Scholars have flocked to Oxford since the 13th century when the first of its 39 university colleges were established. As you wander down its cobbled backstreets lined with medieval halls and ornate chapels, the weight of academic achievement seems to seep from the walls. History has a very conspicuous presence here, whether you walk in the footsteps of prime ministers, literary giants and media megastars, browse the collections at its world-class museums, wobble down a waterway in a flat-bottomed punt or sip a pint in one of its atmospheric old pubs.
It’s not all dusty old institutions however. With an ambitious modern art museum, talent-launching live music venues and a host of quirky independent shops, the city has a more cosmopolitan, hipster side too in the trendy bars and restaurants of Jericho and the student hangouts, boho health-food stores and unpretentious gastropubs of edgy East Oxford.
Start your day by climbing the tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street. It offers sweeping views of the city to help you get your bearings and an unparalleled vantage point for photos of Oxford’s most recognisable landmark, the Radcliffe Camera. The circular Palladian library is part of the 15th-century Bodleian Library, the nerve-centre of Oxford student life. Most of ‘the Bod’ is off limits to the public so it’s well worth taking the extended tour for an insight into student life past and present and access to Duke Humphrey’s medieval library and the Radcliffe Camera, as well as its modern, subterranean, reading rooms.
Once you emerge, nip into Blackwell’s on Broad Street to browse their enormous collection of books and see the Norrington Room, which has three miles of shelving hidden beneath Trinity College. Beside Blackwells is the Weston Library, which hosts remarkable temporary exhibitions on the university’s collections.
Stop for lunch in Oxford’s 18th-century Covered Market, where you’ll find a wide range of cafés and traders selling everything from traditional pies and hearty soups to spicy noodles and indulgent cookies. For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the city, see our guide.
From here head over to the Ashmolean, Britain’s oldest public museum, founded in 1683 to house Elias Ashmole’s collection of antiquities. A major refit in 2009 doubled display space and transformed the building’s interior into a light, free-flowing exhibition space linked by walkways with galleries. The collection covers everything from Guy Fawkes’ lantern to Michelangelo’s studies for the Sistine Chapel. Head for the third floor to see the Ashmolean’s growing collection of modern art featuring work by Barbara Hepworth, Sir Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. Then head for the rooftop restaurant and terrace for afternoon tea with a view over the city rooftops.
Once you’ve recouped wander down trendy Little Clarendon Street to Walton Street for apeek into the collections at Rona Gallery and the Oxford Ceramics Gallery before settling in for a pre-dinner cocktail at the Oxford Wine Café before strolling the backstreets of Jericho made famous by Phillip Pullman in the His Dark Materials trilogy.
Head to The Old Bookbinders, a gem of a pub hidden down a backstreet, for a dinner of surprisingly good French cuisine. Spend your evening drinking here or wander back up through Jericho for some live music at The Jericho Tavern where Radiohead and Supergrass launched their careers.
Start your day with a visit to aristocratic Christ Church, the largest and most impressive of all the Oxford colleges. It was founded in 1525 and counts 13 British prime ministers among its alumni. Charles Dodgson (also known as Lewis Carroll), the author of Alice in Wonderland, taught mathematics here and was inspired by many of the college’s quirks.
From Christ Church it’s a short walk to Modern Art Oxford, where the changing exhibitions of contemporary visual arts are always worth a visit. Nearby is Oxford Castle and Prison where you can visit the 1,000-year-old castle and former prison to hear the grisly tales of past inmates. For more suggestions of the best things to do in the city, see our guide.
Meander back along Queen Street to the High for lunch in buzzing Quod where a lively vibe, large-scale contemporary artworks and a rewarding set lunch menu await.
From here, head back across Radcliffe Square and down Parks Road to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Set behind the Victorian-Gothic Museum of Natural History, this dimly-lit wonderland for the curious is packed with glass cases and wooden drawers containing a treasure trove of blowpipes, magical charms, feather cloaks, story robes, mermaid dishes and libation sticks. If you’re visiting with children ask for a wind-up torch and treasure trail to seek out the toy mice hidden among the displays.
Once you’ve had a look around, head back towards town, turning left at the Bodleian under Hertford Bridge (better known as The Bridge of Sighs though it’s actually modelled on the Rialto Bridge in Venice) and look out for a tiny laneway, Saint Helen’s Passage, on your left which leads around blind bends to The Turf, an 18th-century pub hidden behind the medieval city wall. Its low beams, flagstone floor and real ales make it a great place to recall all the famous names who’ve nursed a pint here before you.
Leave the Turf the way you arrived and walk away from Hertford Bridge for an atmospheric stroll down New College Lane into Queens Lane where imposing gargoyles giddily survey the passersby. You’ll emerge onto the lower end of the High Street. Turn left to reach Magdalen College – pronounced ‘mawd-lin’ – one of Oxford’s most prestigious colleges. Start your evening by attending evensong here (check for dates and times here), a spine-tingling, candle-lit choral service in the ornate college chapel.
From here, cross Magdalen Bridge and head up lively Cowley Road for tapas and cocktails at Kazbar and late night drinks or live music at any one of the bars and clubs on Oxford’s liveliest road. For more suggestions of the best nightlife in the area, see our guide.
Did you know?
The Christ Church bells chime 101 times at 9.05pm each day, to signify calling in the 101 original students at five minutes west of Greenwich. Listen out for the sound.
Bring your own cushion if you’re attending a concert at the Sheldonian – the wooden seats are mighty hard – and expect music from the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra played out under the magnificent ceiling fresco of the triumph of Truth over Ignorance.
Oscar Wilde was a resident at what is now the Old Parsonage hotel during his university days. He used to screen guests for his exotic parties by looking out the window over the main entrance. Opt for a front room to people watch just as the writer once did.
You can now hire an e-scooter to nip around the city. You’ll find the red scooters parked up on street corners and can download the app, locate an available scooter and set off around the city.
Where to stay
The Old Bank is a smart, 42-room hotel in historic, old buildings with a buzzing, brasserie-style restaurant and a city-centre location that’s hard to beat, next to some of Oxford’s oldest colleges. It is within walking distance of shops, the theatre and the city’s Botanical Gardens and Christchurch Meadows.
With its almost perfect location in the centre of Oxford, amidst colleges and quaint old pubs, Old Parsonage enjoys an interesting mix of guests, such as academics visiting the university, parents visiting their student children, and tourists who have come to drink in one of the prettiest cities in the country.
Once belonging to the Knights Templar, this historic manor is now the superb Voco Oxford Thames Hotel set among manicured lawns along the River Thames. There’s plenty of old-world character, complemented by contemporary furnishings and great spa facilities, making it a good base for exploring Oxford and beyond, or a destination in itself. For more suggestions of the best hotels in the city, see our guide.
What to bring home
The Oxford Artisan Distillery, or TOAD, in South Park produces gin, absinthe, vodka and rye whiskey from ancient grains. Pick up a bottle direct from the distillery or in city off-licences.
Take home a little slice of Oxford in a selection of local artisan cheese from the Oxford Cheese Company in the Covered Market. Don’t miss the Oxford Blue.
When to go
There is no best time to visit Oxford, as every season has its charms. In early spring the trees of North Oxford drip with blossom, though May is when Oxford perhaps looks her loveliest. The trees are in full leaf, the students are in celebratory mood and the famous ‘Bumps’ (boat race) is taking place along the river.
In summer the student throngs melt away, leaving the city to residents and tourists, and you can punt and picnic on the rivers Thames (or Isis, as it’s known here) and Cherwell. There’s an air of lazy romance about the city, although it’s also the time when crowds of boisterous foreign students clog the shopping streets. Autumn, when the students return and the trees are burnished bronze, is mournfully beautiful and Christmas, when the streets are eerily quiet and the medieval buildings frosted in snow, can be magical.
Know before you go
Oxford’s Tourist Information Office
Address: 15-16 Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AS
Contact: 01865 686430
If you’re planning to explore further afield than the walkable historic city centre, it’s worth investing in a SmartZone bus pass, which allows unlimited travel on Oxford’s three main bus companies. One day and one week passes are available, either online or in person from the Oxford Bus Company Travel Shop (Gloucester Green Bus Station).
Etain can often be found poring over the cabinets in the Pitt Rivers or running along the river. Oxford has been her home for almost 20 years and she’s still smitten by the diminutive city’s cultural clout.
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