The Cotswolds is a quaint region in England, about two hours’ travel outside of central London. The Cotswolds takes its name from the rolling terrain and sheep trade.
If you’re coming from London, you’ll quickly realize you’re no longer in the city as you reach the countryside. The beautiful Cotswold villages look like they sprang from a travel guide, fairytale, or Thomas Kincaid painting.
Endless stone buildings with thatched roofs are what you’ll find upon arrival. Somehow, as you traverse from beautiful village to beautiful village, you’ll be surprised to find older buildings than the previous one.
On our last visit, we had afternoon coffee at The Porch House. The inn claims to be England’s oldest, dating back to c.947.
Yes, we casually sipped coffee in an inn full of history dating back to the Early Middle Ages.
If the Cotswolds villages aren’t on your bucket list, they deserve to be there. Let’s find out what the best places to visit in Cotswolds are.
How to Visit Cotswolds
OK, you’re probably getting excited to visit, but before we cover any more amazing finds, we need to talk about getting there.
I mentioned in the Highclere Castle Visit article that driving is treacherous and that there are single and multi-day tours available to the countryside.
If you decide to drive so you can spend more time in the Cotswolds villages I totally understand. In that case, I’d plan for about three days in the Cotswolds so you don’t feel rushed.
We were a bit overambitious and had far too many villages on our list and had to cut some. Well, there’s always next time.
But before we move on, here are some insights into driving in the English countryside. These can help you decide what your best places to visit in Cotswolds are.
British Rental Cars
Everyone knows the Brits have the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car. Seems simple enough. But this adds a bit more than just staying on the correct side of the road while you’re driving.
If the rental car company asks if you want to upgrade to a midsize or SUV, say no. Roads in the Cotswolds range from narrow two lanes without a berm, to narrower paved wagon trails.
If you haven’t driven a standard transmission in a while, I recommend upgrading to an automatic. It’s just one less thing you’ll have to deal with.
If you opt for a manual transmission, the gear pattern and the pedals are the same as in the States, but you’re shifting with your left hand.
Starting your Grand Tour
Yes, that’s a reference to the Amazon show that was born from Jeremy Clarkson’s disagreement with Top Gear. If you’ve picked your rental car up at Heathrow Airport, the first part of the motorway is quite easy.
If you followed our example London itinerary, I recommend calling Tripmasters to coordinate the pickup and drop off of the rental car just for the Cotswolds trip.
There’s no need to deal with the hassle of a rental car in the city if you’re in London before and after the Cotswolds portion.
Do think about the driving before deciding which of the best places to visit in Cotswolds you’re going to see.
There are a lot of new inputs driving in a foreign country, so make sure driver and navigator are on the same page. Indecisive or last-second directions increase stress levels at any stage of the tour.
Brits are not fans of stop signs, but they are fans of roundabouts. So much so, that they’ve turned four-way intersections into roundabouts. Intersections still look like intersections, but the rules say to treat them like roundabouts.
To make matters worse, you’ll find yourself looking the wrong way for cars when you’re at a roundabout or just pulling out anywhere along your tour.
Be careful, your muscle memory from driving in the States makes you a bit dangerous.
Driving in the British Countryside
Many of the interior roads have stone walls with hedges lining the paved wagon trails. Don’t veer off the road on one of these.
Luckily, Brits will drive at full speed as you white-knuckle your rental car along. They’ll line up behind you and get really annoyed.
If your GPS took you on one of the single-lane wagon trails with opposing traffic, you’ll need to slow down or stop and give way as much as possible to oncoming cars.
Even worse, if the oncoming traffic is a tractor. Then you might find yourself backing up to the nearest point where you can get out of the way.
Don’t worry, the farmers don’t like to slow down either, so you’ll have a tractor virtually pushing you backward.
Try to avoid driving during rush hour in the countryside. The old Cotswold towns and villages weren’t designed to accommodate the local traffic, let alone a few thousand tourists.
Instead, make sure you’re where you want to be before then so you can enjoy the sights, happy hour, or dinner while the cars sit bumper-to-bumper.
Where to Stay in Cotswolds
We’ve stayed at Guyers House in the Cotswolds. It’s a phenomenal boutique hotel with amazing sunsets.
As you plan your picturesque days in the Cotswolds, try not to drive too far to any one location. Leapfrog from closest to farthest destination if you can, and use motorways whenever possible.
Where to Go
In the Highclere Castle Visit article, I mentioned the Downton village is the Cotswold villages of Bampton, Swinbrook, and Shilton. But there are other beautiful villages to see in the Cotswolds.
A few of the prettiest villages and best places to visit in Cotswolds are listed below in no particular order.
A great place to visit in the Cotswolds is Castle Combe. It’s a beautiful village nestled on the Bybrook River.
Castle Combe, unlike some other tourist attractions, has a parking lot at the edge of town. From there it’s a quick five-minute walk to town.
Castle Comble is a beautiful Cotswold village with restaurants, cafes, and the former manor house that’s now a hotel.
Peruse the Little Picnic Shop, and have tea at the manor or coffee at the Old Stables, before visiting the White Heart Pub.
Unlike some of the larger towns, there are seldom cars to interrupt your sightseeing and pictures. Water Lane is stunning, and the manor house and Saint Andrews Church are picture perfect.
Lacock Abbey is open from 10am to 5pm Monday through Saturday. I know, it’s clear from other articles that I’m not a Harry Potter enthusiast. But if you are, the abbey is one of the franchise filming locations.
The Lacock High Street was another filming location, but for the first Downton Abbey movie, not Harry Potter. You can also take in the magnificent ford at Nethercote Hill while you’re out and about.
There’s the Fox Talbot Museum of photography, and plenty of places to grab a bite, like the Lacock Bakery, Red Lion, or George Inn.
Bradford-on-Avon is a larger town with plenty to see. Among other things, it’s known for the Tithe Barn, Town Bridge, and views from Saint Margaret’s Hill.
I’ve warned you about not driving in the Cotswolds during rush hour, and that’s especially true in Bradford-on-Avon.
During the weekdays there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic coming from several major roads trying to get across Town Bridge.
They have quintessential cottages, historic buildings, several beautiful churches including the Holy Trinity Church, and a lovely River Avon Canal walk.
Make sure to check out the Shambles timber-framed buildings, old town hall, and Barton Farm Tithe Barn from the early 14th century.
Because it’s a larger town, there’s plenty of shopping and places to eat and drink. They’re a little more modern, but we like eating at one of the restaurants along the River Avon with a terrace view.
Chippenham is also along the River Avon, but further north. It’s also a bit bigger than some of the other destinations in this article.
There’s a nice High Street, translated Main Street. You’ll want to see the market area butter cross dating back to the 16th century and town arms on the 15th century Yelde Hall from 1776.
Yes, the arms have been hanging there since we declared independence.
Broadway has wide streets and is more modern compared to other Cotswold villages. The High Street houses are very nice and there’s plenty of parking, shops, and restaurants.
The old manor house is now the Lygon Arms Hotel. I highly recommend it for lunch or dinner.
When you’re done in town, there are still a few more sights to see. Saint Eadburgha’s Church is outside of the High Street, so you’ll need to drive around a bit.
You’ll also want to take in the outstanding natural beauty from Broadway Tower and check out Snowshill Manor, Saint Barnabas Church, and Hill Barn Farm lavender fields while you’re in the area.
The name suggests there are pretty views of rolling green hills, and that’s exactly what you’ll get. Bourton-on-the-Hill is a smaller village that’s home to the Horse and Groom Pub and 12th-century Saint Lawrence Church.
But the most memorable attractions are the two manor houses in the area. The Burton House Garden is quintessential England while the Sezincote House and Gardens have a distinctly Indian flare.
Stow-on-the-Wold is a larger town.
The must-see area is the market square with antique shops, restaurants, and cafes, including Lucy’s Tea Room. They have the Crooked House built in the 15th century, and if you have kids along, Cotswold Farm Park.
A standout for us was the Porch House, mentioned previously. It’s England’s oldest inn dating back to c.947. It might be a millennia old, but it’s fabulous inside and out.
The town is also close to Jeremy Clarkson’s Diddly Squat Farm.
Bourton-on-the-Water is known as the “Venice of the Cotswolds.” This is another of the best places to visit in Cotswolds.
A few highlights include walking along River Windrush, Bakery on the Water, Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms, Mousetrap Inn, and Cotswold Perfumery.
Chipping Campden is a must-see. This quaint market town is still an active village. There are cars, but it isn’t a pass-through route, so you won’t be bothered by traffic.
You can get a look at the architecture and visit one of their many antique shops, including Stuart House Antiques, Station Mill, Cottage Farm Antiques, and London House Antiques.
After you’ve worked up an appetite antiquing, I recommend surveying market hall and having lunch with a view.
When you’re finished there, walk over to Saint James’ Church, the court barn museum, and the old silk mill located just off the main street.
If you’re really into hiking, you can start walking the Cotswold Way in Chipping Campden. The 102-mile trail goes all the way to the Roman city of Bath.
If you’re into chipping, there’s also Chipping Norton. But, don’t assume they’re next to one another, because they aren’t.
If you’re the navigator, there are several motorways accessible from Chipping Norton if you want to start or end your day there.
Using it as a start or stop point is a nice way to take in the town hall, Saint Mary the Virgin Church originally built in the 12th century, and the 17th century almshouses.
More Best Places to Visit in Cotswolds
Stanton is a beautiful little drive-through village.
Upper Slaughter and its cousin Lower Slaughter have a nice ford, pretty square, Saint Peter’s Church, and an Old Mill.
Cirencester is a market town that’s home to Saint John the Baptist Church and Elemental Sculpture Park.
The nearby village of Bibury is known for Arlington Row, William Morris Tea Room, Catherine Wheel Pub, the Church of Saint Mary, and the Bibury trout farm.
There’s nothing comparable to the Cotswolds in the States.
Sure, we have beautiful places throughout the country, but the age and well-preserved condition of the Cotswold villages sets them apart from many other parts of the world.
In America, the 18th century is ancient architecture, but not in the Cotswolds.
Don’t plan on seeing all the towns and villages mentioned in this article on one trip. You won’t enjoy it if you’re running from one to the next on a two- or three-day marathon.
Pick a morning agenda and an afternoon agenda to avoid feeling burnt out on vacation.
I wouldn’t make it an annual getaway, but the Cotswolds are a must-see once in your life.
I’ve just highlighted some of the best places to visit in Cotswolds and hopefully, you feel inspired. Maybe we’ll see you there on our next trip?