Best known for the prestigious Oxford University, the small city of Oxford is also a wonderful destination for travellers. As it is home to the oldest English-speaking university in the world, there is a diverse range of English architecture and a rich history in education and publishing here.
Located in South Central England, Oxford is only an hour away from London and three hours from Liverpool. If you’re travelling around the United Kingdom, a visit to this charming city shouldn’t be missed.
Thinking about planning a trip and are curious about what to see in Oxford? You’ll quickly learn that there is an endless amount of attractions, activities, and sites to see. Keep reading to discover 25 things to do in Oxford, England.
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A must-visit during your trip is the Oxford Castle. Constructed in 1071, this Norman medieval castle played a significant role in the Anarchy in the 1100s. It was partially destroyed during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, and become a prison in the 18th century. Following the closing of the prison in 1996, the castle became a popular tourist attraction and even a hotel to stay at.
The remaining St George’s Tower and crypt are listed as scheduled monuments, which means they are considered to be of national importance and protected by the United Kingdom.
A guided tour is recommended to hear a few of the many fascinating stories that occurred over the building’s 1,000-year history. You’ll also be able to climb the aforementioned tower and appreciate the 360-degree views over Oxford, as well as enter the 900-year-old crypt.
The Radcliffe Camera
Completed in 1749, the neoclassical Radcliffe Camera is a monumental structure in the middle of Oxford University. The name comes from the Latin meaning of the word camera, which translates to building or room, and it originally housed the Radcliffe Science Library.
Designed in a large circular shape, it was built in three main stages and includes an upper gallery. Inside access is only possible through a guided tour, though it’s worth it to simply stop and appreciate the building from the outside if you have limited time.
One of Oxford’s most well-known structures is the Bodleian Library. The English Gothic building, established in 1602, is considered one of the oldest libraries in Europe. Housing over 12 million items, it is the second largest library in Britain after the British Library.
Guided 30-minute, 60-minute and 90-minute tours run regularly. The shortest tour includes Duke Humfrey’s Library and the incredible Divinity School, while the one-hour tour will also take you around the Chancellor’s Court and the Convocation House.
If you also want to be shown around the Upper Reading Room and the Radcliffe Camera, opt for the 90-minute tour. The Divinity School is a definite highlight. The 15th-century medieval room shows off an intricate Perpendicular Gothic ceiling designed by William Orchard that will certainly impress you.
The Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683, is Oxford University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. The main collections showcase Pre-Raphaelite paintings, English silver, majolica pottery, drawings by Michaelangelo and Leonardi da Vinci, and paintings by Picasso. In 2009, new galleries regarding Egypt and Nubia were opened, and a 19th-century art gallery was unveiled in 2016.
The museum is open daily and admission is completely free. Until January 2020, you can see the Last Supper in Pompeii exhibit, followed by young Rembrandt and Tokyo art exhibitions.
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden
If the weather is nice out, you’ll definitely enjoy visiting the Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum. As the oldest botanic garden in the United Kingdom, there is a historic and prestigious atmosphere around the grounds. In fact, the garden was a source of inspiration for the 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Here, you’ll have the opportunity to see over 6,000 types of plants among some of the most diverse collections in the world. One of the three entrances to the garden is the Danby Gateway, a beautiful Baroque stone archway. Inside, there are several glasshouses, including the conservatory, fernery, tropical lily house, alpine house, palm house and arid house. Within the walled garden are botanic family beds and medicinal beds, sorted by their use to treat different illnesses or diseases.
Additionally, there are always fun events being held here, including craft fairs and open-air theatre performances. Be sure to check the official website to find out what’s on during your trip.
Oxford Town Hall
Another wonderful site in the centre of the city is the Oxford Town Hall. The current public building was opened in 1897, replacing a previous town hall and guildhall. It was designed in a Jacobethan Revival architectural style and features an arched entrance. The interiors are even more enchanting, and the hall is often used as a location for weddings, conferences and festivals. Keep an eye out for any musical performances or cultural events for a chance to see inside.
A Harry Potter Walking Tour
One of the best things to do in Oxford with kids is to immerse yourself in the world of Harry Potter. Explore the real-life filming locations that you’ve come to know as Hogwarts and discover why J.K. Rowling decided on Oxford as the setting.
You’ll also learn about other literary legends from Oxford, such as Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien. While the small group tours typically include a maximum of 15 people, private tours are available as well.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum
The neo-Gothic Museum of Natural History is made up of a large square court with a glass roof and cast iron pillars. The ornamental stonework includes natural carvings of plants and animals to suit the purpose of the building. Various specimens of natural history are on display, from the Dinosaur Gallery to the First Animals exhibit.
This building provides the only public access to the Pitt Rivers Museum, where you can view anthropological and archaeological collections. This museum was founded in 1884 following a donation of 22,000 items, though it has since grown to hold over half a million objects from around the world. The intention of the museum is to show the evolution of human culture and the progression of how various tools were used.
Entry to both museums is completely free, as is the 20-minute introductory tour.
The Covered Market
Undoubtedly one of the top spots for tourists to check out in Oxford is the Covered Market. It’s a convenient way to sample the very best local foods, drinks and crafts all in one area. There have been permanent food stalls set up since 1174, from greengrocers and butchers to bakeries and sandwich shops. Some newer retailers selling gifts, jewellery, clothing and flowers have also popped up.
There are four different entrances on High Street and three entrances via Market Street. Even if you don’t have anything in mind that you want to purchase, it’s worth a visit to simply look around and enjoy the bustling atmosphere. The market is open from eight in the morning until 5:30 at night from Monday to Saturday, or 10 until 4 on Sundays.
University Church of St Mary the Virgin
A top religious site to visit in Oxford is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The eccentric Perpendicular Gothic and Baroque structure stands tall along the northern side of High Street.
The 13th-century tower is open to the public and offers amazing views of other Oxford attractions. The English Gothic spire is considered to be one of the most stunning in England, featuring pinnacles, gargoyles and other statues. The church itself is very inclusive and welcomes all visitors.
A River Cruise and Afternoon Tea
What’s more British than afternoon tea? A romantic one-and-a-half-hour sightseeing cruise along the Thames River is an experience you won’t want to miss. Enjoy some scones with jam and cream and a cup of English tea as you soak up the beauty of Oxford by boat.
Live commentary from your guide will educate you about the sites you come across, from the University Boat Houses to the Iffley Lock. Finger sandwiches, cakes and tarts are also on offer, with the option to purchase additional drinks. Delicious treats aside, this is certainly the most relaxing and peaceful way to experience Oxford.
The impressive Sheldonian Theatre is an official ceremonial hall for Oxford University students, and used as a venue for music concerts and exhibitions. It can also be rented for wedding receptions and filming purposes. Built between 1664 and 1669, it is noted for its neoclassical architecture and eight-sided cupola.
If you aren’t able to attend an event held at the theatre, it is included in many guided tours of the university.
St Martin’s Tower, commonly called Carfax Tower, stands at the centre junction of the city. It is the only remaining structure of the 12th-century St Martin’s Church. At 23 metres high, it is the tallest building in central Oxford. In fact, no structure is allowed to be built higher than it.
The tower is open from 10 in the morning, and climbing up its 99 steps will reward you with an uninterrupted view over Oxford’s beautiful skyline.
A Tour of Cotswolds Villages
Eager to take a fascinating excursion from Oxford? Get out and explore the hidden villages of the Cotswolds. Visit Great Tew, walk the winding laneways of Stow on the Wold, take photos in the picturesque Bourton on the Water, and see the medieval ruins of Minster Lovell.
Duringthe seven-hour day trip, you will stop for lunch at Burford and have a chance to wander the famous downhill High Street as well. This tour is ideal for a small group of up to eight people and includes air-conditioned travel via minivan.
Modern Art Oxford
To switch it up and see some great contemporary artwork, visit Modern Art Oxford on Pembroke Street. Since its opening in 1965, it has become one of the most influential modern arts organisations in the United Kingdom. Dedicated to visual arts, the gallery showcases a range of unique, temporary exhibitions that are sure to capture your attention.
All exhibitions, events and workshops are free to attend, and the gallery is open from 10 to 5 every day except Monday.
Interested in learning about the distilling process and its history? The place to go is TOAD (The Oxford Artisan Distillery). At the first craft distillery in the world, you can observe the key steps to making spirits and taste locally produced gin and vodka.
A one-hour tour takes you to the Old Threshing Bar, the lab and, of course, the distillery. The tours are conducted by a TOAD team member, not a tour guide, so you can be sure you’re getting an authentic and well-informed experience.
Any Alice in Wonderland fans should put a visit to Alice’s Shop at the top of their list. The enchanting shop is located at 83 St Aldate’s, where Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s novels, used to shop for sweets. In the novel Through the Looking Glass, the shop was referred to as the Old Sheep Shop.
These days, you can purchase souvenirs from the shop, including figurines, notebooks, teapots, mugs, and even some Mad Hatter tea.
The Bridge of Sighs
Not to be confused with the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, this skyway bridge over New College Lane is a distinctive landmark of the city. Officially known as the Hertford Bridge, it was completed in 1914 to link together the Old and New Quadrangles of Hertford College.
From below, it’s a marvellous spot to get your camera out and take a few photographs, particularly as the sun shines from behind the bridge.
The Headington Shark
Want to see something unexpected? Head to 2 New High Street in the suburb of Headington. You won’t be able to miss the rooftop sculpture of a large shark diving headfirst into a house.
The eight-metre fibreglass shark has remained since 1986, installed as a way to liven up the residential street. Despite Oxford City Council initially seeking to have it taken down, there was unprecedented local support for the shark.
Since 2018, the property operates as a popular AirBnB stay, with the apartment available for short-term rent.
The Bill Spectre Ghost Trail
Join in on one of the top-rated tours in Oxford: Bill Spectre’s Ghost Trail. A professional actor plays the role of your costumed guide, using props and illusions to entertain you throughout. The tour is also historically accurate and informative, mixing interesting facts with side-splitting humour. If you’re worried about being too spooked, rest assured that the experience is family-friendly and children are welcome to come along.
The tour runs every Friday and Saturday at 6:30 at night, lasting for almost two hours. Best of all, it costs only £10! Private group bookings are available as well. Book online ahead of time or pay in cash on the night.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien Walking Tour
After learning more about Oxford’s influence on Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, keep the literary experiences going with a different kind of walking tour. A unique, two-hour guided tour will take you to visit Magdalen College where C.S. Lewis taught, and to see Exeter College, where J.R.R. Tolkien studied literature. Your guide will tell you so many in-depth stories and fun anecdotes that you will begin to feel like you know both writers personally.
The Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford is another wonderful site you can quickly stop at during your sightseeing. Found at the intersection of Magdalen Street, Beaumont Street and St Giles’, it commemorates the Oxford Martyrs burnt at the stake in 1555.
The Victorian Gothic-style memorial was constructed in 1843, almost 300 years after these events, and is made out of magnesium limestone. Sculptures of the three martyrs, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, can be seen around the middle section of the monument.
Beware any trickery from locals who may claim it’s the spire belonging to an underground cathedral!
Inspector Morse Walking Tour
If you’re a lover of British television, you’ll be delighted with the Inspector Morse tour. See Oxford through the eyes of Morse and Lewis, visit filming locations throughout the city, and learn more about the cast and crew from this beloved detective drama. You’ll even get to stop by the local pubs where the two characters would meet for a pint.
Shotover Country Park
Depart the city for a few hours and appreciate the beautiful natural landscape of Britain. Shotover Country Park is a 117-hectare haven and truly one of Oxfordshire’s hidden gems. The variety of terrains and routes make it an ideal location for a leisurely nature walk or even a cross country run. You may even run into some wildlife creatures, as many diverse species call this park home. The park is open year-round and becomes a popular picnic spot during the summer.
A Day Trip to Bath and Stonehenge
Seen most of what the city has to offer? Spend the day visiting some of England’s most popular attractions. From Oxford, embark on a nine-hour small-group tour, stopping first at the prehistoric Stonehenge monument. Walk amongst the humans from the Neolithic era at this British cultural icon, which is estimated to have been built during 3000 BC to 2000 BC.
Next, you’ll visit some incredible Roman-era attractions in Bath. The Gothic Bath Abbey, the Palladian Pulteney Bridge and the Georgian Royal Crescent are only some of the architectural masterpieces you’ll get to see. You’ll also stop by and learn about the Roman Baths, Thermae Bath Spa, the Theatre Royal Bath and Queen Square.
Recommended tours in Oxford
- ‘Inspector Morse,’ ‘Lewis,’ and ‘Endeavour’ Walking Tour of Oxford
- Oxford Sightseeing River Cruise Along The University Regatta Course
- Cotswolds Villages Full-Day Small-Group Tour from Oxford
- Oxford City and University Walking Tour with College Visits
- Oxford Castle & Prison Entrance Ticket Including Guided Tour
- Harry Potter Walking Tour of Oxford Including Bodleian Library
- Oxford to Bath & Stonehenge
- Christchurch Mornings Harry Potter Film Site Tour
- Oxford Pub and City Evening Walking Tour
- Harry Potter Filming Locations Tour in Oxford
- ‘Downton Abbey’ TV Locations, Cotswolds and Blenheim Palace Tour from Oxford
- Blenheim Palace and Cotswolds Day Trip from Oxford