It’s the city of soaring spires and heavenly choirs.
Set amid green fields beside the slow-moving Thames and Cherwell rivers, Oxford offers its golden silhouette to the visitor’s gaze like a serene rebuke to the ugliness of the modern world. Yet this is also a bustling multicultural city, whose 130,000 non-student inhabitants make up one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the United Kingdom. Expect to have a lively time, despite the weighty historic setting.
This Oxford travel guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
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Top cultural activities in Oxford
England’s oldest university has imbued Oxford with its 900-year traditions of learning, pageantry and architecture.
With no defined campus as such, the University of Oxford permeates the fabric of the whole city, and the best way to experience this living, open-air museum is simply to walk the streets of the town centre. You’ll see landmark buildings such as the Christopher Wren-designed Sheldonian Theatre, and dozens of medieval and Baroque-era colleges.
For a classic Oxford panorama of spires and quadrangles, climb the tower of the University Church of St Mary. The views of the city and beyond are magnificent.
Most colleges around the city open their doors to visitors from 2pm for a modest entry fee. Free evensong services take place most days during term at New College, Magdalen College and Christ Church College. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the performance of world-class choral music within a glorious architectural setting.
Oxford for history lovers
The citizens and students of medieval Oxford took their ‘town versus gown’ rivalry to extremes in deadly street battles.
During the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’, the Archbishop of Canterbury was burnt at the stake here. For much of the English Civil War, the city was the seat of the Royalist government and court-in-exile. Join a guided walking tour, which will show you the actual locations where events took place. Try Footprints Tours for a range of options, including an Oxford University and City Tour, or even a bike tour of the key sights.
Get a taste of the University’s centuries-old history of scholarship and learning at the Old Bodleian Library. For the full experience, take a tour of the Reading Rooms, or simply pay a pound to see the Divinity School — a beautiful 15th century hall with a fan-vaulted ceiling, which was used multiple times as a filming location in the Harry Potter films. By the way, did you know that Hogwart’s dining room is a replica of the Great Hall at Oxford’s Christ Church College?
Great places to eat in Oxford
From cheap to chic, Oxford offers a wide range of places to eat.
Posh North Oxford is home to Gee’s Restaurant and Bar, where you can enjoy fine dining in an elegant plant and light-filled Victorian glasshouse. Their Sunday Roast is a treat.
In Jericho, the former working-class area to the west of the city centre, check out the Old Bookbinder’s Ale House. It combines high culinary standards with the unpretentious atmosphere of a neighbourhood pub.
Multicultural East Oxford offers access to the widest range of culinary styles. There you’ll find a plethora of Asian restaurants, including the amazing Oli’s Thai.
For a locally produced aperitif, seek out one of the distilled drops from The Oxford Artisan Distillery. Britain’s first certified organic distillery produces vodka, gin and rye whiskey, and guarantees that every production process (including growing the grains) take place within 50 miles of the facility. Book a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more.
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Where to shop in Oxford
An Oxford University branded offering makes the perfect gift or souvenir of your visit to this amazing city.
Sadly though, you’ll need to obtain it elsewhere! The bricks and mortar University of Oxford Shop in High Street recently closed, but you order official merchandise (including the ever-popular university hoodies and rugby shirts) online from the Oxford Gift Shop. Their only physical shopfront is down in London. Go figure.
Back in Oxford itself, visit the Zvi Meitar Bodleian Libraries Shop in Broad Street for vintage-inspired gifts — many of them based on rare items held in the University’s library collections.
Oxford’s connection with Lewis Carroll, who taught mathematics at Christ Church College, is celebrated at Alice’s Shop. An original 19th century sweet shop, it contains enough Wonderland memorabilia to satisfy the most ardent fan.
In such an academic town, you really should visit a bookshop — and there’s none better than Blackwell’s. This sprawling treasure trove of new, secondhand and rare books has been in business for nearly 140 years and is an Oxford institution.
Ways to relax in Oxford
Drifting down the River Cherwell in a traditional flat-bottomed wooden punt; glass of Pimm’s in hand; picnic hamper at your feet…
It might sound like a dream, but it’s one that’s easy to make a reality in this town. Daily Information offers an indispensable guide to the ‘how-tos’ and ‘how-not-tos’ of punting, along with other leisure activities around town.
In the afternoon, take a riverside stroll in Christ Church Meadow to watch the rowing crews train. Views of the city skyline add to the delightful ambience.
After a hard day of sightseeing in Oxford, finding an atmospheric spot to take the weight off and wet your whistle is not difficult. For a truly local experience, ramble across the ancient grazing lands of Port Meadow to the circa-17th-century Trout Inn and sip a pint by the River Thames.
Browse our range of Oxford tours and experiences here.
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Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Escape (News Limited), Mindful Puzzles, Vacations and Travel, and Mindfood. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.