It’s the city of soaring spires and heavenly choirs.
Set amid green fields beside the slow-moving River Thames, Oxford offers its golden silhouette to the visitor’s gaze like a serene rebuke to the ugliness of the modern world. Yet this is also a bustling multicultural city, whose 130,000 non-student inhabitants make up one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the UK.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Oxford.
England’s oldest university has imbued Oxford with its 900-year traditions of learning, pageantry and architecture. With no campus as such, the University’s buildings and activities permeate the fabric of the whole city, and the best way to experience this living, open-air museum is to walk the picturesque streets of the town centre.
You’ll see landmark buildings such as the Christopher Wren-designed Sheldonian Theatre, and dozens of medieval and baroque colleges. For a classic Oxford panorama of spires and quadrangles, climb the tower of the University Church of St Mary — the views of the city and beyond are magnificent.
Most colleges around the city open their doors to visitors from 2pm, for a modest entry fee. Free evensong services take place most days during term at New College, Magdalen College and Christ Church College. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the performance of world-class choral music within a glorious architectural setting.
The citizens and students of medieval Oxford took their ‘town versus gown’ rivalry to extremes in deadly street battles. During the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’, the Archbishop of Canterbury was burnt at the stake here. For much of the English Civil War, the city was the seat of the Royalist government and court-in-exile.
For historical things to do in Oxford join a guided walking tour, which will show you the actual locations where events took place. Try Footprints Tours for a range of options, including an Oxford University and City Tour or even a bike tour of the key sights.
Get a taste of the University’s centuries-old history of scholarship and learning at the Old Bodleian Library. For the full experience, take a tour of the Reading Rooms, or simply pay a pound to see the Divinity School — a beautiful 15th century hall with a fan-vaulted ceiling, which was used multiple times as a filming location in the Harry Potter films (did you know that Hogwart’s dining room is a replica of the Great Hall at Oxford’s Christ Church College?).
Oxford has its moods, and where you want to eat depends on which mood you choose to tap into.
For a student-and-don ambience in the city centre, you can’t beat the Turl Street Kitchen, with its shared wooden tables and emphasis on seasonal local produce.
Posh North Oxford offers Gee’s, where you can enjoy fine dining within the plant and light filled setting of an elegant Victorian glasshouse. Their Sunday Roast is a treat.
In Jericho, the former working-class area to the west of the city centre, there’s the Old Bookbinder’s Ale House, which combines high culinary standards with the unpretentious atmosphere of a neighbourhood pub.
For the widest range of food styles, head to multicultural East Oxford, where you’ll find a plethora of Asian restaurants, including the much admired Oli’s Thai.
The Oxford University Shop in High Street sells a range of official merchandise, including the ever-popular University hoodies and rugby shirts.
For vintage-inspired gifts, many of them based on rare items held in the University’s libraries, visit the Weston Library shop in Broad Street.
Browse the outdoor market at Gloucester Green (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday) for unexpected treasures.
Oxford’s connection with Lewis Carroll, who taught mathematics at Christ Church College, is celebrated at Alice’s Shop. An original 19th century sweet shop, it contains enough Wonderland memorabilia to satisfy the most ardent fan.
In such an academic town you really should visit a bookshop, and there’s none better than Blackwell’s. This sprawling treasure trove of new, secondhand and rare books has been in business for nearly 140 years and is an Oxford institution.
There’s no shortage of relaxing things to do in Oxford. Drifting down the river in a flat-bottomed wooden punt, glass of Pimm’s in hand, picnic hamper at your feet… It’s the ultimate fantasy of Oxford relaxation, and one that’s easy to make real. For the how-to’s and how-not-to’s of punting, Daily Information is an indispensable guide to leisure activities in and around the city.
In the afternoon, take a riverside stroll in Christ Church Meadow, to watch the rowing crews train, and catch atmospheric views of the famous city skyline.
At the end of the day, choose a drinking spot that fits your mood. Drop in for a pint at the Eagle and Child, the snug 17th century pub where ‘Inklings’ J R R Tolkein and C S Lewis would meet to plot their stories of Narnia and Middle Earth.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Oxford? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). In her former career as an English Literature academic, Roslyn studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.