Tolsey Museum. As you descend, look out for the oldest pharmacy in England - Reavley's. This establishment 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, Burford House comes highly recommended. Here you'll find a 17th-century Cotswold stone inn with exposed beams, leaded windows, cosy log fires and four-poster beds.
- For stylish stays: The Fox at Barrington
- For price and quality: The Royal Oak Burford
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4. Castle Combe — one the prettiest Cotswolds villages in England
Tucked in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in northwest Wiltshire, Castle Combe is often called “the prettiest village in England." It's certainly one of the best 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, and a picture-perfect bridge over a babbling river.
Little wonder, then, that it's long been used as a home base 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.
5. Chipping Campden — one of the best Cotswolds villages
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. Here many architectural pleasures await 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 House, 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.
- For delicious English breakfast: Badgers Hall
- For unique character: Eight Bells Inn
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6. Cirencester — the capital of the Cotswolds
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.
Other Cirencester sights include Cirencester Park. Known locally as The Mansion, and set in a 3000-acre woodland and pasture park, it's 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.
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7. Stanton — thatched fabulousness
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 on 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.
Picture book perfection - an impossibly pretty thatched cottage in Stanton © PJ photography/Shutterstock
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.
8. Stow-on-the-Wold — scenic shopping
The highest and one of the prettiest Cotswolds villages, Stow-on-the-Wold is also a high point for visitors seeking a spot for 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, Stow is rich in classy antique shops, galleries, delis and independent boutiques peddling country style products. Check out the wooden stocks that once served as a warning to wrong-doers while here.
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.
- For a central but quiet location: Stow Lodge Hotel
- For lovely cosy stays: Lucy's Tearoom
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9. The Slaughters — pastoral perfection
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 a 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 homemade ice cream.
To reach Upper Slaughter, follow the lane that follows the Eye upstream, looking out for the Elizabethan manor house 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.
10. Stratford-Upon-Avon - Beauty and the Bard
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 by 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 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 historic charm: The White Swan Hotel
- For modern stays: Baraset Barn Hotel
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11. Broadway - quaint Cotswolds village allure
Wedged into an outlying corner of Worcestershire five miles west of Chipping Campden Broadway is a handsome medieval village at the foot of the steep escarpment that rolls along the western edge of the Cotswolds. It seems likely that the Romans were the first to settle here, but Broadway’s zenith was a stop for stagecoaches plying between London and Worcester.
This has defined much of the village’s present appearance – its long, broad main street framed by honey-stone cottages and former coaching inns shaded beneath chestnut trees. It’s undeniably attractive and, like Campden, can attract more visitors than is comfortable – but unlike its neighbour, Broadway feels less able to absorb them.
Ordinary, everyday life exists here somewhere, away from the tearooms, souvenir shops and neatly mown roadside lawns, but in truth, there’s not much sign of it. Visit the two outstanding museums, and enjoy an early morning stroll while the streets are empty.
Then move on great walks leading up to the iconic hilltop Broadway Tower and around peaceful Stanton village, there are interesting stately homes at Snowshill and Stanway, and ruins of a medieval abbey at Hailes.
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12. Bibury - timeless English architectural charm
Hidden away on the B4425 between Cirencester and Burford, at the point where the road crosses the River Coln, the village of Bibury – like Broadway, Burford and Bourton-on the-Water – is a hugely popular Cotswolds tourism honeypot. Winningly attractive (and famously dubbed among the prettiest Cotswolds villages), it draws crowds by the coachload.
Set back from Bibury’s main road is the focus of every photographer’s attention. Arlington Row, originally built around 1380 as a wool store, was converted in the seventeenth century into a line of cottages to house weavers working at nearby Arlington Mill. It was this glimpse of hound’s-tooth gables, warm yellow stone and wonky windows which is now immortalized in the UK passport as an image of England.
By a tiny bridge over the River Coln stands the Bibury Trout Farm. Unsurprisingly popular, since it’s the only paying attraction in a heavily touristed village, the fishery has footpaths leading out across a network of ponds to scenic picnic spots.
Outside of London, England is known for its idyllic countryside full of history, picturesque villages, patchwork hills, and winding country roads. Explore the countryside with our tailor-made Refreshing English Countryside Break.
Free online resources with our Staycations Cotswolds guidebook
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.
- South Cotswolds full-day excursion
- Cirencester to the Churn Valley tour
- Towns and Gardens around the North Cotswolds
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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