When people think of the Cotswolds, they predominantly think of two or three towns: Bibury, Castle Combe, and Bourton on the Water. There is a good reason for this! They are all beautiful. However, as you know, I’m more of a fan of underrated places, and 90% of the Cotswold section within this website focuses on the lesser-known towns and villages within the area. However, I can’t claim to be the “place to come” for everything Cotswolds if I don’t talk about the main attractions, so I have created this guide on the best things to do in Bourton on the Water. Of course, I’ve chosen a few less obvious suggestions too!
Bourton on the Water is often referred to as the Venice of the Cotswolds due to the 5 stone bridges that cross the gently flowing Windrush river. Some of the bridges date back as far as the 1600s. However, Bourton on the Water’s existence predates this by quite some time. There is evidence that there were settlements in Bourton on the Water as far back as the Stone and Bronze Ages. In fact, currency bars from 300 BC were found during an excavation of one of these settlements. They now live in the British Museum in London.
If you fancy geeking out on history, then Bourton on the Water is the place to do so. For those of you who enjoy a bit of history, read the next section. If you are only here because you want to find out the best things to do in Bourton on the Water, then skip down a couple of paragraphs!
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Bourton on the Water History
We’ve already touched on the fact that there have been settlements in Bourton on the Water since the Stone Age. The most notable settlement in Bourton’s history is that of the Romans. The most famous roman road in England runs through the most westerly part of Bourton on the Water. If you’re not sure what road I’m talking about, it is the Fosse Way! The road links Exeter in the South West with Lincoln in the North East.
Because of the strategic location of the Windrush river, the Romans decided to create a settlement where Bourton on the Water now stands. The river was much broader and deeper back then. However, in the 17th century, they diverted the river through the centre of the town to power three mills. One of those mills is now the Motor Museum, which I have never visited, but heard great things about!
For more information on the history of Bourton on the Water, I recommend checking out Richard Pinder’s website. He is an excellent source for all history-related Cotswolds information.
Best time to visit Bourton on the Water
Bourton on the Water is a great place to visit year-round, with plenty to do and see whatever the season. I personally think Bourton is at its loveliest during the blossom season in the Spring or once the leaves have turned orange in the autumn. Both of these seasons have the added benefit of being less busy than the summer months. And when I say busy, I mean swamped! So busy in fact, that I avoid it like the plague!
My personal recommendation would be to use the shoulder seasons, and if you happen to want to visit in the summer, then use Bourton on the Water as your base. That way, you can explore the town in the morning and evening while it is relatively quiet and leave to explore other areas during the busiest times of the day!
If visiting in winter, you will have the added benefit of enjoying the Christmas tree which gets planted in the middle of the river every year! The Christmas lights also add an extra layer of beauty to this already splendid town.
What are the best things to do in Bourton on the Water?
There is always something to do in Bourton on the Water. As you would expect, one of my favourite activities is exploring the local countryside, which definitely features below. But there are also many attractions, museums, tours, cafes, tea rooms, and restaurants to enjoy. I’ve selected my favourite below.
Let’s start with the walks
Bring your walking shoes! In fact, there are so many paths crisscrossing Bourton on the Water that you could spend an entire week just exploring on foot. And if you like hiking holidays, then HF Holidays have a hotel in Bourton. They specialise in guided and self-guided walking holidays, so the fact that they have a location in Bourton on the Water should tell you everything you need to know about how good the countryside is around here!
If you fancy a long-distance walk, then the Diamond Way passes through Bourton on the Water. It’s a diamond-shaped 100-kilometres long trail. The trail starts at Moreton in Marsh and then makes its way to Chipping Campden, down to Blockley, Northleach, and then back up to Bourton on the Water before the final stretch to Moreton in Marsh. I completed it over 3 days in 2021 as part of my first ever wild camping “expedition”. I was treated to some spectacular sunrises and sunsets! Whether you complete the whole 100 km or focus on just the sections near Bourton on the Water, I am sure you will thoroughly enjoy it.
The Windrush Way starts off at Winchcombe and ends at Bourton on the Water, unless you do it in reverse. This 22 kilometres long trail goes mainly through the beautiful forests by the Windrush River, passing along “lost” villages from the medieval era. It’s a moderate-level route and usually takes about 7 hours to complete. The undulating hills and meadows of Cold Aston and Hawling will keep you company through most of this trail – giving you plenty of stunning views to take in.
Bourton on the Water to Upper and Lower Slaughter
If long walks don’t thrill you as much as they excite me, the short circuit from Bourton on the Water to Lower Slaughter might be more up your alley. This walk is only 1.9 miles along the Warden’s Way and is primarily flat. You can always continue to Upper Slaughter, following the River Eye. This route is 5.7 miles long and takes about 3 hours to complete. If you genuinely want to know why Bourton on the Water is known as the Venice of the Cotswold, I’d definitely suggest doing this walk! One word of caution though: it gets very muddy in the winter season!
Whether you want to do a marked route, or simply download the OS Map Ap and follow one of the many paths in the area, I highly recommend exploring Bourton on the Water and the surrounding countryside on foot. You will pass Manor houses and stately homes that you will never be able to glimpse from the road! You will also stumble across tiny villages that you’d never even know existed from looking at a map.
But, if you really don’t want to walk, then there is plenty more to do!
Here are my top 9 things to do in Bourton aside from hiking!
Visit the Model Village
The Model Village is one of the prime attractions of Bourton on the Water. It is the only Grade II model village built in the entire country. This one-ninth scale model of the actual Bourton on the Water village is entirely made of Cotswold stone and even has a model village inside the model village! The setting of the model village makes for a perfect walk by the Windrush River. The Model Village is complete with miniature cherry and chestnut trees, and the church even has music playing from it. This was one of the first model villages ever to be built.
It is open from 10 am to 5:45 pm every day and costs £4.50 a ticket for adults and £3.50 for kids.
Address: Old New Inn, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham GL54 2AF
Get Lost in the Dragonfly Maze
The Dragonfly Maze might just be one of the best things to do in Bourton on the Water – especially if you are visiting with young kids. The Dragonfly is a traditional yew hedge labyrinth with 14 clues to get you to the centre. The centre has a beautiful golden dragonfly in it, hence its name. It takes about 20 to 50 minutes to complete the maze, depending on how good you are at deciphering the clues and completing the tasks. The best part of it though, is that it is a pet-friendly place!
It’s not a particularly large maze, and therefore they have limited the number of people allowed to enter at once to avoid overcrowding. However, tickets can’t be booked online or on the phone, so it’s best to get here early so you can secure your slot.
The Dragonfly Maze is generally open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 am to 3pm. However, check their website or Facebook page as they sometimes open additional days around holidays. However, they also close depending on the weather, so always best to double-check before making the journey!
Tickets cost £4.50 for adults and £3.50 for children.
Address: Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham GL54 2BN
Take a Stroll and Unwind Along Windrush River
Windrush River is a tributary of the Thames, the longest river in England. Windrush originates in the Cotswolds Hills and passes through several villages in Gloucestershire, including Bourton on the Water. If you’re looking for some downtime from the happenings around the town, a walk by the river in its charming countryside setting is the best place to be. The river is home to several fish species, including trout, roach, grayling, dace, and chub. As you stroll along the river, take in the 5 beautiful stone bridges, some of which date back to the 17th century.
Kayak or Paddleboard on Windrush River
If you have your own kayak or paddleboard, why not explore the Windrush river from the actual water. I haven’t managed to find a kayak or paddleboard company in actual Bourton on the Water, so you would need to have your own. If you still fancy hitting the water but need to hire equipment, I’d recommend heading South, to Cirencester, to the Cotswold Water Park, where there are plenty of opportunities.
The best FREE thing to do in Bourton on the Water: Greystone’s Farm Nature Reserve
The Greystone Farm Nature Reserve is owned and managed by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. The Reserve focuses on respecting and regenerating nature while allowing visitors to experience and understand the region’s beautiful and ecologically important meadows. The area consists of several walking trails, a replica of a roundhouse from the Iron Age, several wildflower meadows, and an organic farm. My favourite thing about this Reserve is that the entry is free! So nature lovers can enjoy one of the best free things to do in Bourton on the water without worries.
Greystones is open daily between 10 am and 4 pm, and in case you missed it, it’s FREE!
Address: Greystones Ln, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham GL54 2EN
Luxe Out at the Cotswold Perfumery
If things like perfumes, candles, and all things pretty attract you, it would be a grave mistake if you don’t find your way to the Cotswold Perfumery. The perfumery was first established in 1966 and has since expanded into selling a wide range of fragrances, both in-store and online. This shop is located in a beautifully built 300-year old Cotswold stone building. Their chief perfumer John Stephen is an incredibly knowledgeable person and can help match your style to curate a specially designed perfume. It’s a great place to get some souvenirs and indulge in luxury when in Bourton on the water!
The Cotswold Perfumery is open daily from 9:30 until 5 pm, except for Sundays when it opens at 10:30.
Address: Victoria St, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham GL54 2BU
Try Out the Bloody Bourton Ghost Tour
This is probably one of the most offbeat and interesting things to do in Bourton on the Water. Founded, run, and guided by Edward Charnel, you are sure in for a surprise! Expect the tour roughly to take 2 hours as Edward, in full costume, will take you through Bourton on the Water’s dark history. As well as pointing out which houses have vanity rooms and sharing all the ghost sightings experienced to date, you will also learn a lot about Bourton on the Water’s history. Probably more interesting is the fact that Edward will point out all the town’s quirks, from the house punctuated by pigeon holes to why the narrow alley is called Corpse Alley! You will also see the only school in the country with an adder breeding ground, learn why St Lawrence’s Church has two clocks, and discover Bourton’s dark cannibalism problem!
The Bloody Bourton Walking Tours take place on Fridays at 7 pm and only cost £10. You can buy tickets from the Visitor Centre on Victoria Street.
Experience the Bourton on the Water Farmers’ & Producers’ Market
The right way to experience Bourton on the Water like a local is to visit its monthly Farmers’ and Producers’ Market. Even if you don’t end up buying anything, it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local life of the English countryside. The market takes place every 4th Sunday of the month, so plan your trip accordingly if this event really interests you!
It is held at the Royal British Legion car park, where farmers and producers from all over the region will come to showcase and sell their products. Some stalls worth keeping an eye out for include Le Petit Cafe BBQ’s traditional breakfast rolls – with sausage, bacon, veggie, and vegan options; Eadles Farm’s poultry, pork, lamb, and beef; The Olive Stall for their antipasti, chutneys, nuts, and rapeseed oil; and Cotswold Pudding & Pie Co for their French bread and puddings.
If you don’t manage to plan your trip to coincide with the Bourton Market, you can also head to Moreton in Marsh, where there is a farmers market every Tuesday.
Watch a Football Game
I don’t mean just any football game! In fact, I avoid football games at all costs. But when the match takes place in the water, it suddenly becomes more interesting! It takes place every August Bank Holiday Monday and tends to draw a good crowd. The atmosphere is always jovial and adds an extra layer of quirkiness to the Cotswolds to add to the Shin Kicking competition that takes place in Chipping Campden every year.
Would you prefer to explore the Cotswolds with a guide?
Then check out these tours:
Places to Eat in Bourton on the Water
As you know, I love my food! And Bourton on the Water has many really delicious eateries catering to all budgets and tastes. So here are my favourite places to eat in Bourton. Although it is fair to say, I still have a lot more to go back and sample!
The Mousetrap Inn
With Bourton on the Water being so touristy, you have to be careful not to end up in a tourist trap, and unfortunately, there are a few of them! However, if you end up in a Mousetrap instead, that’s OK. Although it does attract plenty of tourists, the Mousetrap Inn is busy with locals year-round.
It is a traditional British Inn and therefore is cosy and welcoming. The staff are passionate about the foods and drinks on offer, which include regularly changing local craft ales and a seasonal, locally sourced menu. I particularly enjoyed the Ham Hock and Cheddar Croquettes and the Cotswold Lamb last time I visited. If you are looking for a mid-range price point meal, I would highly recommend the Mousetrap Inn.
Even off-season, I would definitely book a table, as it is rarely quiet! At the time of writing this article (April 2022), they were not serving food on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Address: Lansdowne, Lansdown, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham GL54 2AR
Bakery on the Water
If you are after traditional Cream Tea, you can’t go wrong with Bakery on the Water. Located by the River Windrush, Bakery on the Water is definitely one of the best places for afternoon tea in Bourton. This family-run artisanal bakery is known for its bread, made with a dough allowed to ferment for a long time to get the best flavour and texture possible. They also have a beautiful garden area to sit and eat by the river. The best thing on their menu has to be their cream tea which is basically their afternoon tea menu featuring freshly baked scones and brewed tea.
Address: 1 Sherborne St, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham GL54 2BY
For the best ice cream in Bourton on the Water, look no further than The Den. They have a great selection of ice creams, as well as delicious cakes, sandwiches, and quiche, perfect if you want to set yourself up with a picnic on the green! They also have a great selection of vegan options. In fact, it is rated as the number 1 spot for vegans in Bourton on the Water.
The Den is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm every day except Sundays when it opens at 9.
Address: The Den Unit 4, High St, Bourton-on-the-Water GL54 2AE
Where to Stay in Bourton on the Water
As with all my other Cotswolds posts, I need to start this section with a disclaimer. I live no more than 20 minutes from Bourton on the Water, so I have never felt the need to stay away! Therefore, these recommendations are based on where I would stay and not the places I have stayed!
Harrington House is part of the HF Holiday Group I have mentioned above. They focus on offering comfortable accommodation to weary walkers and cyclists. Harrington House is an old Georgian manor home providing a stylish retreat to the countryside while having all the essential amenities needed for smelly muddy walkers, such as a heated boot room! Harrington House has 29 bedrooms, two lounges to sit back and relax after a long day on your feet, a cosy bar, and a dining room serving delicious grub.
The most noteworthy feature of Harrington House is its walled garden, which hides a small treasure: a Pan’s statue from Narnia! I haven’t stayed here; however, perhaps their wardrobes have secret gateways?
The Lansdowne Guest House
If you are looking for quiet comfort, then choose the Lansdowne Guest House, which incidentally happens to be very close to the Mousetrap Inn! This is an adults-only hotel which should, in theory, mean it’s quiet. Having said that, I have plenty of stories to share of adults who were not quiet! In fact, we’ve often played “what couple was it?” at breakfast! 😉
Talking of breakfast, the Lansdown Guest House boasts of an award-winning breakfast!
What attracted me to Lansdowne, aside from the beautiful photos, is that it offers free parking (this is good for Bourton!) and a complimentary mini-bar! In addition, the 14 rooms are all designed with a touch of luxury and comfort, making them perfect for a romantic getaway.
If you’d prefer to have your own place, they also offer rental cottages throughout the Cotswolds. But you wouldn’t get the award-winning breakfast if you opt for that one!
Address: 1 Lansdowne, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham GL54 2AR
Bourton Croft Cottage
If you’d prefer to be by the river, the Bourton Croft Cottage is a great shout. Don’t be fooled by the images. This cottage is super spacious and can accommodate up to 6 people. If visiting in the winter, you will be able to enjoy the roaring log burner, while those staying in the summer will be able to sit out on the terrace and enjoy the sun.
What are you waiting for?
If Bourton on the Water is now firmly on your list, then please see below some extra information to help you plan your trip.
Frequently asked questions
How can I reach Bourton on the Water using public transport?
The nearest train station to Bourton on the Water is Moreton in Marsh, with a service arriving roughly every hour from London. Alternatively, you could get a train to Cheltenham, which although further away, has much better connections. Whether from Moreton in Marsh or Cheltenham, you will want to get on the 801 bus.
If you are coming from Cirencester, you will need to catch the 855 bus from Breeches Road to Northleach and then swap over to the 801 bus from Cheltenham.
The other option if you are short on time is to join a Cotswolds Tour from London. This would obviously not be my choice as I believe you need much more than a day in the Cotswolds, but I realise that for some people it might be the only option! Here are some tours you could consider as a day trip.
Is there free parking in Bourton on the Water?
As far as I am aware, the only free parking I know of is by Birdland (which I haven’t covered in this guide as I am not happy with the conditions the animals are kept in). However, it is a 15-minute walk from town, and I believe it only offers 2 hours of free parking, which isn’t long enough to explore Bourton on the Water.
There is potentially street parking on residential roads. But that is a sure-fire way to really annoy the locals who already have to put up with thousands of tourists descending on their town every summer.
If you are staying in Bourton on the Water, make sure you choose a hotel or B&B that offers free parking.
I usually park in the Rissington Car Park, next to the Co-Op, which starts off at £3.30 for 2 hours and increases to £8.30 for 8 hours. Charges apply 8am to 6pm all days except Sundays when the charges don’t start until 10 am.
Other temporary car parks open up during the busy periods, but I don’t know the exact locations or costs.
Writing this blog has inspired me to go back to Bourton on the Water and explore it further, especially its many restaurants! If you are planning to visit Bourton on the Water, or indeed any other location in the Cotswolds, please feel free to get in touch. I am always happy to answer questions about this gorgeous area I get to call home! You can reach me at email@example.com