Looking for the prettiest areas in the UK? Explore the tiny villages of the Cotswolds in south-central England. Dedicated an area of outstanding natural beauty, rolling hills dotted with ancient villages make the English Cotswolds a special place to visit. Like a land stuck in time, the villages preserve picture perfect shop fronts and cottages from the 14th – 16th centuries.
Picking our favorites was harder than we thought. The Cotswolds have so many pretty little villages, each with their own unique character. Honestly, you really can’t go wrong, but here are our six favorites, going from north to south.
The shallow and well-manicured River Windrush flows under five small stone bridges in the popular Cotswolds’ village of Bourton-on-the-Water.
The High Street follows the river on both sides. This is where you will find plenty of stores to peruse and restaurants to try. Grab an ice cream made with local cream and browse the village.
The Cotswold Motoring Museum and Toy Collection is much bigger than it looks from the outside and has a fantastic collection of classic cars, motorcycles, and even a few caravans.
The impressive Model Village is also worth a visit. This attraction features a 1/9th scale replica of the entire Bourton-on-the-Water village in fantastic detail, including the working water mill.
Though Bourton-on-the-Water is one of the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds, it is also probably the busiest. However, the village is set up for tourism, with decent sidewalks, a coach bus parking lot, and two car parking lots.
Tip: If you are driving, consider coming after 3pm when the Rissington Road car park usually offers free parking.
This medieval town center was once a wealthy wool trading community. Towards the top of the High Street is the Tolsey Market House. Impressively built in the 1500’s, this is where traders would come to sell their wool. Today, the building houses a museum of Burford’s history. It is free to enter but donations are welcome.
The town makes for a lovely walk with plenty of shops to pique your curiosity. At the end of the town is a medieval arched bridge. Before you get to the bridge, pop into Burford’s beautiful St. John the Baptist Church.
If you cannot find a parking space easily on the High Street, there is a large free parking lot behind the village.
One of the cutest villages in the Cotswolds is Bibury. Start your adventure at the free car park near the Swan hotel. Cross the street and pay a small admission to explore one of England’s oldest working trout farms. If you are there on a weekend from March to October, you can even catch your own trout.
From the trout farm, cross back over the road and follow the walking path from the car park alongside the river. After a few minutes walking you will come to a small bridge leading to Arlington Row. This is one of the most famous and photographed areas in the Cotswolds. Built in 1380, this row of little cottages became weaver’s cottages in the 17th century.
From Arlington Row, continue along the main road following the river to Church Road. Past the cemetery, then around the corner is St. Mary’s church. This Saxon church is one of the most historic churches in the area. It is most known for its unique 17th century table tombs in the graveyard.
If you are a history buff, Malmesbury is the place for you. Formed with a charter granted by Alfred the Great in 880, Malmesbury is not only a beautiful place to visit, but it is also England’s oldest borough. Some historians even argue it is England’s first capital.
This all centers around the rule of King Æthelstan who many historians regard as the first King of England. Credited with uniting and creating the kingdom of all England, King Æthelstan ruled his kingdom from Malmesbury. Some claim he made Malmesbury the capital in 925 AD. The king died in 939 and was buried at Malmesbury Abbey.
Malmesbury Abbey was once a grand abbey with a spire larger than Salisbury Cathedral. However, the original spire at 431 feet, fell in a storm in the 1500’s and the remaining tower fell 100 years later. The two events decimated the western wing of the church. Today only the nave of the abbey still stands.
It is free to visit the abbey, though donations are welcome. In the church you will find the empty tomb of King Æthelstan, his bones lost during the collapse of the abbey. There is also a 15th century bible, Henry VII’s crest, and plenty of examples of Norman architecture.
Other things to see while in town include the 1490 Market Cross, and the Abbey House Gardens.
If you want a historical place to sit down for a nice meal, look no further than The Old Bell Hotel, England’s oldest hotel.
Nick-named the prettiest village in England, Castle Combe is by far our favorite village in the Cotswolds.
It is so small that if you blink you may miss it, but what is there is jaw dropping gorgeous. Being picture perfect, the town is a popular location to film period dramas, such as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Downton Abbey.
There is very little parking. It is likely you will have to park on the side of the road into town. Just be very careful walking along the road and that you don’t hit someone else walking.
Outside of the little town of Upper Castle Combe is the racing circuit. Famous British shows such as Top Gear and Fifth Gear have used the circuit as a filming location to test and race cars. You can visit for one of the racing events or car shows. If you are keen to get behind the wheel you can even book a driving experience day (must have a valid full UK driving license).
As far south as you can get in the Cotswolds is the gorgeous market town of Bradford-on-Avon. The town originally took its name from a broad ford where the Town Bridge is today. The small building on the bridge was originally a church, but later it became a small jail.
Except with less tourists, Bradford-on-Avon is similar to Bath, its more famous next-door neighbor. The same Cotswold stone gives the historic buildings their character. As the river Avon winds its way around the center, small curious alleyways hide little shops and cafes.
Most of the main attractions are in the city center, a short walk from the Town Bridge. However, if you want the best view over the town head up the winding roads to the Chapel of St. Mary Tory.
Bradford-on-Avon is also on the train line, making it easy to get to and from the larger cities of Bath and Bristol. A short drive or a 10-minute walk from the train station is the historical Tithe Barn, a 14th century monastic stone barn.
A little further out of town is the impressive Ilford Manor Gardens. Designed in the early 20th century, little narrow trails weave in and out of this Italian garden. Reserve about two hours to enjoy.
Where to Stay When Visiting the Cotswolds Villages
The Cotswolds have so many wonderful options for accommodation. Instead of staying in a typical boring hotel, consider something with a bit of character.
- A personal favorite for us is Whatley Manor. It’s where we held our wedding reception, where we stayed on our first anniversary, and where we’ll celebrate our milestones. A fully luxurious experience, be sure to get time in their spa, catch a movie in their private cinema, and enjoy a five course meal at their Michelin starred restaurant.
- You won’t find more character than the Old Bell Hotel, England’s oldest existing hotel. Though the hotel dates to 1220, rooms are warm and tastefully modern. It’s also reasonably priced.
- Ever wanted to stay in a castle? Technically not in the Cotswolds, but less than 30 minutes away is another favorite of ours, Thornbury Castle. Read about our stay at this historic castle hotel.