The market town of Cheltenham would never be the same again after its mineral springs were discovered in the 1700s.
This triggered a hundred-year wave of development that peaked in the Regency era in the first decades of the 19th century.
With Neoclassical spa facilities, terraces of stuccoed townhouses and opulent gardens, Cheltenham has been described as Britain’s most complete Regency town.
It’s been a long time since the upper crust visited to “take the waters”, but the town has held onto its prosperous air.
In March Cheltenham Racecourse stages the Gold Cup, a landmark in the British horseracing calendar.
The town also rests below the first escarpment of the Cotswolds, and the region’s picture-book villages and charming countryside are all in your grasp.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cheltenham:
1. Montpellier District
In the southern part of Cheltenham’s town centre, the Montpellier District is the poshest part of a well-to-do town.
The Montpellier District was born in the 1830s and is replete with graceful Regency townhouses and dainty greenery at Imperial Gardens and Montpellier Gardens.
The district is for shopping and dining, but most of the establishments, from design shops to antiques dealers and wine bars, are one-offs, lending the Montpellier District a more personal touch.
On Montpellier Walk the Neoclassical Caryatids add a sense of ceremony and are modelled on the Erechtheion in Athens.
Just around the corner is one of the UK’s oldest shopping galleries, the Montpellier Arcade, completed in 1832.
2. The Promenade and Long Gardens
North of the Montpellier District is one of England’s most treasured shopping streets.
The Promenade was first plotted as a tree-lined avenue in 1818, coinciding with the arrival of the Sherborne Spa.
The way is shaded by horse chestnut, copper beech, plane and lime trees, in front of rows of Regency houses and more modern buildings.
These host cafes, restaurants and a medley of midmarket and upmarket retailers like Waterstones, Karen Millen, House of Fraser and Whittard of Chelsea.
Tracing the walk beside the Municipal Buildings are the Long Gardens, laid with ornamental flowerbeds and enriched by the Neptune Fountain (1893), inspired by the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
3. Pittville Park
Cheltenham’s mineral wells are dispersed over a large area, and in the early 19th century the town grew northwards with the establishment of Pittville, created by lawyer and developer Joseph Pitt.
The park opened in 1825 and is watched by the glorious Pittville Pump Room, on a small eminence to the north.
This 33-hectare space was a place of repose for people taking the waters at the Pump Room.
The east side flows down to an ornamental pond, and has an aviary with an assortment of birds and rabbits.
Further west, across Evesham Road, is the larger boating lake, fringed by the gorgeous boathouse (hosting a cafe), and renting out pedal boats and rowboats in summer.
Also in the park is a nine-hole golf course, a newly revamped play area for kids, tennis courts and a skatepark.
4. Pittville Pump Room
Cheltenham’s Regency masterwork is the Pittville Pump Room on the north border of Pittville Park.
This Grade I listed building went up in the second half of the 1820s as a place to drink the therapeutic waters in the new town of Pittville.
This dignified building has a colonnade of Ionic columns beneath three statues, representing Hygieia (Greek Goddess of Health), Asclepius (God of Medicine) and Hippocrates.
The Pump Room’s dome is supported by more Ionic columns, in a gallery where musicians would have played for people as they tried their best to drink these pungent waters.
The Regency pump is still intact, and is an impressive, monolithic structure made from marble and scagliola.
The Pump Room is now hired out for functions, but you can take a look around from Wednesday to Sunday.
5. The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum
In a Regency building with a modern extension, the Wilson Art Gallery and Museum is cherished for its Designated Arts and Crafts collection.
There are textiles, ceramics, paintings, leatherwork, pieces of furniture, wood carvings, silverwork and jewellery from the Arts and Crafts movement, which idealised the English countryside and was centred in the Cotswolds from 1890. You can also take in some painting from the Dutch Golden Age, by artists like Gerrit Dou, as well as porcelain from the Far East.
The Edward Wilson Gallery is a space dedicated to the Cheltenham-born explorer who died on Captain Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expedition in 1912. You can also delve into Cheltenham’s human history and find out about its growth as a spa resort from the end of the 18th century.
6. Imperial Gardens
Bordering Cheltenham Town Hall on Imperial Square, Imperial Gardens dates back to 1818. Initially this was reserved for patients at the Sherborne Spa, which is now occupied by the Queens Hotel on the west side of the square.
Framed by terraces of regal townhouses and the imposing Town Hall, these formal gardens are renowned for their floral displays when 25,000 blooms produce a spectacle of colour every spring.
In summer the gardens are a cultivated setting for outdoor events during the Science, Jazz, Literature and Music Festivals.
You can also come to pay homage to the Cheltenham native, Gustav Holst, who has been remembered with a full-size statue over a fountain, unveiled in 2009.
7. Holst Birthplace Museum
Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874, to a professional musician and the daughter of a respected solicitor from not far away in Cirencester.
This flat-fronted house on Clarence Road was turned into a museum in Holst’s honour in 1975 and is one of only two birthplace museums devoted to composers in the UK. The house offers a snapshot of domestic life in Victorian Cheltenham, with rooms decorated with Holst family furniture and a kitchen containing antique utensils and a fine old range.
The showpiece though is the very piano Gustav Holst used to compose his masterpiece, The Planets.
Recitals are occasionally given on this instrument, known for its soft touch keys.
The Holst Discovery Space is an interactive area where you can browse more than 3,000 Holst-specific items, and listen to the composer’s earliest manuscripts.
8. Everyman Theatre
One of two first-rate performing arts venues in Cheltenham the Everyman Theatre is a grand Frank Matcham-designed building that opened in 1891. It is the oldest surviving auditorium constructed by this feted architect, adorned with elaborate gilded stucco, paintings of cherubs, bespoke wallpaper and carpets, scagliola, marble and paintings of the Angels of Comedy and Tragedy on the spandrels flanking the proscenium arch.
The theatre was restored at great expense at the beginning of the 2010s, and is an apt venue for an edifying night of ballet, opera, dance or theatre, or for some earthier fun at Christmas time for pantomimes.
9. Cheltenham Town Hall
On Imperial Square, Cheltenham’s Town Hall has a misleading name as it’s never been a government building.
Rather, it’s an assembly rooms, which historically were places for member of the upper classes to meet and hold social functions.
This Neoclassical venue replaced Cheltenham’s former Assembly Rooms in 1903 and has a splendid main hall, capable of seating more than 1,000 spectators and enriched with marble Corinthian columns with gilded capitals and a marvellous coffered ceiling.
There’s a busy programme of comedy, music of all descriptions, spoken, dance and children’s shows worth browsing if you’re in town.
Just next to the entrance hall is the Central Spa, dispensing waters from all of Cheltenham spa’s pump rooms, and with a stunning octagonal Doulton stoneware counter and urns that are still in use.
10. Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Steam Railway
The Great Western Railway’s Honeybourne Line was built in the 1900s and linked Cheltenham with Stratford-upon-Avon and Birmingham.
This line eventually closed in 1976 after decades of neglect, but as early as 1981 preservation work began on a stretch not far from Cheltenham at Toddington.
The track was relaid, stations were restored and in 2018 the line has been extended between Cheltenham Race Course and Broadway, for a round trip of 28 miles.
You’ll take your seat in a historic carriage pulled by a steam locomotive through some of the Cotswolds’ most idyllic scenery, past hamlets and villages and across elevated terrain with far-ranging views of this range and the neighbouring Malverns.
There are services almost every day from April to October, as well as a schedule in December.
11. The Cotswolds
Cheltenham is in a handy location to get the most out of the Cotswolds and lies just west of the first hills of this much-loved range.
A few things come to mind when you mention the Cotswolds: Bucolic rolling countryside, cosy villages, market towns rich in architecture from an historic wool boom, and houses built from the range’s golden oolitic limestone.
Cheltenham is at the head of two circular driving routes, together known as the Romantic Road.
The northern loop takes you into the highest parts of the range to Cleeve Hill (330 metres) and towns and villages like Chipping Campden, which has a gorgeous 17th-century Town Hall and Perpendicular Gothic Wool Church.
The southern loop heads down to the source of the River Thames and the town of Cirencester, which displays its Roman history at the top-notch Corinium Museum.
12. St Mary’s Minster
Cheltenham’s parish church was upgraded to a minster in 2013 and is the only remaining Medieval monument in the town.
St Mary’s was first raised by the Normans in the 11th century, and has surviving Gothic architecture.
There are elements from the Early English style, but most of the building, notably its window tracery, is Decorated Gothic from the 13th and 14th centuries.
The north porch is a delight, and has kept its lierne vaulting, while the church tower is a little older, going back to the start 13th century, with a peal of 12 bells newly cast in 2018. Look out for the royal coat of arms, commemorating George III’s visit to Cheltenham in 1788 and a memorial to Henry Skillicorne an 18th-century merchant mariner who founded Cheltenham’s first spa.
13. Sudeley Castle
A few short miles into the Cotswolds from Cheltenham is Sudeley Castle, one of the few castles in England that is still a private residence.
Completed in 1442, the castle would have close royal ties after being seized by the crown from its owner because of his Lancastrian connections, and was given to the future Richard III. Henry VIII’s sixth wife Catherine Parr spent the last few months of her life at Sudeley Castle, dying through complications from childbirth in 1548. Her tomb can be found in the castle’s chapel, St Mary’s Church, but had been hidden for almost 250 years, being rediscovered in 1788. The castle has an exhibition about the life of Catherine Parr, including exceptionally rare books that she wrote and love letters to her last husband Thomas Seymour.
Other treasures include Charles I’s own beer jugs, lacework made by Anne Boleyn and Abusson bed hangings produced for Marie Antoinette.
14. Devil’s Chimney
You can go on a quick jaunt into the Cotswolds by making the short trip up the first slope to the local, landmark, the Devil’s Chimney.
Nobody’s too sure how this tall limestone column was formed, but it rises from a disused quarry and was surely carved out by human hands hundreds of years ago instead of being caused by erosion.
Apparently this landform is the chimney for the devil’s underground dwelling, and there was a time when people would throw coins on top to encourage him to stay below.
The other reason to scale the first ridge of the Cotswolds is for the views, over Cheltenham, parts of Gloucester and as far as the Malverns 15 miles to the northwest.
15. Cheltenham Racecourse
A spa resort wouldn’t be complete without a racecourse, and Cheltenham’s is one of the most revered in the country.
A mecca for National Hunt (jump) racing, Cheltenham has 14 Grade I races, in a season that starts in November and culminates with the world-famous Cheltenham Festival in March.
Some of the most hotly contested races in the sport take place in that four-day event, like the Champion Hurdle, the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and finally the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which has a prize purse of almost £600,000 for just a few minutes of racing.
The course has a capacity of 67,500, bolstered by the new 6,500-seater Princess Royal Stand, and sits in a scenic position, just below the escarpment of the Cotswolds.