Family and friends visiting the UK always ask us if the Cotswolds are worth the time. Of course, this is a question of personal preference. What you enjoy, how much time you have, and why you have come to England.
Many tourists only visit London. On a first visit, that’s respectable as there’s so much to see and do. However, across the UK there are hundreds of villages with their own character and history, very different than the capital. Many of these small villages played significant roles in British history and helped shape the culture.
The Cotswolds are special because of their concentration of English beauty, mixed with their extensive history leading back to the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. It’s as if these little villages are stuck in time. It’s a bonus that they are close together, making it easy to village hop.
So, are the Cotswolds worth visiting? If you have come to experience the beauty of England, then DEFINITELY the Cotswolds are worth visiting. Let’s look at what there is to see and do.
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What are the Cotswolds?
The English Cotswolds are roughly 800 square miles designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. They stretch from just below Stratford-upon-Avon to below Bath and are home to around 139,000 people.
The land is very hilly, with over 80% used for agricultural purposes. Under the Cotswolds lies a bedrock of Jurassic stone. Mined over the centuries, this stone gives the buildings and housing their distinctive golden glow. In the north, the color is more prominent. As you head south towards Bath, the stone becomes whiter.
What makes the Cotswolds most worth visiting is the timelessness of the towns and villages. Most buildings are from the 14th – 16th centuries and very little has changed in the last 300 years. The villages are picture perfect and often compared to fairy tales.
What to do in the Cotswolds?
The number one thing to do in the Cotswolds is to pick a few lovely villages to wonder around and take photos. Absorbing the beauty of the area is what a visit to the Cotswolds is all about.
Even the landscapes are phenomenal. The rapeseed fields burst in yellow in May. Poppies start appearing in June. The lavender fields are a bit rarer but from mid-June to early August can be seen at the Cotswold Lavender Farm in Broadway.
In the villages and gardens, keep an eye out for the many variations of the English rose which are in bloom over the summer.
Antiques shopping is also very popular in the Cotswolds. Especially in villages like Stow-on-the-Wold and Tetbury where there are tons of little stores to hunt through.
Take a Walk in the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds offer over 3000 miles of public walking footpaths. National and regional walking routes such as The Cotswolds Way Trail, Macmillan Way, and Oxfordshire Way pass through the area. There are also plenty of smaller circular trails around the towns. Tourist information centers can help with how to find the smaller trails.
The Cotswolds are the perfect place to indulge in Afternoon Tea, an English cultural experience. You’ll find plenty of quaint tea houses in most of the large villages. However, if you really want to do it right, find a lovely garden to enjoy your tea, like at The Close Hotel in Tetbury. Or sip like an aristocrat at one of the areas many gorgeous manor homes, like Whatley Manor (a personal favorite) in Malmesbury.
Cotswold Water Park
If you are imagining giant water slides, this “water park” is quite different than what the name may suggest. It is set on 40 square miles with 150 lakes and operates as part conservation area for wildlife, part recreational park.
With so many lakes there is an extensive list of water sports. Boat hire, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, wakeboarding, water skiing, and windsurfing are all available. It is best to book in advance for the summer high season.
In addition to water sports, the park has countless dry land activities, such as archery, paint balling, cycling, horseback riding, even rally car driving. Of course, there is also the opportunity for bird watching and other wildlife spotting in the nature reserve areas of the park.
For a full list of activities, visit the Cotswold Water Park website.
Westonbirt National Arboretum
One of our favorite places to visit in autumn, though beautiful all year, is the Westonbirt National Arboretum. Used for both conservation and research, the arboretum is a collection of 2,500 different species of trees from all over the world and 15,000 specimens. They have so many “champion trees,” meaning they are the tallest or largest trees of their kind in the British Isles.
Several hiking trails make their way throughout the forest, including seasonal trails which highlight the best of the park for the time of your visit.
For more information on the park visit their website at Forestry England.
Chedworth Roman Villa
Built in the 2nd century and expanded upon in the 3rd and 4th centuries, these ruins are what remain of an elite Roman villa. Though it is a bit out of the way, the site is worth visiting for the preserved roman mosaic tile floors. They are some of the most complete examples remaining in England today. Other highlights include the hypocaust floor heating system and the bathhouse rooms.
For more information visit the National Trust’s website.
Helicopter flight school
If you are looking for a very different way to see the Cotswolds, consider a helicopter flying lesson from the Cotswold Helicopter Center. They offer several “experience day” packages. Soaring over the color bursting fields below is exhilarating and you cannot beat the view.
Alternatively, if you want the landscapes without actually taking the lever, consider a charter flight. Imagine arriving in style to the Thornbury Castle Hotel.
For more information on options and pricing, visit the Cotswold Helicopter Centre’s website.
What Villages are Worth Visiting in the Cotswolds?
Adorable shops selling locally made products set within old wonky buildings give the villages of the Cotswolds tons of character. It also makes them very popular with tourists. Though we’ve never found a village in the Cotswolds we didn’t like, some of them have more on offer than others.
You could easily spend a whole day in some of the larger towns in the Cotswolds, like Bath and Bradford-on-Avon. However, most you’ll just want to stay for an hour-or-two and move on.
We’ve put together a post with our favorite beautiful and historic Cotswolds towns.
Getting to and around the Cotswolds
Using Public Transport In the Cotswolds
Though completely possible, it is not easy to get around the Cotswolds by public transportation. Only the larger towns like Bath, Cirencester (via Kemble) and Bradford-on-Avon have access to the major train routes from London Paddington.
Buses run between the main towns; however, they are not very frequent so your schedule will be tied to the bus timetable.
If you are keen to give public transport a try, the Cotswolds Conservation Board has done a wonderful job putting together a car-free guide to exploring the Cotswolds which you are likely to find useful.
Driving in the Cotswolds
There are plenty of tours to visit the main tourist towns but we seriously recommend renting a car and doing it at your own speed. One of the best things about the Cotswolds is getting lost and finding a random storybook village.
Here is the catch. English country roads can be very small, and the Cotswolds have a lot of them. If you are not used to driving on small roads, they can be a little intimidating.
- “A” roads like the A429, and A40 are major roads. They may be single or double lanes. If you are a nervous driver, these are the ones you want to stick to as much as possible.
- “B” roads are minor roads. They vary greatly in size and condition.
- No named roads are normally paved farm tracks between towns. Be aware these are NOT one-way roads, even if they seem only big enough for one car. On these single-track roads there are occasional pull-off spots. They are for passing, not for parking. Just go slow and use these pull-off spots when another car approaches. Some of the best small villages, like Castle Combe, are only reached by these small roads.
This would be a good time to mention that we recommend renting the smallest car you can. Not only will you be more comfortable on these smaller roads, and when parking in tiny spaces, but gas (petrol) is also very pricey in the UK.
We hope you now have plenty of reasons to get out of one of the big cities and visit the little villages of the Cotswolds. Bookmark or pin this guide so you can find us later.