I lived in Oxford four years whilst studying for my Masters of Chemistry (at Jesus College) and had plenty of time to explore every corner of this beautiful city! It’s very close to London to enjoy for a day trip but I would recommend a weekend to really take in all of the sights. Given its rich history and the city’s links to the University (which is often cited as the top University in the world) there are lots of museums to soak up knowledge and streets that are like walking through history itself.
If you’re visiting then make sure you check out these 16 things in the City of Dreaming Spires 🤩
1. Radcliffe Camera & the Bodelian Library
Think of Oxford and you probably think of students hunkered down over texts studying for tutorials in libraries lined floor to ceiling with book stacks. The most famous library in the city is The Bodleian which the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford’s most iconic building, is part of. In fact, they’re not only linked as a faculty but also physically as there is actually a passage between them that runs underneath Radcliffe Square!
These are two of the most beautiful libraries in the world and an absolute must see to admire the architecture and the scale of intellect that lies within their walls.
2. University Church
Another spot you can’t miss on Radcliffe Square is the gorgeous University Church with the Vaults and Garden Cafe located (unsurprisingly!) in the church’s vaults, but it does have tables in the garden outside to admire the view of the Rad Cam as well. Make sure to visit when the tower is open for an EPIC view of Radcliffe Square and the library at its heart as well as an overview of the city centre skyline.
Don’t leave Radcliffe Square without taking a peak down St Mary’s Passage which is just to the right of the University Church. This is a super picturesque spot with a perfectly positioned lamp post and the doorway known as the Narnia door!
3. Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs is an impressive sight in the city centre as it joins two sections of Hartford College sweeping across New College Lane. There are two other Bridge of Sighs in Europe and this one in Oxford is the most recent, completed in 1914. The other two are in Cambridge & Venice both of which cross rivers instead. It’s a popular spot for graduating students as it’s right opposite The Sheldonian Theatre were graduation takes place!
4. Find the Turf Tavern
The Turf Tavern is the most infamous of Oxford’s pubs as it’s where Bill Clinton ‘didn’t inhale’ during his time at the University! Plenty of famous people have enjoyed a pint at this sneakily hidden pub which you’ll have to navigate down a narrow lane (either from Holywell Street (turn right past the Bath Street Hotel or New College Lane, turn left underneath the Bridge of Sighs) to find.
Maybe you’ll choose a seat where Margaret Thatcher, CS Lewis or Richard Burton sat whilst sipping their drink. Over the Summer, this is a popular place for students to come after graduation so you may see them dressed in Sub Fusc!
Other pubs in Oxford to visit include: Port Mahon (on St Clement’s) which is a cosy little pub which serves a great roast lunch; The Eagle & Child on St Gile’s where The Inklings (CS Lewis & JRR Tolkein were members); The Rose & Crown on North Parade Avenue which is an Instagram dream in pink.
5. Take a Literary Tour
Speaking of The Inklings, a literary tour of Oxford is a great way to get to know the city and the inspiration it has provided to some of the greatest novels ever written including Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of The Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. If you head to Broad Street there are a number of tour guides touting their tours where you can find lots of literary specific ones (or other themes such as history, sight seeing, ghosts tours or whatever might take your fancy!) or if you want to take your time and find some as you come upon them check out 11 places in Oxford every literary lover should visit.
6. Search for Harry Potter sights
If you’re a Harry Potter fan (or even like me you don’t really like the series…) then Oxford is a GREAT place to search out both inspirations for the film and some actual filming locations as well! The dining hall in Christ Church famously inspired the Hogwarts dining hall although it was not filmed there.
Two of the Bodleian library’s rooms were used: the Duke Humfrey’s library as the Hogwarts library and the Divinity School plays multiple roles in the films. Head to New College to see the Harry Potter cloisters and feel like you’re at Hogwarts about to head to a Potion class as these were actually used for filming!
7. Stroll through Christ Church Meadow
How many cities have got a meadow right in the middle of them?! Not many I’m sure, but Oxford is one of them with Christ Church Meadow at its heart, The meadow has its own cows and you can take a peaceful meander along the river Cherwell and past the river Thames.
Punting is a very popular past time in Oxford and as you walk along the River Cherwell through Christ Church meadow you’ll notice lots of these unusual vessels gliding clumsily along. It can be pricey to hire a punt for an hour but it is a lot of fun! Book a tour with a student to explore the city and the river by punt here.
There’s a number of places you can hire a punt from and a number of routes but the most popular is from Magdalen boat house. If you don’t fancy giving it a shot yourself you can either hire a punt with someone to punt it for you or walk along the river and (let’s be honest) laugh at the people giving it their best shot 😁
Did you know you can tell if you’re in Oxford or Cambridge based on the punting style?! In Oxford you stand on the slatted decking whilst in Cambridge you stand on the flat part!
9. University Botanic Gardens
Right by Magdalen College is the University Botanic Gardens which is somewhere to visit if you’re after some peace and quiet and a walk amongst beautiful flowers and interesting plants. It’s the oldest Botanic Garden in the UK and you can explore the walled garden and multiple glasshouses. If you’re a fan of His Dark Materials you can find the bench that is known as ‘Will and Lyra’s Bench’ which has marked significance in the books.
10. Explore the Colleges that make up the University of Oxford
Oxford is an unusual university as whilst lectures are organised by the university subject departments, teaching is organised by individual colleges and when you apply you must choose the college that you’re applying for. Some colleges are considerably older than others ranging from those with origins in the 13th century to Reuben College which will accept students in 2021. Some are for graduates only and some are restricted by subjects.
You can visit many of the colleges for a small fee on entrance to get an insider glimpse into what life at Oxford University is like! Pick a few varied colleges to roam around but some of the most popular are: Christ Church (best for Harry Potter sightseeing), Magdalene (best for having a deer park), Jesus (best for wisteria hysteria and also it’s the best one – not that I’m biased 😉).
11. Covered Market
The Covered Market is just off the High Street and a great place to uncover some lovely boutiques and pick up souvenirs or gifts as well as find some coffee shops and flower shops as well. My favourite place is Moo Moo’s which does the most amazing range of tasty milkshakes 😍 Ben’s cookies also has a stall with warm freshly baked cookies…YUM!
12. Cocktails at The Varsity Club
My favourite place for drinks in Oxford is The Varsity Club which is hidden at one of the entrances to the Covered Market. Climb up and up the stairs to the terrace to savour a cocktail (or another drink!) whilst taking in the city skyline’s view 🍸
Brunch is probably my favourite meal because you can pretty much have whatever you want and it became a bit of a weekend treat when I was at Uni. Oxford has loads of great places for brunch so make sure to factor in time to enjoy a lazy sunday brunch on a weekend trip to the city.
Last time I visited I went to The Handle Bar Cafe on St Michael’s Street for a tasty granola & yoghurt bowl. Some other Oxford favourites include Cafe Coco, The Rickety Press, The Missing Bean and Rick’s Diner where I would often study with a coffee!
14. Visit the Museums
As home to one of the greatest educational institutions in the world it should come as no surprise that it has some of the best and most impressive museums in the world as well and you can become a culture vulture by soaking up some new knowledge at any one, two or few that take your fancy. The Ashmolean is the real jewel in Oxford’s crown of museums as Britain’s first public museum established between 1678 and 1683. It has a variety of floors with exhibits from Greek sculptures to a collection of rings said to have inspired JRR Tolkein as he wrote The Lord of The Rings.
Another popular museum is the Museum of Natural History on Parks Rd which is home to The Oxford Dodo which is the last remaining dodo soft tissue in the world! It also houses another museum within its walls, The Pitt Rivers Museum which is an eclectic collection of archaeological and anthropological pieces collated by the University over many years.
For art lovers, then Modern Art Oxford is worth a visit to enjoy contemporary art whilst those interested in science and space might want to check out the History of Science Museum on Broad Street.
15. Get lost down historic streets
Oxford is the sort of city that you can while away the time chatting and walking, getting lost down pretty cobbled streets because it’s just so flipping gorgeous! This is the sort of city I love so take some time to just wonder and see what places you come across. Some of my favourites include Holywell Street, Merton Street and Turl Street.
16. Chill out in University Parks
The University Parks can be found just north of the science buildings and are a great expanse of parklands to walk through. During University terms you might see students playing tennis, rugby matches or even a game of Quidditch being played by the University team (yup, really – look our for the person designated as the golden snitch as you make your way round the park). This a great place to relax in Summer with a picnic blanket or to come for a run as well.
Oxford is such a beautiful and varied city, full of architecture, infamous watering holes and plenty of tasty food stops to keep you on your feet exploring. If you’re looking for some places to add to your Insta feed then check out 18 perfect Instagram spots in Oxford:
If you’re interested in the literary history of Oxford then save 11 places in Oxford every literary lover should visit!