What Can I Do in Oxford? Fun Activities and Must-See Places
The City of Dreaming Spires
I'm lucky enough to live in Oxford. Walking around this historical city and enjoying the architectural beauty of the 38 colleges which make up the famous university here is, indeed, a treat.
Poet Matthew Arnold once called Oxford the 'city of dreaming spires'—a truly perfect name for this inspiring place.
The Famous Colleges of Oxford
The grandest of these colleges is probably Christ Church College, which was founded in 1525 and much more recently has become a popular attraction with Harry Potter fans. The college was used as a location in the film versions of the hugely successful children's fantasy books.
Another college you might have seen on the screen is New College, which stood in for the fictional Jordan College in the HBO TV series His Dark Materials. The oldest colleges are University College, Balliol and Merton. Many of the colleges are open to visitors. Some you have to pay to go into, others you can visit for free.
A Place for Learning
One particularly iconic building in Oxford is the Radcliffe Camera ('camera' means 'room'). Built in 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library, the Radcliffe Camera is now a reading room for the Bodleian Library.
You've probably seen this building if you've ever seen Oxford on film or TV. It's probably the most well-known structure in the city. Housed in an impressive group of buildings at the historic heart of the University, the Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and holds more than 12 million items. Guided tours are available to various rooms.
Which Famous People Went to Oxford University?
Many British Prime Ministers studied at the University of Oxford, including Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. Other international political leaders who have spent some time at the famous university include Bill Clinton and Indira Gandhi.
From the world of science, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) studied there.
From the world of literature, the list is long: JRR Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde and Philip Pullman (writer of the His Dark Materials children's fantasy books) all have associations with the university.
Actors Hugh Grant, Kate Beckinsale, Felicity Jones, Gemma Chan and Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) all studied there.
What Can I Visit in Oxford?
For old artefacts, check out the Ashmolean Museum. It's the world's first university museum. The Museum of Natural History houses the University's scientific collections of zoological and geological specimens. Attached to that is the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is home to a fascinating collection of anthropological curiousities, including voodoo dolls and shrunken heads from the Caribbean.
Oxford Castle is another local attraction. Built in 1071, the castle was used as a prison until 1996. These days costumed tour guides take visitors on a tour through the castle's history. Part of the prison is now used as an upmarket hotel.
Carfax Tower, all that remains of the 13th century St. Martin's Church, is considered to be the centre of the city. A good view can be enjoyed from the top of the tower. The Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate is Oxford's oldest building. Dating back to 1040, the tower is so named because it used to be where the north gate was back when Oxford was surrounded by a city wall.
A quirky place that is good for kids is The Story Museum. Tucked away on a back street with a red telephone box, the museum houses various themed rooms with exhibitions related to famous children's literature. It regularly holds events and hosts the annual Alice Day celebrations which take place in the city.
5 Facts About Oxford
- The name Oxford comes from the old word Oxonforda which is a ford in the river where cattle can cross safely.
- The University of Oxford is the second oldest University in the world. Teaching existed there in 1096. The oldest university in the world is the University of Bologna in Italy.
- Women weren't allowed to study at Oxford University until 1878. They couldn't get degrees until 1920 and they weren't permitted to stay in colleges until 1974.
- There are 17 cities called Oxford in the world.
- The Bridge of Sighs in Oxford is a copy of a bridge in Venice.
What Can I Do on a Sunny Day in Oxford?
The Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Britain and well worth a visit when the sun is out. Christ Church Meadow is a pleasant place for a walk and picnic. The gates stay open until dusk. University Parks also provide plenty of scenic spots for outdoor lazing.
The Cherwell Boathouse is a family-run boathouse on the River Cherwell where boats can be hired for punting. No trip to Oxford is complete without a session of punting on a perfect summer's day.
Where Can I Find a Good Cafe in Oxford?
The Grand Cafe on High Street stands on the site of the first coffee house in England (so says Samuel Pepys' diary of 1650). You can go there for cream teas and sandwiches, or cocktails in the evening.
The Handle Bar Cafe on St. Michael's Street has a bicycle theme. This relaxed spot with bikes hanging from the walls serves breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
If rolling dice is your idea of fun, check out Thirsty Meeples. A board game cafe on Gloucester Green square, it has hundreds of games to choose from. Good family fun if old-school gaming is what you want with your coffee and cake.
Where Are the Best Places for Shopping in Oxford?
The Westgate Centre is a shopping centre in Oxford city centre. Originally built in the early seventies, it was redeveloped between 2016 and 2017. The centre has about 100 shops, including high street names such as John Lewis, Hugo Boss, Cath Kidston, H&M, Primark, Jack Jones, Next, River Island and Zara. On the top floor, you can find a range of restaurants, serving Indian, Japanese and American style food. Downstairs is Junkyard Golf where you can play crazy golf over a beer.
For a retail space with a little more old-world character, you might like to check out the Covered Market, which is just off Cornmarket Street. This indoor shopping space is a historic market with permanent stalls and shops. Traders sell food, clothes, crafts, jewellery, flowers and household items. A particular favourite is Ben's Cookies, which sells freshly baked, soft and gooey cookies.
Book lovers should definitely check out Blackwell's. This famous retailer is largely an academic bookseller, but books of all kinds can be found there. Downstairs the famous Norrington Room has over three miles of shelving.
Other interesting shops in the city, include the Alice Shop, which is just opposite Christ Church College, where CS Lewis wrote the famous story of a little girl and her adventures in Wonderland.
Which Pubs Should I Visit in Oxford?
After a day of sightseeing, visiting colleges, mooching around in museums and shopping, you probably want to have a rest in a pub. Happily, Oxford has plenty of traditional British pubs where you can sup an ale or two.
The Eagle and Child is famous for being the regular haunt of the writers J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). The writers went there for meetings of The Inklings, an informal literary discussion group.
The Turf Tavern is hidden away at the end of a winding alley, between Holywell Street and New College Lane, near the Bridge of Sighs. The old pub (it dates back to 1381) is popular with students. The tavern is famous for being the place where former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke set a Guinness World Record by drinking a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds in 1963.
The Bear Inn, dating back to 1242, stands on the corner of Alfred Street and Blue Boar Street. With its low ceiling and creaky floorboards, this small pub—which also houses a collection of over 4500 snippets of club ties—has regular live music.
How Do I Get to Oxford?
55 miles west of London, the city of Oxford is easy to get to on the bus or train. A train from London Paddington Station or London Marylebone Station takes about an hour. Alternatively, you can get a bus from Victoria Coach Station.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Joe Shipley