With its stone bridges across the River Windrush, overhanging willow trees, village green and historic stone cottages, it’s no wonder that Bourton-on-the-Water tops lists of the prettiest villages in England and is one of the most popular destinations in the Cotswolds. So discover the best things to do in Bourton-on-the-Water with this guide from our local expert Jessica, who shows us what to do as well as the top places to eat, drink and stay in the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’.
Bourton-on-the-Water’s history dates back to 4000 BC, with remains of Neolithic pottery found outside the village and excavations at nearby Salmonsbury Camp showing evidence of occupation from the Neolithic period through the Bronze and Iron Ages. Iron Age currency bars (which were exchanged for goods) have been uncovered locally and are now in the British Museum.
The word ‘Bourton’ is of Saxon origin and is made up of two words – ‘burgh’ which means camp or fortification, and ‘ton’ which means village or settlement.
The A429 on the edge of the village follows part of the Fosse Way, the old Roman road which connected Exeter to Lincoln. Bourton was an important strategic point for the Romans as a crossing over the River Windrush (which was a lot wider and deeper then than it is now) so they built a settlement in the west of the village, where Roman coins and pottery have been unearthed.
In the 17th century the river was diverted through the centre of the village to power three mills – one of which is now home to the Motor Museum. Many of Bourton’s stone cottages were built during the 17th and 18th centuries. And from 1862 until 1962 there was a train service from Cheltenham to Oxford which stopped in Bourton, helping turn it into a tourism hotspot.
The best time to visit Bourton-on-the-Water
Bourton-on-the-Water is busy year-round, but the July/August summer holidays are peak season when it can be unbearably busy. If you are visiting in summer try to get there before 10am or after 5pm things when quieten down as many people just come to Bourton for the day.
And look out for the traditional August Bank Holiday football match, a 100-year-old tradition where the local football team play a game right in the middle of the River Windrush!
Spring and autumn are good times to visit Bourton-on-the-Water, with colourful spring blossoms and autumn leaves. The village can still be very busy at weekends but is quieter on weekdays. The weather in the Cotswolds can be changeable though so bring a raincoat or umbrella.
Christmas is also lovely in Bourton, when the Christmas tree planted in the middle of the river makes the village look even more beautiful than normal. The annual Christmas lights switch-on usually takes place on the first Friday of December, with twinkling lights reflected in the water, carol singing, late-night shopping and a special appearance from Father Christmas.
Map of Bourton-on-the-Water
Things to do in Bourton-on-the-Water
The River Windrush
The River Windrush runs right through the heart of Bourton-on-the-Water and is crossed over by five stone bridges. The oldest is the Mill Bridge next to the war memorial and Motor Museum which was built in 1654, then there’s the High Bridge dating from 1756, the Paynes Bridge from 1776, the New Bridge from 1911 and the even newer Coronation Footbridge from 1953.
The River Windrush is a tributary of the Thames, which starts near Winchcombe and joins the Thames at Newbridge in Oxfordshire. The village green on the riverbank is a popular spot for a picnic while you watch the ducks – or cool your feet off in the water on a hot day.
The Model Village
Feel like a giant by exploring Bourton-on-the-Water in miniature at the Model Village (entry £4.50 adults, £4 seniors, £3.50 under 13s). This is an exact replica of the village at one-ninth scale, with everything from shops, pubs and houses to Bourton’s two churches and tiny trees and bridges across the River Windrush, and is the country’s only Grade II-listed model village.
The model village is located behind The Old New Inn on Rissington Road, and was created by a former landlord of the pub in the 1930s. It took over five years to build, with the help of local craftsmen who used Cotswold stone and slate to make it as authentic as possible.
It’s kept up to date when new shops open, and even has its own one-ninth scale model village – with its own even smaller model village. There’s also a model landscapes display and a small museum where you can learn about model-making and the model village’s history.
The Cotswold Motoring Museum
If you’re a car fan, you won’t want to miss the Cotswold Motoring Museum when you visit Bourton-on-the-Water (entry £7.50 adults, £5.25 children 5–16). Located in The Old Mill, the museum is home to over 50 rare and classic cars and bikes, with the oldest dating to the early 1900s.
The museum’s seven galleries are packed to the ceilings with vintage motor memorabilia, and there’s also a collection of toys and games to bring back childhood memories. The most famous exhibit though is Brum – the bright yellow, self-driven car that was the star of the popular children’s TV series of the same name back in the 1990s, with a mini Brum for kids to take a ride on.
The Cotswold Perfumery
The Cotswold Perfumery has been blending fragrances for over 50 years and sells its range of luxurious perfumes from its shop on Victoria Street. The Grade II-listed historic building is over 300 years old, with plenty of character from its oak beams and crooked floors.
Perfume-maker John Stephen has created perfumes for clients around the world – including the late Queen Elizabeth II. And if you want to learn some of his skills you can sign up for a one-day perfume-making course, which teaches you how to create and blend your own fragrance.
Birdland Park & Gardens
One of the most popular things to do in Bourton-on-the-Water for families is Birdland, located on Rissington Road at the entrance of the village (entry £12.95 adults, £11.95 students/seniors, £9.50 children 3–15). The park has over 500 birds in its nine acres of woodland and gardens.
Among them are flamingos, emus, pelicans, owls and parrots – and it’s the only place in the UK which breeds King Penguins. There’s also the Jurassic Journey section with its life-sized dinosaur models. You can watch the birds being fed and listen to talks from the keepers about the different species, and there’s also a outdoor playground to keep younger kids occupied.
The Dragonfly Maze
Just along the road from Birdland is the Dragonfly Maze (entry £4.50 adults, £4 seniors, £3.50 children 4–14 and dogs are welcome), a traditional English yew hedge maze. It might not be huge but it’s more difficult than it looks, and it’s easy to get disoriented and lose your way.
The aim is to get to the centre of the maze, along half a mile of winding pavement. But there are also 14 questions to be answered along the way in order to find the Golden Dragonfly at the end. It normally takes around 30–50 minutes to reach the centre of the maze – but don’t worry, their staff will always point you in the right direction if you get completely lost.
St Lawrence’s Church
The Church of St Lawrence is set just behind the High Street and is a peaceful spot to visit. It’s built on the site of a Roman Temple, but the first church on this site was a Saxon one which was built from wood in the 8th century. A Normal stone church came later in 1110, and the church you see today combines a 14th-century chancel, Victorian nave and Georgian tower.
Look out for the unusual domed roof on the clock tower and the painted ceilings in the chancel inside. And in the graveyard you can see some traditional Cotswold bale tombs.
These are chest tombs with a curved top which were carved to resemble bales of wool and were often used on the graves of wool merchants in the late 17th century.
Greystones Farm Nature Reserve
If you want to escape the crowds, Greystones Farm Nature Reserve is a real hidden gem that’s only a 10-minute walk from the centre of Bourton-on-the-Water and is free to visit. Located on a working organic farm, the nature reserve is a great place for birds and wildlife – you can sometimes spot otters and water voles along the Eye and Dikler, two of the Cotswolds’ smallest rivers.
Greystones also includes the site of Salmonsbury Camp, which was an important Neolithic and Iron Age meeting point. Take a walk through peaceful wildflower meadows along the Wildlife Walk or Time-Travel Trail, visit the interactive barn or explore the replica Iron Age roundhouse. There’s also a café on site which serves drinks, snacks and ice creams. Dogs are welcome on leads.
Bloody Bourton walking tour
One of quirkiest things to do in Bourton-on-the-Water is to take a Bloody Bourton Walking Tour after dark (departs at 7pm on Fridays and Saturday evenings, adults £10, seniors £5, children under 12 £4 – tickets are available from the Visitor Centre on Victoria Street).
These two-hour tours are led by guide Edward Charnel – dressed in full costume – who reveals the village’s secrets. You’ll be introduced to its ghostly residents as well as a cast of fairies, witches, priests and murderers as you learn more about Bourton’s history.
Walks from Bourton-on-the-Water
Another way to escape the crowds is to head out into the countryside surrounding Bourton-on-the-Water, with a variety of great walks to choose from. One of the most popular is the Bourton to the Slaughters walk, a 5.4-mile circular walk visiting the nearby villages of Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, which runs across fields and along stretches of the River Windrush and River Eye.
The route takes two–three hours, but you can also do a shorter version of the walk which just goes to Lower Slaughter and back (1.3 miles each way). Or you could walk one way between Bourton and Stow-on-the-Wold via Lower Slaughter (4.2 miles) and then catch the bus back.
Or head east of Bourton on the 4.6-mile/7.4km circular walk to the neighbouring village of Wyck Rissington – where you can see the church where a teenage Gustav Holst played the organ. The route runs through Greystones Farm Nature Reserve, past an old mill and lakes.
And if you fancy a bigger challenge, Bourton-on-the-Water is also on the route of several long-distance walks including the Wardens and Windrush Ways from Bourton to Winchcombe (14 miles each), the Diamond Way circular walk (66 miles), the Oxfordshire Way from Bourton to Henley-on-Thames (67 miles) and the Monarch’s Way from Worcester to Shoreham (589 miles).
Things to do near Bourton-on-the-Water
As well as exploring Bourton, there are lots more things to do in this part of the Cotswolds. Stow-on-the-Wold is only four miles away with its historic Market Square, St Edward’s Church and antique shops. And picturesque Upper and Lower Slaughter are even closer (1.5 miles).
Families can visit Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park (5 miles) to meet their rare breed animals, see farm demonstrations and take part in feeding and petting sessions. Or kids aged eight and over can try out electric quad biking at QuadQuest on the Notgrove Estate (4 miles).
Places to eat in Bourton-on-the-Water
Cafés and delis
The photogenic Bakery on the Water is known for its bread, made using a long fermentation time to develop the flavour and give it a crunchy crust. And they also make freshly baked scones, pastries, cakes and quiches – plus some of the best sausage rolls around. You can grab a takeaway, one of their picnic baskets to eat by the water or eat in at their café and riverside garden.
If you fancy a lunchtime light bite or sweet treat, head to The Riverside Café or The Den, both located where the High Street meets Rissington Road. The Den serves baguettes and cakes, with a good range of vegan and gluten-free options. And the Riverside Café offers a range of hot and cold meals for lunch as well as delicious cakes, ice creams and classic cream teas.
And if you’re visiting Bourton on the fourth Sunday of the month, don’t miss the Bourton-on-the-Water Farmers’ & Producers’ Market in the Royal British Legion car park, where you can buy oils, chutney, jams, bread, meats and more direct from local producers.
Bourton’s newest pub is The Willow, whose owners Fullers have converted former tea room next to the Motor Museum into a stylish waterside pub. There’s a big beer garden where you can soak up the sun, and a menu which mixes traditional pub food with local produce like Bibury trout.
The Mousetrap Inn is just out of the centre of Bourton so has a bit more of a local feel. This historic pub is bursting with charm but still feels light and bright, with a range of local ales. The menu features high-end pub food using seasonal ingredients, with dishes like roast monkfish and miso-glazed cauliflower – and they do a great Sunday lunch (though book ahead).
Bourton also has its own brewery on the edge of town. Hawkstone Brewery is part-owned by Jeremy Clarkson and produces a range of craft beers and cider. You can give them a try in their taproom, The Hawkstone Arms, which is open daily from lunchtime to early evening.
Read more: The best pubs in Bourton-on-the-Water
L’Anatra (which literally means ‘the duck’, appropriately enough for Bourton) is an Italian restaurant which is part of the Chester House Hotel. Their stone-baked pizzas are amazing but they also serve other Italian classics like pasta, risotto, meat and fish dishes along with a selection of Italian wines – and make sure to leave room for a bowl of their creamy tiramisu.
The Rose Tree Restaurant is set in a cosy Grade II-listed stone cottage with a garden on the banks of the River Windrush. It’s run by a husband and wife team who’ve created a menu which features British dishes with a twist, like braised lamb shank and roast vegetable and Stilton lasagne.
Or for something more casual, Smiths of Bourton specialise in burgers, using their dry-aged meat patties (vegan and chicken versions are available too) with Cajun or Philly cheese fries, alongside sides like mac and cheese or smoky beans, as well as shakes, sundaes and cocktails.
Where to stay in Bourton-on-the-Water
Tucked away on Victoria Street one road back from the river, Chester House Hotel* is just a stone’s throw from the centre of the village. This Victorian hotel building has 22 en-suite bedrooms, which are decorated in contemporary country style. Dogs are welcome in their ground-floor coach house rooms. The hotel also has an Italian restaurant and bar as well as car parking.
The Lansdowne Guest House* is a five-minute walk from the village centre – making it perfect for getting away from the hustle and bustle of Bourton during the summer months. It has has 14 en-suite bedrooms, on-site parking, a free minibar and has won awards for its breakfasts.
If you prefer self-catering accommodation, there are several places to rent around the village. The 17th-century Chapel Cottage* has plenty of historic character, with oak beams, flagstone flooring and an inglenook fireplace with woodburner. The cottage sleeps up to five in three bedrooms – including one in the eaves – and has a cosy country kitchen and courtyard garden.
Or Forsythia Cottage* is another traditional honey-coloured stone cottage tucked just off the High Street. It sleeps three in double and single bedrooms, with an open-plan living/dining room with leather sofas downstairs and a sunny garden and private off-street parking.
How to get to Bourton-on-the-Water
Bourton-on-the-Water by car
Bourton-on-the-Water lies on the A429 around four miles south of Stow-on-the-Wold and 16 miles north of Cirencester. There are two main car parks in the centre of the village. The Rissington Road Car Park (GL54 2BN) near Birdland costs from £3.50 for two hours.
And the Bourton Vale Car Park near the Coop on Station Road (GL54 2LU) starts from £3 for two hours. In peak season parking spaces are extremely limited so other seasonal temporary car parks are available, including at the Cotswold School (GL54 2BD), who offer full-day parking for £5 at weekends from April to September and every day in the summer holidays.
Bourton-on-the-Water by public transport
The nearest train stations to Bourton-on-the-Water are in Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham, or there are more frequent services to Cheltenham. The Stagecoach 801 bus takes 20 minutes to reach Bourton from Moreton-in-Marsh or 45 minutes from Cheltenham. And the 802 connects with trains from London Paddington at Kingham and will take you to Bourton in just under an hour.
Save for later
* This site contains affiliate links, where I get a small commission from purchases at no extra cost to you.