It’s hard to think of Oxford without conjuring up images of academics in billowing black gowns breezing through honey-colored cloisters, and crowds of starry-eyed students crammed into cavernous lecture theatres.

It may be true that Oxford’s prestigious university is the city’s defining feature, but stray a little beyond the educational institution’s hallowed grounds and you’ll stumble upon intriguing museums, labyrinthine bookstores, and excellent historic pubs to while away an afternoon like the writers of yesteryear did. There's a lot more to this golden-hued city than austere and solemn academia. Here are the top things to do in Oxford, a centuries-old city full of modern inspiration.

Wander historic university colleges

Oxford University can be traced back to the 11th century. Within 200 years, it had taken shape as a loose association of independent colleges, still housed (for the most part) in their original historic buildings scattered around the city. Pick a couple of colleges to visit depending on your interests and get inspired by the intellectual heritage of this institution.

Merton College is where JRR Tolkien wrote much of The Lord of the Rings in its magnificent medieval library. Trinity College boasts a beautifully restored Baroque chapel, and Lincoln College alumni include Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel) as a Rhodes scholar. However, the more popular colleges with visitors are Magdalen College, where C S Lewis was a fellow, for its 15th-century tower and cloisters; All Souls College, founded in 1438, for its eye-catching Gothic towers; and Christ Church college, which doubles as Hogwarts during multiple scenes in the cinema adaption of the Harry Potter books.

A Venetian-style bridge built over a small road in Oxford
The Bridge of Sighs is one of the most elegant and iconic symbols of Oxford © Pete Spiro / Shutterstock

Photograph classic Oxford landmarks

No doubt Oxford’s most photographed landmark is Radcliffe Camera, a dome-topped sandy-gold edifice built between 1737 and 1749 in grand Palladian style, then known as Radcliffe Library. It was demoted to a “camera” (room) in 1860 when it became the reading room of the neighboring Bodleian Library. The only way for non-members to see the interior is on the extended 1½-hour tour of the Bodleian.

Close to Radcliffe Camera, you’ll also see people milling about to snap a picture of the iconic Bridge of Sighs (a skyway joining two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane). Completed in 1914, it's sometimes erroneously described as a copy of the famous namesake bridge in Venice, but it looks more like Venice’s Rialto Bridge.

Tour the Bodleian Library

At least five kings, dozens of prime ministers and Nobel laureates, and luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien have studied in Oxford's Bodleian Library, a magnificent survivor from the Middle Ages. Wander into its central 17th-century quadrangle, and you can admire the buildings for free. The neighboring Weston Library displays a revolving selection of “Bodleian Treasures” – ranging from manuscripts by the likes of Mary Shelley to the original Magna Carta – that are also free to visit.

However, if you’re a proper library fan you’ll probably want to get on one of the guided tours of the Bodleian. Starting in the ornate medieval Divinity School, the university's earliest teaching room, tours visit Convocation House which hosted the English Parliament three times, plus the Chancellor’s Court, in which Oscar Wilde and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley went on trial (for debt and promoting atheism, respectively).

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A view of the many book-lined shelves in Blackwell's Bookshop, Oxford.
Browse seemingly endless shelves of books at Blackwell's Bookshop © Shuang Li / Shutterstock

Indulge your love of bookshops

After that book-lovers pilgrimage to the Bodleian Library, you can continue your literary love affair at the many bookshops of Oxford. Next door to Weston Library is a Blackwell’s with its basement lined with 3.5km (2.1 mi) of shelves. Popular children's murder mystery writer Robin Stevens worked as a bookseller here.

Along Broad Street you’ll find a branch of Waterstones and up in Summertown, Daunt Books has a footprint in Oxford. For secondhand books there is the Oxfam bookshop in St John, while Jericho, the museums center of Oxford, is famous for the Last Bookshop. Here discounted stock on everything from poetry to psychology to politics, largely from academic publishers, can be found. And finally, theologians and philosophers should head to St Philip’s Books on St Aldates, which specialises in rare, secondhand and antique books on the Christianity, medieval studies, spirituality and philosophy.

Treasures and afternoon tea at the Ashmolean Museum

Britain’s oldest public museum, Oxford’s wonderful Ashmolean Museum, is surpassed only by the British Museum in London for size and volume of world treasures. You could easily spend a day exploring this magnificent neoclassical building and its collection. Family-friendly pamphlets draw kids into select exhibits. To the museum’s credit, the curators are engaging with how displays are presented in the age of postcolonial understandings of museum collections. For example, a recent exhibition focused on the links between the British custom of drinking tea and the exploitation of enslaved people producing sugar in the West Indies.

The rooftop restaurant is also a great shout. It’s run by the Benugo chain and a proper English afternoon tea is a speciality here, including a vegan menu. Floor to ceiling glass windows open out onto a large terrace with deckchairs on the fake-grass “lawn” in the summer months – head up to enjoy views of the picturesque spires of Oxford.

Enter the Victorian era in the Pitt Rivers Museum

If exploring an enormous room full of eccentric unexpected artefacts sounds like your idea of the perfect afternoon, welcome to the amulets-to-zithers extravaganza that is the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Tucked behind Oxford’s natural history museum, and dimly lit to protect its myriad treasures, it’s centred on an anthropological collection amassed by a Victorian general, and revels in exploring how differing cultures have tackled topics like “Smoking and Stimulants” and “Treatment of Dead Enemies”. Wandering its three balconied floors, you may come across anything from Mesopotamian temple receipts to Japanese Noh-theatre masks or a warrior’s helmet made from the skin of a porcupine fish.

The grand interior of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England. Pews line the walls of the ancient building.
Head to the atmospheric Christ Church Cathedral to hear the world-famous choir perform © zodebala / Getty Images

Hear Christ Church Cathedral Choir at Evensong

Christ Church Cathedral doubles as Christ Church college’s chapel and the city’s cathedral. It was the site of an Anglo-Saxon shrine of St Frideswide, Oxford’s patron saint, since the 8th century. Later the 12th-century priory church became part of Cardinal Wolsey’s new Cardinal College in 1525. And Henry VIII made the church a cathedral when he renamed it Christ Church in 1546.

Christ Church Cathedral is also famous for its incredible choirs – four in total and each with its own distinctive identity. Described as "one of the finest choirs on Earth", the Cathedral Choir can be heard on some award-winning recordings with international orchestras and soloists, as well as the TV themes for The Vicar of Dibley and Mr Bean (you’re going to look those up now aren’t you?).

As a working Anglican cathedral, there’s no charge to visit for private prayer or to attend a service. ​​Evensong, a 470 year-old meditative service of sublime music and readings, is celebrated at 6pm most days.

Overnight at Oxford Castle and Prison

As a visitor site, Oxford Castle and Prison provide an interesting overview of the city’s extraordinary history, especially on a guided tour. Little now remains of Oxford Castle, which was built for William the Conqueror in 1071, and largely destroyed after the English Civil War. But entertaining theatrical tours led by costumed guides lead through the parts that survive.

St George's Tower, where the tours begin, is Oxford’s oldest building, erected to keep the Vikings out around 1009, as one of four towers on the city walls. Tours continue to the 11th-century crypt of St George's Chapel and the 18th-century Debtors' Tower, where you’ll learn about the grisly lives, daring escapes and cruel punishments of various Victorian inmates.

Today you can also opt to bed down in the former prison for a night, at Malmaison Oxford Castle. Centring on a turreted tower of Oxford’s castle, this is infact a sophisticated contemporary hotel with plush interiors, sultry lighting and polished service. Accessed via classic prison catwalks, each of its 95 slick rooms occupies three former cells (generous, we know) and contains a proper bed (no hard prison cot for you).

Oxford’s Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Founded in 1621, Oxford's small, peaceful botanic garden is the oldest of its kind in England celebrating its 400-year birthday in 2021. With over 5000 plant species, it remains a department of the university and is run more for research than pleasing the public. However, it’s a lovely spot beside the River Cherwell to escape the city streets, especially in peak tourism season. There is an admission fee (except for university staff and students) and pre-booking is strongly encouraged. 

Greenhouses and open beds hold displays like “Plants That Changed The World” which includes potatoes, pineapples and cannabis. And at its southern end you’ll find the bench that Lyra and her extra-universal lover Will vow to visit once a year in Exeter College-alumni, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials.

A view looking down on a group of people punting on the River Thames in Oxford. One person stands in the boat, using a long pole to propel it across the waters, while the others lie back and enjoy the scenery.
Punting is a lot more fun when someone else is doing the hard work for you © Patrick Ward / Getty Images

Punting under Magdalen Bridge

Directly across the road from the Botanic Gardens, also on the Cherwell, you’ll spot Magdalen Bridge where you can go punting from the boathouse. An iconic Oxford experience, punting is all about lounging back in a flat-bottomed boat and sipping Pimms (a classic English summer beverage) as you watch the city’s glorious architecture drift by. 

To achieve that blissful state, you must first master punting’s greatest skill – persuading someone else to do all the hard work. The actual act of punting, propelling a boat along a river by repeatedly poking a long pole into the muddy bottom, is far more difficult than it appears. If you just want to relax, consider renting a professional to take you on a tour. Most punts hold five people, four of them sprawled on cushions and the punter standing at the back. 

The Alice in Wonderland Shop

Oxford has many links to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories, but this tiny 500-year-old shop on St Aldate’s is one of the most tangible that remains. It was operating as a grocery and sweets shop when the real Alice, Alice Liddle (the inspiration for the storybook character) used to shop here 150 years ago. 

The fabled shop was transmuted into the “Old Sheep Shop” in the 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass. On leaving the shop at the end of the chapter, Alice says: "Well, this is the very queerest shop I ever saw!". Today it’s a treasure trove of gifts, souvenirs and memorabilia from jigsaws to jewelry that commemorates this beloved character. Even the biggest Wonderland fan will not be disappointed.

Perhaps because opinions of the author have undergone a dramatic revision in recent years, Oxford is big on celebrating its connections with Alice, the character. In July, the city commemorates the anniversary of the Liddle family and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s Thames rowing trip where the story that became Alice in Wonderland began with Alice’s Day. Another Alice sight still standing is the “Treacle Well” (referenced during the Mad Hatter’s tea party) near the 12th-century Church of St Margaret of Antioch, half a mile west of the Thames in Binsey. 

Leave a memento to give thanks for Lord of the Rings 

At the gated Wolvercote Cemetery, 2.5 miles north of Oxford city centre, is the final resting place of John Ronald Reuel (JRR) Tolkien (1892–1973) and his wife, Edith Mary Tolkien, who passed two years before him. Their gravestone bears the names Beren (for him) and Lúthien (for her), referencing the love between a mortal man and an elf maiden who gave up her immortality to be with him. 

When you enter the main gates a series of small signs points visitors to the grave which is usually covered in offerings of flowers, plants and sometimes jewellery. We assume these offerings are a way to say thank you from fans of the writer’s contribution to the world. There’s also a campaign running to transform his home into a center for creativity.

The Head of the River Pub, Oxford. The river-side pub has a beer garden that is full of people drinking and socialising.
People enjoy a drink at the Head of the River Pub on the banks of the Thames © Education Image / Getty Images

Drink a pint on the bank of the River Thames

Oxford is also renowned for its excellent pubs, several with delightful river views that perfectly complement a lovely afternoon pint. The Perch is thatched roof village pub with a sprawling beer garden that’s tucked down a magical footpath just off the Thames.

The Trout sits next to a cascading mill stream on the river – a favourite spot of Lewis Carroll and C.S Lewis during their years at Oxford University. And with boats moored on the towpath outside and rowers passing up and down stream, Isis River Farmhouse, has excellent river views from its beer garden as well as live music. Closer to Oxford city centre, Head of the River offers a good selection of beers and great views.

Dissect the History of Science

Housed in the lovely 17th-century building that held the original Ashmolean Museum, this wee museum is not just for science fans. Learn more about the development of scientific inquiry and the instruments that facilitated that quest. It is stuffed with astrolabes, orreries and early electrical apparati. 

Displays include cameras that belonged to Lawrence of Arabia and a radio receiver invented by Guglielmo Marconi in 1896. Plus a blackboard that was covered with equations by Einstein in 1931, when he was invited to give lectures on relativity. Einstein's scientific legacy of innovation continues with a recent addition to these displays – a glass sculpture of a nanoparticle of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. The museum is understandably proud of the key role Oxford-based scientists played in the development of this life-saving drug – thankfully the sculpture is one million times the size of an actual nanoparticle so you can see it in all its glory.

Enrich your imagination at the Story Museum

A thousand years of Oxford’s storytelling history, from ancient myths and legends to classics of children’s literature, are celebrated at this child-friendly museum. Move through the sprawling complex, exploring Britain's storytelling heritage. 

Rooms honour the likes of Lewis Carroll, Phillip Pullman and Wallace and Gromit, and the Whispering Wood is a man-made forest where every tree has a secret to reveal. The museum also hosts an ever-changing program of storytelling sessions and live shows. Check the website for details.

Dinosaur skeleton displays inside the Natural History Museum in Oxford.
See dinosaur skeleton displays inside the Natural History Museum © valeriiaarnaud / Shutterstock

Admire Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History

It’s worth visiting this charming museum just to admire its light-filled, glass-roofed Victorian Gothic home. The cast-iron columns, flower-carved capitals and a soaring glass roof make a superb showcase for some extraordinary exhibits. Specimens from all over the world include a 150-year-old Japanese spider crab.

However, it’s the dinosaurs that really wow the kids. As well as a towering T-rex skeleton – ‘Stan’, the second most complete ever found – you’ll see pieces of Megalosaurus, which was the first dinosaur ever mentioned in a written text in 1677. Another visitor favourite is the (stuffed) dodo that was immortalised by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. The unfortunate bird was stunningly revealed in 2018 to have been shot in the head, rather than having died peacefully in captivity, as previously believed.

Visit the birthplace of Winston Churchill at Blenheim Palace

It’s a 10-minute drive from Oxford city but totally worth the journey. One of Britain's greatest stately homes, and a Unesco World Heritage Site, Blenheim Palace is a monumental baroque fantasy, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and built between 1705 and 1722. Queen Anne gave the land, and funds, to John Churchill Duke of Marlborough, as thanks for defeating the French at the 1704 Battle of Blenheim. Sir Winston Churchill was born here in 1874, and Blenheim (blen-num) remains home to the 12th duke.

Beyond its majestic oak doors, the palace is stuffed with statues, tapestries, sumptuous furniture, priceless china and giant oil paintings in elaborate gilt frames. The palace features in a number of films from Harry Potter to James Bond, and if you’ve watched the latest Cinderella film starring Camila Cabello, James Corben and Pierce Brosnan, you might recognise those floor to ceiling shelves in the Long Library. For a full experience, make sure you allow enough time to enjoy an indulgent afternoon tea in the Orangery and then head for a postprandial walk of the lavish gardens and parklands. They’re not to be missed.

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This article was first published Oct 11, 2021 and updated Jan 3, 2022.

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