The dreamy spires of Oxford rise high above the countryside of the Cotswolds, forming an iconic skyline to a city that has long attracted visitors from across the world.
Oxford England has many charms, and this historic city is home to not only the famous Oxford University and its unique array of colleges, but to museums, libraries and pubs that have stood here for centuries. This is a place that’s steeped in heritage, and it’s easy to be swept up in the elegant culture of Oxford.
You can punt along the River Thames, stroll through the ramshackle, medieval streets of Oxford city centre or head into the Cotswolds to experience classic little England at its finest. Here’s our ultimate travel guide to Oxford!
This ultimate travel guide to Oxford will show you all the most beautiful places in Oxford, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Oxford and things to do in Oxford which will help you in planning a trip to Oxford.
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How to get to Oxford
Oxford is located in the county of Oxfordshire, in the south-west of England. An important regional hub, Oxford is easily accessible from the rest of the country. The small regional airport close to the city has very few useful connections, but if you are flying into England then London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports are both served by direct buses which depart several times an hour, 24 hours a day. Journey time to Heathrow is at least 1 hour, and to Gatwick it’s around 2 hours, depending on traffic.
By train, Oxford forms part of the Great Western rail network. There are regular connections to London Paddington station, which is one hour away, and regular connections west to Bath and Bristol. The UK rail network can be expensive to use though, and if you are travelling on a budget then you will want to look at the bus services. You can travel directly to Bath, Bristol, London, Cambridge and many more cities for a fraction of the cost of the train, but with longer travel times.
What to expect in Oxford
Oxford is a city that’s used to tourism, but that can at times seem slightly bewildering to an outsider. It’s a place that’s charming yet quirky, but sometimes, downright confusing in its eccentricities – particularly when it comes to the traditions of the universities.
It’s not uncommon to find strange college events occurring along the river, or historic rites of passages being played out in the streets. That’s all part of Oxford’s rich heritage, and it’s best just to embrace the city for what it is.
In terms of travelling, Oxford is a pleasure to visit. English, of course, is the main language, but being a multicultural hub you’ll find people speaking anything from French to Persian across the city, and no matter what your first language might be, you’ll likely find at least one person who can speak it. As with the rest of the country, the currency in use is the Pound Sterling, and you’ll find ATMs and money exchanges all across the city centre.
How to get around Oxford
Oxford city centre can easily be explored on foot. As far as English cities go, Oxford is rather compact, and the main sights, colleges and museums are generally within walking distance of each other. There are pleasant walking and cycling routes through the city, and many of these pathways can bring you along the river or the canals and quickly into the surrounding countryside.
Oxford also has a large network of local buses, which reaches not only across city but into the Cotswolds and into the nearby counties too. Within the city, buses run all through the day, while there are less regular night services available too. Oxford though, is an incredibly busy city, and at peak times, in the morning and late afternoon, the buses and the roads can be packed, and in a lot of cases, it can be quicker to walk.
If you are travelling to Oxford by car, then you will want to park in the Park and Ride car parks on the outskirts, as there is only very limited – and expensive – parking within the city.
The best time to visit Oxford
If you’re after a city-based trip, then it’s easy to visit Oxford any time of the year, especially if you are primarily interested in visiting the museums and historic colleges of the university. In fact, if this is your main reason for visiting Oxford, then you will want to avoid peak season when the streets become clogged with tourists.
For Oxford, the busiest time of year is summer – between May and September. This is when the weather is at its best, and when the city comes alive in the sunshine. Being a small city though, Oxford suffers from over-tourism during the summer. Accommodation becomes expensive and limited, while even walking through the city centre can become a challenge. The parks, the river and the beer gardens are glorious in summer, however.
Winter and the shoulder seasons can be much colder and rainier, however, the city becomes much quieter. It’s easier to visit famous attractions, while you can always warm up inside Oxford’s many museums, pubs and cafes.
Things to do in Oxford
One of the best things to do in Oxford is to visit the Ashmolean Museum. This is an Oxford University Museum that’s dedicated primarily to archaeology, and since 1683 it’s been wowing crowds with finds and exhibits from across the ancient world.
It’s not only the best museum in Oxford, but one of the best in England, and within the galleries, you can find mummies from Egypt, pottery from Greece and weapons from Rome. You can also learn about the museum’s own fascinating history, and the life of Elias Ashmolean, the man who founded what was in effect, the country’s first modern museum.
Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum is another famous Oxford institution, and it’s easily one of the most eccentric museums you might ever have the pleasure to visit. Part of the wider Natural History Museum, where you can find taxidermy dodos and dinosaur skeletons, the Pitt Rivers Museum displays thousands of cultural objects from across the world.
It’s anthropological heaven, and you can browse through eerie rows of shrunken heads and learn about remote, Pacific Islands as you wander through the darkened rooms of the museum.
The Bodleian Library is one of the largest libraries in the country, and it houses a unique collection of books from British history. Dating to the 1600s, this enormous library acts as a vault and storage area for literature printed in the UK and Ireland, as well as a reference and research library for the University.
You can visit many of the classic reading rooms on guided tours, while the library’s newest building often hosts intriguing exhibitions dedicated to literary masters such as J.R.R. Tolkien.
Designed by English architect Christopher Wren – who redesigned most of London after the Great Fire of London in 1666 – the Sheldonian Theatre is one of Oxford’s most recognizable buildings.
The Sheldonian is used for many events, including musical concerts, theatre productions and University graduation ceremonies.
Christ Church College
Christ Church College is Oxford University’s most famous college. Dating to the Tudor era, this grand building has seen many historical characters pass through its doors. Many Prime Ministers studied here, while King Charles even held a Parliament here during the English Civil War.
Join a guided tour of the grand grounds and buildings to learn more about the college’s fascinating past.
Magdalen Bridge is an architectural gem in the city. The bridge has spanned the River Cherwell, next to Magdalen College, since 1790, and it’s still in heavy use today.
The best way to appreciate Magdalen Bridge is to hire a punt – that classic mode of Oxford water transport – to travel under the arches and along the river.
Magdalen College Deer Park
Within Magdalen College, you can visit the perfectly maintained grounds that form the college’s deer park. Located in the centre of Oxford and spanning the River Thames, the deer park is open to the public and is the perfect place for a stroll or a picnic.
What to eat in Oxford
Being one of England’s oldest cities, Oxford has a large number of classic pubs and taverns that serve up wonderfully traditional food. Many of Oxford’s pubs are centuries old – the Bear Inn claims to date back to 1242, while the Turf Tavern claims to have begun serving patrons in 1381 – and enjoying a beer or a bite to eat at these historic establishments is an experience in itself.
Historic pubs tend to live up to their age by serving the most ‘British’ food, and you’ll find everything from Fish and Chips to hearty Steak and Ale Pies on the menu. Oxford’s culinary scene though is much more adventurous than this, and due to its wonderful multicultural community, you can find one of the most diverse arrays of restaurants in the country.
At the Covered Market, you can dine on English pie and mash or you can order a Thai Green Curry. On Cowley Road, you can enjoy Lebanese Mezze platters, or you can spend the evening at a Nepalese restaurant. There’s so much choice in Oxford, and the food is as excellent as it is diverse.
Where to stay in Oxford
Hostel – Oxford only has a few hostels to offers visitors, as the backpacking scene in the city isn’t exactly huge. One great choice that offers good value, no-nonsense accommodation, is Oxford Central Backpackers.
Mid-Range – Oxford has a number of mid-range hotels and guest houses to offer. For cheaper stays, then look for the Premier Inn chain, which has no-frills rooms on the edge of the city. Within the city itself, the best options are usually bed and breakfasts, where you’ll find homely service and good value.
Luxury – The Randolph is perhaps the most iconic hotel in Oxford, but a night at this elegant hotel will come with a hefty price tag. Found in the city centre, you couldn’t ask for a more central location. The restaurant serves Afternoon Tea while the spa offers luxurious relaxation packages.
Airbnb is also a great option for short or long stays.
Tours to do in Oxford
Oxford University Walking Tour
Take a tour of Oxford’s best colleges on a University Walking Tour. Led by local guides – many whom will be students themselves – you’ll be able to see some of the quirkier sides of the university. You’ll learn about irreverent traditions, the university’s strange and wonderful events and you’ll see many of the often hidden areas in the city.
Harry Potter Filming Locations Tour
Oxford is a city that exudes magic from every pore, so it’s no surprise that many of the scenes in the Harry Potter films were shot here. You might recognise a few classic sights as soon as you arrive, but you can also join a Harry Potter Filming Locations Tour to uncover hidden spots that were used across the city as stand-ins for the likes of Hogwarts.
Hop on Hop off Bus
For a more comprehensive tour of the city, then you might want to purchase a Hop on Hop off bus ticket. You’ll see the city’s best sights and learn more about the history of Oxford as you jump on and off at the best attractions.
Day trips from Oxford
Just a short journey away from Oxford, is Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough. Amongst the famous historical characters who have lived here, Winston Churchill is included, and you can find a wonderful gallery dedicated to the Prime Minister’s life. There’s a huge outdoor maze, vast stately rooms and extensive, landscaped gardens to explore as well.
One of England’s most iconic cities, Bath is just a short train ride away from Oxford. You can explore the old Roman baths that give the city its name, walkthrough Georgian-era streets and finish the day with a relaxing spa session at the modern thermal pools.
Few places in England can match the rural beauty of the Cotswolds. This is the English countryside at its most idyllic, and you can spend the day touring from village to village and gazing out across the picturesque landscapes.
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
- Afternoon Tea Sightseeing River Cruise in Oxford
- Oxford Castle & Prison Entrance Ticket Including Guided Tour
- Cotswold Taster Half-Day Tour
- Harry Potter Walking Tour of Oxford Including Bodleian Library
- Oxford to Bath & Stonehenge
- City Sightseeing Oxford Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour
- ‘Downton Abbey’ TV Locations, Cotswolds and Blenheim Palace Tour from Oxford
- Oxford, the Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon Day Trip from Oxford including Shakespeare’s Birthplace
- Full Day Tour to Isle of Wight From Oxford