We are lucky enough to live just over an hour away from this great city because there are genuinely so many things to do in Oxford that you could be making day trips for the rest of time and still not uncover all of its secrets. The City of Dreaming Spires, A Great University City, A City of English Royal History, A City For Book Lovers, A City For Red And Gold Scarves – the identities are endless! So obviously with such a diverse and colourful past, the number of attractions are bounteous. The only question about Oxford; What to do with the time you have available.
Fear not, we have done the leg-work for you and compiled a list of our favourite places to visit in Oxford, the best attractions which give you that true feel for the place. Just see which ones take your fancy and we promise you – it won’t take long for you to fall in love with England’s prettiest city.
Note; The city is quite compact and easily walkable so even if you are making an Oxford day trip from London, you can still cover a fair few attractions. Our Oxford map (see bottom of article) will help you work out which areas you are most interested in – if you want to save the map, just click on the arrow at the top left.
Top 10 Things To Do In Oxford England
1. Take A Bodleian Library Tour
Everyone knows Oxford, England for its University connections and pretty much most of your day in Oxford will have some sort of link to the cities world-famous colleges. However, a side to the city that many don’t perhaps appreciate is its Royal past. Once the capital city of England, Richard I made Oxford his home and the Bodleian Library tour is a great way of finding out about the marrying of royalty and education. It’s a great tour, honestly one of the best I’ve ever done.
Even those who are only on the tour for a glimpse of Harry Potter scenes filmed at Oxford (The Divinity School is the Hogwarts Sanatorium), cannot fail to be impressed by the rest of the library’s highlights. It’s one of the oldest libraries in Europe and medieval in design you’ll definitely leave with a crick-neck from staring in awe at all the architectural details. And the library… oh boy! What a beauty. Although you are more than welcome to take photo’s of The Divinity School Hall (see below), Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room remains out of bounds for photographs. I thought this would be annoying but actually, it just made me feel like I was a member of some special club of Bodleian secrets and in my opinion, the secrecy just makes it an Oxford hidden gem – something to hold in your memory and take out occasionally for a sweet reminisce, knowing that you are one of few who have seen its beauty.
TIPS : The tour runs all year and takes one hour (or 30 minutes if you book late afternoon) and costs £9/6. There is also a 90 minute ticket option which includes a tour of the Radcliffe Camera (£15). You can also see it as part of an Oxford walking tour with Get Your Guide for £16.99 if you wanted a more in-depth history of the city on foot. In summer it would be best to book your tour early in the day.
2. Climb The Tower Of St Mary The Virgin Church
Another sure-fire way of finding your bearings early on during your day trip to Oxford is to get a birds-eye view of the city by climbing St Mary’s tower. For only £5 you get the best view of Oxford and an opportunity to see this ancient beauty, built in 1280!
Back when the university of Oxford opened, St Mary’s church was at the heart of college life. The main subject studied was Theology anyway, so you can just imagine the great brains that have met in this ancient space! Degrees were awarded here, councils met and both Town and Gown came to worship – the church has seen some life and often needed a bit of tlc : the heavy usage was making it crumble. During your visit it’s worth taking a bit of time to explore the church information boards for all its history and intrigue – St Mary’s has definitely lead an interesting life.
Climbing the tower is not for the faint-hearted! 127 steps later though and you are rewarded with the most beautiful skyline and the perfect view of Radcliffe Camera and Brasenose College. You’re also faced with an impressive amount of medieval gargoyles and grotesques! If they haven’t turned your stomach too much the underground cafe puts on a pretty decent display of hearty and healthy (organic no less) food and great coffee.
TIP : St Mary’s tower is one of the top attractions around Oxford and queues can get long – arrive early for the best chances.
3. The Bridge Of Sighs (A.K.A Hertford Bridge)
Right around the corner from the Bodleian and the Camera is one of the main Oxford attractions for visitors – the Bridge of Sighs. But this is Oxford UK, not Venice Italy – so why the interconnection above New College Lane?
It’s been a regular feature on TV and film over the years, enough reason alone to construct such a pretty bridge. However, a recently new addition to the college buildings of Hertford (built in 1914), the bridge was simply to connect two quadrangles – it was less disruptive than building a tunnel apparently. Students still use the bridge every day and it’s not to be missed on your Oxford day trip.
The Bridge of Sigh’s official name is Hertford Bridge.
4. Visit Oxford’s Covered Market
Recently making it to the Top 10 Best Markets in England, Oxford’s Covered Market has really upped its game. When I first visited in 2007 it left me more than a little disappointed – it was tired, ugly and smelled of maggoty meat! The contrast to what sits there today is striking and I challenge you to resist its earthly wares.
Since 1770 the market has been running and today it’s an eclectic collection of the usual types of stall-holders, like florists, butchers and fishmongers to the more unique crafts and gifts alongside some of the best places in Oxford to eat. What I love the most is how each shop has wide windows, displaying their cherished goods and drawing you in for some spoil. It’s especially pretty in winter and a welcomed warm from the weather – twinkly lights and steaming coffees are the beautiful backdrop to Christmas pheasants hanging in the butchers and colourful hand-knitted socks and woolly hats.
The famous Ben’s Cookie’s had its start in the Oxford covered market and I dare say some other more recent brands will be following in its footsteps and opening more establishments across the country : try iScream and Wicked Chocolate and MooMoo’s shake-shack. You can’t go wrong with a Pieminister pie but equally delicious are the Gyros from the Souvlaki Brothers. Don’t miss The Oxford Cheese Company and The Alpha Bar for a delicious affordable lunch-time stop. Basically, if you’re looking for cool places in Oxford to eat, the covered market has you covered.
5. Gee’s For Brunch
There are so many great eating spots in the city but if you want to know where to go in Oxford for brunch, make it Gee’s. Gee’s is an institution. And on a weekend there is no finer place to dine on smashed avocado than in a beautiful Victorian glasshouse surrounded by plants and palms.
It rivals any London insta-famous joint and the food is delicious! In fact, it has been a favourite with locals for that ‘celebratory meal’ since the 80’s. But, regardless of how good the food is, I just can’t get enough of the atmosphere and elegance at 61 Banbury Road.
TIP : If your Oxford trip isn’t on a weekend they also do a great lunch-time set menu full of Mediterranean flair and local produce. There’s always a warm welcome at Gee’s.
6. My Favourite Museum On Earth – Pitt Rivers
Like some sort of Hollywood love-child, it even just sounds cool… Pitt Rivers. But, this is the kind of special place where childhood dreams are made – it’s fantastical and captivating, wrapped up in a beautiful box of Victorian elegance.
Dinosaurs compete for your attention with shrunken heads and iridescent bugs, and the skeleton-like structure of the old Victorian hall is the most beautiful backdrop to earths treasures.
The front of the building is the Oxford Museum of Natural History and the back section is the Pitt Rivers Museum. It’s Night At The Museum meets Indiana Jones – if you’re wondering what to do in Oxford with kids, I’m warning you; Pitt Rivers could suck you in for a very long time!
The gift shop has the most eclectic and beautiful array of gifts too with more than a couple of nods to Oxford’s very own progeny – Alice in Wonderland.
7. Take A Punt Down The Cherwell Like Alice
In a little rowing boat in 1862 a family and some friends drifted up the Cherwell in Oxford. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson entertained the three young girls – Lorina, Alice and Edith – with a tale of an intrepid explorer and her misadventures. Two years later, after a few more summer boat trips and encouragement from the girls wanting more compelling narratives, Charles, AKA Lewis Carroll, finished his heartwarming novel – Alice In Wonderland.
So, even if you are not in Oxford for Alice Day (usually beginning of July) you can still celebrate Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical masterpiece and tread the tide that they did by taking a little punt or row-boat along the River Cherwell. And even without all the whimsical connections to Alice in Wonderland, a leisurely punt is still one of the top things to do in Oxford for day visitors. Mind you, it’s not the showcase of Colleges you’d receive in Englands rival university town, Cambridge – the views in Oxford are more green and pleasant pasture than grand architecture. Still, an hour of your day on the water is worth 2 on land and definitely one of the loveliest things to do in Oxford whether your name is Alice or not.
Note; Punting is not available in the Winter months
8. Visit The Colleges Of Oxford University
Oxford University is split into 38 different ‘colleges’ – all unique for its own little quirk or quality. So, when you’re trying to plan an Oxford One Day Itinerary, which of the 38 do you shortlist and where do you spend your dime?
Well first, a little history…
Oxford University is the 2nd oldest university in the world (Bologna is the 1st) and began teaching around 1096. But, in 1167 Oxford really started hotting-up when King Henry II put a ban on English students attending the University of Paris – he wanted leaders not lemmings that had developed a penchant for pantaloons and floppy hair. Since then the biggest brains of Britain have been crossing the quad’s of Oxford and 800 year old buildings have been wooing the tourists.
By the means of osmosis it feels to me like just being in Oxford makes you intelligent, and in fact that might be true : Oxford has more published authors per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Maybe if I move in I might finally finish my book 101 Things To Do With A Morris Dancer.
Some of the oldest colleges were established between 1249 and 1264 giving Oxford its elaborate profile of medieval charm. But, some are as new as the 19th century and have a more acquired appeal. Either way, a walk around Oxford University is one of the most architecturally impressive you will ever do. You will find yourself in ornate cloisters, landscaped quadrangles, breath-taking chapels, impressive libraries, famous dining halls and even meadows full of deer – yes, right in the centre of Oxford! It goes without saying that when you are visiting Oxford for a day you must explore at least some of its beautiful university.
GetYourGuide do several great tours which take up to 2 hours (see below) or you could check out our blog post – Visiting Oxford Colleges – The Ultimate Guide for some tips on which ones to visit and when.
9. Visit The Sheldonian Theatre
Oxford has nurtured some of the worlds greatest thinkers and all of them start and finish their training with an awards ceremony in this very building – The Sheldonian Theatre. It’s inspirational and beautiful to say the very least.
For your £3.80 you get to see the theatre with its painted ceiling and a climb into the rafters and beyond to the cupula for one of Oxfords best birds eye views.
It’s another Christopher Wren architectural masterpiece, and yet one of his earlier designs – the lad was ambitious if nothing else. However, despite the fact he constructed this 70ft domed ceiling without load-bearing columns and just a clever truss design, his genius is slightly lost and overshadowed by the incredible painted ceiling by painter Robert Streater. That’s why we loved so much being able to get up close and personal to the wooden beams and ancient truss-joints in the attic before you ascend to the cupula – a real insight into the skill involved in such a magnificent building.
Note; The Sheldonian is used for several events throughout the year, so if you only have one day in Oxford do check beforehand if it is open to the public on your chosen day. Allow 30 minutes to get the most out of your visit.
10. Visit Some Ancient, Notable Watering Holes
What’s a visit to an English town without a beverage in an English pub? Oxford has no shortage of great drinking establishments but several are worth taking note of for more than just the beer.
The Eagle And Child at 49 St Giles was once frequented by literary buddies Tolkien and C.S Lewis, and actually, you may wonder if inspiration for the hobbit hole sprung from inside! As you enter the pub the two cubby-holes on your immediate left and right are as cosy as Bilbo’s front room. There are several nods to authors throughout the pub, like the Middle Earth maps and literature quotes, but ultimately it remains a great pub and so far unspoilt by ideas of grandeur.
The Lamb And Flag is another great Oxford pub with literary connections. Also on St Giles (12 & 13), it is rumoured that author Thomas Hardy wrote one of his novels here and featured the pub in its story. And, its easy to see why ITV chose it as a regular feature in their TV drama Inspector Morse, as Morse and Lewis’s local pub, with its attractive wood panelling and olde worlde feel.
The Morse Bar at the Macdonald Randolph Hotel is one of my personal favourites. It was only featured in a few episodes of Inspector Morse but there is no finer place to find an armchair and order yourself a whisky, such a great bar in such a landmark Oxford hotel. Only thing missing is a cigar!
Queen’s Lane Coffee House may not be the kind of watering hole you were expecting on a list like this but its history deserves a mention. Back when folk had beer for breakfast, dinner and tea, and the world carried on half-crazed, half in a state of slumber, Oxford took matters into its own hands. The Queen’s Lane Coffee House started pushing the new exotic drink as ‘the great soberer’ with reputed health benefits. Thanks to the likes of proprietor Cirques Jobson, coffee became the drink of choice and laid the pathway for your flat white today. Let us all bow our heads. Their east-Mediterranean cuisine is a little bit scrumptious too!
Visiting the Queen’s Lane Coffee House must be on many Oxford ‘To Do’ lists though as it’s often very very busy – good luck finding a seat!
A map of Oxford’s Top Attractions; To save our Oxford map to your google maps, just click on the arrow in the top left corner.
No matter how long you are in town for, there are so many places to visit in Oxford. This is our top ten list but it’s by no means the end; there’s the Botanical Gardens (especially in Summer), The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford Castle and the Museum of Modern Art just to name a few. And, if you’ve booked a weekend in Oxford make sure you make a little time for vintage shopping on Cowley Road and cocktails in the Jericho neighbourhood – the city has a great vibe for a weekend break.
Looking for good hotels in Oxford? Check out our recommended choices…
Malmaison Hotel – They don’t come much cooler than this! It’s an old converted Victorian prison and still has a lot of original features like the prison block staircase, exposed brick and impenetrable doors. You’re right next door to Oxford Castle and a stay at this boutique hotel put’s you right at the heart of Oxford history.
Hotel Voco – Oxford Spires – always a great choice if you want a more budget stay but still get a fantastic hotel. It’s a 15 minute walk to the city centre, so a little further out than some others but it makes up for it in price. The rooms are contemporary and elegant and we loved all of the outside terraces in the summer. There’s also a pool and spa for guests to use.
The Old Bank – A boutique luxury stay near the city centre with great views from the bedrooms. If you want a hotel treat then book The Old Bank; the staff treat you like royalty, chocolates on the pillow, turned down sheets, luxury bathroom toiletries and fluffy towels. Add to that a great restaurant, Quod, and you have a perfect Oxford hotel for a special occasion perhaps.
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