Duke Humfrey's library, the Bodleian Library

Bodleian Library

Top choice in Oxford

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 quad, and you can admire its ancient buildings for free. Both Blackwell Hall and the exhibition rooms in the Weston Library can be visited free of charge, while tours give you access to more of the complex.

All tours, including the two most popular daily options – the ‘mini-tour’ (30 minutes, £6) and the ‘standard tour’ (one hour, £9) – start in the ornate medieval Divinity School, the university's earliest teaching room. A superb specimen of English Gothic architecture, it was founded around 1423. Inspect its fan-vaulted ceiling closely, and you’ll spot the initials of benefactors, including Thomas Kemp, who features 84 times, who worked on it, as well as three ‘Green Men’. In the Harry Potter films, the Divinity School served as the Hogwarts hospital wing.

Every tour also includes on the upper level, which dates from 1488. Visitors are not allowed to enter this magnificently decorated medieval room, or peruse the ancient tomes that it contains, just admire it from the adjoining 17th-century extension. It too featured in the Harry Potter films, as Hogwarts’ library.

The standard tours additionally take in two grand chambers at the far end of the Divinity School – Convocation House, which hosted the English Parliament three times, once under Charles I and twice under Charles II, and the Chancellor’s Court, in which Oscar Wilde and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley went on trial (for debt and promoting atheism, respectively).

Less frequent ‘extended tours’ cover the same ground while also offering the only public access to the nearby Radcliffe Camera, which houses part of the Bodleian’s collection.

Check tour times online or at the information desk; tickets for all tours can be purchased up to two weeks in advance. Note also that a selection of ‘Bodleian Treasures’ is displayed in the nearby Weston Library.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Oxford attractions

1. Bridge of Sighs

0.04 MILES

As you stroll along New College Lane, look up at the steeped Bridge of Sighs linking the two halves of Hertford College. Completed in 1914, it's sometimes…

2. Sheldonian Theatre

0.04 MILES

Built from 1663 onwards to provide an appropriately grand setting for the university’s degree ceremonies – a function it still performs – this monumental…

3. Radcliffe Camera

0.04 MILES

Surely Oxford’s most photographed landmark, the sandy-gold Radcliffe Camera is a beautiful, light-filled, circular, columned library. Built between 1737…

4. Brasenose College

0.05 MILES

Small, select and elegant, Brasenose College was founded in 1509. A Brasenose Hall, belonging to Oxford University, already stood here by 1262, however,…

5. Museum of the History of Science

0.06 MILES

Students of science will swoon at this fascinating museum, stuffed to the ceilings with awesome astrolabes, astonishing orreries and early electrical…

6. Weston Library

0.06 MILES

Opened as the New Bodleian Library by King George VI in 1946, and renamed following a modernist overhaul in 2015, the Weston Library remains an extension…

7. New College

0.08 MILES

New College isn’t really that new. Established in 1379 as Oxford’s first undergraduate college, it’s a glorious Perpendicular Gothic ensemble. Treasures…

8. Exeter College

0.08 MILES

Founded in 1314, Exeter is known for its elaborate 17th-century dining hall, which celebrated its 400th birthday in 2018, and ornate Victorian Gothic…