Oxford is built on remarkable history and energised by a thriving student population. Find the best things to do in Oxford and a few local experiences to make the most of this enthralling English city.

There’s an unmistakable charm to Oxford that greets you the moment you make contact with the small laneways and cobbled streets. History, tradition and English grandeur combine in an ancient golden-hued centre kept young and modern by the 25,000 students seeking to establish their future in one of the most famous university towns in the world.

This mix of history and youthful ambition energises a host of wonderful places to visit in Oxford, making it a great destination for a weekend break in the UK.

At Christ Church College, experience the majesty and grand architecture of some of the most illustrious colleges in the country. Visit the breathtaking Divinity School, wander medieval libraries and unwind in traditional pubs. Revel in world-class art or get active with some glorious wild swimming on the Thames just a stone’s throw from the centre of town.

From the town that gave the world the mass production of penicillin, lithium-ion batteries, 28 world leaders, 160 Olympic medals, several Harry Potter locations and of course, the COVID-19 vaccine, here is our list of the best things to do in Oxford.

Booking your trip via the links on this page (or on our book page) will earn us a small commission, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support – Paul & Mark.

kebel chapel oxford

IN THIS GUIDE

THINGS TO DO IN OXFORD


1 – EXPLORE THE OXFORD COLLEGES

As the oldest in the English speaking world, Oxford University consists of thirty-nine colleges spread throughout the city, making it one of the most interesting places to visit in England. Many of these colleges are not only the lifeblood of student activity but also magnificent architectural gems. Here are a few notable collages worth visiting.

CHRIST CHURCH COLLEGE

The grandest and wealthiest of the colleges, Christ Church is more than its Harry Potter association. It was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, and has educated 13 prime ministers, and the famous author Lewis Carroll. The college chapel doubles as the Cathedral of Oxford with all the necessary ornamentation befitting its titles. The dining hall at Christ Church was the seat of parliament during the English Civil War and more recently, the inspiration behind the great hall in Harry Potter. 

king's college, things to do oxford

EXETER COLLEGE

Bang in the centre of town on lovely Turl Street, Exeter College is smaller and less grand than Christ Church and Magdalen, and it’s free to enter. But it was good enough for Lord of the Rings author, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a past pupil. The chapel is beautiful, but the highlight is the impressive views over the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Library.

MAGDALEN COLLEGE

Magdalen College takes up a commanding position on the banks of the Cherwell, a strategic location that gave it tactical significance during the English Civil War. Today, this grand old college with picture-perfect quads and lush gardens is one of the best things to do in Oxford. Picture C.S. Lewis enjoying the grand old great hall before visiting the intricate chapel; one of the most intriguing Oxford sights.

magdelen college oxford

2 – TOUR THE BODLEIAN LIBRARY

As one of the oldest libraries in Europe with over 13 million printed items, the Bodleian Library is not to be missed in Oxford. There are several tours to pick from, but the best is the 1-hour tour including the Duke Humfrey’s Library.

This tour visits the Divinity School (the oldest teaching room in the university), the Convocation House (which acted as the parliament in the 17th century) and the Chancellor’s Court (where guilty students have been punished over the centuries).

But the highlight is the Duke Humfrey’s Library, an atmospheric reading room lined with medieval books chained to wood-panelled walls. It’s so impressively old and musty that it was used as Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter Films.

bodleian library oxford

3 – TAKE IN VIEWS OF THE RADCLIFFE CAMERA

While the grand almost semi-spherical Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodleian Library, not many tours stop here. So make sure you head to Radcliffe Square to savour this remarkable building.

Radiating from the dome-shaped architectural gem, smoothed cobbled stones separate the Radcliffe Camera from the finest collection of buildings in the city. Old Bodleian is to the north, Old Soul’s College to the east, Brasenose College to the west and Church of the St. Mary Virgin to the south.

For an even better vista, take the 127 steps up the St. Mary Virgin Church tower. Dating from 1280, it is a gem in itself, but the view from the top is one of the best things to do in Oxford. Timed slots can be booked here.

4 – SHOP IN THE OXFORD COVERED MARKET

Serving people for almost 250 years, the stalls of the covered market range from grocers, butchers and fishmongers to boutiques selling art, aromatics and hats. Potter around the warehouse-style market and soak up the buzzing retail-inspired atmosphere.

Just outside the market on Market Street pop into Objects of Use; a homewares store teeming with beautifully designed everyday objects.

Back inside the market, we highly recommend the coffee at Columbia Coffee Roasters, who source, roast and brew their own beans. Their flat white is textured to perfection and the salted caramel brownie is the best accompaniment to plot the remaining things to do in Oxford.

5 – VISIT BLACKWELL’S BOOK SHOP

Blackwell’s Bookshop has been providing students with mental stimulation for over 140 years. It began as only 12 square feet, but slowly took over the neighbouring shops to become the massive cavern it is today. In addition to academic books and popular classics, Blackwell’s also has a huge selection of posters, music and specialist rare books.

Book lovers spend hours getting lost in the aisles of Blackwell’s. But there is also a regular calendar of book signings, children’s workshops, discussions and book launches.

There are two Blackwell’s in Oxford. The original on Broad Street and a newer store in Westgate Shopping Centre which also stocks stationery, cards, games and toys.

6 – PHOTOGRAPH THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS

Just like the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge, the Oxford version has nothing to do with the famous bridge in Venice. This one at least started life with an original name, Hertford Bridge. It was completed in 1914 to connect two sections of Hertford College over New College Lane.

Legend has it that a health survey of Oxford students found Hertford College to be encumbered with the heaviest weight. So the college closed off the bridge that links the quads to force them to take get more exercise. It’s not true, but it’s a good soundbite for walking tours looking for something to say as they guide tourists past this ornate footbridge.

One of the great things to do in Oxford is to visit the Bridge of Sighs early in the morning when the street will be less busy.

ornate 18th century bridge in Oxford

7 – VISIT A WORLD-CLASS MUSEUM

As a seat of learning, Oxford is blessed with some truly great museums, each with a different focus. From classics to contemporaries, quirky artefacts to the downright weird here are some museums not to be missed in Oxford.

ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM

The Ashmolean Museum reopened in 2009 after a massive refurbishment and today it’s one of the best things to do in Oxford. Inside its classic exterior, the modernised space has a huge collection of archaeological specimens and fine art. Find drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci, and paintings by famous names from Rubens through to Picasso. The Greek and Minoan pottery are excellent, as is the collection of ancient statues. This is an Oxford museum not to miss.

PITT RIVERS MUSEUM

Less classical and quirkier, the Pitt Rivers Museum contains a massive collection of strange objects from all over the world. With a focus on cultural anthropological treasures, find anything from Japanese Noh Masks to Hawaiian feather cloaks. The display on early human tattoos is particularly engrossing. And a little gross.

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Next door to the Pitt Rivers Museum is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Underneath a large square glass roof supported by grand cast-iron pillars, the museum houses a vast array of minerals, rocks, fossils and remnants of historic animals. While the rock section requires a certain disposition, kids will love the dodo and dinosaurs – regular fixtures at the Museum of Natural History.

MODERN ART OXFORD

A relative newcomer in an old city, Modern Art Oxford is free to enter and houses an eclectic array of modern art in a small, clean space. Regular rotating exhibitions means it’s a lottery as to what you’ll see, but for modern art fans, it never seems to disappoint. For a slightly different look at the city, this is one of the Oxford sights we highly recommend.

8 – STROLL MERTON STREET & CHRIST CHURCH MEADOW

Oxford is an enchanting city with hidden nooks bursting with a remarkable history. One of the best is Merton Street, an atmospheric cobbled lane packed with lovely colleges.

Start at the intricately decorated Examination Schools, where each year, anxious students pile in to sit their finals. Next, amble past the colleges lined up behind the cobbles. First up is Merton College, followed by Corpus Christi and, finally Oriel College.

After popping into the colleges, continue on to Merton Fields and Christ Church Meadow, and walk in the footsteps of Lewis Carroll at two lovely green spaces in Oxford. The views of the old and new buildings from the gardens are stunning.

merton street oxford

9 – PUNT ON THE RIVER CHERWELL

Punting is the tricky art of using a long pole (quant pole) to propel a small wooden boat (punt) along the gentle moving waters of the River Cherwell. The river is set in meadow, parks and woodland, so punting is a great way to enjoy the green surroundings of the city.

Bring a picnic, some beers or bubbles and try your hand at punting. Keep in mind, punting is one of the most adventurous things to do in Oxford; it’s harder than it looks.

The other option is to hire someone to do the punting for you. The most central location to hire a boat is at the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse next to Magdalen College. Punts take up to 5 people and cost £25 an hour. Chauffeured punts are £35 for 30 minutes. For all the details, visit Oxford Punting (but come back here to finish this list.)

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10 – HAVE A PINT IN AN OXFORD PUB

A proper Oxford education involves many long hours debating righteous thoughts inside cosy pubs. Have a pint inside an Oxford institution and follow in the footsteps of great world leaders.

The Turf Tavern is a personal favourite from my student days in Oxford. Located at the end of a narrow winding lane next to one of the few remaining sections of the old city walls it dates back to 1381.

Another atmospheric gem, the Bear Inn, dates back to 1242, making it one of the oldest pubs in Oxford. There are over 4,500 neckties pinned to the walls. Each comes from a different club, team or school from anywhere across the world, creating a very sporty old-world feel.

The King’s Head is a student favourite with long wooden benches on wood floors. The ales are good, and the service is quick. The two high-backed chairs by the windows overlooking Holywell Street have been used by many great minds devising the next big discovery.

11 – UNWIND AT PORT MEADOW

Port Meadow is an ancient grazing land that allegedly has not been ploughed for 4,000 years. It’s a grazing area for horses and cattle, and a haven for wildflowers and birdlife attracted to the river that runs along its boundary.

On a summer’s day, it’s a fantastic spot to picnic just 25 minutes’ walk from the centre of Oxford. Bring your gear and jump in the river for a wild swim. Take a long quiet paddle out from the banks, or join the kids leaping in from the bridge where the river meets the Castle Mill Stream.

At the end of the day, head to the Trout Inn, beautifully set by the drifting waters of the river, or to The Perch, the 17th-century pub tucked into the village of Binsey.

To help put our favourite must-see places in Oxford together in one day, ready our day trip to Oxford guide.

12 – ENJOY AN EVENING IN OXFORD

As a thriving university town, there’s no shortage of fun things to do in Oxford in the evening. However, for something a little bit different, here are 3 experiences that are unique to Oxford.

There’s no better way to experience the grandeur of an Oxford college than by being absorbed in the ceremony of Evensong. Starting in the early evening, Evensong lasts about 40 minutes where you’ll be uplifted by heavenly choirs and exquisite architecture. Even for the non-religious, it’s one of the most evocative things to do in Oxford. We recommend Christ Church, Magdalen or New College.

The Old Fire Station Building is half theatre and half crisis support for the homeless. It creates a unique public space for all citizens of Oxford while also providing contemporary art, drama and music. Regular events include comedy, theatre, improv, dance, spoken word performances, and LGBTQ+ workshops.

The Sheldonian holds graduation ceremonies and other important university functions, but at night it often turns into a theatre. A curved auditorium of wooden-panelled seating overlooks a stage hosting top class drama or classical music in this superb Oxford institution.

OTHER THINGS TO DO IN OXFORD

Here are a few more Oxford attractions that don’t quite make our top 12, but are still worth a look if you’ve got some extra time.

OXFORD CASTLE AND PRISON

Much of the Norman Oxford Castle was destroyed in the English Civil War but bizarrely the St. George’s Tower that remains is believed to be a watchtower from Saxon times. The remnants of the rest of the castle were converted into a prison and both now make up the Oxford Castle & Prison tourist attraction.

It’s a bit crammed in on all sides by shopping centres and council buildings, but the tour guides do a good job of bringing it alive. Be aware there are lots of steps up and down the towers of Oxford Castle.

oxford castle

OXFORD BOTANIC GARDENS

Oxford’s Botanic Garden contains over 5,000 plant species making it one of the most diverse plant collections in the world. Founded in 1621 it was the UK’s first botanic garden. Being located centrally in the city, it’s very accessible. Enter through the impressive Danby Gateway and make sure you don’t miss the walled garden.

THIRSTY MEEPLES

Embrace the quirkier side of Oxford at Thirsty Meeples Board Games Café. Pay a small cover charge, then play as many board games as you like from their collection of 2,700 titles. The cafe has a large selection of drinks and food you can hold in one hand so as to not distract from the important business of winning.

OTHER COLLEGES

If you have time, the other Oxford Colleges worth popping into are New College, for the moody cloisters which featured in Harry Potter; Trinity College, for some of the grandest gardens in Oxford; and Corpus Christi for the timeless cobbled square.

All opening times for the Oxford colleges are summarised here.  

all souls college oxford

WHERE TO STAY IN OXFORD

As a popular hub for tourists to the UK, accommodation in Oxford can be expensive, but it has a wide range of great hotels. Check out our suggestions below.

If you prefer to stay in the countryside then find a place in the Cotswolds. Only 30 minutes outside the city centre, you could spend the night in an atmospheric old country pub in a cute village. All our recommendations are covered in our guide to the best places to stay in the Cotswolds.

5-STAR LUXURY

OLD PARSONAGE

The Old Parsonage has a chic country house feel with a blend of luxury and character in a friendly environment. The walled garden is a lovely place to relax and at around 5 minutes to walk into the centre of Oxford, the location is bang on.


CONTEMPORARY B&B

THE GALAXIE

The Galaxie is a friendly, family-run guesthouse in a leafy suburb just outside the centre of Oxford. There’s a hearty breakfast every day and facilities include parking and free wifi. It’s a 20-minute walk into the centre of Oxford but there are several restaurants in the area.


QUIRKY & AFFORDABLE

THE OSNEY ARMS

At just a 10-minute walk to the centre of Oxford, the Osney Arms is a great, budget-friendly option with bright clean rooms. The grab-and-go breakfast is perfect for getting on your way in the morning and the public transport options are excellent.

ornate building with Corinthian columns behind a black wrought iron fence

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK IN OXFORD

As a thriving university town, there is no shortage of great places to grab a bite in Oxford. Here are some of our favourite places to eat, drink and be merry in Oxford. For some of the best nightlight options, check out this guide to the best cocktail bars in Oxford.

Located above a bike shop, the quirky cycle-inspired decor and interesting brunch menu at The Handle Bar Cafe is a great introduction to the hipster side of Oxford. Finish the morning ritual at Society Cafe, our favourite coffee in Oxford thanks to their expertly crafted brews and sleek modern space.

For lunch, Turl Street Kitchen serves up trendy dishes with a focus on sustainability. They also support social projects within Oxford and display works by local artists, and they have a great selection of vegetarian options.

Situated above the Ashmolean Museum, the Ashmolean Rooftop Restaurant is a great setting for a special dinner and Raoul’s Bar in the trendy student neighbourhood of Jerico , is great for expertly crafted cocktails in a dimly lit lounge bar.

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BEST DAY TRIPS FROM OXFORD

The beautiful rolling green landscapes surrounding Oxford that were the birthplace of Winston Churchill, have plenty of great opportunities for a day trip from Oxford.

A grand building surrounded by magnificent, landscaped gardens, Blenheim Palace was briefly the home of Winston Churchill and the only place to be called a palace that is not a royal residence. It’s a 20-minute drive or around the same time on the S3 bus from Oxford.

Surrounding Blenheim Palace, enjoy some of the most picturesque chocolate box villages in the Cotswolds. Honey-coloured houses along babbling brooks; it doesn’t get more quintessentially British than this.

South of Oxford the main branch of the River Thames winds its way through the charming North Wessex Downs. Walk along the riverbanks, explore the towns of Henley and Marlow and find a peaceful part of the river to pop in for a swim.

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WHAT TO BOOK AHEAD FOR YOUR OXFORD VISIT

Oxford can get very busy, especially over the peak summer period, so it’s a good idea to book a few things in advance to save you waiting around in queues.

A tour with a student guide is a great way to get the inside scoop on one of the colleges, while the Harry Potter walk takes you past all the locations made famous by the films.

We’d recommend booking the Bodleian Library tour a visit to Christ Church College as early as possible as they can both get very busy.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is free to visit and queues are generally not too bad, however, it could be a good idea to book free timed entry tickets to the Ashmolean.

Oxford Castle entry is only possible via a guided tour.

Tickets for the Museum of Natural History no longer need to be booked in advance.

HOW TO GET TO OXFORD

Centrally located in England, Oxford can be an easy day trip or weekend break from many places in the UK.

BY TRAIN

Oxford train station is a ten minutes walk from the centre of town. Trains leave from London Paddington every 30 minutes and take around 1 hour. Regular direct trains also run from Birmingham (1h 10m), Bournemouth (1h 50m) & Manchester (2h 45m). There are so many other historic cities around Oxford it can also be included on a 1-week UK rail trip.

BY BUS

While the train is quicker, the bus is cheaper and the route to London is particularly well served. The Oxford Tube bus service leaves from London’s Victoria Station every 20 minutes and collects passengers at Marble Arch, Baker Street, Notting Hill Gate and Shepherd’s Bush underground stations. The trip takes around 1 hour and 40 minutes and ends at the Oxford bus station right in the centre of town.

BY CAR

Only 60 to 70 miles from London, Birmingham & Bristol it takes less than 1 hour 30 minutes to drive from each. Parking in town is expensive and the one-way system can get jammed. Either park at one of the Park & Ride services on the outskirts of town or head to the newly finished Westgate Shopping Centre car park.

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MORE BRITAIN READING

We’ve spent a lot of time exploring Britain, from rain-soaked outings in the Lake District to strolling historic centres. Here are some more of our guides from our home country including popular iconic sights and lesser-known hidden gems. For ideas on how to visit Oxford on a day trip, read our 1-day itinerary.

JURASSIC COAST

How to spend a few days visiting Dorset’s Jurassic Coast

The best ways to visit and photograph Old Harry Rocks, Dorset

Where to stay on the Jurassic Coast

THE COTSWOLDS

Our favourite things to do in the Cotswolds to inspire your next trip

Explore the best of the Cotswolds on these six circular walks

Skip the beach and head to great swimming spots on the Thames

LAKE DISTRICT

Walk Scafell Pike via the Corridor Route for a top Lake District hike

9 adventurous activities to try in the Lake District

Our pick of the finest walks & scrambles in the Lake District


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