Oxford, the county town of Oxfordshire, is the home of the oldest university in the English speaking world. The city was founded in the 11th century and the first mention of the university is about 100 years later - though the exact year is unknown. Touring the university, learning about its famous alumni and admiring the historic architecture of its 38 colleges is one reason visitors often include this popular city in their travel plans. But there is a great deal more to enjoy in this city, about 60 miles northwest of London.
Here are a dozen ideas to get you started.
Take a Walk
Oxford is a relatively small city and one of the best ways to see it is on foot, ducking in and out of back streets and lanes, exploring the grounds of the colleges that are open to the public and making your own discoveries. Pick up a leaflet at the train station or download an app: Oxford City Guides has some good, downloadable audio guides. Or just follow our two Oxford guided walks for morning and afternoon to get the lay of the land and decide what you'd like to revisit later. There is really a lot to discover and plenty of delightful surprises. And this being a University city, there are loads of coffee shops and pubs along the way to rest your tired tootsies.
When the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology was opened in 1683 the word "museum" wasn't even in use in English.
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology is the UK's oldest public museum. When it first opened, in 1683, the word "Museum" wasn't even used in English. A six-story extension, opened in 2009, turned the museum from a dark, shadowy series of Victorian galleries crammed with stuff to a light-filled, modern exhibition space; doubled its size, and at last made its fabulous collections accessible to everyone.
Those collections cover ten millennia of art and artifacts of eastern and western civilizations and include some unbelievable treasures, including:
- The Jericho Skull: A 10,000 year old representation of the human image, one of the earliest ever found.
- The Alfred Jewel: An ancient Anglo Saxon object of gold, enamel and rock crystal, that may have belonged to King Alfred the Great, the first king of all England.
- Powhatan's Mantle: The deerskin and wampum cloak of Pocahontas's father.
- Drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael.
- Ceramics made over 2000 years
- A Stradivarius violin circa 1715.
And the best part is, its all free.
When Albert Einstein gave his second Oxford lecture in 1931 he was already so internationally famous that the blackboard he used to illustrate his talk was never erased. Instead it was immediately brought to this museum where it has been preserved ever since.
If parsing Einstein's calculations, in his own hand, doesn't intrigue you, there's still a lot to do in this museum. It holds one of the world's finest collection of Medieval European and ancient Islamic scientific instruments — beautiful sundials and astrolabes. The 11th century Arabian astrolabe, pictured here, is an astronomical navigation tool, a precursor of the sextant.
The collection also includes Charles Dodgson's camera. The Oxford Mathematician, better known as Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, used the camera to take his famous series of pictures of Alice Liddell, who inspired his Alice books.
The museum is free though a donation is suggested.
If you are a keen museum goer, you won't be short on attractions in Oxford. Here are a few more to add to your list:
- The Natural History Museum: Enjoy dinosaur skeletons, butterflies and colorful beetles in glass cases. Animal and mineral collections and the most famous treasure, the skull and skin of a real Dodo bird, collected in the 17th century.
- The Pitt Rivers Museum: This is either an archaeological museum or a great big collection of stuff, depending upon your point of view.
Librarian John Rouse (1574-1652) must have been quaking in his boots when he had to refuse King Charles I's demand that a book be removed from the Bodleian Library and delivered to him at his palace. The reason this historic library's collection has grown and grown is that it is forbidden by statute to remove any books. Instead, he brought a copy of the library's founding statutes. Charles the I was so impressed, he agreed that " that statutes of the pious founder be religiously observed".
The Bodleian is one of Europe's oldest libraries and second only to the British Library in the size and scope of its collection. It originated with a collection donated to the university in the 15th century by Duke Humfrey, the Duke of Gloucester and brother of King Henry V. Over the years it grew to encompass about 13 million books and related items in several buildings, including the famous Radcliffe Camera. The original Medieval rooms, including Duke Humfrey's Library, are still used by scholars and are open to the public on guided tours and some self-guided audio visits.
Oxford's Botanic Garden, with 6,000 different kinds of plants, is a year round treat, both outdoors and inside seven display glass houses. There is always something to see and the garden's website points out what's in season and looking its best when you visit.
Within the glass houses, you can discover Alpine plants, lilies, cloud forest plants and carnivorous plants.
The garden's oldest section, the walled garden, dates from 1621 and holds collections of medicinal plants, geographically arranged borders and even a woodland walk. And while you are exploring the Lower Garden's many collections — including the Gin Border, with plants used in the production of gin, look for the corner bench that featured in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, it's where Will and Lyra could meet between their respective worlds.
And if 130 acres of specimen trees, North American conifers, livestock and landscaped estate — including some of the first redwood trees brought to Europe — intrigue you, hop on a bus (the X38 bus travels between the garden and the Arboretum every 20 minutes) and head for the Harcourt Arboretum about 5 miles away.
Almost all of Oxford University's colleges are open to the public at certain times of day or on special tours. Of you only have time to visit one, go for Christ Church, the biggest and, arguably, the most interesting for visitors. The foundation of the college is usually attributed to Henry VIII. Actually though, Henry stole the thunder of his ill-fated chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsely.
Enter the college through the gates in the Tom Tower, the bell tower designed by Christopher Wren, leading into the Tom Quad. Old Tom, the bell in the tower, rings 101 times at 9:15 p.m. every night. It's a tradition dating from the school's foundation when it had 101 scholars. The gates were locked at 9:15 p.m. and the bell was rung to indicate that each of the students was safely inside.
Christ Church College's list of alumni and professors is very impressive, and includes 14 British prime ministers, dozens of artists, writers and musicians and a couple of Nobel Laureates. The picture gallery at Christ Church contains Old Master paintings by Tintoretto and Fra Lippo Lippi and drawings by Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Albrecht Durer. Lewis Carroll, (real name Charles Dodgson) was a mathematics don at the college and his muse, 11-year-old Alice Liddell, who inspired Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass," was the daughter of the dean of the college
But as impressive as all this is, it is probably not the reason that long lines of visitors queue up every day to buy tickets to enter and join tours. It's more likely that Harry Potter, is the reason visitors to Oxford flock to this college.
Halls, stairways and cloisters all stood in for Hogwarts, and Hogwarts' infirmary in the films. And the magical Great Hall, where so many scenes are set, is modeled on Christ Church's own Great Hall. Many people believe the scenes were filmed in this room but actually a replica was created in Warner Brothers' Leavesden Studios, outside London. You can visit that one as part of the Warner Brothers London Studios Tour; The Making of Harry Potter. Or peer into the real one, on a tour here.
Oxford Covered Market, in the center of town between the colleges and the main retail high street, is the perfect place to take a break, get a bite to eat and indulge in some artisan shopping. The market officially opened in 1774 after both local officials and University dons decided the traffic, smells and refuse of the market streets were becoming a public nuisance. It has been trading ever since. Today most of the stalls have become shops (more than 40 of them) selling clothing, leather goods, flowers and dried flowers, herbs and scents, fruit and veg, meat and fish, fancy cakes and glorious cheeses. Almost all the merchants are independent. And the building itself is interesting to walk around in with its narrow lanes of shops under a beamed ceiling. It was designed by John Gwynn who also designed Oxford's famous Magdalen Bridge. There are a number of sandwich shops and a pub or two but if you'd like to experience a really English "caff," try Brown's Cafe.
Oxford Castle started as an Anglo Saxon fortress, before William the Conqueror, and parts of it are at least 1,000 years old. Parapsychologists claim it is one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. They would, wouldn't they though excavations to make the building safe for visitors have revealed the details of the creepy 18th-century Debtors’ Tower and a 900 year old underground Crypt. There's also a castle curse, dating from the Black Assize of 1577, when hundreds of people died within weeks who attended the trial of Rowland Jenkes, including the Sheriff, the jury, the witnesses and the judge all died of mysterious causes.
Between 1071 and 1995 the castle was in continuous use as a prison. Take a guided tour to find out about some of its most interesting and gruesome stories.
The Turf Tavern, familiar to fans of television's Inspector Morse reruns, is one of Oxford's many celebrated pubs. It's down an alley so narrow that, in parts, you cannot even stretch both arms as you pass through it. It's in a Grade II listed, 18th century building, though the earliest reports of it are in tax records of King Richard II and dated 1381. Inside, it's a warren of levels and staircases. Although it does attract tourists, it's so hard to find that only the most determined non- locals actually get there. It's also popular with students and the occasional celebrity — the drunken arguments between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the mid 1960s became legends.
Punting is a classic way to mess about in boats at both Oxford and Cambridge. In Oxford they do it on the River Cherwell, from the Cherwell Boathouse or from Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, just beside Magdalen Bridge, by Oxford High Street.
Punts are flat bottomed boats that can carry up to six people — the punter and five passengers. The punter stands on a flat platform at one end and propels and steers the boat with a long pole. Even if you've never heard the term, you may have seen punting in an old English film.
On film it always seems effortless, romantic and peaceful. But of course it's harder than that.
Don't worry, if you don't think you can manage the pole, you can arrange for a chauffeured punt from Magdalen Boathouse, with an experienced punter, boathouse, often a student, doing the hard work.
The Sheldonian Theatre is Oxford's ceremonial gathering place. It is where students are welcomed to the University and where they receive their diplomas upon graduation.
It is also a music venue where you can listen to a concert in a building constructed between 1664 and 1669 as the first major design of architect Sir Christopher Wren. Time your visit well and you can listen to music performed by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and visiting ensembles and soloists. There's at least one concert a month throughout the year and more frequent public events in the summer months.
The spirits in question are gin, vodka, absinthe and rye made at The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD, you see). It's a fascinating place with riveted copper stills in the best Steampunk tradition. In fact the two stills are called Nemo and Nautilus, with a nod toward the great Steampunk inspiration, Jules Verne.
We've heard they use ancient heritage grain grown from seed reclaimed from Oxfordshire's 16th and 17th century thatched roofs. Not sure we believe that but it certainly makes a great story and you never know.
You can ask about it on one of their tours — 45 minutes for 90 minutes — both of which end with a tasting of a selection of their gins. If you go for the 90 minute tour, costing £50 in 2019, make sure you have a designated driver because it ends with a chance to taste their entire range and finish it off (our yourself) with a large gin and tonic. Cheers.