Our Top 20 Places to Visit in Oxford
Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a lovely city with a lot to see. If you’re looking for the top things to do in Oxford, look no further. Here’s where you should begin.
Oxford is one of our favourite places in the UK, and it continues to surprise visitors who come back again and again. Few sites in the UK or Europe can match the city’s stunning architecture and significant history.
Whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit to Oxford, there’s always something fresh to discover — some hidden gem to find.
Check out these top 20 things to do in Oxford, including well-known attractions and lesser-known gems. Are you ready to go on an adventure? Let’s get started.
1. The Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library is one of the country’s oldest and largest libraries. The library (which actually is a collection of interconnected libraries spread throughout Oxford) has a long and illustrious history, with some of its structures serving as libraries since the Middle Ages.
The Bodleian Library’s architecture will take your breath away. From the stunning Radcliffe Camera to the fortress-like Old Bodleian Library, the “Bod” is home to some of Oxford’s most distinctive structures. If you only have time to see two things on your visit to Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera and the Old Library should be the two on your list.
The interiors of the Bod are as magnificent as the exterior — it’s a working library, so large sections are off-limits unless you take a tour, which we highly recommend. Even if you don’t, pay to enter The Divinity School, which is not just one of the most ornately decorated halls in the Bodleian. It also appears in one of the Harry Potter movies.
2. The Radcliffe Camera
The Radcliffe Camera, invented by Radcliffe, is the structure that triggered a million camera clicks. Located in the heart of the city of dreaming spires, The Radcliffe Camera is a prominent component of Oxford architecture. It will always be at the top of anyone’s list of things to do in Oxford.
As it’s affectionately known locally, The Rad Cam was constructed in the 18th century, making it rather recent by Oxford standards. It is now one of the Bodleian Library’s principal reading rooms and the home of some of the library’s holdings.
It’s a working library and, like the rest of the Bodleian, it’s off-limits unless you organise a tour.
3. The Ashmolean Museum
The Ashmolean is Oxford’s flagship museum and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. The Ashmolean, often regarded as the world’s first modern museum, has housed the University’s historical and archaeological collections since 1683.
The Ashmolean remains a fascinating trip through the history of diverse cultures worldwide, even though it is no longer in its original structure – it has grown far too large for them. The diverse collection includes a wide variety of items and displays. Do you want to witness life-size replicas of Greek and Roman sculptures? They’ve got it. Ceramics and textiles from the Middle East too.
In 2009, the Ashmolean underwent a major refurbishment. The collections are presented tastefully and in an engaging manner. Allow for at least a few hours of exploration time. Plus, when you’re done, spend some time in their rooftop cafe, which is one of Oxford’s best.
4. Punting on the Cherwell
One of the loveliest things to do in Oxford is to go punting with a picnic. The Isis (Thames) and the Cherwell rivers run through Oxford. Punting, which is possible on both, is a kind of boating activity in which you propel the boat with a metal stick.
Start at Magdalen Bridge and punt up the river to the Victoria Arms in Marston, where (if you have not brought your own picnic) you can disembark for a leisurely meal before floating back to your starting point. Perfection.
5. The Pitt Rivers Museum
One of Oxford’s more unusual and interesting museums is the Pitt Rivers Museum, which opened in 1887 to display Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers’ anthropological artefacts from around the world. The museum is centred around his collection of over half a million items telling the narrative of man’s evolution.
6. Christ Church College
If you only have time to visit one of the University of Oxford’s 38 colleges while you are in town, make it Christ Church. Cardinal Wolsey created the college about 500 years ago — until he fell out of favour and King Henry VIII (of divorced, beheaded, and died fame…) stole it from him.
This relationship with the Royal family has lasted for many years. During the brief four-year time when Oxford was England’s capital during the Civil War, Christ Church was even the seat of King Charles I’s royal parliament.
Fast forward to now, and you’ll find one of Oxford’s most beautiful colleges and the only one with its own cathedral. Begin with the huge Tom Quad flanked by the Christopher Wren-designed Tom Tower, and then proceed to the dining room, which was used in the Harry Potter films.
7. Magdalen College (pronounced maudlin)
This college is a university in Oxford. There aren’t many Oxford colleges that can boast of having their own deer park… but then Magdalen isn’t like most other Oxford colleges. First up, Magdalen is one of the richest colleges in the University, and secondly, it’s just so beautiful that you shouldn’t miss it on your list of places to visit in Oxford.
Like many Oxford colleges, you have to pay to enter – once you do, take a peek at the cloisters, chapel, and hall and take a turn around the deer park. It would be rude not to.
8. Keble College
Find yourself getting a bit desensitised to all that handsome sandstone? It’s OK; it happens to the best of us. Enter the Victorian Gothic masterpiece that is Keble College.
Keble College does not appear on many lists of Oxford tourist sites, but there are many reasons you should include it in your Oxford tour schedule. Keble’s bizarre architecture, which is mostly redbrick with contrasting white, black, and golden patterns, was always supposed to stand out. It features a beautiful chapel that will make you stop in your tracks. Once inside, don’t miss Holman Hunt’s world-famous Light of the World picture, which is hidden in a little room to the chapel’s left.
As if that weren’t enough, the college’s hall is the city’s longest – not to mention the most spectacular – and it dwarfs Christ Church’s.
8. The Sheldonian Theatre
The Sheldonian Theatre, the Neoclassical style D-shaped building that stretches out onto Broad Street, is located near the Old Bodleian Library. Are you curious as to what it is? The Sheldonian is Oxford University’s official ceremonial hall. It maintains a particular place in students’ hearts being the venue where they matriculate (get formally enrolled at the University) and graduate.
The Sheldonian was Christopher Wren’s first major architectural project – you may know that he went on to create some of London’s most prominent landmarks after the Great Fire, including St Paul’s Cathedral. If you have time, take a Sheldonian tour, which will take you through the University’s history and allow you to visit the inside of the theatre, which is dominated by the ceiling fresco “Truth descending on the arts and sciences to remove ignorance from the university.”
9. University Church of St Mary’s
All Soul’s College, Brasenose College, the Old Bodleian, and the Radcliffe Camera are concentrated on one side of Radcliffe Square, which includes St Mary’s Church. While the church is interesting in and of itself, we’ll let you in on a little secret: the tower should be on your list of things to do in Oxford. Climb to the top of St Mary’s Tower for the city’s best views for a modest price. The high, curving stairs leading to the top of the tower are a little scary, especially on the way down. The views, however, are breathtaking — you can stroll around all four sides for four distinct but equally captivating panoramas.
10. The Bridge of Sighs
Here’s another Oxford attraction that may look familiar to you. That’s because it’s said to resemble the famous bridge in Venice with the same name. The bridge connects two parts of Hertford College, but its unique appearance is a big part of its charm.
If you’re heading away from the Bodleian Library, the entrance to the Turf Tavern — one of Oxford’s oldest and most beautiful pubs – is nestled down the alley to the left of the bridge.
11. The Oxford Castle & Prison
The Oxford Castle & Prison is a mediaeval Norman castle converted into a historical landmark, hotel, and entertainment complex all rolled into one. It’s not as strange as it sounds: the hotel (Malmaison) has transformed the former prison cells into nice rooms, and the bars and cafés are well worth a visit.
Are you more interested in the castle itself than the modern frills? You can take a guided tour of the structure to learn about its history, which includes a 900-year-old crypt. Putting aside the fact that the tours are given by costumed characters (shudder), it’s a fascinating approach to learning about a side of Oxford that isn’t related to the institution.
12. The Oxford Museum of Natural History
The Oxford Museum of Natural History, which is housed in the same building as the Pitt Rivers Museum, is one of the more unusual things to do in Oxford. The structure alone is stunning, and with a significant collection of zoological and geological specimens, this is a must-see destination.
The massive dinosaur skeletons that dominate the museum’s collection are impossible to ignore. Fossils and replicas allow you to get up close and personal with the various species on show. The Oxford Dodo, one of the world’s few of its kind, is supposed to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s character in Alice in Wonderland.
This modest gallery is one of Oxford’s more unique attractions, yet it is well worth a visit. Where else can you view exhibitions that don’t shy away from challenging you or challenging the current quo – and for free?
14. The New College Cloisters
The evocative New College Cloisters is one of Oxford’s hidden gems and a reasonably new tourist favourite site in the town since they doubled as the spot where Mad Eye Moody turns Draco into a ferret in one of the Happy Potter movies).
15. Oxford Botanic Gardens & Arboretum
Oxford’s Botanic Gardens is the UK’s oldest and one of the world’s oldest botanic gardens. They’re a tranquil haven in the middle of the city, with over 6,000 plant species organised into several collections.
It’s instructive, but the main pleasure comes from simply admiring the stunning plantings, which appear to be in bloom. Our favourite park feature is the glasshouses; a trip through here takes you to other areas of the world, where tropical palms grow taller than houses and desert cacti bloom in rare blossoms.
16. Literary Hotspots
Oxford has more than its fair share of literary hotspots, which is somewhat unsurprising given its great literary heritage. Book enthusiasts can get lost in a world of real-life inspirations and settings from their favourite stories.
Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series should look for a seat in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens overlooking the Isis, which is claimed to be where Lyra and Will’s main characters return year after year in their own worlds. Fans have carved memorial inscriptions into the bench — you’ll notice them when you see them.
Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson) was a Christ Church scholar. The famous Alice in Wonderland books include influences as diverse as the Dodo in the Oxford Museum of Natural History and the door into Christ Church’s cathedral garden.
C.S Lewis wrote his fantasy Narnia series as a Fellow of Magdalen College. Although there are signs of Narnia all across Oxford, the wooden door in the lane that goes down the side of St Mary’s Church is the most well-known. You’ll notice that the entryway is flanked by two fauns and features a lion in the centre if you look attentively. It’s claimed to be the wardrobe door through which the characters in the novel enter Narnia.
17. The Covered Market
This popular market, which dates from the 18th century, is located in the centre of Oxford. Around 40 dealers have stalls and businesses within the market — you never know what you’ll find if you step in for a look.
18. Meadow at Christ Church
Christ Church Meadow is one of Oxford’s many green spaces. The Meadow is one of the nicest spots to visit in Oxford on a hot summer day, sandwiched between the River Isis (the part of the Thames that runs through Oxford), the River Cherwell, and Christ Church College.
Rowers toss boats onto the river from the boathouses that border the Isis; sit on the grass and watch them slog their way down the river, or enjoy a picnic beneath the shade of a tree – just keep an eye out for cows.
Meadows of Port (and a Few Gorgeous Pubs). Port Meadow is a vast meadow in the north of Oxford, above the Jericho neighbourhood, that is much liked by locals but usually missed by tourists.
The Meadow is part of a grazing area that dates back over 4,000 years. Cows and horses can still be seen ranging freely on the Meadow today.
While the Thames banks are lovely for a stroll or a picnic, it doesn’t hurt that the Meadow leads to two of Oxford’s most beautiful pubs, The Perch and The Trout.
19. The Perch and The Trout
The Perch, a 17th century country inn, is an excellent place for a quiet drink or two. The Trout is a bit of a walk, but it takes you through idyllic vistas that have essentially stayed untouched for millennia. Furthermore, the tavern serves excellent meals and features free-roaming peacocks in its gardens.
20. Immerse yourself in the centre of Oxford
Combining discrete essentials such as ultrafast WiFi with contemporary furniture, comfortable beds and 5* linen, book a self-catering short let space in the centre of Oxford and immerse yourself in all the history and beautiful architecture. We strive to make your stay with us as comfortable and memorable as possible, whether you are on business, on vacation, in the middle of a house transfer, enjoying a sabbatical, or simply visiting Oxford.