Slicing through the countryside west of London, England’s Thames Valley is a gorgeous and often underrated region. Centered, of course, around the River Thames, the area is characterized by rolling hills, broadleaf forest, and a patchwork of farmland, and is home to one of the most exciting cities in the country: Oxford.
But beyond the big blockbuster sights is a network of delightful market towns and bucolic villages well worth seeking out. If you’re planning a trip to England, these are the best things to do in the Thames Valley.
Characterized by golden sandstone colleges and cobbled alleyways, the City of Spires, so named for its skyline of Gothic architecture, is a truly enthralling place. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of Tolkien—who lived, studied, and taught here while writing the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy—or you prefer to relive your favorite "Harry Potter" scenes in the dining hall that served as the filming location for Hogwarts’ Great Hall, the sheer breadth of experiences and stories in this city will wow. Spend a few days eating your way around the Covered Market, exploring the University’s colleges, and seeking out the curious collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Ashmolean, and History of Science Museum.
Meet the Royals in Windsor
Perhaps the most famous city along the Thames, Windsor is known as the Royal Borough, as it’s here that Her Majesty the Queen has her countryside English home. The castle, a not-so-modest 1,000-room building dating back 900 years, is open to visitors even when the Queen is home, and you’ll get to see its ornate, exquisite décor and watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony inside the grounds.
Elsewhere in Windsor, enjoy browsing the stores in the Royal Station arcade and ambling between the lovely independent boutiques along the High Street. Don’t miss a walk in Windsor Great Park, too, where you’ll get spectacular views of the castle and meet the resident red deer who roam the pasture here.
Hitting headlines in the last few years as the place Meghan Markle stayed the night before her marriage to Prince Harry, Cliveden House has hosted many a royal over the years. Part luxury hotel, part National Trust estate, the stately home built in 1666 by the second Duke of Buckingham oozes regal English character.
Period features and antique furniture abound, and portraits of guests and owners past adorn the walls. With flourishing flowerbeds and wild woodlands, the gorgeous Italianate gardens are well worth an afternoon of exploring, too. Boating is available on the river.
Go Boating in Henley-on-Thames
This well-to-do market town on the Thames is the place to go for English boating history. It’s the epicenter of rowing, and the first place you need to visit to understand this culture is the excellent River and Rowing Museum. Galleries tell the tales of the Olympic sport and display iconic vessels like the 19th-century Royal Oak, the oldest racing boat in Britain. Because this is "Wind in the Willows" country, an exhibition dedicated to Kenneth Grahame’s children’s story is on display as well.
It would be remiss to explore Henley without getting out on the water, so grab a picnic from one of delis in the town center and hire a small boat from Hobbs of Henley, who has been renting out vessels to the public for 150 years. If you don’t want to self-drive, they offer excellent themed cruises along the river, with gin tastings, wildlife spotting, and vintage afternoon teas.
Take a Hike in the Chilterns
On the edge of the Thames Valley lies the stunning Chiltern Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. You can walk in the shadow of the Chiltern hills by following the Thames Path, but the best way to see the region is by heading up. A hike along the Ridgeway National Trail promises exceptional views of the Thames Valley, while the Oxfordshire Way stretches from Henley and into the Cotswolds, passing through gorgeous little villages and across rural farmsteads.
Britain isn’t exactly renowned for its exceptional food and wine, but the country’s burgeoning viticulture scene is actually quite something. Winemakers from across the country are creating brilliant bubbly, fruity whites and excellent, complex reds. While many are concentrated down in Sussex and Kent, Berkshire has the Thames Valley’s finest winery: Stanlake Park.
Visit for a tour and tasting to get a flavor of what this region’s soil can produce, including brilliant Bacchus varieties, sparkling Brut, and Pinot Noir rosé. Stock up from the cellar shop and grocery store—the perfect place to craft a picnic.
Embrace Rural English Life
The Thames Valley is packed with pretty market towns and tiny villages, and Wallingford is one of the finest along the river. Located right on the Thames, the town features in the 1215 Magna Carta (England’s historic answer to the U.S. Constitution) and houses the ruins of a medieval castle amid a grassy public garden. Its picturesque town center has all manner of boutiques and excellent restaurants—Le Clos wine bar and Shellfish Cow are two local favorites—and the town even has links to Agatha Christie, who's buried in neighboring Cholsey.
Meanwhile, the surrounding villages of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell and Dorchester offer a glimpse into rural life in Britain, and the nearby Bronze and Iron Age hill forts of Wittenham Clumps offer spectacular views over the river and beyond.