Don’t tell me – you’re making a special trip to Oxford to see the Headington Shark right? The towns random piece of art reflecting some emotions of Chernobyl (a giant shark sculpture sticking out of a roof).
NO, OF COURSE NOT – YOU CAME TO OXFORD TO SEE THE COLLEGES.
The one with the famous dining room, the one with that Venetian-like bridge, the one with the wisteria? Oxford has been turning up on tv screens for years and immortalised in books for even longer. It’s the most beautiful city in the UK and I can totally understand why you would want to visit.
Choosing The Best Oxford Colleges To Visit
But, choosing the best colleges to visit in Oxford can be a time-robbing conundrum and if you’re only here for a short period you’re going to need a little help. Let’s face it – you’ll be kicking yourself later if you learn you were literally the other side of a wall or doorway and you missed an incredible piece of Oxford.
But worry not, we have been visiting Oxford for decades and we think we’ve worked out which colleges you ought to be putting on your bucket list.
There are 38 Oxford Colleges in total but we have you covered for the prettiest ones, the ones you can see for free, Harry Potter filming locations and other famous Oxford colleges with impressive alumni or fascinating histories. And to avoid any unconscious walk-by’s we’ve added a map of ‘Oxford Colleges‘ at the bottom to make your visit easier – just click the drop-down menu at the top left to save to your device.
Here’s our list of the best Oxford colleges to visit…
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Christ Church College
CALLING ALL POTTER FANS…
Many people with a penchant for wizardry make the day trip from London to Oxford just for the Harry Potter locations. This makes Christ Church College the most popular and most recognisable spot in town. The Dining Room inspired the Great Hall at Hogwarts and the cloisters and the Bodley tower were actually used in the filming.
But make no mistake – all this Potter-patter makes Christ Church undoubtedly one of the busiest places to visit in Oxford and if you are interested in stopping by you might want to consider booking ahead. (See their website for details and booking info)
However, even before Harry had us hurrying to investigate, Christ Church has always been a popular place to visit in Oxford for several reasons…
The Dining Room especially stands to impress, with its walls of hung portraits of notable alumni like King Edward VII, Albert Einstein the Winklevoss Facebook twins, John Wesley and over a dozen English Prime Ministers. But as you walk into Christ Church make sure you take note of Tom Tower – the grand entrance designed by Christopher Wren, of St Pauls Cathedral fame. Signalling that the Great Doors are about to close, the Bells of Tom Tower go off 101 times every evening at 9.05pm, and you don’t need to be bound to the building to hear it!
Being one of the wealthiest Colleges of Oxford, Christ Church also has its very own picture gallery with works of art by Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael no less. Amazingly, the students are allowed to borrow certain pieces to hang in their dorm-rooms for their duration – can you just imagine falling over last nights empties and straight into a Da Vinci!?
But my favourite fact of all about this wonderful Oxford college is that the real Alice of Alice in Wonderland lived here! Her family (her father was the Dean) were friends of Lewis Carroll and regularly took trips on the river together, where the tale of Wonderland began and Alice became the main character. Top tip : look out for the Alice stained glass in the dining room.
Just outside of Christ Church College is the sweet shop where Alice bought her sweets as a child (Alice’s Shop) and also a cute little cafe called Cafe Loco which gives a little nod to Alice and her far-out friends.
Where is Christ Church College? Tickets can be bought at Meadow Gate on the Broad Walk. At the Magdalen Bridge end of the High Street.
Not new at all actually, unless you’re the type of person who has medieval mead in your amazon basket. New College is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, completed in 1386, older than the Azteks, China’s Forbidden City and Cher. And, I’ve got to say, if you’re the type of person who writes a tick-list of goals on January the first, or own a clip-board full-stop, in terms of a check-list, this is one of the Oxford colleges to visit that has it all.
For just £5 (the chapel is free to visit) you get to see some of the prettiest insta-worthy Oxford university gardens, Harry Potter locations, a stunning chapel, famous artworks, beautiful architecture and it even has its own mountain. It’s value for money for definite.
Pretty herbaceous borders line the ancient city wall (built 1200’s) and climbers and Wisteria enhance the already gorgeous college buildings – it’s an English-Garden postcard. Head to the New College cloister courtyard quadrangle to see the old Oak tree used as a seat for Malfoy in Harry Potter – The Goblet of Fire.
The ancient dining room is a highlight, Jacob Epstein’s ‘Lazarus’ statue stands in the chapel and so does an original El Greco (St James The Greater) – as far as colleges at Oxford go, this one has so much to take in. Plus, Hugh Grant went here, now what greater reason do you need?
Where Is New College? Access is by Hollywell Street. See their website for opening times and ticket prices.
Pronounced Mawd-lin, Magdalen is definitely one of the prettiest Oxford colleges you could visit. If you’re arriving in town via the High Street it’s also one of the first colleges you’ll see on your trip to Oxford. Being one of the wealthiest colleges in Oxford you can easily see why many a notable King or Prince have chosen it as their Bed and Breakfast for the night, it’s pretty impressive!
Magdalen also has a notable literary alumnus: Oscar Wilde, C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein all walked these old cobblestones. In fact, if you take a stroll along the college’s Addison’s Walk it’s just a little bit awesome that you are literally following in the footsteps of good friends Tolkein and Lewis who used to promenade together – how cool is that!
Adjacent to the river, Magdalen often throws out an epic scene of low lying mist across its very own Deer Park. It’s a beautiful picture and if you are visiting Oxford in winter or spring you might want to make this your early morning stop-off for the best chances of seeing this beautiful scene. The deer are more likely to be in the riverside meadows during summer but have been rutting here for over 300 years.
Included in your ticket price (£7) is the opportunity to see the Dining Hall, Medieval Chapel, Old Kitchen Bar and the Cherwell riverside walk. By the way, the Old Kitchen Bar is the riverside seating area you can see from Magdalen Bridge and is a beautiful place to sit and watch the world go by with your beverage – I’m giving you that tidbit for free, it took me years to work out how to get access to that terrace!
Where is Magdalen College? Entrance is via the lovely Victorian tower gateway on High Street.
Balliol is one of those Oxford colleges where history seems palpable. It reminds me of Christ Church and I’m sure if Christ Church wasn’t available, Balliol would have been the second choice for certain filming locations. It’s grand, it’s beautiful and it’s impressive, but with considerably fewer crowds than others.
Founded in 1263 it’s one of the oldest colleges in Oxford and also a great place to retreat from the crowds out on the pavement – there are more than a handful of nooks and crannies in the Balliol gardens and some very pretty spots amongst the wisterias.
The ticket price is only £2 but it has great Quads, a Great Hall and a great chapel – it’s a handsome all-rounder.
Where is Balliol College? Entrance is on Broad Street.
Which Oxford Colleges Are Free To Visit?
Several colleges at Oxford open their doors to the public for free at certain times of the day or week. They may not be as impressive as some of the ones with a ticket price but some have features that are definitely worth a little peek if you find yourself in the area. Here’s our recommendations and a few reasons why they are worth a visit…
All Souls College
The poet Matthew Arnold once labelled Oxford;
‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires’
Because from places like Boars Hill, just west of the metropolis, the tall steeples are what fashion the Oxford skyline and All Souls College is the show-stopper.
In order to get in you have to take the hardest exam in the world, or just turn up between 2 and 4pm on week-days (all day on Sunday) and entry is free!
Access includes a visit to the college front, the Great Quadrangles and the Chapel and it is definitely worth a look as you will more than likely find yourself at this popular Oxford location at some point anyway (it’s next door to the Radcliffe Camera). However, it’s the spires which make it glorious and you’ll get the best views of these from the top of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin across the way. (The church tower makes our list of Top Things To Do In Oxford and you can find out more details here)
The Gothic chapel of All Souls College is a particular highlight as are the unique angles of the Radcliffe Camera through the foliage of the gardens. You might not spend too long here but it’d be a shame to just walk on by.
The main entrance is on Oxford High Street.
A little bit controversial, Keble College isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. It’s been called a Zebra, a humbug and a lasagne – but in my books, the latter is definitely not an insult! In any other town though, this Victorian piece of architecture in the Neo-Gothic style would receive the attention it actually deserved. In short, it looks nothing like the rest of the Oxford Universities!
Photo credits; Holly Hayes, Keble College – Flickr
For starters, it’s way younger, but that shouldn’t deter you from a quick peek. You’re more than likely going to be stopping by the Pitt Rivers Museum over the road if you’re visiting Oxford for the day (and if not, why not!?), so you may as well visit Keble.
Check out the Dining Hall and Common Room, both a bit reminisce of a posh grand-mothers house and easy to imagine a soiree with Queen Victoria. However, Keble is anything but stuffy – it’s probably the friendliest college you will visit and the more laid back atmosphere is noticeable. Meal-times are a big deal in this place; the University keeps food prices low and in turn students make it a priority to eat here, including 3 formal dinners a week. Rumour has it that Keble is the envy of other Oxford Colleges when it comes to dining.
The College also has a rather beautiful chapel too. And, all for free – just make sure you plan your visit between 2 – 5pm.
Entrance is on Parks Road, opposite the Pitt Rivers Museum
Exeter is the 4th oldest college at Oxford and has a few famous alumni including William Morris, Tolkein and Roger Bannister of 4-minute-mile fame.
Check out the pretty Fellow’s Garden and the spot where Inspector Morse had his heart attack on the lawn! It’s also a filming location for some scenes in The Golden Compass. The hall and chapel are also great too, the latter where a William Morris tapestry of Christ’s Birth hangs. Open for free between 2-5pm.
Entrance is on Turl Street.
Worth a stop in Autumn-time just to see the beautiful red Virginia Creeper vines in the Quadrangles. Famous alumni – John Le Carre and Emily Mortimer and John Wesley.
Entrance on Turl Street.
A bit off the beaten path in Oxford, Worcester is a little hidden gem. It’s like a blend of stately home and quaint chocolate-box cottages, all set to a beautiful backdrop of gardens. Throw in a lake for good measure and you’ll find yourself in a city-centre secret place of calm. The college has won Oxford in Bloom a few times over the years – that should tell you something. And don’t miss the mosaics in the church, there’s a distinct Byzantian temple feel to it.
Entrance on Worcester Street, just along from the Ashmolean.
Corpus Christi College
The smallest College of Oxford University but also one of the cutest, Corpus Christi is famous for is annual Tortoise Fair, held in May. Over a thousand fans turn up to see the race between the college tortoises across the gardens. Don’t miss the Pelican sundial in the Quad and the scenic vista’s over Merton’s Field.
Entrance is on Merton Street and it’s open to visitors every day from 1.30 – 4.30pm.
TIPS FOR VISITING OXFORD COLLEGES
Open Doors Oxford is an event which takes place over a weekend in mid-September every year and makes several Oxford colleges open to visitors that usually charge an entrance fee. It’s a good time to visit if you want to see as many colleges as possible.
When you visit Oxford colleges it may be wise to check ahead of time to see if all the areas are open, sometimes libraries or halls are closed for events or other reasons. Also, some Oxford college tours need to be booked in advance.
Here’s our map of Oxford colleges worth visiting. Remember, if you want to save this map just click on the arrow in the top left corner and star or save.
More Places To Visit In Oxford
Of course, there is more to Oxford than the university. The city has a fascinating royal and political past which you can learn more about. Plus, it’s not short on great places to eat and a good handful of historically famous pubs. We’ve come up with a list of the best things to do in Oxford if you’d like to take a read – stuff you really shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting Oxford for a day.
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