Oxford is built on grand history and energised by a thriving student population. Find the best things to do in Oxford and a few local experiences to make the most of this enthralling English city.
There’s an unmistakable charm to Oxford that greets you the moment you make contact with the small laneways and cobbled streets. History, tradition and English grandeur combine in an ancient golden-hued centre kept young and modern by the 25,000 students seeking to establish their future in one of the most famous university towns in the world.
This mix of history and youthful ambition has created a host of wonderful places to visit in Oxford.
Experience the majesty and grand architecture of some of the most illustrious colleges in the country. Uncover student life within medieval libraries and traditional pubs. Revel in world-class art or get active with some glorious wild swimming on the Thames just a stone’s throw from the centre of town.
From the town that gave the world the mass production of penicillin, lithium-ion batteries, 28 British Prime Ministers, 160 Olympic medals and of course, the COVID-19 vaccine, here is our list of the best things to do in Oxford.
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/ JUMP AHEAD – THINGS TO DO IN OXFORD
1 – EXPLORE THE BEST OF OXFORD COLLEGES
The oldest university in the English speaking world, Oxford consists of thirty-nine colleges spread throughout the city. Many of these colleges are not only the lifeblood of student activity but also magnificent architectural gems. You’d be hard-pressed to visit all of them so here’s some of the best.
CHRIST CHURCH COLLEGE
The grandest and wealthiest of the colleges, Christ Church was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, and has educated 13 prime ministers. The college chapel doubles as the Cathedral of Oxford with all the necessary ornamentation befitting its titles. The dining hall was the seat of parliament during the English Civil War and more recently, the inspiration behind the dining room in Harry Potter.
Magdalen College takes up a commanding position on the banks of the Cherwell, a strategic location that gave it tactical significance during the English Civil War. Today, this grand old college with picture-perfect quads and lush gardens is one of the best things to do in Oxford. Picture C.S. Lewis enjoying the grand old dining hall before visiting the intricate chapel.
Bang in the centre of town on lovely Turl Street, Exeter College is smaller and less grand than Christ Church and Magdalen, and it’s free to enter. But it was good enough for Lord of the Rings author, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a past pupil. The chapel is beautiful, but the highlight is the impressive views over the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Library.
2 – JOIN A TOUR OF THE BODLEIAN LIBRARY
As one of the oldest libraries in Europe with over 13 million printed items, the Bodleian Library is not to be missed in Oxford. There are several tours to pick from, but the best is the 1-hour tour including the Duke Humfrey’s Library.
This tour visits the Divinity School (the oldest teaching room in the university), the Convocation House (which acted as parliament in the 17th century) and the Chancellor’s Court (where guilty students have been punished over the centuries).
But the highlight is the Duke Humfrey’s Library, an atmospheric reading room lined with medieval books chained to wood-panelled walls. It’s so impressively old and musty that it was used as Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter Films.
3 – TAKE IN VIEWS OF THE RADCLIFFE CAMERA
While the grand almost semi-spherical Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodleian Library, not many tours stop here. So make sure you head to Radcliffe Square to savour this remarkable building.
Radiating from the dome-shaped architectural gem, smoothed cobbled stones separate the Radcliffe Camera from the finest collection of buildings in the city. Old Bodleian is to the north, Old Soul’s College to the east, Brasenose College to the west and Church of the St. Mary Virgin to the south.
For an even better vista, take the 127 steps up the St. Mary Virgin Church tower. Dating from 1280, it is a gem in itself, but it’s the view from the top that steals the show. Timed slots can be booked here.
4 – STROLL THE OXFORD COVERED MARKET
Serving people for almost 250 years, the stalls of the covered market range from grocers, butchers and fishmongers to boutiques selling art, aromatics and hats. Potter around the warehouse-style market and soak up the buzzing retail-inspired atmosphere.
Just outside the market on Market Street pop into Objects of Use; a homewares store teeming with beautifully-designed everyday objects.
Back inside the market, we highly recommend the coffee at Columbia Coffee Roasters, who source, roast and brew their own beans. Their flat white is textured to perfection and the salted caramel brownie is the best accompaniment to ponder the remaining things to do in Oxford.
5 – GET LOST IN BLACKWELL’S BOOK SHOP
Blackwell’s Bookshop has been providing students with mental stimulation for over 140 years. It began as only 12 square feet, but slowly took over the neighbouring shops to become the massive cavern it is today. In addition to academic books and popular classics, Blackwell’s also has a huge selection of posters, music and specialist rare books.
Book lovers spend hours getting lost in the aisles of Blackwell’s. But there is also a regular calendar of book signings, children’s workshops, discussions and book launches.
There are two Blackwell’s in Oxford. The original on Broad Street and a newer store in Westgate Shopping Centre which also stocks stationery, cards, games and toys.
6 – STARE UP AT THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS
Just like the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge, the Oxford version has nothing to do with the famous bridge in Venice. This one at least started life with an original name, Hertford Bridge. It was completed in 1914 to connect two sections of Hertford College over New College Lane.
Legend has it that a health survey of Oxford students found Hertford College to be incumbered with the heaviest weight. So the college closed off the bridge that links the quads to force them to take get more exercise. It’s not true, but it’s a good soundbite for walking tours looking for something to say as they guide tourists past this ornate footbridge.
On that note, try and visit early in the morning when the street will be less jammed with people admiring the beautiful design.
7 – VISIT ONE OF THE WORLD CLASS MUSEUMS
As a seat of learning, Oxford is blessed with some truly great museums, each with a different focus. From classics to contemporaries, quirky artefacts to the downright weird here are some museums not to be missed in Oxford.
The Ashmolean reopened in 2009 after a massive refurbishment and today it’s one of the best things to do in Oxford. Inside its classic exterior, the modernised space has a huge collection of archaeological specimens and fine art. Find drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci, and paintings by famous names from Rubens through to Picasso. The Greek and Minoan pottery is excellent as is the collection of ancient statues.
PITT RIVER’S MUSEUM
Less classical and quirkier, the Pitt River’s Museum contains a massive collection of strange objects from all over the world. With a focus on cultural anthropological treasures, find anything from Japanese Noh Masks to Hawaiian feather cloaks. The display on early human tattoos is particularly engrossing. And a little gross.
NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
Next door to the Pitt River’s Museum is the Oxford University of Natural History. Underneath a large square glass roof supported by grand cast-iron pillars, the museum houses a vast array of minerals, rocks, fossils and remnants of historic animals. While the rock section requires a certain disposition, kids will love the dodo and dinosaurs.
MODERN ART MUSEUM
A relative newcomer in an old city, Modern Art Oxford is free to enter and houses an eclectic array of modern art in a small, clean space. Regular rotating exhibitions means it’s a lottery as to what you’ll see, but for modern art fans, it never seems to disappoint.
8 – STROLL MERTON STREET & CHRIST CHURCH MEADOW
Oxford is an enchanting city with hidden nooks bursting with history. One of the best is Merton Street, an atmospheric cobbled lane packed with lovely colleges.
Start at the intricately decorated Examination Schools, where each year, anxious students pile in to sit their finals. Next, amble past the colleges lined up behind the cobbles. First up is Merton College, followed by Corpus Christi and, finally Oriel College.
After popping into the colleges, continue on to Merton Fields and Christchurch Meadow, two lovely green spaces in Oxford. The views of the old and new building from the gardens are stunning.
9 – PUNT ON THE RIVER CHERWELL
Punting is the tricky art of using a long pole (quant pole) to propel a small wooden boat (punt) along the gentle moving waters of the River Cherwell. The river is set in meadow, parks and woodland, so punting is a great way to enjoy the green surroundings of the city.
Bring a picnic, some beers or bubbles and try your hand at punting. But be warned, it’s harder than it looks.
The other option is to hire someone to do the punting for you. The most central location to hire a boat is at the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse next to Magdalen College. Punts take up to 5 people and cost £25 an hour. Chauffeured punts are £35 for 30 minutes. For all the details, visit Oxford Punting (but come back here to finish this list.)
10 – GRAB A PINT IN A CLASSIC OXFORD PUB
A proper Oxford education involves many long hours debating righteous thoughts inside cosy pubs. Here are some of the best.
THE TURF TAVERN
A personal favourite from my student days in Oxford, The Turf Tavern sits at the end of a narrow winding lane next to one of the few remaining sections of the old city walls. Dating back to 1381, a warren of rooms form cosy nooks, ideal on cold winter days. The great and the good have hunched under the low beams of the bar at the Turf. Bob Hawke (former Australian Prime Minister) ingloriously broke the world record for drinking a yard of ale here in 11 seconds in 1963.
THE BEAR INN
This is another atmospheric gem tucked into the back streets of Oxford. Dating back to 1242, The Bear Inn, is one of the oldest pubs in Oxford. But what sets it apart is the over 4,500 neck ties pinned to the walls. Each comes from a different club, team or school from anywhere across the world, creating a very sporty old-world feel.
THE KING’S HEAD
The King’s Head is a student favourite with long wooden benches on wood floors. The ales are good, and the service is quick. The two high-backed chairs by the windows overlooking Holywell Street have been used by many to plot world domination, stoke delusions of grandeur or plan your next thing to do in Oxford.
11 – PICNIC, SWIM AND STROLL AT PORT MEADOW
Port Meadow is an ancient grazing land that allegedly has not been ploughed for 4,000 years. It’s a grazing area for horses and cattle, and a haven for wildflowers and birdlife attracted to the river that runs along its boundary.
On a summer’s day, it’s a fantastic spot to picnic just 25 minutes’ walk from the centre of Oxford. Bring your gear and jump in the river for a wild swim. Take a long quiet paddle out from the banks, or join the kids leaping in from the bridge where the River Thames meets the Castle Mill Stream.
At the end of the day, head to the Trout Inn, beautifully set by the drifting waters of the river, or to The Perch, the 17th-century pub tucked into the village of Binsey.
To help put our favourite must see places in Oxford together in one day, ready our day trip to Oxford guide.
12 – ENJOY AN EVENING OF ENTERTAINMENT UNIQUE TO OXFORD
As a thriving university town, there’s no shortage of fun things to do in Oxford in the evening. However, for something a little bit different, here are 3 experiences that are unique to Oxford.
There’s no better way to experiencing the grandeur of an Oxford college than by being absorbed in the ceremony of evensong. Starting in the early evening, Evensong lasts about 40 minutes where you’ll be uplifted by heavenly choirs and exquisite architecture. Even for the non-religious, it’s one of the most evocative things to do in Oxford. We recommend Christ Church, Magdalen or New College.
OLD FIRE STATION THEATRE
The Old Fire Station Building is half theatre and half crisis support for the homeless. It creates a unique public space for all citizens of Oxford while also providing contemporary art, drama and music. With comedy, theatre, improv, dance, spoken word performances, and LGBTQ+ workshops, there’s something for everybody at the Old Fire Station Theatre.
The magnificent building is reason enough to come here only. Used as the official ceremonial hall of Oxford University, during the day The Sheldonian holds graduation ceremonies and other important university functions. But at night it often turns into a theatre. A curved auditorium of wooden-panelled seating overlooks a stage hosting top class drama or classical music.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN OXFORD
Here are a few more ideas that don’t quite make our top 12, but are still worth a look if you’ve got some extra time.
OXFORD CASTLE AND PRISON
Much of this Norman medieval castle was destroyed in the English Civil War but bizarrely the St. George’s Tower that remains is believed to be a watch tower from Saxon times. The remnants of the rest of the castle were converted into a prison and both now make up the Castle & Prison tourist attraction.
It’s a bit crammed in on all sides by shopping centres and council buildings, but the tour guides do a good job of bringing it alive. Be aware there are plenty of steps up and down the towers.
OXFORD BOTANIC GARDENS
The Oxford Botanic Garden contains over 5,000 plant species making it one of the most diverse plant collections in the world. Founded in 1621 it was the UK’s first botanic garden. Being located centrally in the city, it’s very accessible. Enter through the impressive Danby Gateway and make sure you don’t miss the walled garden.
Embrace the quirkier side of Oxford at Thirsty Meeples Board Games Café. Pay a small cover charge, then play as many board games as you like from their collection of 2,700 titles. The cafe has a large selection of drinks and food you can hold in one hand so as to not distract from the important business of winning.
OTHER COLLEGES TO VISIT
If you have time, the other Oxford Colleges worth popping into are New College, for the moody cloisters; Trinity College, for some of the grandest gardens in Oxford; and Corpus Christi for the timeless cobbled square.
All opening times for the Oxford colleges are summarised here.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK IN OXFORD
As a thriving university town there no shortage of great places to grab a bite in Oxford. Here are some of our favourite places to eat, drink and be merry in Oxford.
THE HANDLE BAR CAFÉ
Located above a bike shop, the quirky cycle-inspired decor and interesting brunch menu is a great introduction to the hipster side of Oxford.
As a university town fuelled on coffee, Oxford has its share of great cafes. Society Café gets our nod for their expertly crafted brews and sleek modern space.
THE TURL STREET KITCHEN
Turl Street Kitchen serves up trendy dishes with a focus on sustainability. They also support social projects within Oxford and display works by local artists. They have a great selection of vegetarian options.
ASHMOLEAN ROOFTOP RESTAURANT
Situated above the museum, the Ashmolean Rooftop Restaurants deliver well-prepared dishes in a spectacular setting.
Relax in the trendy student neighbourhood with an expertly crafted cocktail in the dimly lit lounge at Raoul’s Bar. To take the skill home with you, subscribe to one of their cocktail classes.
BEST DAY TRIPS FROM OXFORD
If you can drag yourself away from the many excellent things to do in Oxford, then here is our pick of the best day trips from the city.
A grand building surrounded by magnificent, landscaped gardens, it was briefly the home of Winston Churchill and the only place to be called a palace that is not a royal residence. It’s a 20-minute drive or around the same time on the S3 bus from Oxford.
In under a 30-minute drive you can be in some of the most picturesque chocolate box villages in England. Honey-coloured houses along babbling brooks; it doesn’t get more quintessentially British than this.
South of Oxford the main branch of the River Thames winds its way through the charming North Wessex Downs. Walk along the riverbanks, explore the towns of Henley and Marlow and find a peaceful part of the river to pop in for a swim.
BOOK AHEAD / BEST THINGS TO DO IN OXFORD
Oxford can get very busy, especially over the peak summer period, so it’s a good idea to book a few things in advance to save you waiting around in queues.
A tour with a student guide is a great way to get the inside scoop on one of the colleges, while the Harry Potter walk takes you past all the locations made famous by the films.
2-HOUR UNIVERSITY TOUR – BOOK ONLINE
HARRY POTTER FILM SITES – BOOK ONLINE
TOUR FROM LONDON – BOOK ONLINE
BODLEIAN LIBRARY – BOOK ONLINE
CHRIST CHURCH COLLEGE – BOOK ONLINE
WHERE TO STAY IN OXFORD
As a popular hub for tourists to the UK, accommodation in Oxford can be expensive, but it has a wide range of great hotels. Check out our suggestions below.
If you prefer staying in the countryside then find a place to stay in the Cotswolds. Only 30 minutes outside the city centre, you could spend the night in an atmospheric old country pub in a cute village. All our recommendations are covered in our guide to the best places to stay in the Cotswolds.
The chic country house feel of the Old Parsonage has a warm and friendly vibe that hits the spot with visitors looking for a blend of luxury and character.
The Galaxie is a friendly, family-run guesthouse in a leafy suburb just outside the centre of Oxford with a hearty full English breakfast.
QUIRKY & AFFORDABLE
THE OSNEY ARMS
At just a 10-minute walk to the centre of Oxford, the Osney Arms is a great, budget-friendly option with bright clean rooms and a grab and go breakfast.
HOW TO GET TO OXFORD
Centrally located in England, Oxford can be an easy day trip or weekend break from many places in the UK.
Oxford train station is a ten minutes walk from the centre of town. Trains leave from London Paddington every 30 minutes and take around 1 hour. Regular direct trains also run from Birmingham (1h 10m), Bournemouth (1h 50m) & Manchester (2h 45m). There are so many other historic cities around Oxford it can also be included on a 1-week UK rail trip.
While the train is quicker, the bus is cheaper and the route to London is particularly well served. The Oxford Tube bus service leaves from London’s Victoria Station every 20 minutes and collects passengers at Marble Arch, Baker Street, Notting Hill Gate and Shepherd’s Bush underground stations. The trip takes around 1 hour and 40 minutes and ends at the Oxford bus station right in the centre of town.
Only 60 to 70 miles from London, Birmingham & Bristol it takes less than 1 hour 30 minutes to drive from each. Parking in town is expensive and the one way system can get jammed. Either park at one of the Park & Ride services on the outskirts of town or head to the newly finished Westgate Shopping Centre car park.
MORE BRITAIN READING
We’ve spent a lot of time exploring Britain, from rain-soaked outings in the Lake District to strolling historic centres. Here are some more of our guides from our home country including popular iconic sights and lesser-known hidden gems. For ideas on how to visit Oxford on a day trip, read our 1-day itinerary.
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