Oxford is one of the UK’s most charming cities. With a world-famous university, a wealth of historical architecture and a buzzing atmosphere, it’s no wonder that it’s often at the top of people’s list of places to see in the UK. As one of my favorite cities, I love recommending places to stay and things to do in Oxford.
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Oxford’s an easy day trip from London, but, if you have more time to spend there – it will reward you well. I lived in Oxford for three years and have made countless trips back, even so, there’s always something else to discover or somewhere new to try.
Whether you’re just visiting Oxford for a day or planning on spending a long weekend here, you shouldn’t miss it on your trip to the UK. Here are the top things to do in Oxford.
Things to do in oxford
Oxford’s famous university is split up into 38 colleges and six permanent private halls. It’s hard to pick a favorite but Christchurch College is one of the most famous thanks to it’s long and interesting history… and the fact that its dining hall was the setting for the famous dining hall in Harry Potter (that’s reason enough for me).
Walking through the porter’s lodge (entrance) into the big, square quad, surrounded by golden sandstone buildings, is like walking straight into the scene of a film set – one with a lot of students milling about.
You can visit the dining hall outside of dining hours – though Harry Potter was actually filmed in a replica of Christchurch’s dining halls in a London film studio, you’re still left half expecting to see Dumbledore striding in to take his place on the high table.
The Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Library)
When everyone thinks of the famous “Oxford building” 99% of the time, the Radcliffe Camera is the building that comes to mind. This cylindrical building, designed by James Gibbs, was built in the late 17th century and has been contributing to Oxford’s nickname of the city of the dreaming spires ever since.
It’s almost impossible not to snap a photo or two – the Radcliffe Camera is Oxford’s most iconic building for good reason.
Unfortunately, you can’t go inside – as it’s actually a part of the university’s library The Bodleian Library – but it’s better seen from the outside anyway, take my word for it.
The Ashmolean Museum
Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology is a compact but interesting walk through some of the university’s extensive collection of famous paintings and ancient artifacts. It was renovated in 2009, throwing off its fusty reputation and bringing itself firmly into the 21st century in the process.
Grab an audio guide, then spend a few hours checking out the full collection, which includes some of Michelangelo’s studies for the Sistine Chapel and works by Manet, Raphael and Turner among others.
The Pitt Rivers Museum & Museum of Natural History
The Pitt Rivers Museum & Museum of Natural History share a gorgeous Victorian Gothic building towards the north of Oxford, across from my old stomping ground, Keble College.
The Pitt Rivers Museum focuses on anthropology and archaeology, while the Museum of Natural History focuses (surprise) on natural history. Set aside an hour or two to visit both museums – their collections inspired many of Lewis Carroll’s (real name Charles Dodgson) characters in Alice in Wonderland.
If you are visiting between late spring and autumn, you should make a beeline for the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city, just across from Magdalen College, the gardens are a quiet haven and make the perfect spot for a sunny picnic on the banks of the river.
The Botanic Gardens are filled with all kinds of plants and flowers from around the world, including a “gin border” with all the plants used to flavor and make gin (beautiful and practical – even better. My favorite spot in the Botanic Gardens is the two absolutely huge glasshouses, used to grow and shelter giant tropical plants and palms. Strong Instagram game guaranteed.
While you’re planning your trip to Oxford, make sure to check out these great activities!
Oxford’s Best Food and Drink Options
With so many things to do in Oxford, you’re going to need plenty of food to keep you going!
The Grand Cafe
Cream tea at The Grand Cafe is practically a rite of passage, and definitely one of the best things to do in Oxford. Steaming hot buttery scones, fresh from the oven, come accompanied with a tea of your choice, and lashings of clotted cream and jam. Want to make it extra-special? Go for the full afternoon tea with finger sandwiches for the quintessential Oxford experience.
If you’re spending time in London before or after your time in Oxford, check out our London guide for where to stay and what to do!
The Duke of Cambridge
The Jericho area of Oxford is packed with great cocktail bars, but The Duke of Cambridge consistently gets my vote as the best thanks to a wallet-friendly happy hour and their never-less-than-perfect cocktails.
The ever-changing cocktail menu is sure to have something to tickle your taste buds. Just beware, they’re often more potent than they taste.
The Eagle & Child
The Eagle & Child’s biggest claim to fame is that it was the old stomping ground and meeting place of The Inklings – a group of authors including J.R.R Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame) and C.S Lewis (who wrote the Narnia series).
The Inklings would meet each week to talk through their work, philosophize about ideas and generally set the world to rights. Grab a drink, sit in their favorite nook and soak up the history of this cute little pub.
Gee’s fairytale-like setting is a part of its charm. Housed in a large glass structure towards the north of the city and lit with fairy lights, it’s the go-to spot for a dinner date or if you just fancy treating yourself. The food is excellent – the pan-European menu changes every day and makes use of the freshest seasonal ingredients.
Getting Around Oxford
The easiest way to get around all the things to do in Oxford is to walk. It’s a surprisingly compact city – and if you stick to the center, you’re never more than 20-30 minutes away from any of the big sights. Alternatively, you can make like one of the locals and hire a bike – it can be a little hair-raising but is a lovely way to see the city (and you’ll be glad to know that it’s all flat). Outside of the center, the Oxford Bus Company runs buses to pretty much everywhere within Oxford and its surrounding areas.
Places to Stay in Oxford
The Old Vicarage
Boutique hotel The Old Vicarage isn’t cheap but it wins when it comes to being the cutest hotel in Oxford. Expect high-end service and a central location that’s within walking distance of all the main sights.
It’s a little way out of the center, but the YHA is one of the cheapest places to bed down in the city and is always clean and comfortable.
Don’t Miss Out on Oxford’s Cute Little Pubs
As a born and bred British person, it takes a lot to impress me when it comes to pubs. That said, I’ve never come across a city with as many cute pubs like Oxford. You have the well-known pubs such as The Eagle & Child, The Lamb & Flag, and The Kings Arms. But wherever you wander in the city, you’re bound to come across a cute little pub tucked away, almost, but not quite out of sight to tempt you to stop for a bit, rest your feet and quench your thirst.
Things to Know About Oxford
It’s an awful city to drive in – lots of the center is pedestrianized and the rest mostly one way and dead-end streets. If you’re driving you’re much better off using the park and ride facilities at Headington and Thornhill.
The Camera part of the Radcliffe Camera’s name doesn’t refer to the kind of camera we’d think of. The word camera is actually the Latin for a vaulted room with an arched ceiling.
Sub-fusc is the traditional uniform worn by university students on certain occasions, including for formal dinners, taking exams and graduation. Now if you see someone walking around wearing ridiculous Harry Potter-style robes, you’ll know why.
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Julianna is a travel writer and blogger, blogging about travel, culture and, adventure on The Discoveries Of. She loves a good cocktail, hiking up mountains and dancing like nobody’s watching… not necessarily in that order.