The picture-perfect Cotswolds is a firm favourite in our household. It’s just close enough for a day trip, or an easy weekend away, and even in bad weather it’s still utterly charming.
Although it feels like a bit of a trek, the nearest stretches of the Cotswolds are just over an hour away from Winchester (and even closer if you’re based in north Hampshire). Pootle up the A34/M4 and you’ll hit Cirencester (the “Capital” of the Cotswolds) in an hour and fifteen.
So if you fancy a beautiful day trip for some stunning scenery and sublime pub lunches, jump in your car and try these villages.
1. Castle Combe
When I think of the Cotswolds, I think of Castle Combe. The beautiful sandstone cottages, sweeping streets, and the tranquil river running by are just exquisite.
Castle Combe is proclaimed as one of England’s prettiest villages, as well as rising to fame through being a film location for some big tv/film hits, most notably Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, Downton Abbey, and Stardust.
The White Hart pub serves a great range of easy pub classics, including jacket potatoes, stews, sandwiches and pies. If you’re after something special, The Manor House Hotel has become a firm Insta-favourite for its sweeping, ivy-covered façade, or otherwise try The Castle Inn (opposite the White Hart) which is the sister Inn to The Manor House Hotel.
And for any Harry Potter fans, nip over to neighbouring village, Lacock, to visit Hogwarts, the home where Professor Slughorn pretends to be an armchair, and one of the Godric’s Hollow filming locations.
Another contender for “prettiest village in England”, much of Bibury is protected by The National Trust, and for good reason. Arlington Row, which is the most photographed row of cottages in Bibury, dates back to the 1300’s, and you can even stay in one of them.
Grab a bite to eat at The Swan Hotel, which sits on the River Coln and is another Cotswolds Insta-landmark, again for its ivy-covered façade.
3. Poulton & Meysey Hampton
Ok, so whilst these are technically juuust outside of the Cotswolds, they’re both right on the edge and so sweet that they deserve a spot on this list. I’ve grouped them together because they’re a stones throw from each other and an easy walk between. Lunch at the Masons Arms, which sits on Meysey Hampton’s beautiful green, surrounded by Cotswold cottages. The green even has the old horse mount steps from time-gone-by that you can walk up.
4. Biddestone & Slaughterford
Just a 35-minute cross-country walk between each other, Biddestone and Slaughterford sit just across the Cotswolds border, and both are equally charming in aesthetic.
Biddestone’s White Horse pub is well regarded, or why not try The White Hart in Ford, and walk in a loop between Biddestone, Slaughterford and Ford.
Slightly larger than the previous 4 places, Burford boasts a much larger food scene and a small high street to boot. If you like antiques and homeware, Burford is the one for you.
Walk along the River Windrush towards Swinbrook on this scenic 6.5km walk before circling back to Burford for a well-earned pub lunch.
I was recently spoilt with a very special trip to Hay-on-Wye, a town that sits on the Welsh border, just west of Hereford. It reminded me a lot of a Cotswold town, with pretty stone buildings and narrow streets.
We spent 4 days there, arriving via Cardiff and driving through the Brecon Beacons (which were incredibly beautiful), but you can also drive via the Cotswolds so if you had longer, I think the perfect trip would be a few days in both areas.
Hay-on-Wye is known as “the town of books” and if/when you go, you will see why. Every other shop is a bookshop, or sells books (new and second-hand). It’s magical. There is also a plethora of homeware and antiques shops, and the food and drink scene is excellent too.
Day 1: Cardiff and Hay-on-Wye
If you’ve not explored Cardiff before, then I would highly recommend driving through this way on your way to Hay. Cardiff is a fantastic city, with excellent shopping, history, and things to do. It also has oodles of old arcades which are filled with independent eateries and shops.
I recommend these food places especially:
Wallys Deli in the Royal Arcade
Coffee Barker in the Castle Arcade
New York Deli in the High Street Arcade
Madame Fromage, also in the Castle Arcade
Cardiff is also not that far, taking around 2.5 hours from Hampshire, so you could just about make it a day trip.
If you have longer, I would also explore the Cardiff Central Market, and Cardiff Castle (free entry to the grounds only). The Cardiff Bay area is also excellent, and an easy train ride from Cardiff Central.
Our drive from Cardiff to our accommodation, Cynefin Retreats, took us around 1.5 hours, with wonderful scenery to admire along the way.
Day 2: The Brecon Beacons & Pen Y Fan
Pen Y Fan is the highest point in the Brecon Beacons, and much of the surrounding area is owned by the National Trust. The car park for the trek is back towards Cardiff, and it fills up very quickly, so definitely get there early. The walk is circular and well sign-posted, but the best tip is to start from the car park (the one with the toilets, not the other one), and go straight up anti-clockwise, rather than clockwise (the clockwise route is a much, much steeper climb!).
The loop took us about 2.5 hours (including stops for photos, naturally), so all-in from Hay, it’ll take around 6 hours, leaving you the afternoon to explore Hay some more (or recover!).
Day 3: Hay-on-Wye
You really are spoilt for choice in this wonderful town. For the vintage and book lovers, you can get lost for hours in the high street shops and arcades. My favourite was the Hay Antique Market on Market Street, which I spent a lot of time in (much to my non-vintage loving fiancé’s delight!).
Even if antiques are not your thing, there are a lot of other shops to dip in and out of (like Goosey Gander), as well as lots of food spots.
Our favourites were The Old Electric Shop, Eves, and The Granary but we felt like we barely scratched the surface of Hay’s food scene!
As it was our final night, for dinner we booked Chapters, which is a small and intimidate restaurant serving only local and seasonal foods, most of which is grown by the owners.
Chapters is inside an old chapel on Lion Street and serves a tasting menu of about 7 courses. It’s a fab way to taste local and fresh food, and I would definitely recommend it.
Day 4: Hay-on-Wye and Home
I always find that the places I love the most are the ones that leave you wanting more, where you feel as though you have only just begun to get to know them as you have to leave. Hay is definitely one of those places, and I have no doubt that we will return soon.
This week I was meant to be spending a long weekend in Bordeaux. We went two years ago, over this exact weekend, and loved it so much that we immediately booked to go again in March 2020. Of course Covid had other plans for us, so we optimistically booked to go again in March 2021… and here we are. Locked down and planning to go in March 2022 instead…! Obviously there are eleven alternative months in the year we could go, but there are several benefits to going in March.
Firstly, the weather (an excellent starting point for any holiday planning). Being in southern France, Bordeaux’s sunny skies and low-to-mid 20 degree temperatures towards the end of March were a much needed vitamin D boost after the long grey winter. We hired a soft-top Fiat 500 to get around, and it was warm enough to have the top down the whole trip. Pure bliss.
Secondly, March is a relatively quiet time to visit the wine regions of France. I do not count myself as a wine connoisseur, so if you are, then you are probably sitting there reading this and thinking that March is actually the worst time to go. The reason is, March is right before the Spring season begins. From late-April onwards, Bordeaux is jam-packed with festivals and fairs, starting with the annual Spring Fair (Printemps des Vins de Blaye) which showcases the new wines produced by the vineyards in and around Bordeaux (not to be confused with the larger festival in June – Fête Le Vin). However, for us, going out of season meant prices were (generally) lower and, in some cases, we had the place to ourselves.
If you are after a busier and vibrant city-break, June and September are both meant to be excellent months to visit the region. Either way though, Bordeaux has so much to see and do, excellent food, coffee, shopping, bars and restaurants, and is a city brimming with beauty and history (it is a UNESCO World Heritage site) that you would be hard pressed to not have a good time, no matter what time of year you went.
It goes without saying that when visiting the Bordeaux region, you visit St. Emilion. An easy and picturesque 45-minute drive from central Bordeaux, passing vineyard after vineyard, this beautiful and ancient town is full of romantic cobbled streets and, most importantly on a trip such as this, wine. St Emilion is one of the five key wine areas of the Bordeaux region (see map below for a breakdown of the five), and should not be missed. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
St. Emilion wineries create some of the most prestigious Bordeaux wines, so the town is on the expensive side, but it is well worth the trip. As well as a plethora of wine shops and cellars, there is also lots of history to be seen in St. Emilion, given that the town was first founded by the Romans and then later renamed after an 8th century monk, Émilion.
There are plenty of brasseries and tabacs to grab lunch and/or snacks, or, if you are after fine dining, then Michelin-starred Logis de la Cadene would be one to look into.
Having blindly purchased several bottles of red “because we met each other in 2011 so it must have been a good vintage”, we pootled back, soft-top down and hair flying everywhere, to our accommodation for the evening; Château Grattequina.
Staying in a chateaux was something we wanted to do because Bordeaux is home to so many. However, they are not the cheapest, so we only stayed one night at ours. We picked Chateaux Grattequina because it was on the outskirts of Bordeaux, situated right on the river, and had only just opened having been completely refurbished. It was also small, with only 9 guest rooms, with a simple but beautiful exterior. Parts of the grounds were still being tended to when we stayed, but the hotel staff could not have been friendlier, and the décor was lovely. The only point to be noted is that there is no alternative place nearby to eat, unless you want to drive into the city. So make sure you take this into consideration, or have a look at the Hotel’s menu before deciding what you want to do.
After checking out of Chateaux Grattequina, we took the short drive into central Bordeaux. Our Airbnb was on a side street, off one of the main “Rues” of the city – perfect location for touristing, terrible location for driving. All I will say is, if you plan to drive into central Bordeaux, only hire a small car!
Our Airbnb was in one of the city’s many old stone buildings meaning temperatures indoors were a nice escape from the heat, and you couldn’t hear the hustle and bustle of the busy city.
As this was our first day, and first time, in the city we thought it only apt to make our first destination the wine museum – La Cite de Vin.
The museum is situated to the north of the center, on the river, and you can either walk along the promenade (but this is about 45 minutes) or take the tram. Book your tickets ahead, as this museum is always busy. This is a good starter for wine-novices like us, as it explains the basics of wine and also gives you a nice history overview of Bordeaux and its wines. There is also a room of wines from every country in the world, and the top floor gives you panoramic views of Bordeaux and a glass of wine.
Opposite the museum is Les Halles de Bacalan, where you can pick up fresh produce and/or enjoy a glass of wine in the sunshine. After suitably imbibing, and deciding absolutely every red wine we tried had notes of chocolate and cherry, we wandered back to the centre along the promenade on the river. Bordeaux has made huge investments to the city, and this area certainly showed this. The tram line stops all the way along it, and shops and restaurants have established themselves along the riverfront for the perfect setting for sundowners and al fresco dining.
Accommodation: AirBnb in central Bordeaux
Activities: More sight-seeing, Le Marché des Capucins (south Bordeaux) and a bit of shopping on Rue Saint-Catherine
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you will be hard-pressed not to find an eye-catching, historic building in Bordeaux. Places you should certainly put on your list are:
Porte Cailhau Bordeaux
The Basilica of Saint Michel (which boasts an excellent flea market every Sunday, full of odds and sods and gorgeous vintage art, furniture and décor items)
Place de la Bourse and the Miroir d’Eau
La Grosse Cloche
Esplanade des Quinconces
Place de la Victoire
Other nice places are the Grand Theatre and the Jardin Public, but you really can just meander around the city’s cobbled streets and happen upon a historic monument.
We ended up walking to Le Marche des Capucins via an indirect route in order to sight-see most of the above landmarks and to work up an appetite…
Le Marche des Capucins is a big bustling food hall offering a cornucopia of every cuisine you could ask for, as well as fresh and dry foods. We timed our visit there for lunchtime, but I think I’d have found room for something even if I’d eaten a 10-course meal.
We ended our impromptu walking tour of the city on the Rue Sainte-Catherine. This is one of Bordeaux’s main shopping streets in Bordeaux, and runs right down the middle of the city. The side streets leading off of it are also worth a nose around for independent boutiques and wine shops.
Accommodation: AirBnb in central Bordeaux
Activities: Wine-tasting tour of the Medoc region
One of the activities we didn’t pre-book, but knew we wanted to do, was a wine-tasting tour of the region. The reason we didn’t pre-book was because if you google “wine-tasting tours of Bordeaux”, there are so many results and as we knew nothing about wine, and had no set itinerary, we wanted the flexibility. Now, this might be something, if you go in the busier months, that you might want to consider booking ahead as I can imagine these tours are in high demand.
We found ours through Bordeaux’s tourist website (Bordeaux Tourism), and it was excellent. We opted for the Afternoon in Medoc tour, which included guided tours and wine tasting at two Chateaux in the Medoc region, plus some nibbles. Our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly, and there were only 6 of us. I think this is the tour we did: An afternoon wine tour in Medoc, but don’t quote me on that.
Activities: Downtown Bordeaux
On our last day we booked lunch at Garopapilles, in downtown Bordeaux. This is the northern part of the city-centre, and is a quieter area with high-end boutiques. Garopapilles is a Michelin-starred restaurant, and we opted for the lunchtime tasting menu. We wished we had discovered it earlier, as it was very easy-going and relaxed, and also sells some amazing wines. It’s one we will definitely be booking for our next trip.