The Cotswolds boast some of the most beloved villages in England, capturing the hearts and imaginations of individuals across the globe. When thinking about the Cotswolds, images of tiny thatched-roof cottages and golden-hued buildings always spring to mind. With these buildings comes 787 square miles of rolling hills that conceal the most beautiful villages in England. With twee pubs, rustic hotels, swans, honesty boxes and ancient history, the villages mentioned in this guide are the best Cotswold villages. This article also has all the essential information needed to help you navigate and plan your ideal day trip to the Cotswolds.
Castle Combe is undoubtedly one of the best Cotswold villages because it is so beautiful. If there’s one thing you should know, it’s that visiting Castle Combe is like stepping back in time or into a fairy-tale story. Situated in the breath-taking countryside of Wiltshire, the Castle Combe village has a magnificent gothic cathedral, emerald ivory making its way up the building walls, and a quiet stream flowing under a quaint bridge. There are also barely any cars. It’s as if nothing has changed around here for centuries, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into Belle’s village in Beauty and the Beast.
It is believed that Celts initially settled in the area and that the village owes its name to a Norman Bailey castle to the north. While this castle no longer exists, there is a 14th-century market cross erected where the three principal streets of the lower village converge. During the 15th-century, weekly markets were held and prospered under Millicent, the wife of Sir Stephen Le Scrope and then under Sir John Fastolf, a Norfolk knight. This is the same knight that inspired William Shakespeare’s Falstaff. He also promoted the woollen industry. As a result, Castle Combe became the centre of a thriving wool trade!
For a small village, Castle Combe has some wonderful places to eat. The Old Rectory Pop-up Tearoom has a delightful selection of homemade cakes, savoury nibbles, sandwiches, and afternoon tea served on china. Equally fantastic and appropriately named is The Old Stables, where a cup of hot tea can be enjoyed in front of a roaring fire. At the marketplace, there are two pubs: The Castle Inn and The White Hart. The Castle Inn has an outdoor terrace, private dining spaces and 12 bedrooms. However, if you’re looking for a luxury hotel in the Cotswolds, then head to the five-star Manor House as it has a Michelin-starred restaurant, The Bybrook, and an 18-hole golf course.
Second, on my list of the best Cotswold villages is Lower Slaughter. Over a thousand years ago, Lower Slaughter was built on the banks of the River Eye, a slow-moving stream that connects Lower with Upper Slaughter. Yes, this might sound like the last place in the world where you’d find the most elegant and picturesque village in England. However, the towns name isn’t as sinister as it may seem. It derives from the Old English ‘slough’, meaning ‘wet land’.
In the village, you’ll discover a stunning 13th-century Anglican parish church dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. There’s also Lower Slaughter mill, an incredible 19th century Water Mill that includes an undershot waterwheel and a chimney for additional steam power. The sound of melodious birds chirping adds to the serenity of the water, making this quaint village the perfect location for a day trip to the Cotswolds!
Lower slaughter’s country inn, officially known as The Slaughters Country Inn, is a cosy pub made for guests to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. There’s excellent food made from the finest Cotswold produce, comfortable furnishings, superb local ales and afternoon tea, should you feel like participating in an ancient British tradition. In addition, there are 31 bedrooms, and each is designed to fit harmoniously with the house’s oldest architecture. A five-minute walk away is the equally charming The Slaughters Manor House. Not only does it look like a building plucked out of a Jane Austen novel, but it also has a lovely restaurant and a slew of bedrooms that are full of character.
The Lower Slaughter to Upper Slaughter walk is under twenty minutes and well worth the effort as you’ll pass rolling hills, grazing wildlife and jaw-dropping architecture that make rural England so famous. While Upper Slaughter is connected to Lower Slaughter, the two villages have an entirely different frequency. The latter is situated on a long, flat terrain.
In contrast, Upper Slaughter commands higher ground with parts of the village, including the church, towering over acres of tiny, thatched cottages. The distance from the water also changes the atmosphere completely. In Lower Slaughter, everything was calm and tranquil, but Upper Slaughter is full of energy; from two pheasants mating to the cherry blossom trees budding early, there’s life and activity all around. For this reason, Upper Slaughter is the third choice on my list of the best Cotswold villages.
The history of Upper Slaughter is unusual but uplifting as it’s the only village in England not to lose a single man in World War One or World War Two. The 17th-century style, Eyford Manor House, with its Baroque details and classic Cotswolds stone, adds to the idyllic nature and charm of the village. So it’s not surprising that the poet John Milton was inspired by its grounds to write his legendary Paradise Lost. In Upper Slaughter, the Lords of the Manor Hotel is the most praised luxury hotel in the Cotswolds, featuring a 3 AA Rosette restaurant.
Chipping Campden is slightly different to the other places suggested in this guide to the best Cotswold villages. This is because it’s much larger and populated by more people. Historically, an old wool merchant’s town that still retains its elegant terraced High Street. Dating from the 14th-century, the towns’ place name, like many Medieval settlements, reveals the purpose behind establishing the area. ‘Chipping’ derives from the Old English cēping, meaning ‘a market; a marketplace’. Wonderfully, this tradition evades time as locals repeatedly set up camp each day, selling local produce, including animal skin rugs.
Proceeding down the High Street, quirky shops, old inns, hotels and restaurants are all housed in the characteristic honey-coloured limestone buildings. The town’s age is evoked by the weathered stones, while the grand early perpendicular church of St. James pays homage to the original wool merchant, William Grevel. A plaque describes him as “the flower of the wool merchants of all England”.
There are many historic buildings to feast your eyes on in Bibury, from Bibury Court to the distinct Arlington Mill. However, Bibury’s claim to fame and the reason it earned its stripes as the most beautiful village in England is the picturesque Arlington Row cottages. Think Poldark meets Lark Rise to Candleford, and you’ll just about imagine its quirkiness and quintessentially English vibe! Originally built in 1380 as a monastic wool store, these buildings were later converted into a row of cottages for weavers in the 17th century. They are now in the care of the National Trust. But if you’d like to stay in one, number 9 has been converted into a guesthouse with two bedrooms. You can check the house’s availability here.
These cottages overlook a water meadow and the Arlington Row River. It is easy to imagine an elderly labourer of the 17th-century sitting on a bench here, contemplating life while smoking a tobacco pipe. It has the appearance of having been left behind in another century. However, due to its National Trust status, Bibury sees more tourists than any other Cotswold village, and there are many people, cars, and busses coming through.
During Roman times, Cirencester was the second largest town in Britain. Today, it is referred to as the Capital of the Cotswolds with quaint streets of golden stone and plenty of green spaces. It’s incredible to think that the town is as popular with visitors today as it was with the Romans. However, for a long time, Cirencester has been overlooked in favour of its neighbour, Cheltenham. As a result, the town still feels like a hidden gem with traditional charm! So make sure to spend some time walking around the side alleys as you’ll discover some stunning Cotswold stone cottages.
There are many things to do in Cirencester, especially for history buffs which is why I think it’s one of the best Cotswold villages. Its Roman heritage is well preserved, and any visitors who want to know more about this should head to the Corinium Museum, which has a collection of finds from the Roman town. The Cirencester Amphitheatre is also worth visiting as it’s the remains of one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in Britain. A short drive away is the Chedworth Roman Villa, one of the finest and grandest Roman villas in Britain. The modern conservation building has some of the most beautiful mosaic floors.
If Roman history isn’t for you, make sure to visit the Church of St John the Baptist, which is one of the biggest parish churches in England. The Abbey Grounds and Cirencester Park are nearby and lovely areas for a morning walk. Rodmarton Manor is the place for architectural beauty, and Cerney House Gardens are wonderful in springtime.
Sheepscombe is about 6.5 miles from the city of Gloucester and 1.5 miles east of Painswick village. The village dates to around 1260 to when it was called “Sebbescumbe”. It’s believed the name comes from the name of local settlers, Ebba or Sebba, and ‘Combe’ means valley. From the 17th century, Sheepscombe was predominantly involved in cloth making like most towns in the Cotswolds. However, the mill closed in 1839.
Today, visitors can see the village church, named St John the Apostle, built in 1820 out of limestone ashlar and stone slate for the roof. English Heritage has since listed the building as Grade II for its historical importance and architectural beauty. Also in the village are many houses dating from the 17th-century. The Butcher’s Arms is a traditional free house serving real ales and home-cooked foods.
Only a short drive from Sheepscombe and Cirencester is Painswick. The reason it’s one of the best Cotswold villages is that it’s got an excellent balance between old-school charm and modern comforts. It is a historic wool town built in the traditional Cotswold stone from the local quarry. As a result, its narrow streets hold some of the oldest buildings in England. For example, on New Street, you’ll find Beacon House, which has a magnificent Georgian facade and the Falcon Inn.
This hotel has the oldest bowling green in England and is a wonderful luxury hotel. For any luxury travel enthusiasts, you’ll be delighted with their elegant bedrooms – which look fit for royalty – and their award-winning wines. Make sure to visit the Norman Church of Saint Mary, built in an exquisite perpendicular style. The churchyard contains 99 yew trees!
Exploring each Cotswold village is a unique experience, and this guide to the best Cotswold villages will help you prepare for any upcoming trip. If you are looking for more quaint, picturesque villages, check out my Portmeirion Day Trip Guide, my guide to the best off the beaten track locations in England or Lacock: A Quintessentially English Village.
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I’d love to know if you’ve been to any of these Cotswold villages, or are you planning a day trip to the Cotswolds?
Let me know in the comments below!