Even when I hadn’t been there personally, and even when I was living in South Africa, I already had expectations of Oxford. I hoped to visit it one day to see whether any of these rang true. When I arrived in the UK in 2012, my short day trip to Oxford was marred by constant, heavy rainfall. I was determined to return; in December, we did just that and spent an entire weekend exploring all that Oxford has to offer.
Could Oxford be the best day trip/weekend visit from London? Located just an hour away by train from Paddington Station, it certainly may be one of the most convenient options. But Oxford is an ideal destination for another simple reason – there is so much to do and see.
Coming from London, a perpetually busy city filled with endless places to visit and events to attend, I was worried that we’d run out of Oxford sightseeing ideas before the weekend was over. Now, having visited and seen how much we managed to do, I’m convinced that it’s impossible to be bored while on a visit to Oxford.
I present: my guide to Oxford – for all tastes, moods and persuasions.
A return to academia
Do you ever look back fondly on your university days and wish – momentarily – to make a return to that time? I know I do, but then I also quickly remember the endless essays, caffeine overdoses and those horrible all-nighters before the big exams… But I digress.
The University of Oxford is the sort of place that people wish they could’ve studied at; made up of 38 different colleges, the university has no official founding date. The first evidence of teaching in Oxford was recorded in 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Nowadays, the honey-coloured university buildings dominate central Oxford. While many of the colleges can be visited by the public (some for free too), we headed straight to one of the most famous ones: Christ Church College.
|The Meadow Building of Christ Church College.|
|The walk leading up to the famous college.|
Founded in 1525, this college has some famous former students, including Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Albert Einstein, WH Auden and 13 British prime ministers. It is also notable for its impressive architecture.
The visitor’s entrance is a little way down St Aldate’s; admission costs £7, and this includes entry to the grounds, cathedral and Great Hall. A word of caution: both the cathedral and hall close regularly, so make sure to enquire about this before buying your tickets.
Christ Church cathedral, while small, features stunning stained glass windows. But, perhaps even more renowned, the college’s Great Hall is what draws the crowds.
It was closed at the time of our visit, but the Great Hall and the stairs leading up to it were used for the Harry Potter films. Prepare for hordes of camera-wielding fans. especially in the summer months!
A short walk away is another impressive university building – and yet another Harry Potter connection.
The Bodleian Library is one of the biggest libraries in Europe with over 7 million items stored within its walls.
Many parts of the library are off limits to the public, but you can take a guided tour of the premises. An extended library tour includes a visit to the iconic rounded Radcliffe Camera, an 18th Century private library.
We decided to pay a visit to the library’s Divinity School (£1 entry fee). Built in the 15th Century, this was Oxford University’s first teaching room. It’s worth a visit for the ceiling alone.
|The impressive vaulted ceiling of the Divinity School.|
|The Radcliffe Camera.|
The Harry Potter connection? Remember that awkward moment in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Professor McGonagall teaches the students how to dance? That scene was filmed in the Divinity School – you can almost envisage Ron Weasley squirming with embarrassment!
As with any of my travels, my favourite activity has to be exploring a new destination on foot. This is the best way to not only find your chosen attractions, but also to discover things that may not have even been on the itinerary.
We loved strolling around the oldest parts of Oxford – along shop-lined Cornmarket Street, through the bustling Covered Market and via the Christmas market on Broad Street.
|A medieval, and scarily lopsided, building spotted just off Cornmarket Street.|
|Oxford’s Christmas market.|
|The city’s Bridge of Sighs.|
Our favourite place for a more peaceful walk had to be the picturesque Christ Church Meadow, which is situated by the college. There are many other popular walks in Oxford and Oxfordshire, and I’d love to come back and explore these too.
|Christ Church Meadow.|
|Introducing: Possibly the most photogenic squirrel on the planet.|
Since most of the structure has long since been dismantled, a visit to Oxford Castle may not automatically leap to the top of your itinerary. However, having made the visit, I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Only a fraction of the original site remains, yet the castle, dating back to the 11th Century, was a massive property. When you visit, the first place to go has to be the grassy mound next to the castle. It’s a quick climb up, yet we were rewarded with views over the castle remains and beyond.
Most of the castle was destroyed and the little that was left was converted into the city’s prison in the 18th Century. Nowadays, most of the old prison has been turned into the Malmaison Hotel (a unique accommodation option, I’d say!), but you can visit a small part of the castle with Oxford Castle Unlocked.
When we made the decision to go, we were unsure of what to expect. We knew that we’d be guided by an actor, and we were scared that this would be a cringe-worthy experience.
The tour was a little bit awkward at first, but, as our guide ran us through the history of the castle as well as the prison, we couldn’t help but enjoy it. Our guide was on perfect form too. He was playing the part of an 11th Century baron; when I told him that I came from South Africa, he responded, completely straight-faced, with an era-appropriate, “I do not know of those lands”.
|The view from Oxford Castle.|
|Chris thoroughly enjoying medieval torture techniques.|
Our Oxford Castle Unlocked experience ended with having our own mugshots taken, as well as a trip to the top of the remaining castle tower, where we were treated with magnificent views over Oxford.
If you’re looking to soak up new knowledge away from the colleges, Oxford is home to a surprising number of museums.
The Ashmolean Museum, which rather resembles a grand temple from the outside, contains relics that were donated by a man called Elias Ashmole in 1677. Other items have been added over the years, with a specific focus on archaeological finds. Entry is free, and it’s the perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon.
|The grand entrance of the Ashmolean Museum.|
The University Museum is renowned for its natural history collection, including a skeleton of a dodo, as well as an impressive array of dinosaur remains. Nonetheless, it was the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is housed within the same building, that enthralled us the most.
This museum could be mistaken for a gigantic cabinet of curiosities. Filled with glass cabinet upon glass cabinet of everything from native American artwork to Asian treasures to some rather grotesque shrunken heads, the museum takes you on a tour of world history.
|Dinosaurs in the University Museum.|
|The fascinating Pitt Rivers Museum.|
If there’s one museum you visit in Oxford, make sure that it’s the Pitt Rivers Museum. I guarantee that you’ll have never seen anything like it!
If you decide that Oxford Castle is not your thing, I’d recommend climbing one of the city’s towers instead. Carfax Tower was our tower of choice. Located just off Cornmarket Street, it’s 99 steps to the top of the 14th Century tower. This short bout of physical exertion is worth the views, as evidenced below.
|Take the challenge! Carfax Tower.|
|The challenge’s reward: Views over central Oxford.|
Admission to Carfax Tower costs £3. Other notable viewpoints in Oxford include the University Church of St Mary and the Tower of St Michael’s.
The very best travel destinations are the all-rounders; there has to be an equal distribution of tradition, the outdoors, good food and drink and, well, the quirkier bits too.
Two of our favourite quirky finds comprised of a ghost tour, as well as an immediately familiar doorway.
Say what you will about ghost tours, I still hold that Bill Spectre’s Ghost Trail is worth your time. A city as old as Oxford is bound to pick up some good ghost stories, and Bill Spectre’s tour serves as a summary of the best of these tales.
The tour starts at 18:30 every Friday and Saturday outside Oxford Castle (wrap up warmly in the winter) and costs £8. For just under two hours, you’ll be entertained by Spectre himself, and have a good laugh besides. It’s the perfect way to pass the hours preceding dinner, and it was definitely one of the most memorable walking tours I’ve ever been on.
|Bill Spectre in action.|
Our second quirky find has to be this door. Literary fans, does this look familiar?
|The ‘Narnia door’.|
If you’ve read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, you will be happy to know that this is the door that inspired the writer, who was a tutor at Magdalen College, when describing the magical wardrobe that features in the book series. The carvings on the door, wooden fauns and the nearby lone streetlamp transported me straight back to the times I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
You can find the ‘Narnia door’ in St Mary’s Passage.
All of this walking is bound to make you feel hungry and thirsty, and Oxford is filled with some great spots to satisfy these urges.
On the pub front, we loved the Eagle and Child, a venue that once hosted meetings between JRR Tolkien and Lewis, as well as the Turf Tavern. The latter is a bit difficult to find. My suggestion is to head over to Hertford Bridge (aka Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs), and then look out for the Turf Tavern signs off Holywell Street.
|The Eagle and Child.|
|Follow the signs!|
Central Oxford mostly contains restaurant chains, yet you can find some great independent food and drink spots in the Jericho area, specifically around Little Clarendon Street. One of my favourite bloggers, Char from Taylor Hearts Travel, has written up this fantastic guide to going out in Oxford, which includes the top spots in Jericho.
For accommodation, I’ve already heaped on the praises for Park House B&B. When we return to Oxford some day, this is where we’ll be staying.
|Our room at Park House.|
Here’s a handy map of all of the places we visited during our busy weekend in Oxford.
Have I missed any of your Oxford favourites? Let me know in the comments below; I’d love to hear from you!
Note: Visit Oxfordshire kindly provided us with press passes, which covered many of the entry fees for the attractions listed above. But, as always, all opinions are completely my own.