There are many incredible things to do in Oxford.
Oxford is impossible to beat for its quintessentially English character. With infamous sandy colored college buildings and architectural features (which you’ll recognize from blockbuster movies) sitting alongside intensely modern features, its character is overwhelmingly academic and steeped in history, with a pervading sense of knowledge and power. There’s a reason why Oxford should be on any Europe bucket list.
In short, Oxford can only be described as extraordinary. From riverside wanderings to medieval moments, this is The City of Dreaming Spires. It’s known around the globe for its educational heritage and it’s certainly able to boast an incredible number of famous names amongst its connections.
But Oxford isn’t just history on steroids. It’s also a thriving and bustling modern city. University life is still dominant, but now Oxford is as equally known for being akin to Silicon Valley, with world-leading businesses making the city home.
As a result, Oxford has a charm which is quite unlike anywhere else and certainly has something for everyone. There is an enormous amount of things to do for visitors, so much that once you’ve been to Oxford, I’m sure you’ll go again.
That’s certainly what happened to me. I visited for the first time when I was a teenager and went on a study holiday to England, to learn English (I guess it worked) and fell in love with it, and since then I have been a million times!
So without further ado, let me dive into my top picks of things to do in Oxford.
While I recommend spending at least a couple of days in Oxford to take in all that it has to offer, you can easily visit on day trips from London. You may want to check out the best day-tour options here.
For more places that can be easily visited from London, you should read my post The Best Day Trips From London.
The Best Things To Do In Oxford
Take a walking tour to soak it in
Oxford can be overwhelming when you first arrive. You’re aware you’re surrounded by a myriad of things to see and do, but where should you start? Getting your bearings and getting an overview is by far the easiest way to digest what this city has to offer, and doing a guided tour certainly is one of the best things to do in Oxford. There’s no better way to do this than by foot with someone in-the-know.
One of the best rated tours is the Oxford University Walking Tour with University Alumni Guide by Footprint Tours.
This tour takes place twice a day at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm, and focuses heavily on the university. You’ll be shown around by a student who takes you on a wandering tale from Saxon beginnings through to Harry Potter movie sets; a 2000 year history bursting with information and interest.
You’ll see the world-famous Christ Church College (which has educated no fewer than 13 Prime Ministers), All Souls College, Trinity College, The Bodleian Library, The Radcliffe Camera and much more besides.
Footprint Tours also offer a 2 hour FREE walking tour. It covers similar sights and stories to the above tour but you decide how much it’s worth. Tips are how this tour is priced, so you can effectively pay-as-you-go. The main downside is that with free walking tours you often end up walking around in very large groups so it may be hard to even hear the guide!
Pop inside the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin
If you only visit one church during your trip to Oxford, it has to be this one: it’s one of the best places to visit in Oxford. You will find the University Church of St. Mary sandwiched between All Soul’s College, Brasenose College, the Old Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera.
The highlight of the visit is certainly the tower, which you can access after paying a small fee, and from where you can enjoy incredible views of the city.
Visit the Bodleian Library
Yes, if you do the above walking tour you will dip into The Bodleian Library, but many of the walking tour sights are worth an independent visit where you can take your time and experience things at a deeper level.
The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest still-working libraries in the world and the heady mix of mesmerizing architecture combined with the fact you are literally walking through history, makes it a must-see. The library is actually a series of interconnected libraries – and in fact should be referred to as Bodleian Libraries.
What’s more, if you are a Harry Potter fan, you’ll recognize lots of locations from the films here. It definitely is one of the best places to visit in Oxford.
Entry to the exhibitions is free, but I really recommend taking advantage of one of their low-cost tours. You can book them here.
If you only pick to visit one of the Bodleian Libraries, opt for the Divinity School, the University’s oldest teaching and exam room, and used in the Harry Potter films. You can enter for a small fee. Visits are organized in 15 minutes time slots.
You also have the option of taking an audio-guided tour if you want to take things at your own pace. It’s available in multiple languages and includes entry to the Divinity School and will also lead you around the Old Schools, Clarendon and Sheldonian Quadrangles, as well as Radcliffe Square.
Check out the Radcliff Camera
Also known as Rad Cam, this is one of the most impressive (and most photographed) landmarks in Oxford. It dates back to the 18th century, and it’s one of the oldest round libraries in the country, and it’s actually still a functioning reading room!
Of course seeing this stunning building from the outside is a thing, but the interiors are a must see too. For that, you will actually need a guided tour. Most tours of the University of Oxford campus and of the Bodleian Library actually go to inside the Rad Cam too.
To book a guided tour that also visits the Rad Cam, click here.
Explore Oxford Botanic Gardens and Arboretum
Oxford Botanic Gardens and Arboretum is one of the top attractions in town. This is integrally linked with the University. It was the first botanic garden in the UK and dates back to 1621.
The Gardens are central to Oxford and a wonderful place to wander and enjoy divine scents and beautiful scenes. The Arboretum is about 15 minutes from the city and showcases some of the most splendid conifer collections, and has over 130 acres to explore.
You need to book a time slot and pay a small admission fee. Make sure to visit the official site for information about opening hours, as they vary from season to season.
Go to Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Whether you’ve got kids in tow, or simply want to step into the wonders of the natural world, you should visit Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
There are a huge number of specimens on show in a range of exhibits, but this is a living-breathing museum with interactivity and learning around every corner. There is always a bursting diary of events, often drawing on the research going on behind the scenes.
The museum is open daily, entry is free but you need to book a time slot.
Visit Pitt Rivers Museum
For a staggering array of artifacts you need to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum, which first opened its doors in 1887 and is mostly centered around the collection of Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers.
Famous for its shrunken heads, don’t let them distract you from the vast displays of archaeology and ethnography that are on show here. Again, there are lots of events and short-term exhibitions, meaning that a visit here always feels fresh.
Pitt Rivers is a museum which is quite distinct and very much has a character of its own – surely one of the best places to visit in Oxford.
Entry to Pitt Rivers is free, but again, booking is essential. Here, donations are important for supporting the ongoing work of the museum.
And the Ashmolean Museum
First opened in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum is one of the oldest public museums in the country. In its four floors it houses an interesting collection of pieces from around the world, and that includes Egyptian mummies, Greek and Roman busts, Islamic art. You will also find pieces of contemporary art.
One of the highlights of this already interesting museum is actually the lovely café located on the rooftop terrace. Make sure to pay a visit once you are done checking out the collection.
There is no admission fee, so visiting is really one of the best free things to do in Oxford.
Go to Oxford Castle and Prison
Step back in time in a way which is less ingrained with university life by visiting the impressive Oxford Castle and Prison. A visit to the castle and prison is shaped around the stories of the people who have lived and worked within these walls. It makes for a fascinating exploration of history.
You can also climb 101 steps to the top of St George’s Tower (though keep in mind if you are traveling with children that those under 5 years of age are not admitted to the tower) where you are spoilt with amazing vistas of the entire city. The 18th century prison cells are somewhat eerie and the underground candle-lit crypt is certainly atmospheric. It also makes for some nice photos!
Oxford Castle and Prison can only be visited on guided tours that must be booked in advance. For more information, click here.
Take a day trip to Blenheim Palace
If you have a car, or are willing to travel by bus from the city centre, do make a trip out of Oxford to nearby Blenheim Palace: it’s easily one of the best things to do in Oxford.
The vastness of the estate will leave you awe-struck almost as much as the vastness of the palace itself. Despite being a popular tourist attraction, tranquillity can always be found here. The Palace State Rooms will leave you gasping at their opulence – the birthplace of Winston Churchill has rightly earned its place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the grounds you can wander the formal gardens as well as enjoy acres of parkland designed by Capability Brown. There’s the Marlborough Maze to escape from, and the Pleasure Gardens delight the youngest visitors.
There is so much to explore here, it really takes at least a whole day to do it justice. What’s great is that a day ticket is actually valid for 12 months, so there’s no excuse to not come back.
If you don’t have a car and would rather not worry about the bus schedule, you can actually join one of the many guided tours that go to Blenheim Palace daily. You can book guided tours departing from Oxford here.
Explore Christ Church College
A visit to Oxford isn’t complete without a visit to Christ Church. I lost count of the number of afternoons my friends and I would spend browsing around the gorgeous park that surrounds the college when I first visited. We always had a good excuse to go there!
Founded about 500 years ago by Cardinal Wolsey and located right in the heart of the city, it’s amazing how peaceful Christ Church is when you step foot inside. Still a thriving academic community for over 600 students, the juxtaposition with the Picture Gallery housing Old Master paintings and the iconic Oxford Cathedral, is staggering.
Here you can also indulge in a quintessentially Oxford experience: enjoying a picnic on Christ Church Meadow. It’s a perfect spot to watch Oxford life with people rowing on the river and Longhorn cows grazing in the background.
Custodian-led tours are available in various languages and last one hour.
The River Cherwell winds its way through Oxford and punting is the pastime of the river. I know I enjoyed many afternoons here, though I could hardly master the art of punting myself.
Best enjoyed in spring and summer, the river comes alive with laughter and picnickers. It’s a real Oxford experience to indulge in fresh strawberries as you gently glide along the Cherwell. There are many shops in town where you can find some fruits and nibbles to bring on the ride.
Indeed, punting can be one of the most romantic things to do in Oxford, and I can totally picture a proposal or two taking place here every summer. Order a picnic hamper and have a chauffeur, then sit back and relax in style with your amour. It’s no surprise that Oxford is definitely one of the UK’s most romantic cities.
But where should you rent punts? The best place for that is Magdalen Bridge Boathouse. You can choose whether to go DIY or have a chauffeur. If you don’t feel confident in a punt then pedalos and rowing boats are also available and will give you a river level view of Oxford.
You can hire punts, pedalos and rowing boats throughout the year, save for the months of December and January. Punts can carry up to 5 passengers and you pay by the hour on the weekends and Bank Holidays. There is an additional fee if you require a chauffeur.
Not a fun of punting? Go to the University Parks for a walk, or, if you want to enjoy the river, consider a river cruise – just read on!
Go on a river cruise
Another way of enjoying the Oxford at the water level is hopping on a river cruise along the Thames, which here is referred to as Isis. You will be cruising along the University Regatta Course towards the lovely Iffley village. Sights along the way include Folly Bridge, Christ Church College and Meadows, the University rowing houses and the Iffley Lock.
This is definitely an interesting way of experiencing the river, and you’ll have a guide (usually the captain) that will share insightful information about the many sights along the way.
You can book your river cruise in Oxford here.
Admire the Bridge of Sighs
Another iconic Oxford sight is the Bridge of Sighs, more correctly known as Hertford Bridge. Connecting two parts of Hertford College, you can simply walk along New College Lane directly underneath it. You’ll probably do this if you are visiting the Radcliffe Camera (Rad Cam), the Bodleian Library or Sheldonian Theater.
Believed to be nicknamed the Bridge of Sighs because worried students would sigh on their way to exams, it looks characteristically like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.
Visit Magdalen College
Magdalen College is by all means one of the best places to visit in Oxford. The college, first founded in 1548, was attended by CS Lewis, Oscar Wilde, and Julian Barnes nonetheless. But that’s not the only reason to visit. The grounds are simply magnificent! The building is actually beautifully immersed in a forest, complete with trails along the rivers, lawns and even a deer park.
I have already mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating – one of the things you can do at Magdalen College is punting across the river. You’ll find boats available for rent at Magdalen Bridge Boathouse.
There is a small admission fee to access the grounds of Magdalen College, but if you ask me it’s totally worth it!
And Merton College
Merton College was founded in 1264, thus being one of the oldest in the city. The college, which features magnificent architecture, is home to the oldest academic library in Europe which is definitely worth seeing!
While there, make sure to check out the peaceful Merton College Chapel, which dates back to the end of the 13th century and remains an important venue for local weddings.
Pop inside Keble College
If you haven’t had enough of university life and buildings, another college to check out in Oxford is Keble College. A masterpiece of Victorian Gothic architecture, this building is strikingly different from the rest of Oxford University.
To start with, it built in redbrick with white, black and golden patterns and has the longest hall among all colleges in Oxford. The Chapel at Keble College is a must see, housing a stunning painting by Holman Hunt figuring the Light of the World.
Attend a show at the Sheldonian Theater
Attending a musical performance with incredible acoustics at the Sheldonian Theatre is certainly one of the most fun things to do in Oxford.
Officially the ceremonial hall of Oxford University, the Sheldonian Theater was designed by Christopher Wren and is located next to the Old Bodlenian library. It’s where students attend their graduation ceremony (imagine how amazing it must be to have commencement there!).
If you don’t have time for a show (or are not interested in one), I still recommend going on a tour of that takes you inside the theater, as it is quite a sight – don’t miss the magnificent ceiling fresco here!
Discover the filming locations of Harry Potter
If you are traveling with children, this is definitely one of the best things to do in Oxford. In fact, it may be a fun thing to do even if you don’t have kids in tow and even if you are not a fan of Harry Potter – personally, I never was into it, but a Harry Potter theme tour of Oxford makes you appreciate the city from a completely different perspective, so I recommend it.
Check out this Harry Potter tour of Oxford: it includes a visit of the Divinity School too and it’s very highly rated.
The tour goes to places that you may remember from the movie, such as the statue of ‘Nearly Headless Nick’, the Turf Tavern Lane and so on. The tour also goes to the Divinity School where the dances and infirmary scenes were filmed. Your guide will also share fun facts about J. K. Rowling and the actors.
Not into Harry Potter at all? Consider this Morse, Lewis and Endeavor walking tour of Oxford instead.
Check out Oxford’s smaller museums
If you are looking for some unusual things to do in Oxford, the small Modern Art Oxford may be an interesting place to visit. Focusing on contemporary art, the overall experience really depends on the exhibit they have when you are visiting, so make sure to check it out in advance before you walk in.
In any case, visiting is actually free so if you realize the exhibit isn’t of interest you can simply walk out!
Another museum that may be worth visiting is the Story Museum, which focuses on the importance and impact of story telling.
Visit the Covered Market
The 250 year old Covered Market is the place to go to indulge in snacks and gifts from independent sellers. There are more than 40 traders here, and it’s a fun place to browse around.
The best place to grab a coffee here is definitely Colombia Coffee Roasters – the owners bring their coffee beans from Colombia and roast them themselves, so it can’t get more independent!
Have a drink!
Being a university city, there certainly is no shortage of good pubs and bars in Oxford. If you fancy a pint, head to one of the student pubs, such as The Eagle and Child – famous as a meeting place of authors J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis.
Another good place for a pint is The Bear Inn, located between Christchurch and the High Street. It’s one of the oldest pubs in the city, actually dating back to the 17th century. You could also check out The Turf Tavern, opened in the 15th century in a truly beautiful spot (though admittedly a bit tucked away from the main tourist places in town).
Another place you may want to consider is Oxford’s Artisan Distillery, where you can get behind the scenes to see how the award-winning vodka, gin and rye whiskey come to fruition (and taste them too!).
Go on a Haunted Oxford Ghost Tour
For more unusual things to do, consider joining a Haunted Oxford Ghost tour. This is based (albeit quite loosely) on the book “Haunted Oxford” by Rob Walters, a local writer and the actual guide on the tour.
The tour is a fun way of exploring the most important attractions in Oxford. It goes to the university, to the center of town to places such as Turl Street and Broad Street, where lots of heinous crimes and persecution took place in the past. You’ll also be able to admire the Bridge of Sighs at night.
You can book your Haunted Oxford Ghost Tour here.
Oxford – The Culturally Rich City
A trip to Oxford will be intense, revitalizing, and fill your mind with visuals of beautiful architecture and cultural depth. Within easy reach of London, and with its own vibrant character that is steeped in history, there is so much to do.
Are you planning a trip to the UK? Make sure to read my other posts:
- 24 Stunning London Hidden Gems
- The Best Things To Do In Bristol
- How To Make The Most Of London In A Day
- The Best 5 Days London Itinerary
- An Easy To Follow Itinerary For 4 Days London
- A Perfect Itinerary To See London In 3 Days
- How To See London In 2 Days
- How To Get Tower Of London Tickets
- 5 Easy Ways Of Getting London Dungeon Tickets
- 7 Easy Ways Of Getting London Eye Tickets
- Where To Stay In London: The Best Areas And Hotels
- Where To Get The Most Impressive Views Of London
- How To Get From Heathrow To London
- The Best Museums In London
- 10 Cool Things To Do In Covent Garden
- 19 Exciting Things To Do In Edinburgh
- 19 Things To Do In Cornwall
- A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Newcastle
- The Best Villages In The Cotswolds
This post was contributed by Jessie Moore. Jessie is a travel and lifestyle blogger on a mission to empower people to explore the world with confidence. In a constant state of wanderlust, Jessie is passionate about sharing travel tips and adventures stories on her blog, Pocket Wanderings. You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook.