Known affectionately as the Capital of the Cotswolds, Cirencester is a charming market town with a population of around 20,000. It has a distinctive well-to-do character and it serves as a wonderful base for exploring the Cotswolds.
Cirencester itself has a fascinating history with Roman roots, which you can see in many aspects of the town’s development from the Roman Amphitheatre to the Corinium Museum. Through the medieval times, the town rapidly became a commercial hub, becoming a wealthy centre in the local region.
It’s this boom during the medieval times which really characterises the town today with its beautiful honey-coloured stone buildings. The picturesque streets and alleys make for a town that has successfully retained its charm over the years.
While its history is splendid and diverse, Cirencester also offers the visitor a contemporary haven. It’s been popular for shopping since the Domesday Book of 1986, and that’s not changed. There are markets here regularly in both the Market Place and the Corn Hall.
Around these are dotted interesting boutique shops. Diving into different courtyards and finding another independent emporium is one of the real treats of spending time in Cirencester. Of course, many high street brands are found here too.
A great base for exploring the Cotswolds
While Cirencester’s meandering streets of golden buildings take centre stage, Cirencester is also characterised by its expansive green spaces, perfect for many Cirencester walks. From the 3,000 acre Cirencester Park to the Abbey Grounds, there’s always a green spot just around the corner, ideal for a picnic. Outside the town, you’re quickly into the rolling countryside iconic of the Cotswolds and can walk around many of the lovely villages.
Owing to its larger size than many of the Cotswold villages, Cirencester restaurants draw visitors to the Cotwolds from far and wide. And this is rightly so, as many of the places to eat in Cirencester are the best in the area.
Read on to learn more about things to do in Cirencester and to discover my top pick of Cirencester restaurants and hotels.
Cirencester – what you need to know
Cirencester is a popular town for many looking to visit the Cotswolds. Easy to access due to its central location and its wider range of accommodation and amenities compared to many of the villages, many who visit the Cotswolds choose to make Cirencester their base. Here I’ve pulled together everything you need to know to make your visit successful.
Where is Cirencester?
Cirencester is in the county of Gloucestershire and is south-central in the Cotswolds. Just 90 minutes by car to London via the M4, 75 minutes to Birmingham and with the south west in reach down the M5, it’s central to England too. It’s a short journey from Cirencester to many of the other Cotswold towns and villages, such as Oxford, Gloucester, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold.
Cirencester itself doesn’t have a train station. The nearest station is Kemble, around 10 minutes’ drive. There is an excellent local bus service. Trains from London leave from Paddington and take around 2.5 hours.
Parking in Cirencester
Cirencester parking is not as complex as it can be in some of the Cotswolds villages, but it’s still worth planning in advance. There are a variety of Cirencester car parks, but be aware that these vary in size and can fill up quickly in busy periods. Useful Cirencester car parks include:
- Abbey Grounds
- Beeches (with electric charging points)
- Brewery Car Park
- Forum Car Park
- Leisure Centre
- Old Station
- Sheep Street
Whiteway Car Park is for permit holders only. You can also park for free at the weekends and on bank holidays at the Cotswold District Council Offices and at St James Place. There is some on street parking in Market Place and Castle Street – charges apply.
The King’s Head Hotel
I was fortunate enough to stay in an ‘Indulgent’ room at the King’s Head and can heartily recommend it for a luxury place to stay in Cirencester. It’s right in the heart of the town and has a fabulous boutique style. Expect opulent touches, such as White Company toiletries as well as friendly professional staff. Make use of the subterranean vaulted spa for some serious pampering and make sure you dine in one of the hotel’s two restaurants.
The Corinium Hotel
The Corinium is a luxury hotel a little north of the Abbey Grounds. This former wool merchant’s house offers a classic town centre stay.
Outside of the town, The Stump is a quintessential Cotswold pub with wonderful rooms just a short drive back into the town. If you’d like to be close to the town but also want to look out of the window at a classic Cotswold’s view, this 17th-century coaching inn is for you.
Wild Thyme and Honey
A boutique country hotel on the edge of Cirencester that is so charming it deserves your visit is Wild Thyme and Honey. It’s perfect for romantic breaks with its copper bathtubs and four poster beds. The rooms are the epitome of luxury and there’s plenty of exposed stone and beams to get your Cotswolds fix.
Discover more luxury hotels in the Cotswolds.
Where to eat in Cirencester
There is so much choice that it’s difficult to pick the best restaurants in Cirencester. From pubs to fine eateries and afternoon tea, there’s something for everyone.
Pubs & restaurants in Cirencester
One of the King’s Head restaurants, you should definitely make a reservation at MBB Brasserie. There’s a vibrant atmosphere at this popular spot which serves modern British food in the centre of Cirencester.
Tierra & Mar
Tierra & Mar is a fun and stylish Spanish restaurant which serves outstanding tapas. You can enjoy the set lunch menu with a glass of sangria in hand, bringing a Spanish feel to the Cotswolds!
On the outskirts of Cirencester is Barnsley House which is a boutique hotel with exquisite food on offer. Expect produce fresh from the garden with artistic flair.
The Bear Inn
The Bear Inn is one of the best pubs in Cirencester for food. In the heart of the town, it’s easy to get to. With plenty of 18th Century traditional features, dining here is relaxed and delicious. Come for Sunday lunch!
The Golden Cross Inn
One of the most popular pubs in Cirencester is the revamped Golden Cross, dating from the 18th century. It’s a great place for a boozy lunch.
Places for afternoon tea in Cirencester
King’s Head Hotel
I can recommend afternoon tea at the King’s Head Hotel in the centre of Cirencester. It makes for a wonderful break from shopping. Expect delicious fresh scones and exquisitely presented bite size cakes. Enjoy some bubbly too. Discover more amazing places for afternoon tea in the Cotswolds.
Best things to do in Cirencester
There are a huge number of things to do in Cirencester, but also within easy reach of the town. My top picks include:
1. Get up close to Roman history
Head to the former Augustinian Abbey of St Mary and here you’ll find the impressive remains of a Roman Amphitheatre. This dates from the second century AD and could once seat 8,000 people! Here too you can see some of Cirencester’s original Roman walls.
Following that taste for Roman history, you’ll definitely want to spend some time at the Corinium Museum. Here you can see stunning mosaics, jewellery and stone columns. It’s a fascinating insight into Roman life in the area.
There’s plenty of Saxon history on display here too, including the inscribed tombstone of the infamous Boudica.
2. Enjoy a picnic
There are so many places within Cirencester for you to enjoy green spaces.
A favourite is at the Bathurst Estate and Cirencester Park which is just a short walk from the centre of Cirencester. The grounds were largely established in the 18th century and make a peaceful and relaxing place to wander. Look out for the nicknamed Pope’s Seat.
There are 3,000 acres to explore here, so you can come back time and again and discover a new favourite place. Sneak a peak of Cirencester House, but unfortunately you can’t visit as it’s the current Earl of Bathurst’s family home. It’s free to enter Cirencester Park and the easiest way in is from the entrance gates on Cecily Hill.
Alternatively, spend some time wiling away the hours in the Abbey Grounds. Just off the Market Place, this is a wonderful place to bring a drink and get away from the hubbub when shopping. It’s an atmospheric spot with the remaining Norman Arch and the artificial lake which was once used by the monks.
Another park worth visiting, especially if you’re travelling with children, is St Michael’s Park. There’s plenty to do here with mini golf, croquet, tennis courts and an adventure playground.
3. Find some peace in a church
In the Market Place, right in the heart of the town, is the 15th Century Parish Church of St John the Baptist. Fairly dubbed the Cathedral of the Cotswolds, it is well worth coming in here for a visit. Spot the wine glass shaped pulpit (one of just two of its type to survive the Reformation) and spy the Anne Boleyn Cup.
This church does an excellent job of displaying the historic wealth of the town, punching well above its weight for the size of the population. There are guided tours if you want one.
4. Spend happy hours shopping
Cirencester is absolutely perfect for a happy day of shopping in a way quite unlike anywhere else. There’s an abundance of independent boutiques and you can find yourself hopping from a craft and gift shop to a chocolatier to a clothes store.
A great place to begin your Cirencester shopping excursion is in Black Jack Street. In the Stableyard is a selection of boutiques. Then head to Castle Street. Here is the New Brewery Arts Centre with a concentration of craft and arts shops. Other places to explore include Swan Yard, the Old Post Office development and the Woolmarket.
Coincide your shopping trip with market day. Choose between Monday or Friday for the main market but farmer’s markets and other themed markets run on different days. Look at the Corn Hall to find out more about programme markets. They have the Home, Fashion and Garden Bazaar on Mondays-Thursdays, an Antiques and Collectibles Market on Fridays and various other markets on Saturdays throughout the month.
5. Cirencester walks
The Cotswolds is popular for walking and Cirencester is no stranger to this love affair. Enjoy the Whereat Trail for a town centre walk that takes in the main sights including the Amphitheatre. From the town you can also follow the Gateway Towns walking and cycling route.
Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust has developed a beautiful walk which is a fascinating introduction to the natural diversity of the town.
There are various walks which take you to the neighbouring villages that are worth exploring if you have more time and energy.
6. Visit the Cotswolds beyond
Cirencester acts as a gateway to the Cotswolds, and you can use your stay in the town to discover and explore more that the Cotswolds has to offer. For example Sudeley Castle is just one mile away. This was once owned by former wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr.
Make time to visit other Cotswolds towns and villages, such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Bibury, Chipping Norton and Bourton-on-the-Water. Make sure you visit Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter too. Another Cotswold’s town you can visit easily from Cirencester is Cheltenham. Here, of course, you can enjoy the Cheltenham Festival in March and a day at the races.
Cirencester is an exceptional base for exploring the whole of the Cotswolds, but don’t miss out on everything it has to offer in its own right.