With its stone bridges across the River Windrush, overhanging 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 our guide from local expert Jessica, who shows us what to do and the best 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 town 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 town 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 town 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 via Bourton, which helped turn the town 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 the town 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 town 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 town 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 visit 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 Windrush is a tributary of the Thames which starts near Winchcombe and joins the 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 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 town at one-ninth scale, with everything from shops, pubs and houses to the town’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 adults, £5 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 vintage toys and games. 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 Queen. 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 £11.95 adults, £10.95 students/seniors, £8.95 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 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 for younger kids.
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 20–50 minutes to reach the centre – 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 in Bourton, Greystones Farm Nature Reserve is a real hidden gem that’s only a 10-minute walk from the centre of town and is free to visit. Located on a working organic farm, the nature reserve is a great place for birds and wildlife – look out for otters and water voles by 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 its 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.
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 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 town’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.
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/8.6km circular walk to the nearby villages of Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, across fields and along the River Windrush and River Eye.
The route takes two–three hours to walk, and you can stop off for lunch on the way at the Slaughters Country Inn in Lower Slaughter. You can also do a shorter version of the walk which just takes you to Lower Slaughter and back and is 1.3 miles each way.
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).
Places to eat in Bourton-on-the-Water
Cafés and delis
The photogenic Bakery on the Water is known for its bread, make 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 the café and riverside garden.
If you fancy a lunchtime light bite or sweet treat, head to The Riverside Café or The Den, both of which serve a range of hot and cold meals for lunch as well as delicious cakes, ice creams and classic cream teas. The Den also has a good range of vegan and gluten-free options.
And if you’re in town 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.
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 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 (with vegan and chicken versions available too) with delicious loaded fries and sides like mac and cheese to go with them as well as shakes and cocktails.
The Mousetrap Inn is just out of the centre of town 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).
If you prefer classic British pub grub, head to the Old Manse Hotel, a Greene King pub which offers traditional meals like pies, burgers, scampi and fish and chips, and occupies an enviable position on Victoria Street, with a waterfront beer garden right next to the Mill Bridge.
Read more: The best pubs in Bourton-on-the-Water
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. The hotel has 22 en-suite bedrooms, decorated in contemporary country style. It also has a 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 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 town centre. 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.
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 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 at Kingham and will take you to Bourton in just under an hour.
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