Some people know Cirencester as the Capital of the Cotswolds, but in Roman times the town had a much loftier status.
At that time Corinium Dobunnorum was the second largest settlement in the whole country after Londinium, with a large forum and basilica and an amphitheatre that could seat 8,000. This story is told at the Corinium Museum, while modern Cirencester is a captivating townscape of radiant Cotswold stone.
The Perpendicular Church of St John the Baptist crowns Cirencester’s silhouette, and you can mix sightseeing with shopping at the New Brewery Arts studios, cosy little lanes and the famous weekly antiques market at the Corn Hall.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cirencester:
1. Corinium Museum
A mine of engrossing artefacts from Cirencester’s deep past, the Corinium Museum deserves as much time as you can afford.
You’ll see one of the largest collections of Romano-British artefacts in the UK, and what’s incredible is that they all come from the ground beneath your feet.
There are mosaics, coins, pieces of architecture, statues, steles and ceramics, and while Roman artefacts are the focus, there’s plenty more from other eras.
You can discover a Saxon burial, a hoard of Civil War-era coins and Medieval sculpture, all complemented by interactive technology to bring each period to life.
When the school holidays com around there’s a lively calendar of workshops where kids can try prehistoric painting, creating pop-up books about the Ice Age, and making Roman armour and mosaics.
2. Church of St John the Baptist
Gloucestershire’s largest parish church demands your attention on the Market Place in Cirencester.
The building dates to the end of the 12th century, and you can identify the earliest stonework in the chancel.
Over the first decades of the 16th century the church was expanded in opulent style with the help of donations from rich wool merchants.
These men and their families are remembered with resplendent monuments inside.
The stunning Perpendicular castellated porch facing the Market Place is from this time, and has some extraordinary fan vaulting on its ceiling.
The buttressed tower, crowned with pinnacles and adorned with blind tracery is from the 1400s.
Check the calendar because you can climb the narrow stairway to the top on open days.
3. Sights Around Town
Cirencester’s town centre warrants a walking tour, not least because of the tone of its beautiful Cotswold stone.
Sheep Street, Castle Street, Park Street and Market Place are all a joy.
On Market Place the splendid Corn Hall (1862), capped with a balustrade, has become a stylish shopping mall.
Also on the Market Place look for the timber-framed Fleece Hotel, a former coaching inn where, in 1651, it is believed that Charles II spent the night on his escape from England after defeat at the Battle of Worcester.
Poke around the snug Black Street for local shops and boutiques, while, finally, on Castle Street you may be taken aback by an unusually regal branch of Lloyds Bank.
This Palladian mansion dates from 1720 and was built for a rich wool stapler.
4. Cirencester Park
Unusually for a country house, the seat of the Earls Bathurst is almost part of the town.
The house’s grounds are open to the public without admission fee, from 08:00 to 17:00 each day.
At five miles long and three miles wide, the park invites you to perambulate, and was laid out in the 18th-century English Forest Style with a strict geometry.
This style was all about rural peace rather than Baroque splendour.
The poet and landscape gardener Alexander Pope planted trees here over three decades, and you can get around on stirring avenues, one of which is on an axis with the tower of St John’s.
Measuring 100 metres long, the tallest yew hedge in the world divides the house from the town, while Cirencester Park Polo Club (1896), the oldest polo club in the UK, is based in the grounds.
5. Cirencester Amphitheatre
For a piece of Corinium Dobunnorum, make your way to the Roman amphitheatre in the southwest of the town.
Now, you can’t expect a glorious intact monument as the stone terraces were quarried long ago and its wooden seats have perished, but what you will see are the complete earthworks of a venue that could seat 8,000 spectators.
Aerial photos give a clear picture of how this arena looked in its 2nd-century heyday.
The amphitheatre measures 46m x 41m, and later in the 6th century when the Western Roman Empire was toppling, this structure became a fort.
The site is managed by English Heritage and there are information boards for context.
6. New Brewery Arts
This arts and crafts centre is in a converted Victorian brewery and has galleries, studios, a cafe and a shop.
One of the best things about New Brewery Arts is the interaction it affords with crafts people, and the chance to see them at work.
Among the makers on-site are ceramicists, glass-blowers, stained glass painters, jewellers, textile artists, book-binders and upholsterers.
The resident weaver is also noteworthy for being the only one in the UK to use a classic eight-shaft loom.
A visit to the shop is obligatory for homewares and one-off pieces of jewellery, while the cafe uses only fair-trade and organic ingredients where possible.
Check the website for a schedule of courses, craft workshops and summer activities for children.
7. Cerney House Gardens
Hidden away in the Cotswolds countryside there’s a magical garden on a roost above the Churn Valley.
Enclosed by woodland, the Cerney House Gardens are in the grounds of a Georgian house, and offer new delights with every season.
The headline attraction is the Victorian walled garden and its fragrant herbaceous borders and roses on the trellis.
Spring means daffodils and then tulips, along with bluebells in the woods.
There’s also a Romantic rockery, and you may spend a few minutes reading the many labels in the herb and kitchen gardens, which are at their best later in the summer.
The gardens are fully organic, so while you may see signs of pests, the flowerbeds hum with bees and butterflies in summer.
8. Abbey Grounds
Looking across the St John’s, Abbey Grounds is a public park with a compelling history.
This was the site of the Augustinian Abbey of St Mary, which grew rich in Medieval times through the wool trade.
Consecrated in the 12th century, the abbey was pulled down in the 16th century during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. There are evocative pieces of stonework from the abbey and the country house that took its place, and you can see artefacts discovered during excavations in the 1960s at the Corinium Museum.
Beside the River Churn, the park is a relaxing place to be on a summer’s day, and has a children’s playground and a bandstand with brass band concerts on Sundays.
9. Chedworth Roman Villa
To really immerse yourself in the Roman theme, one of the largest Roman villas in Britain can be found ten miles to the north.
A National Trust site, this residence was constructed over phases from the 2nd to the 4th centuries when it reached its apogee.
At its height, the villa had a heated west wing with a dining room laid with a marvellous mosaic floor, as well as two bathing suites.
The site was uncovered 150 years ago and is partly sheltered by a modern conservation building, with raised walkways over the bathhouses, hypocaust and mosaics.
The location is wonderful too, in a lush Cotswold valley with trails meandering off into deciduous woodland above the site.
There are dress-up baskets for kids, as well as trails for youngsters depicting life in a Roman villa and also pointing out local nature.
10. Rodmarton Manor
A shining piece of Arts and Crafts architecture and interior design, Rodmarton Manor was completed over 20 years up to 1929, according to designs by luminaries of the movement like Ernest Barnsley, his brother Sidney Barnsley and Norman Jewson.
Nearly all the fixtures and furniture at Rodmarton Manor were commissioned specifically for the house and crafted locally by the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen.
They even helped revive some skills that were in danger of being forgotten.
On your way through this 74-room house, be sure to take in the applique wall-hangings by Hilda Benjamin, Norman Jewson’s leadwork and brass, pottery and furniture by Alfred and Louise Powell, and a wealth of supremely intricate ironwork.
The gardens are also Arts and Crafts, with topiaries, yew hedges, a cherry orchard, a dainty pavilion and a kitchen garden providing food for the house.
11. Elemental Sculpture Park
Over two decades this 20-acre patch of mixed broadleaf and coniferous woodland has become an environment for outdoor contemporary art.
The Elemental Sculpture Park is a constantly evolving space, with paths snaking past ponds and into glades with wildflowers.
On your walk you’ll be confronted by dozens of sculptures by a changing line-up of artists.
There are over 100 works at any one time, many of which deserve extra attention and will spark a conversation with your companions.
Drop by the Poppin Tearoom, which has a neat patio and enticing choice of home-baked cakes.
12. Cirencester Antiques and Collectables Market
Possibly the best place to go antiques shopping outside London, the Cirencester Antiques and Collectables Market has been around for four decades and is still free to enter.
The market trades in the handsome Corn Hall every Friday between 08:00 and 15:00. Here you can hunt for a bargain at specialist stalls for clocks, jewellery, ceramics, glass, silverware, paintings, furniture, as well as ephemera like postcards, maps, posters, coins, prints and a whole lot more.
Arrive early to get your hands on something unique.
13. Annual Gloucestershire Vintage & Country Extravaganza
The South Cerney Airfield a little way outside town is the venue for an astonishing display by the Stroud Vintage Transport & Engine Club.
The event, taking place at the start of August, is coming up for its 45th anniversary, and is one to mark in the diary.
The bill-topping attraction is the vehicle show, with 70 full-size moving steam engines, 90 stationary engines, 30 miniature engines, as well as more than 700 classic cars, as well as scores of tractors, military vehicles, vintage trucks and historic caravans.
You’ll get to see all sorts of live demonstrations, and there’s also an old-time funfair, more than 100 vintage trade stalls, specialist displays of vintage memorabilia, tents for models, amazing food, live music and even Lindy hop dancing.
14. Cotswold Water Park
Cirencester is on the northern edge of the largest system of marl lakes in the UK. These were excavated as pits for limestone gravel in the 20th century and since the 1970s have become flooded.
The Cotswold Water Park isn’t a water park in the classic definition of slides and pools, but there’s a lot to love about this landscape and 147 lakes.
As a Site of Special Scientific Importance, the east side of Water Park is a nature reserve, hosting birds like great crested grebes, wigeons, sedge warblers, coots and many more, while rare snakeshead fritillaries and bee orchids grow in the meadows.
Fishing, sailing and paddleboarding are a few of the many ways to see this landscape.
From Kemble train station there’s a network of bike trails into the park, and you locate the source of the Thames at the trailhead of the Thames Path National Trail.
15. Cotswold Country Park and Beach
Minutes south of the town in the Cotswold Water Park, this family amenity had picked up a poor reputation until it was shut down and reopened under new management in 2017. If you’re holidaying with younger members of the clan it’s an option to keep in mind, especially as there’s a beach.
The attraction is in the middle of a large system of reservoirs and offers a newly upgraded beach, with 100 tons of fresh sand.
In the water there’s an inflatable obstacle course, while activities like kayaking, paddleboarding and pedal-boating are all on the agenda.
There are also two cafes by the water, and barbecue pitches that you can hire out.