Insider Guide to The Cotswolds
With its butterscotch-stoned villages, grand manor houses, rolling countryside and buzzing market towns, the sheep-nibbled hills of the Cotswolds are heart-tuggingly enchanting. Want the real insider guide on where to go and what to do?
Barbours at the ready, let’s go …
Conjure up an image of a typical English countryside scene, and chances are you’re imagining the Cotswolds.
We can’t argue, it’s as stunning as the guide books say. But whilst crowds may flock to worthy but obvious stop-offs likes of Bourton-on-the-Water (the Venice of the Cotswolds) or the tearooms of Chipping Norton, the real Cotswold conoscenti go off the beaten track, as there are oodles of cool and quirky places to discover.
Straddling six counties and 800 square miles, this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is awash with unpredictable finds and fun – from a skywalk through the canopy of one of the UK’s oldest Arboretums at Westonbirt to the UK’s largest inland beaches (yes, we even have that!).
Little over an hour’s rustic road-trip from north to south, or east to west, (hire a vintage car for max countryside cred), it’s a really easy region to base yourself in and tour around.
WHERE TO GO
The choice may seem mind-boggling, there are so many bucolic boltholes to head for, but there are three main regions to get to grips with …
The north Cotswolds goes roughly from Chipping Campden and beautiful Broadway down to Northleach (made famous by This Country). It includes the well-trodden but must-visit ‘Cotswolds Golden Triangle’ of Chipping Norton, Burford and Stow-on-the-Wold.
A great starting point, come here if you love beautiful scenery, artisan boutiques and hipster eateries.
The mid-Cotswolds is less touristy and hugely family-friendly, with some spectacular scenery, great market towns and lots of watersports. It follows a lush green corridor from the headliner town of Cirencester (with its Roman origins and fairytale square) in the east, to Stroud, Painswick and the Slad Valley in the west. Much wilder and untamed in character than the north, this is serious walker country.
And finally, the south Cotswolds takes you from royal Tetbury, home to HRH’s Charles and Camilla and their Highgrove Estate, down to great National Trust parks and pretty villages like Castle Combe and Bradford-Upon-Avon.
EAT & DRINK
The Cotswolds are a platinum-level foodie’s paradise, the region is full of incredibly good restaurants with a farm-to-fork ethos and cool cafes, many using fresh locally-sourced ingredients with the emphasis firmly on artisan and organic.
Take a trip to Roman Cirencester with it’s dreamy, cream-coloured marketplace where you’ll find Teatro – a fabulously theatrical restaurant in the heart of the town. Eat in the dramatic restaurant with its red leather booths or head out to the new Summer Garden for some alfresco dining and sipping.
Up the hill here is The Malt and Anchor. This award-winning chippy won Best Fish & Chip Shop in the ITV Food Awards 2020. Other Ciren places worth the petrol are Made By Bob and the recently opened La Bobina Spanish & Tapas eatery, located off beautiful, rusic Black Jack Street. Over near Chipping Norton head for the achingly elegant Wild Thyme.
Cheltenham is teaming with amazing eateries, there’s The Ivy Montpellier for some super stylish dining, Brasserie Blanc (Raymond Blanc’s place) for fabulous French cuisine and the highly rated GL50 for some of the best, relaxed fine dining in the area. One of our other faves is No.131, a super chic hotel, restaurant and bar set over several levels of a Regency mansion, with a new Japanese restaurant and alfresco terrace.
The Cotswolds really is the land of the gastropub, but really good local favourites include the funky The Stump in Foss Cross – run by local hipster duo Baz & Fred’s pizza takeaways its the bomb if you love properly pulled pints and perfect pizzas.
The award-winning Bell at Sapperton is one of our best off-the-beaten-track tips for Sunday roasts.
Or, head to the gorgeous candy-coloured Bathurst Arms to dine in it’s amazing 20ft circus teepee in the garden. With a fierce farm-to-fork ethos it has a delicious organic, tapas style menu and idyllic riverside setting.
The Swan at Thyme in Southrop, is famously Kate Mosses fave pub and a gorgeous 17th century pub which uses local, organic ingredients. The Porch House in Stow-on-the-Wold (one of the oldest pubs in England) is great to visit (when it reopens) and for sweeping views head to Dormy House on the lush Farncombe Estate – perched high above the village of Broadway, with really fabulous vistas.
Burford has one of the most beautiful high streets to wander down, head to The Maytime Inn here which has just launched a new summer takeaway menu with picnic platters, beer, wine and gin to go! Oh, and you get a free Windrush Valley walking map too. Result.
Cafés & Farmshops
One of the best farmshop cafés in the area is Jolly Nice in Stroud. Always brimming with fresh, local, organic produce, and with a newly launched and fully open Jolly Drive-Thru Shack, for coffee, smoothies and light lunch platters. Their organic strawberry ice-cream (made from lush, Ledbury strawberries, is the best we’ve ever tasted).
The popular country pub The Green Dragon Inn (winner of the Muddy Stilettos Best Destination Pub 2021 no less), near Cowley, also has a lovely farm shop too. And popular in Cirencester is IG-perfect indy café Luxe and new bakery come patisserie KNEAD – both serving up some of the best coffee and cake in the area. Or, go to Huffkins in Burford for all things cakey, or order a full cream tea to your door for £19.95.
For a back-to-nature bolthole with lashings of luxury head for the spectacular treehouses at The Fish Hotel in Broadway. Expect underfloor heating, hot tubs, a Nespresso machine and a friendly welcome for dogs.
The Severn Vale on the edge of the Cotswolds is great for walkers and The Glamping Orchard offers bell tents and a restored 1950’s Warwick Knight Caravan that has starred on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces. Sleeping a family of 4, with your very own gin terrace on top.
Over in Painswick, The Mill Pond Pod is a private getaway perched on the edge of a fishing lake, a short stroll from the artsy old wool town of Painswick, ‘The Queen of the Cotswolds’ with its galleries and pretty lanes.
Head to Far Peak near Northleach where you can stay in shepherd huts, tipi tents and eco-domes. The site has its own fabulous 30ft climbing wall (if you’re brave enough, otherwise send the kids up), bouldering course and acres of outside space for dedicated den-makers. Plus there’s a brand new ‘caving’ feature where they can have their own underground adventure.
Or stay in a 4 person eco-yurt in your own glade at Abbey Mead Farm in Cirencester – with the Organic Farm Shop next door doing amazing Sunday lunches, for some home comforts.
Cotswold Farm Park, owned by Countryfile celebrity farmer Adam Henson in pretty Guiting Power, has eco-pods and Morroccan-themed tents. They have king-sized double beds and bunk beds making them perfect for a family getaway. You’ll want to visit the tourist-bucket list villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter just nearby too.
On the Cotswold fringes at Lower Mill Estate in Somerford Keynes, stay at one of the Grand Design-style eco properties (with private kayaks for the lake). Or the luxe Cotswold Water Park Retreats, waterside lodges that are dog-friendly with hot tubs too.
One of our new faves on the Cotswold scene is Ingleside House – a wildly theatrical boutique hotel with a great outdoor Fire Pit Terrace, award-winning restaurant Teatro and the Barn Theatre, so you can pop in during your stay for a knockout show. The Corinium Hotel is also a great centrally-located option for Cirencester, with a huge beer garden and on tap parking for lazy summer days.
Cowley Manor is a luxurious getaway, this Grade II-listed Regency hotel has the largest suite in the Cotswolds with a giant, wrap-around balcony. Broadway’s Lygon Arms which has great courtyard suites, spa and an indoor pool.
The Tewkesbury Hotel, Spa and Golf Club has some incredible views over rolling hills, and recently opened brand new terrace rooms which open onto the rolling landscape where you can stay with your pooch too.
Daylesford in Kingham will be your nirvana if you seek the truly ‘hipster’ Cotswolds. It has several restored cottages to stay in, and you can get delicious food from the organic Farmshop – much-loved by locals and celebs alike. The famed Soho Farmhouse is just a 10 minute trip over the border from here, although as a members-only club getting in might take some forward planning!
Located in Bibury (famously called the ‘most beautiful village England’ by William Morris’) Bibury has a new, socially-distanced, ice cream parlour plus lots of riverside walks to enjoy. Or head to the lovely, thatched Orchard Cottage in Broadway with metro-feel Chipping Campden just around the corner.
There are heaps of spectacular sights to jemmy into any trip, but we’ve cherry-picked a few of the best in each area to add to your bucket-list.
In the North head for the Rollright Stones – the baby Stonehenge of Oxfordshire. This ring of 5,000-year-old Neolithic rocks is spot on for a bracing stroll with great views.
Sudely Castle, near the pretty town of Winchcombe, is a gorgeous day out, explore 11 gardens, and gem up on some history, you can also visit the tomb of Katherine Parr – the only English Queen to be buried on private land – here. And take a tour around the lovely gardens of the National Trust’s Snowshill Manor too.
Broadway Tower sits on the second highest point of the Cotswolds Ridge, with wow-factor views of 13 counties, do the gorgeous circular walk and get an ice-cream or afternoon tea from the superb Shepherd’s hut or Morris & Brown tearoom.
In the Mid Cotswolds, on the eastern tip, you have to pay a visit to the stately Blenheim Palace, this monumental palace is open again and has a year-round calender of events to enjoy, as well as (now open) gardens designed by the famous Capability Brown.
You may not think of watersports and the Cotswolds as a ‘thing’ – but ditch all preconceptions because fun on the water is big here. In the centre of the region there are hundreds of idyllic lakes dotted around to (literally) dive into, whether you’re up for a bit of wild swimming or just some casual kayaking and wind-surfing.
Bring your bucket and spade to The Cotswold Water Park and Beach, on the fringes of the Cotswolds, it’s the UK’s largest inland paddling beach and heaven-on-earth on a hot day and it’s fully open. There are BBQs by the shore, electric boats and pedalos and an adventure playground for kids. Plus don’t miss the AquaVenture course here, 40 brilliant obstacles to slide your way around (£15 per person).
Down in the south, royal-favourite Tetbury with its 28 antiques shops (at last count) and Highgrove with its glorious garden tours are all worth a long linger.
A great day out awaits at Westonbirt Arboretum, home to the largest national collection of trees and a new 40ft high ‘skywalk’, built through the canopy of the trees, which is gorgeous to walk through. Or if you’re a real nature lover take a trip to WWT Slimbridge near Stroud, an amazing wildlife reserve with the famous berwick swans, and fun stuff to do all year round.
Head for the incredibly pretty town of Castle Combe (beloved of Instagrammers) with its quintessential cottages, river and walks, and Bradford-upon-Avon. And take a trip to Lacock Abbey on the fringes, whose grounds are now fully open again, made famous in the Harry Potter films and WestWood Manor.
Cirencester Lido is one of the best outdoor pools you’ll ever go to, kids love it here. It has a great slide and is fed by spring water heated to 80 F in the summer. Bask on one of the sun loungers on the patio against a fairytale castle backdrop. Plus there’s a brilliant vintage-tuck shop on site to keep everyone happy.
Or, head to Chippy Lido in Chipping Norton, which also has a great toddler paddling pool, lawn and cafe.
The Corinium Museum, is a really engaging place to learn about the Cotswolds’ Roman history and holds regular craft and dress-up events for kids. Or in Bourton-in-the-Water you’ll find the Cotswold Motoring and Toy Museum,
Parks and Farms
If you can bear the crowds (go early) head to Birdland in Bourton-on-the-water, and great places to see rare breeds, baby animals and more are Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park and the Cotswold Wildlife Park.
One of the Cotswolds’ greatest secrets is how good it is for off-road cycling. A network of byways and bridleways as well as large open spaces mean two wheels is a great way to get around.
Find some great routes here. Places to go freewheeling include Rodborough Common, Moreton-in-Marsh, Burford and the Windrush Valley. A good one to start off with is the Sarsden Circuit, an easy 1-2 hour circular around (pretty flat!) Kingham and Churchill.
Head to AquaVenture at the Cotswold Water Park, a giant inflatable obstacle course with 40 obstacles to slip and slide over, or hire SUPs, boats and kayaks to go gliding across the lagoon.
The National Trust-owned Rodborough Common in Stroud is the wild and untamed ‘Wolds at their best.
Take an amble around the 300 acres with incredible panoramic views, dodging the (friendly) Highland cattle that roam here in the summer. Winstone’s Ice Cream Parlour here serves the best artisan cones in the Cotswolds – as well as doggy ice cream – so make sure to drop by. We love to pick up lunch from Woodruff’s in Stroud too – the first fully organic cafe in the UK. See my review here.
The Thames Path is long distance walking trail, following England’s best known river for 184 miles (294 Km) as it meanders from its source in the Cotswolds into the heart of the capital – yes, you really can walk back to London in 14 days should you wish! On its way the Trail passes peaceful water meadows rich in wildlife, historic towns and lovely villages.
Join it on the Cotswold fringes in Lechlade-on-Thames, home to herds of Highland cattle, the kids will love watching the canal boats squeeze through the locks.
The Cotswold Way is 102 miles of magnificent views, ancient sites and pretty villages, from Chipping CAmpden all the way down to Bath. Do it all in seven days, or (more likely) dip in for an hour or two.
Gardens & Farms
One of the best sights in the Cotswolds is the picturesque lavender fields at Cotswold Lavender Farm. Open until early August, check the site for opening times. Plus, see 6 breathtaking flower fields to visit this summer here including sunflowers and wildflower meadows galore.
The area is home of course to many National Trust gardens, such as Hidcote near Chipping Campden, Newark Park near Wooton-Under-Edge and Snowshill near Broadway. But the first to reopen is the lovely 17th century Dyrham Park near Bath. Take a wander around its glorious 200 acres and go deer-spotting.
The Cotswolds is a honey-stoned hotbed of quirks. There’s a taste of South America hidden deep in the pretty town of Painswick at Tibbiwell Alpacas. Book in for an experience you won’t forget and take an alpaca out for a walk.
On the border near Winchcombe is Arctic Quest. Channel your inner explorer on a real life husky mush. Or stay in the private Herder’s hut (popular in the Arctic) with its own campfire.
Wine-lovers will also be very happy here. Dotted around the whole area are brilliant micro-breweries, distilleries and vineyards.
Little Oak Vineyard in Chipping Campden is lovely to explore and does private tastings. Until they reopen for public tours you can order a crate of wine for next day delivery to your door.
Family-owned Woodchester Valley in Stroud is a boutique estate specialising in white, rose and sparkling wine and does amazing Tour and Tasting Experiences – you can also stay over at one of its spectacular barns with views across the vineyards. Check out my review here.
The Cotswold Distillery has become one of the Cotswolds’ most popular attractions. Take a tour of the stills and gem up on botanicals which make the craft gin. Plus the obligatory (all-important) tastings too, of course.
Proving the honey-tinged heart of the Cotswolds has a rock and roll spirit, RotorPro Helicopter Experience, based near Winchcombe, is a whole new way to see the ‘Wolds. Be whisked over lavender fields in Broadway, the rooftops of Castle Combe, or wherever your heart desires.
There’s an incredible amount to do in the Cotswolds, but many people come for the promise of peace and quiet and a darn great view.
If you want golden fields as far as the eye can see (the rape-seed harvest so famed in the Cotswolds) head for Barnsley and Chedworth (home to Chedworth Roman Villa), from Cirencester. It has some of the most stunning natural scenery the Cotswolds has to offer.