With its honey-coloured colleges arrayed in splendour beside the river, the university town of Oxford is a seductive vision of medieval learning and modern charm.
Although there’s more to Oxford than Oxford University, the university is very much the city’s defining feature. Consistently ranked among the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, the university can trace its history back to the 11th century. Within 200 years, it had taken shape as a loose association of independent colleges, and that medieval institution remains recognisable to this day. Modern visitors flock to Oxford to explore those same colleges, housed for the most part in their original historic buildings, and to admire shared university resources such as the magnificent Bodleian Library and the world-class Ashmolean Museum.
A gloriously mellow ensemble of golden-hued wonders, Oxford unquestionably ranks among England’s most beautiful cities. In fact, as you stroll through its historic and homogenous core, it can be hard to believe you’re in modern England at all. Certain specific buildings stand out, like the domed and glowing Radcliffe Camera, and you can admire masterpieces by such great architects as Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Really, though, the joy of visiting Oxford lies in the sheer cumulative splendour of college after century-old college, each playing its own permutation of Gothic chapels, secluded cloisters, and tranquil quadrangles.
City of dreaming spires, or city of inspiring dreamers? Oxford authors have an extraordinary record for producing epic works of fantasy, imbued with dreamy, otherworldly qualities. The city would still look familiar to former dons such as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice In Wonderland, and JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, responsible for The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia respectively. Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame went to school in Oxford, while Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, revolves around alternative versions of the city. Even Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel) was here, studying literature at Lincoln College.
As befits a city of students and professors, Oxford is one of the last bastions of the great British pub. Irresistible old pubs dotted down its central lanes and alleyways include the charmingly convoluted Turf Tavern, the Bear Inn and the King’s Arms. Some double as literary landmarks, like the Lamb & Flag and the Eagle & Child, near neighbours and regular haunts of the ‘Inklings’, a group of writers that included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Yet more lie out in the surrounding countryside, reached by idyllic riverside walks, like The Perch, The Trout and the Isis Farmhouse.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Oxford.
With its compelling combination of majestic architecture, literary heritage and double identity as (parts of) Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, Christ Church attracts tourists galore. Among Oxford’s largest colleges – the largest, if you include its bucolic meadow – and proud possessor of its most impressive quad, plus a superb art gallery and even a cathedral, it was founded in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey. It later became home to Lewis Carroll, whose picnic excursions with the then-dean’s daughter gave us Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
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.
Britain’s oldest public museum, Oxford’s wonderful Ashmolean Museum is surpassed only by the British Museum in London. It was established in 1683, when Elias Ashmole presented Oxford University with a collection of ‘rarities’ amassed by the well-travelled John Tradescant, gardener to Charles I. A new exhibition celebrates Ashmole’s 400th birthday by displaying original treasures including the hat worn by the judge who presided over the trial of Charles I, and a mantle belonging to ‘Chief Powhatan’, the father of Pocahontas.
Guarding access to a breathtaking expanse of private lawns, woodlands, river walks and even its own deer park, Magdalen ('mawd-lin'), founded in 1458, is one of Oxford’s wealthiest and most beautiful colleges. Beyond its elegant Victorian gateway, you come to its medieval chapel and glorious 15th-century tower. From here, move on to the remarkable 15th-century cloisters, where the fantastic grotesques (carved figures) may have inspired CS Lewis’ stone statues in The Chronicles of Narnia.
If exploring an enormous room full of eccentric and 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’.
Housed in a glorious Victorian Gothic building, with cast-iron columns, flower-carved capitals and a soaring glass roof, this museum makes a superb showcase for some extraordinary exhibits. Specimens from all over the world include a 150-year-old Japanese spider crab, but it’s the dinosaurs that really wow the crowds. As well as a towering T-rex skeleton – ‘Stan’, the second most complete ever found – you’ll see pieces of Megalosaurus, which was in 1677 the first dinosaur ever mentioned in a written text.
Surely Oxford’s most photographed landmark, the sandy-gold Radcliffe Camera is a beautiful, light-filled, circular, columned library. Built between 1737 and 1749 in grand Palladian style, as ‘Radcliffe Library’, it’s topped by Britain’s third-largest dome. It's only been a ‘camera’, which simply means ‘room’, since 1860, when it lost its independence and became what it remains, a reading room of the Bodleian Library. The only way for nonmembers to see the interior is on an extended 1½-hour tour of the Bodleian.
Founded in 1264, peaceful and elegant Merton is one of Oxford’s three original colleges. Like the other two, Balliol and University, it considers itself the oldest, arguing that it was the first to adopt collegiate planning, bringing scholars and tutors together into a formal community and providing them with a planned residence. Its distinguishing architectural features include large gargoyles, whose expressions suggest that they’re about to throw up, and the charming, diminutive 14th-century Mob Quad – the first college quad.
New College isn’t really that new. Established in 1379 as Oxford’s first undergraduate college, it’s a glorious Perpendicular Gothic ensemble. Treasures in the chapel include superb medieval stained glass and Sir Jacob Epstein's disturbing 1951 statue of Lazarus, wrapped in his shroud; in term time, visitors can attend the beautiful choral Evensong service (6.15pm nightly). The 15th-century cloisters and evergreen oak featured in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, while the dining hall is the oldest in Oxbridge.