Oxford is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and steeped in academia. The buildings and people here have inspired authors such as C.S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll to write classic books.
And it’s not hard to see why this city is so popular. There’s the tranquil setting along the River Thames (known in the city as Isis), where the University’s rowing team meet their match each year, historical pubs, top-class museums and plenty of parks and gardens.
Plus it only takes an hour to get there from London, making Oxford a really good option for a day trip.
So if you’re heading to this university city, here are some things to do while you’re there.
Buildings | Museums | Punting | Shopping | Ghost | Eating and Drinking | Outskirts | Theatre | Guided Tours
1. Admire the University church
The University Church dates back to 1280, and gives you great views of Oxford’s “dreaming spires” from the tower. Make sure you take the time to look at the gargoyles and grotesque carvings along the way, too.
DID YOU KNOW: The phrase “dreaming spires” comes from the poem Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold. The full line reads “And that sweet city with her dreaming spires”.
Radcliffe Camera (c) VisitEngland / Experience Oxfordshire
2. Browse one of the oldest libraries in Europe
The Bodleian Library has served the University of Oxford since 1602.
It’s still a working library with more than ten million books, and has become a favourite with film makers in recent years. Scenes from X Men 4 and the Harry Potter blockbusters (it doubles for Hogwarts Library) have been shot there, as well as the TV shows Inspector Morse and Lewis.
At the south side of building you’ll find the neo-classical Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library.
3. Visit the world class museums
One of Oxford’s best museums is the Ashmolean, which specialises in art and archaeology. Built in 1845 to house the University’s art collection, it’s free to visit and contains the world’s largest collection of Raphael drawings and Chinese art in the west, as well as the lantern used by Guy Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot.
In 1860, the gothic Oxford University Museum of Natural History was founded as the centre for science academics. In here you’ll find the Oxfordshire dinosaurs dug up from local clay in the 19th Century and a Dodo skull. Admission is free.
If you want to see some more weird and wonderful objects for free, try the Pitt Rivers Museum. There are Amazonian shrunken heads and a tribal costume from Captain Cook’s Second Voyage to the Pacific Islands among the 275,000 objects.
Oxford is also home to the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building, the Museum of the History of Science.
4. Head to the river for punting and picnics
One of the most iconic sights on Oxford is punting on the river, which people have done here since Victorian times.
You can either hire your own punt, or get chauffeured with an expert at the helm – visit Magdalen Bridge Boathouse to find out more.
There are also canoes, rowing boats and pedalos available along the river.
5. Spend some time (and money) shopping
A good place to start is The Covered Market – a lovely place and home to the best local and independent businesses. It’s open every day of the week, and there has been a market here for more than 200 years (the building dates back to the 1770s).
The Cowley Road area of the city has lots of independent shops and bars. It also plays host to Oxford’s biggest street party, the Cowley Road Carnival (see website for dates).
For comics and graphic novels visit Inky Fingers, which also does a range of imported sweets and drinks. Or if it’s vinyl you’re after, Truck Music Store, has plenty to get to grips with, along with CDs and tickets for local gigs on sale. They also have an in-house coffee shop to peruse your purchases in.
For live music, the O2 Academy Oxford is also on this road.
The Goldfish Bowl on Magdalen Road has such a vast range of tropical fish, it’s almost like visiting an aquarium. The shop facade doesn’t give much away, but once inside you’ll find a whole aquatic world, with room after room of tanks with exotic fish from across the globe.
6. Eat and drink in Oxford’s pubs, bars and cafes
In the centre of town, The Turf Tavern is a proper old pub, this is where former American President, Bill Clinton, allegedly didn’t inhale. They’ve got some great real ales, and if you want something strong, go for a pint of Old Rosie.
St Giles’ also has two must-visit pubs: the The Eagle and Child and the Lamb & Flag: a real ale pub owned by St John’s College, where profits go towards graduate scholarships. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis were often seen popping in for a pint on the TV show.
While authors J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) would frequent The Lamb and Flag, it’s in The Eagle and Child where they hosted their meetings of “The Inklings”. This remains a traditional real ale pub, having been established in 1650.
Visit the Grand Cafe for a cream tea and delicious cocktails. It’s in a very decadent Grade II listed building – which has been a grocers, hotel and inn during its lifetime and was also the site of England’s first coffee house.
Another lovely location for lunch is Vaults & Garden, which is in the Grade I listed Old Congregation house of Oxford University (1320). While the interior is pretty special, the outside garden is equally inviting (and they even provide blankets and hot water bottles in the winter).
Little Clarendon Street is a lovely little street in the Jericho area of Oxford, with lots of shops, cafes and bars to choose from.
Highlights include G and D’s Ice Cream Cafe, one of three of the city’s branches. They have a variety of flavours every day, including Dimebar crunch, Belgian chocolate yoghurt and a plenty of fruit sorbets.
The Duke of Cambridge, does a really good cocktail hour, with freshly made drinks at decent prices every day of the week.
Freud is a cocktail bar in a former church with high ceilings and stained glass windows.
If you find yourself in Magdalen Road, The Rusty Bicycle does a great range in burgers and pizzas, and you can even get your pizza to take away if you want to just stop in for a drink.
After a decent brunch? Then pop into the Oxfork cafe. As it’s licensed you can even get a Bloody Mary to go with your Eggs Benedict.
7. Visit the outskirts
A lovely open space on the edge of the city (just beyond the train station) is Port Meadow, which with leave you feeling like you’re in the heart of the countryside.
They have their own wild Port Meadow Ponies (hardy horses who love being out in the elements) and you can see evidence of Bronze Age living as you walk around.
Iffley is a quintessential Cotswolds village, complete with shop, post office, village hall and country church with a vicarage (St Mary’s – which dates back to Norman times) – and it’s only a short bus or bike ride from the city centre.
A great way to get there is to walk along the Isis banks from town, where you’ll pass a number of the University boat houses, and stop off at the Isis Farmhouse pub (which is only accessible on foot or by bike).
8. See a film or play
If you want an alternative cinema experience, visit the Art Deco-styled Ultimate Picture Palace. This independent cinema is the oldest in Oxford and often puts on theme nights where the audience can get dressed up – they also don’t show adverts.
The Oxford Playhouse, built in 1938, has seen many famous faces tread the boards, including John Gielgud, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. You can a wide range of plays, dance performances and poetry and music evenings there.
8. Take a guided tour of Oxford
You can take a free, two-hour tour of the city with footprints tours, who also offer paid guided walks with university students round the colleges.
The Official Guided Walking Tours have Blue Badge guides and themed tours (think Harry Potter) as well as specialist family tours.
For bespoke private tours, try Oxford City Walk, who can tailor the trip to suit your particular interests.
Oxford is second only to Cambridge in terms of its number of cyclists, so it makes sense to see some of the sights by bike.
You can hire bikes and just ride about or you can take a guided or self guided tour around the cities. Companies like Bainton Bikes for instance, specialise in all three.
Alternatively you can take the City Sightseeing Bus Tour, which is hop-on,hop-off to see more of the city from the comfort of a seat.
If our guide has inspired you, why not make your visit a longer one. We have plenty of hotels in Oxford and the surrounding area to stay in.
Oxford is only an hour away from London, and there are plenty of other weekend break destinations to discover nearby.
You can be in Oxford in less than an hour from London by train via First Great Western.
If you are driving, it can take an hour and a quarter (depending on traffic) – and the city has a Park and Ride facility.
What are your Oxford tips?
Live in Oxford or have you already visited the dreaming spires? We’d love to hear what your favourite things to do in Oxford are.
Please share your experiences and recommendations by leaving a comment below.