Oxford is a city steeped in history with rich and noble traditions, magnificent architecture, beautiful outdoor spaces, and a diverse and vibrant population.
Home to the oldest and most prestigious university in the English-speaking world, Oxford is an eccentric town with a fascinating past and a thriving modern present. Oxford offers a vast choice of activities for those wanting to immerse themselves in culture, history, and English life.
With so much going on it is sometimes hard to find the best things to but I have narrowed it down to my top 10 things to do in Oxford.
Top 10 Things to Do in Oxford
Climb the tower of St Mary the Virgin Church
Climb the narrow spiral stone staircase of this 13th century tower to get a magical view of the whole city. Take in the panorama of the historic honeyed-stone architecture of the university college buildings, which garnered Oxford its poetic appellation as the ‘city of dreaming spires’.
Go on a walking tour of the City
Explore the fascinating history of Oxford on foot with one the many official guided walking tours of the city. Tours leave hourly and as you wander past all the major historical landmarks within the city centre, your guide will recount stories and anecdotes from Oxford’s past, its famous residents both past and present, and divulge the strange traditions still honoured here.
Visit the University Colleges
Many of Oxford University’s 46 colleges are happy to receive unobtrusive visitors into their grounds (most are free to visit, but others charge a small fee). The most famous, and arguably most majestic, of Oxford’s colleges, Christ Church college is also the most expensive to visit (£7.50 in peak season), but houses a cathedral, a fine collection of art and antiquities and is home to the famous dining hall featured in Harry Potter.
Explore Radcliffe Square and The Bodlein Library
Radcliffe square contains the most iconic buildings in Oxford. Sitting resplendent in the square’s centre, surrounded by St Mary’s church, The Sheldonian Theatre, and several colleges, is the Radcliffe Camera, an 18th century architectural marvel that today functions as a luxurious reading room for Bodleian scholars.
A secret underground tunnel links the Camera to the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest and largest libraries in England, where you can tour its historic archives and plush rooms.
Go shopping for gourmet treats in The Covered Market
This bustling covered market was established in 1774 for local traders and artisans to sell their wares and little has changed since then. The boutique shopping hub is the perfect place to pick up everything from high-end fashion to fresh local produce and gourmet organic meats.
Visit the Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum
The Natural History Museum is a family-friendly museum featuring collections of zoological, entomological, and mineral specimens collected over three centuries. The magnificent 19th-century neo-Gothic building is itself is a wonder to behold as its fascinating history.
It was here in 1860 that the scientific elite of the day furiously debated Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. At the rear for the Natural History Museum, is the treasure trove that is the Pitt Rivers Museum. This small museum contains over half a million anthropological artefacts from all around the world, including shrunken human heads!
Hire a punt and go punting
Punts are narrow, flat-bottomed wooden boats propelled entirely by a long pole. The punter stands at the end of the boat and shoves the boat forward by pushing pole against the murky riverbed, then uses the pole as a rudder to direct the boat’s movements.
It is a skilled task.
Novice punters often find themselves sans pole or in watery pickle, much to the amusement of their passengers, who are happily, and comfortably, reclining on pillows set in the centre of the boat. Punting to a picnic spot with a hamper of food and bottle of wine on a sunny day, is a quintessentially Oxford pastime. You can hire punts per day or per hour from several locations in the city.
Take a tour of Oxford Castle
Once a Norman Castle, later the infamous Oxford Prison, the Oxford Castle is now a vibrant wining and dining precinct that is not afraid to flaunt its ghoulish past. After enjoying a hearty lunch and a glass of wine in one of the many restaurants and bars, visitors can delve into the castles’ dramatic 1000-year history at Oxford Castle Unlocked.
This popular activity takes you inside the castle walls to hear tales of intrigue, daring escapes, betrayals, and romance.
Go for a stroll along the Thames path
Oxford’s beauty lies not only in its exquisite architecture, but also in its multitude of meandering waterways and the vast network of parks and commons that adjoin them. Most famous of Oxford’s waterway paths is the Thames Path that follows the Thames River as it snakes its way through the city.
You can access The Thames Path from many locations in the city and enjoy hours of leisurely walking, soaking up the river life. Just don’t get too carried away or you may find yourself in London!
Relax with a pint of ale in one Oxford’s famous pubs
As is typical of a university city, Oxford is packed full of great pubs. However, unlike most university cities, Oxford’s pubs are famous.
Oxford’s pubs are famous for their age (The Bear is one of England’s oldest pubs), their distinguished patronage (Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, regularly drank at The Eagle and Child and Lamb and Flag); or their infamous shenanigans (The Turf is where past President Clinton “ didn’t inhale”, and past Aussie PM Bob Hawke’s set the record for drinking a yard of ale, which still stands).
Before departing Oxford, I recommend you stop to sample an ale in one or more of this city’s fine pubs, because in many ways, a pub-crawl in Oxford offers the truest insight into the history of this remarkable city and the lives of the people who made it so.