Oxford University City, known as the City of Dreaming Spires, is one place in the UK that you must visit. Oxford is one of England’s most famous cities and is home to one of the world’s most prestigious university complexes and the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
There are many great things to see in Oxford besides the university colleges. With an ancient castle, world-class museums, a botanical garden, and filming locations for the Harry Potter films, there are many incredible Oxford attractions to explore.
One of the most popular things to do in Oxford is hop aboard a traditional Oxford punt and cruise along the River Cherwell as it winds through the city’s leafy green spaces.
Afterwards, stop off at one of the many first-class restaurants in Oxford or enjoy a cocktail (or two) at one of Oxford’s rooftop bars.
Do you need to arrange travel insurance, car hire or accommodation? Please check out my resources page to help you plan your trip.
A brief history of Oxford
Oxford University is one of the oldest universities in the world and comprises 38 independent colleges, which visitors can find all over the city.
The first Oxford colleges opened their doors in the 13th century. Still, it wasn’t until the 1870s that women were allowed to study and take exams, and it wasn’t until 1920 that they were allowed to join the university formally, and then, only specific colleges!
The most well-known college is Christ Church which has seen many famous figures pass through its doors, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, Indira Gandi, Winston Churchill, Edwin Hubble and the World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Whichever Oxford college you choose to see, you will be in for a treat.
Oxford Open Doors is an annual weekend event in September. Places not usually open to the public offer free entry to celebrate Oxford’s heritage and culture.
Getting to Oxford from London
Oxford is about 60 miles from London. It is easy to get to by car, coach or train from all directions.
Parking in central Oxford is difficult, so arriving by public transport is a great option.
Use Thornhill Park and Ride OX3 8DP and take the stress out of searching for a city centre parking space. It costs £12 to park for up to 72 hours (2022). (Ticket machines are by the terminal building).
Head to bus stop B and hop aboard the number 400 bus to the city centre. Disembark at the High Street / Cornmarket Steet junction, and from there, you can reach all of Oxford’s historic landmarks.
Please note that once you board the bus, you will need to pay for a separate bus ticket in addition to the parking fee.
By Train – Oxford train station is a 10-minute walk to the central shopping area of Oxford. Trains from London Marylebone or Paddington will take approx one hour to reach Oxford.
Guided Tours from London to Oxford
How long do you need in Oxford?
Three days in Oxford will allow you to see all of the attractions in the city centre with plenty of spare time to visit an Oxford attraction outside of the city – see ideas at the end of this post.
Two days in Oxford will give you ample time to visit all of Oxford’s historic landmarks at a leisurely pace.
If you can only spend one day in Oxford, you will still be able to see a lot of the city, but it will mean going at a fast pace. I suggest you join an organised Oxford walking tour to familiarise yourself with Oxford’s most famous landmarks.
If you only have one day in Oxford, my top picks are Christ Church College, Balliol College, and the Bodleian Libraries complex. Limiting the number of attractions in Oxford that you see will give you time to include a lunch stop and maybe a visit to Oxford’s famous Turf Tavern.
How to get around Oxford
Oxford is one of England’s most walkable cities, so I have grouped Oxford’s landmark attractions depending on their location.
The Official Oxford Tourist Board Walking Tour can be booked here.
Oxford students often run free walking tours that include all the juicy bits about life at Oxford!
While it is a free tour, they will ask for a small donation (beer money) at the end if you have enjoyed the tour; the amount is up to you.
Another fun way to see Oxford is to use Oxford’s Hop On Hop Off Bus, which is a quicker way of getting to see the best of Oxford if you are pressed for time.
And, of course, Oxford is called a cycling city for a good reason.
You will see bikes chained up outside colleges all around the city, and this is one of the quick ways of getting around Oxford and its surrounding areas.
Why not hop on a bike tour and explore Oxford for yourself?
Best Oxford City Bike Tours
Accommodation in Oxford
On my 2-night trip to Oxford, I stayed at Vanbrugh House Hotel, a boutique heritage hotel in the city centre.
It has some great independent eateries on the same street and a great coffee shop next door! The hotel was perfectly placed, within walking distance of all the best attractions in Oxford.
For other places to stay in Oxford, please follow this link to Booking.com Oxford Hotels.
Best Attractions in Oxford
Christ Church College
Of all the colleges that make up Oxford University, Christ Church is probably the best known to visitors and, in my opinion, should be first on your list of must-see attractions in Oxford.
It sits close to Oxford Castle and is one of the most prominent and grandest colleges. It also houses Oxford Cathedral and backs onto the beautiful Christ Church Meadow (the location of many messy end-of-year graduation ceremonies!)
One of the highlights of a visit to Christ Church is to see the grand dining hall complete with original masterpieces by Da Vinci.
And, if you are a fan of Harry Potter, you may also recognise the Bodley staircase, where Professor McGonagall greeted the new students to Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Tom Tower is also a famous landmark in Oxford, built by Sir Christopher Wren.
His architectural masterpieces included St Paul’s Cathedral and smaller hidden gems in London, such as St Dunstan in the East.
The college hasn’t always been so liberal in opening its doors. It only accepted men into its enclaves until the rules changed in 1980. After that, women were allowed to apply to be students at Christ Church College.
That being said, the call role call is pretty impressive for the men that pass through its doors. It lists kings, politicians and literary greats, including C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, among its fellowship.
Did you know?
Hogwarts Dining Hall was actually modelled after the Great Hall at Christ Church Oxford
Lewis Carroll was also a student at Christ Church. If you are a fan of Alice in Wonderland, there is a shop by Christ Church dedicated to the character.
A lovely cafe is next door with a view across the road to Christ Church College.
Punting on the River Cherwell in Oxford is a popular activity for visitors to the city.
If gliding along the river with the sun on your face and the wind in your hair sounds like a good idea, there are several places where you can hop aboard a punt.
Magdalen Bridge is a 10-minute walk from Christ Church through Merton Field, home to Oxford Punting.
Here you can hire a punt, rowing boat or pedalo for yourself. Or why not take it easy and hire a ‘punt chauffeur’ to do the hard work for you.
Further away from Oxford’s central hub of attractions is Cherwell Boathouse, located in a beautiful riverside setting.
The 2 AA Rosette Cherwell Restaurant offers fine dining in the original Victorian boathouse.
Oxford Botanical Gardens
One of the oldest botanical gardens in the world and, indeed, the oldest in the UK. It can be found next to Magdalen Bridge.
The garden was founded as a physics garden in 1621 to grow plants for medicinal research.
The botanical gardens are an interesting place to visit in Oxford, a quiet oasis to escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
If you visit the gardens, look for sculptures depicting a crow from His Dark Materials and the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, a nod to literary characters.
Castle District – Oxford Castle
Dating back over 1000 years, Oxford Castle is one of the oldest attractions in Oxford.
You can climb to the top of St Georges Tower for panoramic views of the surrounding area of Oxford. Or go underground to the candle-lit crypt and enter the 18th-century prison cells.
Outside, climb to the top of Castle Mound for skyline views. A small fee to climb the hill is payable at the gate. Honestly, you could miss this, as the views aren’t great.
Castle Quarter houses several chain restaurants and a unique place to stay in Oxford; Malmaison Hotel. The hotel rooms are located in the converted castle prison!
Why not visit Oxford Castle on the city’s Hop On Hop Off Bus
Westgate Shopping Centre
Very close to Oxford Castle is Westgate Shopping Centre. If you love shopping, you will find many high street chains and designer labels at Oxford’s main shopping centre.
The main lure for me at Westgate was the range o Westgate rooftop restaurants, with views over the city, especially good at night when illuminated.
A five-minute walk from Oxford Castle is Carfax Tower. This medieval stone tower dates back to the 12th century and is one of Oxford’s famous buildings to visit.
Visitors can climb the 99 steps to the top of the 23-metre bell tower for views over Oxford’s historic buildings and out to the countryside. There is a small entry fee of £3 (2022)
Did you know?
No building in Oxford is allowed to be built higher than the Carfax Tower
Oxford Covered Market
Just across from Carfax Tower is the covered market. The marketplace dates back to the 18th century and is home to food vendors, craft sellers, and the usual ‘stuff’ you find at markets.
While it is part of Oxford’s unique history, it would not be very high on my list of things to do in Oxford.
Broad Meadow Area – Balliol College
Balliol College is arguably the oldest college in Oxford, founded in 1263.
It has stood on a single site (where it is now) longer than any other college in the English-speaking world.
Balliol is a stunning landmark in Broad Meadow, an area packed with restaurants, shops and the equally famous Bodleian Library complex.
It was founded in the 13th century but could easily be mistaken for a modern-day film set with its turreted roofs and whitewashed facade. The college welcomes visitors who wish to tour the buildings and beautiful gardens.
There is a small £3 entrance fee, and I recommend visiting this college. It was one of my favourite places to visit in Oxford.
Did you Know?
Past students of Balliol College include five Nobel laureates, four Prime Ministers, including Boris Johnson, and numerous philosophical and literary figures
Most people around the world have heard of Trinity College Oxford. This 16th-century college is another impressive place to visit and is next door to Balliol College. Check opening times here.
Did you know?
Trinity and Balliol Colleges are rivals and come together every summer for a tortoise race. Each college owns a tortoise and races them against each another – the winning tortoise is the victor for his (or her) college!
Opposite Trinity College is a complex of buildings known as the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe and the second-largest in Britain after the British Library.
Bodleian is not one single space; instead, it comprises several buildings, including Duke Humfrey’s Library and the Divinity School.
To get inside these spectacular buildings, daily ticketed tours of all or parts of the Bodleian Libraries can be booked online for guaranteed access.
On the day of my visit, all the tours had been sold, and I could only enter the Divinity School; even so, it was terrific.
The tours range from 30 to 90 minutes; however, the latter gives you underground access to the iconic Radcliffe Camera.
The Divinity School is a 15th-century medieval building used for lectures and discussions.
The intricate stone-carved ceiling is the main draw for visitors and features 455 sculptural plaques representing coats of arms, initials, animals and botanical elements.
Families who funded the construction of the Divinity School had their initials carved into the design of the ceiling, giving them eternal recognition.
At the end of the hall, you can see a Gothic wooden door leading to the Sheldonian Theatre.
This was added in the 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren to allow students to don their robes in the Divinity School and then proceed to graduate in the Sheldonian Theatre.
Did you know?
The Bodleian Library was used in the Harry Potter films. The elaborate fan-vaulted Divinity School became Hogwart’s infirmary and the medieval Duke Humfrey’s Library was used as the Hogwart’s library.
Listed as one of the architectural jewels of Oxford, The Sheldonian Theatre was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, of St Paul’s fame, and built in the mid-17th century.
It is used for lectures, recitals and ceremonies for the matriculation and graduation of Oxford students.
Did you know?
The word matriculation means the formal process of entering a university, or of becoming eligible to enter by fulfilling certain academic requirements such as a matriculation examination
Radcliffe Camera, or Rad Cam, as students call it, is one of the most photographed buildings in Oxford.
The iconic 18th-century circular building once contained the Radcliffe Science Library; today, it is the main reading room of the Bodleian Libraries.
Visitors must pre-book tours to look inside the Radcliffe Camera and enter the Bodleian Library. Book in advance as this is one of the best things to do in Oxford, and tickets sell out quickly.
Did you know?
Radcliffe Camera is linked to Old Bodleian Library by an underground passage called the Gladstone Link.
Bridge of Sighs Oxford
Within a stone’s throw of Radcliffe Camera is Hertford Bridge, more commonly referred to as the Bridge of Sighs, a nod to the similarity of the landmark bridge in Venice.
The bridge is a walkway between two parts of Hertford College and crosses above New College Lane.
It’s a popular place in Oxford to take photographs, but that’s not all you can do here.
If you walk a little under the bridge with Rad Cam behind you, look for a narrow alley called St Helen’s Passage on your left-hand side.
Wander along the passage and will arrive at one of Oxford’s most famous pubs, The Turf Tavern, centuries-old and with an exciting history. Many famous people have frequented it and is an Oxford landmark for students and visitors.
Spot the ancient 200-year-old giant oak tree behind the Bridge of Sighs, that was featured during a duel between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
University Church of St Mary the Virgin
By the Radcliffe Camera is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The church is at the heart of spiritual life at Oxford University and welcomes all faiths.
Step inside and be wowed by the beautiful stained glass windows and interesting memorials dating from different centuries. Access to the church is free.
Did you know?
For a look at the Radcliffe Camera from a different perspective, visitors can climb to the top of the 13th-century church tower for a small fee. Booking is advisable.
The Grand Cafe Oxford
Just across the road from St Mary’s Church is an Oxford institution, The Grand Cafe, one of the best places for afternoon tea in Oxford.
Supposedly it is the first coffee house in England, according to an entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Whatever the history, it is a place heaped with character where you can take high tea in atmospheric surroundings.
If you have time, wander away from the Bodleian Libraries and head down Holywell Street. This is where you will find a street of pastel-coloured houses occupied by students from some of the surrounding university colleges.
You will also come across the 17th-century Bath Place Hotel – a fabulous place to stay in the very hub of this historic city.
Christ Church College Buildings
College buildings tend to be dotted around the city. We stumbled on several more buildings associated with Christ Church College as we strolled through the roads surrounding the main college building and Cathedral.
Did you know?
Oxford University has had its own police force for 180 years. Nicknamed ‘bulldogs’ and famous for their bowler hats, they had powers to arrest anyone within four miles of a University building. They were finally disbanded in 2003.
Don’t forget to grab a beer while you are nearby in Oxford’s oldest pub, The Bear Inn dating back to 1242.
The Ashmolean Museum was founded in 1683, making it the oldest museum in the world. The museum houses art and archaeology collections ranging from contemporary art to Egyptian mummies and aims to give visitors an insight into different cultures across the centuries.
The Ashmolean is huge, so it will take away a lot of sightseeing time. Nevertheless, it is one of the world’s most famous museums and deserves a look.
I stayed around an hour on my visit and wandered through several collections before finding an extremely interesting one.
A mummified Egyptian baby had been scanned using modern technology to be viewed as a 3D image – for me, fascinated by Ancient Egypt, this was a treat.
Before you leave, head to the Ashmolean Museum Rooftop Restaurant and Cafe, a lovely place to enjoy refreshments with a view of Oxford’s rooftops.
Did you know?
One of the Ashmolean Museum’s most famous objects is Guy Fawkes’s lantern, held by him on the night he tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Museum of Natural History
If you love all things associated with palaeontology, this is one of the museums in Oxford you should visit.
On a much smaller scale than the Natural History Museum in London, this one still has its fair share of dinosaurs and other incredible natural subjects.
Once inside the Natural History Museum, you will also find the Pitts River Museum, famous for all things relating to anthropology, with over half a million specimens from all over the world and from all periods of human existence.
The interior of the museum is also worth seeing in its own right. Beautiful columns created from natural stone in many colours support the museum’s steel girders and glass roof.
When you have finished, enjoy refreshments from the Horsebox Coffee Company set up on the lawn in front of the museum.
Opposite Pitts River Museum is one of the biggest colleges at Oxford University.
It was founded in 1870, and I had to capture an image of this beautiful building.
St Johns College
One of the last colleges we looked inside was St John’s College, founded in 1555 and Oxford’s wealthiest college with almost £600m of assets!
St John’s was open as part of Oxford Open Doors and, in my opinion, was the epitome of how I imagined Oxford University would be.
The college buildings were beautiful, crafted centuries ago by skilled stonemasons, and the site was eerily quiet. Bikes were parked in bays, and small doorways led up tiny stone stairwells to student and professor accommodations.
Seeing the names of students and professors on wooden boards outside each accommodation block probably sealed my time in Oxford.
There was no John Smith or Jane Green here; these were the names of people currently studying at Oxford and not a prop leftover from a Harry Potter film.
I can only imagine what it must be like to be tutored by Professor Batty and what roles Violet Elsworthy and Augustus Coningham will go on to hold in their lives!
As they say, Oxford really is another world!
As you wander around Oxford, look for quirky signs and sculptures!
Beyond the City of Oxford
If you have a car with you, a thirty-minute drive from the city will take you to Blenheim Palace, sitting on the edge of the picturesque Woodstock in Oxfordshire. Buy entrance tickets online for Blenheim Palace to avoid the queues.
The 300-year-old Blenheim Palace, park and gardens are a Unesco World Heritage site and were the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, who, unsurprisingly, went on to study at Christ Church College!
The Blenheim Estate is still the country residence of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and is one of England’s most famous stately homes.
Did you Know?
A five million pound solid gold toilet sculpture was stolen from Blenheim Palace in 2019 and has never been recovered!
If you travel without a car, you can book a guided day tour of Blenheim Palace from Oxford.
Bicester Designer Outlet
Shop till you drop at this fashionista heaven in Oxfordshire, 25 minutes from Oxford city centre. Gucci, Fendi, Burberry and the like will have you parting with your cash at an alarming rate as you wander the 160 boutique stores in this village.
If you are more of a Marks and Spencer girl, this one might not be for you!
Did you know?
Bicester Designer Outlet is billed as the second most visited location in the United Kingdom by Chinese tourists, after Buckingham Palace!
Visit the Cotswolds
With so many things to do in the Cotswolds, you can combine a city break in Oxford with a stay in a beautiful Cotswold cottage to experience the English countryside.
A leisurely one-hour drive from the city centre, you will arrive in Broadway, one of Cotswolds’ prettiest villages. Or stop off at Castle Combe, an idyllic Cotswold village with a historic main street and a pretty stream running through it.
If you prefer to take a guided tour of the Cotswolds from Oxford, you can book several Cotswold day tours.
Without a doubt, Oxford represents everything wonderful about England. It’s historic architecture, the global seat of learning, incredible museums and stunning countryside surrounding the city. What more could you want?
I hope you have found this post helpful in planning your trip to Oxford. If you have, I would love you to let me know by commenting below.
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