Discovering Oxford: Things to see and do in England's timeless university city
Nestled in beautiful southwest England, only about an hour from London, Oxford is not your average destination. It's a place where history, academia, and a touch of magic come together to create an experience like no other.
As you stroll through the cobblestone streets you pass the magnificent spires that define Oxford’s skyline. Every corner tells a story, the buildings whisper of scholarly pursuits, and each leafy college courtyard invites you to step into a world of intellectual exploration.
But Oxford isn't a city frozen in time; it's a vibrant hub of culture and modern allure. As you wander through its bustling streets, you'll find a delightful blend of old and new.
Quaint bookshops nestle alongside trendy cafes, and traditional pubs are situated next to contemporary art galleries. It's a city that effortlessly balances tradition and innovation.
Whether you're an avid history buff, a literature enthusiast, or simply someone with an insatiable appetite for discovery, Oxford has something to offer. Explore the hallowed halls of renowned colleges, dive into the realms of history at world-class museums, and lose yourself in the beauty of Oxford’s parks and riversides.
A brief history of Oxford
Oxford’s history is first documented in the 10th century. Traditionally a crossing place in the river (a ford) for oxen, the settlement became known as Oxford.
We don’t know when exactly a group of scholars decided to make the settlement into an intellectual hub, but it’s first mentioned in the 12th century. As the oldest university in the United Kingdom, Oxford University has been a beacon of brilliance and learning. It has attracted some of the brightest minds in history, from Sir Isaac Newton to J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Hawking to C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll.
But Oxford's history isn't just about the university. The city itself is like a living museum, with its medieval architecture and charming streets. As you explore the winding lanes, you'll feel the echoes of centuries past. It's as if the spirit of scholarly debates and groundbreaking ideas still lingers in the air.
The first thing most people think of when they decide to visit Oxford is, of course, Oxford University. But if you’re wondering where to go to take a tour of the University, there is no single location. Instead you'll visit an individual Oxford college.
The Oxford Colleges
Unlike most universities, Oxford University is not a location. Instead it’s a collection of 44 separate colleges, brought together under one organization. The colleges are scattered throughout the Oxford city centre, and each is self-contained with its own administration, professors, dormitories, libraries and dining halls.
When a student applies to Oxford University, it’s up to them whether they give a college preference. If they don’t have a preference, they’ll be assigned to a college if they’re accepted.
Each Oxford University college has its own distinguished alumni, as well as quirky traditions, like the pancake races held at Oriel College. These traditional events are only open to students of that college, and many seem to be the byproduct of a bit too much time spent in the local pubs.
While a student will live in their college’s dormitories, eat in their college’s dining hall, and study in their college’s library, their classes can be held at any of the colleges across the city. Colleges aren’t dedicated to any one subject, and you’ll find a cross section of studies and interests being pursued by the students at each college.
Every college has its own unique charm and architectural splendor, allowing you to immerse yourself in centuries of tradition and academic excellence. From ornate chapels to magnificent libraries, these colleges are living testaments to the enduring legacy of scholarship that is central to Oxford.
You can visit many of the colleges, and each charges its own admission fee. The most popular to visit is Christ Church College. You’ll want to make reservations in advance if you’d like to visit, since they tend to sell out by midday.
Other colleges worth visiting are Magdalen College (my personal favorite), New College, Exeter College, Balliol College and Trinity College. You don’t need to make reservations to visit these colleges, just pay the admission fee when you arrive.
Most colleges don’t open for visitors until the afternoon during the week, and are closed to visitors during exam times. You’ll want to check schedules prior to planning your trip if visiting a specific college is a “must do” activity for you.
The Bodleian Library
One of the oldest and most esteemed libraries in the world, the Bodleian Library is one of the few centralized aspects of the University that is not part of any single college. Like the University itself, however, it’s not a single location. It’s a network of 26 libraries, many dedicated to specific subjects.
It’s a library governed by strict rules. Each reader who visits the Bodleian Libraries must take an oath:
“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”
The centerpiece of the Bodleian Library is its most historic building, the Bodleian Old Library. This literary sanctuary is home of the Divinity School and the Duke Humfrey's Library.
Many of the libraries are either closed to the public or are only accessible on guided tours. However, the Weston Library hosts public exhibitions and events, so can be visited.
The Divinity School
The Divinity School, with its magnificent Gothic architecture, stands as a testament to the city’s rich history and academic prestige.
Originally built in the 15th century, the Divinity School was where students of Divinity would attend their lectures and take their exams. But these exams weren’t what we think of as exams. There were no written portion, instead they were oral, and completed in Latin.
During an exam two students would stand on either side of the hall, and would have to debate a topic. Any student of the University could attend the exam, and were welcome to question the students being examined as well. These debates could go on for hours, and at times even for days.
The Divinity School is no longer used for lectures and exams. Today the reason most people visit is to see the spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling, adorned with delicate stone ribs that branch out like the ribs of a fan, creating a mesmerizing visual effect. It’s considered one of the finest examples of its kind in Europe.
The other reason many people visit is a bit more modern. The Divinity School, like many locations in Oxford, was used as a filming location for both the hospital wing throughout the films and for the dancing lessons in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
The Divinity School is the easiest of the Bodleian Library buildings to visit. Tickets can be purchased online or in person, and while they may sell out during the busiest times of year they are usually available at other times.
Duke Humfrey’s Library
This historic library, named after Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, is a true treasure trove of knowledge. Constructed in the 15th century, the library is a stunning example of medieval architecture.
As you step inside, you’re immediately transported to a world of scholarly grandeur. The library's impressive wooden bookcases, adorned with intricate carvings and brass fittings, create an ambiance that exudes both elegance and wisdom.
You can still see the chains that originally bound the books, which were immensely valuable, to the shelves. Instead of taking books from the shelves to a table, a reader would move from shelf to shelf to stand and read the book they needed.
The reading room is beautiful, and any book lover will want to add it to their list of places to visit. Harry Potter fans will also want to add this one as well, since many of the library scenes were filmed here.
If you’d like to visit Duke Humphry’s library, you can only visit as part of a guided tour. These tours sell out very quickly online, but if you miss the opportunity to purchase tickets in advance (like I did) there’s still hope.
The day you’d like to visit, go to the ticket window before they open to make sure you’re at the front of the line. They’ll put a list of tour times and where they visit. Not every tour visits every location, it depends on the length of the tour.
If tickets are available for a tour that visits the building you’re interested in visiting, you can purchase it and come back about 15 minutes prior to the tour. I had thought I’d need to save the library for my next visit, but was able to get tickets this way and had a wonderful visit.
The Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodleian Libraries, but unlike the Divinity School and the Duke Humfrey’s Library, you can see it from the outside as well. If you’d like to go inside you can only do it as part of a guided tour, but the outside alone is definitely worth taking the time to see.
One of the best-known landmarks of Oxford, the circular shape of the Rad Cam, as it's known, is unmistakable. Built in the 18th century, this architectural gem houses valuable collections and offers a glimpse into the intellectual heart of the city. It's a sight that never fails to remind you of the quest for knowledge that is central to the city.
For views of the Radcliffe Camera from above you can climb the tour of The Church of St. Mary the Virgin. You’ll also get views across the many spires and towers of the city and colleges.
The Sheldonian Theatre
The Sheldonian Theatre takes center stage in the life of any Oxford student. It’s the place where their journey begins with Matriculation, and where it ends with graduation. It’s one of the few places that are central for every student, regardless of college.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the striking architecture and impressive ceiling frescoes are a sight to behold. The view from the central dome over the city is also known as one of the best you can get.
The Bridge of Sighs
One of the charming landmarks you'll come across while you explore Oxford is the Bridge of Sighs. No, it's not the same as the one in Venice, but it definitely holds its own allure. This beautiful bridge, also known as Hertford Bridge, connects two parts of Hertford College.
According to the legend associated with the bridge, Hertford College's students were once deemed the heaviest and least healthy students in all of Oxford’s colleges. As a result, the college allegedly closed off the bridge connecting the old and new quads, hoping to encourage the students to take the stairs and increase their physical activity.
It turns out that this legend is purely fictional. In reality, the Bridge of Sighs remains open for students and faculty to cross although it’s prettier from the outside than the inside.
While the legend may have added a whimsical touch to the bridge's history, the truth is that its purpose is purely aesthetic, providing a charming link between the college's buildings.
Things to do in Oxford beyond the colleges
While Oxford University may be the main reason most people choose to visit Oxford, there are plenty of things to see and do outside of the colleges.
The Ashmolean Museum
If you can only visit one museum, plan to visit the Ashmolean Museum. As Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, it houses a collection that spans civilizations and genres and is the oldest public museum in the United Kingdom.
From ancient Egyptian relics to a Stradivarius violin and the lantern carried by Guy Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot, the exhibits offer a journey through time and creativity. It’s a perfect place to spend an afternoon, especially if it’s rainy, and best of all, it’s free!
If you have time to visit more than one museum, consider the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum as well. Kids will also enjoy the Story Museum, dedicated to imagination and the art of storytelling.
Church of St. Mary the Virgin
The University Church of St Mary the Virgin dates back to the 13th century and stands in the heart of Oxford, just across Radcliffe Square from the Radcliffe Camera. The spire is one of the tallest in Oxford, offering beautiful views of the surrounding university buildings and one of the best views over the Radcliffe Camera.
The church has served as a center of cultural and intellectual activity in Oxford for centuries. Prior to the Convocation House being built in 1634 (now part of the Bodleian Libraries), it was where the Congregation, the name given to the legislative authority of Oxford University, met. The church was also where the university’s first library was established before the creation of the Bodleian Libraries in the 17th century.
Covered Market and High Street
Oxford’s bustling Covered Market is a haven for foodies and shoppers alike, with its charming atmosphere and an array of culinary delights. Stroll through the covered passages and discover the many specialty food shops, artisanal goods, and unique boutiques.
Indulge in freshly baked pastries, sample local cheeses, or perhaps find the perfect gift to take home. You’ll also want to visit the roof terrace of The Varsity Club, which boasts some of the best views of the city skyline.
Along the vibrant High Street you’ll find an eclectic mix of shops, from independent bookstores to fashion boutiques and antique emporiums. Grab a cup of coffee from a cozy café, people-watch as students hurry to their next lecture, and soak up the lively atmosphere that permeates the thoroughfare.
This iconic bookstore on Broad Street holds a special place in the hearts of book lovers and collectors alike. It's like stepping into a paradise of knowledge, where shelves upon shelves of books invite you to embark on literary adventures.
Blackwell's Bookshop is not just any ordinary bookstore—it's a historic institution that has been serving the Oxford community for over 150 years. With its charming facade and cozy interior, it's the perfect place to lose yourself in the pages of a good book.
As you step inside you'll be greeted by a world of literature spanning multiple genres and subjects. From classic novels to academic textbooks, there's something for everyone here. It's no wonder that this bookstore has become a beloved destination for students, scholars, and avid readers seeking inspiration and enlightenment.
Follow the signs to the Norrington Room and be prepared to see more books than you’ve probably ever seen in one place. For many years this room was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the single largest room in the world selling books.
Make sure to leave some space in your luggage for the books you find here. I couldn’t resist biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. What better place to buy books about them than the city where they spent so much of their careers?
Oxford Castle & Prison
Oxford Castle’s history can be traced back to the 11th century, when it was initially built as a defensive structure. It has served many purposes over the years, including being a court and a prison.
Some of the first prisoners to be held here were probably students of the university, who were thrown in cells to sober up after a night overindulging in the pubs. It continued to serve as a prison until 1996.
Today, Oxford Castle has been thoughtfully transformed into a destination that seamlessly blends history with modernity. You can take a guided tour to learn about the history of the site, and climbing the Saxon St. George's Tower will reward you with panoramic views of the city.
While Oxford is best known for its academic prowess and historic charm, it also offers an abundance of natural beauty and opportunities to immerse oneself in the great outdoors. Just a stone's throw away from the bustling city center, you'll find tranquil green spaces and idyllic landscapes that invite you to escape into nature.
Christ Church Meadow
Nestled alongside the grandeur of Christ Church College, Christ Church Meadow beckons with its beauty and idyllic charm. This expansive green oasis provides a peaceful respite from the bustling streets of Oxford, offering visitors a chance to immerse themselves in nature.
Take a walk down the paths, along the river, and back past the walls of the college. It’s one of the prettiest walks in Oxford. You may see the college’s grazing rare-breed cattle in the meadow, which adds a touch of country charm to the middle of the city.
You will want to pay attention to the times that the gates are locked. Since the meadow is part of Christ’s Church College it is normally locked around sunset and you don’t want to be surprised when you try to leave. Closing times are clearly marked on the gates, so make sure to note them.
Magdalen College Gardens
Tucked away within the historic walls of Magdalen College lies a hidden gem of natural beauty—the college gardens. They’re one of my favorite places in Oxford.
Wandering along the paths, lined with ancient trees and flowering shrubs, you'll find a quiet sanctuary where you can escape the noise of the city an immerse yourself in the beauty of nature.
Take the bridge across to the Fellow’s Garden, where you can walk along the River Cherwell. You can walk to the end of the garden, where you’ll come to a picturesque lockhouse, before heading back into the main part of the garden.
If you’re planning to visit both the college and the Oxford Botanic Gardens, you can purchase a joint ticket at either location. The second location’s ticket doesn’t need to be used the same day, although they border each other and it’s very convenient to visit both at the same time.
Oxford Botanic Garden
On the banks of the River Cherwell, this green oasis holds the title of being the oldest botanic garden in Britain, the Oxford Botanic Gardens date back to 1621. Admire a colorful array of flowers in bloom, breathe in the fragrant scents that fill the air, and marvel at the carefully curated collections of plants from around the world.
The botanic garden is a sanctuary of serenity, offering respite from the fast-paced world outside its gates. Depending on the season of your visit, you might be treated to dazzling displays of tulips in spring or vibrant autumn foliage in the fall.
Tea and picnic cruises
For a lovely Oxford day out on the water, consider a tea or picnic cruise on the River Thames with Oxford River Cruises. It’s a delightful way to spend part of the day, and it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or sunny since the boats are covered.
The afternoon tea cruise was one of the highlights of our trip. Tea and water are both included, and if you’d like something stronger you can purchase drinks from the restaurant where you board the boat. You’ll enjoy tea sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and desserts as you sail down the river.
If you prefer a picnic or cocktail cruise they have both options available as well, with lunch or dinner hampers provided on the picnic cruises.
Cruises depart from next to Folly Bridge, just across the river from Christ Church College.
If you’re not familiar with punting, it’s a uniquely British pastime, most often associated with Oxford and Cambridge. It involves propelling a flat-bottomed boat, known as a punt, using a long pole to push off the bottom and the banks to navigate the waterways.
Think of it as a graceful combination of boating and pole-vaulting – minus the athletic prowess required!
Keep your eyes peeled as you make your way along the river. You might spot a swan gracefully swimming by or catch glimpses of wildlife along the riverbanks.
You can rent punts by the hour or for a leisurely afternoon from the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse or the Cherwell Boathouse. Don't worry if you're a novice punter; the friendly staff will provide you with some basic instruction to get you started. Soon enough, you'll find your rhythm and be gliding along like a seasoned pro.
If you prefer to simply ride along you can hire a chauffeured punt, although it’s more common to do that in Cambridge than in Oxford. Most people choose to self-punt, but the decision is yours.
The bottom line
Oxford is more than just a destination. It’s a treasure trove of history, academia, and experiences to be enjoyed. As you venture into the cobbled streets and explore the many colleges, take the time to absorb the atmosphere that surrounds you.
Beyond the landmarks and sights, it’s the intangible essence of Oxford that is truly captivating. You can’t help but be absorbed by the thoughts of the generations of scholars and luminaries who have walked the streets and entered the many historic colleges that make up this beautiful city.