A city that hardly needs introduction, Oxford is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, going back to the 11th century at the latest.
The university’s various self-governing colleges, scattered around the old centre of the city give Oxford its singular character and are endowed with dignified monuments by architects like Sir Christopher Wren.
For much of the year you’ll see black-gowned students milling around, and can take a swift tour of these colleges and amenities like Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre and the record-breaking Bodleian Library.
Don’t pass up the chance to go punting in summer, or idle with the deer and cattle on the lush flood-meadows on the banks of the Cherwell and the Thames.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Oxford:
1. Walking Tours
At the Visitor Information Centre on Broad Street you can sign up for all sorts of guided walking tours.
The most popular shows you around the University of Oxford’s historic colleges and sets off each day at 11:00, 13:00 and 14:00. This tour doesn’t take in Christ Church or New College, which both feature in this list, but you will get to go inside the Perpendicular Gothic Divinity School, and will be fed plenty of diverting facts and figures by a knowledgeable guide.
Fantasy fans may already know that J. R. R. Tolkien spent much of his career in Oxford, and scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot around the city.
The Visitor Information Centre arranges themed walks pointing out Tolkien’s former haunts, or taking you into New College, parts of which featured as Hogwarts in Harry Potter.
2. Ashmolean Museum
More than 330 years after it was founded, the first university museum in the world continues to evolve.
In the 2011 the Ashmolean Museum unveiled new galleries for Ancient Egypt and Nubia, and in 2016 a new wing opened for 19th-century art.
The main building is from 1845 with a Neoclassical design, resembling an Iconic temple.
It’s all a veritable cave of wonders, stuffed with paintings by Picasso, Titian, Rubens, Pissarro and Cézanne, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the only “as new” Stradivarius violin in the world, Cromwell’s death mask, papyrus bible manuscripts, Guy Fawkes’ lantern, the largest Minoan collection outside Crete, the Anglo-Saxon Abingdon Sword, and that’s just skimming the surface.
New acquisitions are made by the year so no two visits to this extraordinary museum will be the same.
3. Bodleian Library
Oxford University’s main research library is the second largest library in the UK, one of the richest libraries in the world and one of the oldest libraries in Europe.
There are five million books, manuscripts and maps on these shelves.
You can make a self-guided visit, or join one of three tours of the library and adjoining buildings, each varying in detail.
One of the most spectacular sights is the Perpendicular Gothic Divinity School, with a sublime fan vaulting from the 15th century.
There are up to four exhibitions at the library at any one time, often presenting rare illuminated manuscripts.
The main entrance to the library is in the Schools Quadrangle and is integrated into the Jacobean Tower of the Five Orders, dating to the 1610s.
Here, flanking the portal and climbing up the facade are columns in each of the five orders of classical architecture.
4. Pitt Rivers Museum
Oxford University’s archaeological and anthropological collections are on show at the Pitt Rivers Museum, created in 1884 when the British Army officer and archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers donated fruits of his travels to the university.
That initial donation of 22,000 objects has since ballooned to more than 500,000, the largest single collection in these two fields in the UK. You could lose half a day absorbed by the museum’s glass display cases, which are tightly packed with items and rotated every few months.
These are wildly diverse and might contain Japanese theatre masks, shrunken heads, decorated human skulls, African sculptures, dolls from around the world, weapons, ceramics, ceremonial clothing, tarot cards, South American jewellery, Native American bison robes or Medieval plague masks.
5. Christ Church
Founded by Henry VIII in 1546, Christ Church is the pick of Oxford’s colleges to visit, and features no fewer than six Grade I listed buildings.
This college also has two of the city’s outstanding monuments, the Tom Tower, conceived by Christopher Wren and completed in 1682, and the Romanesque/Gothic cathedral.
Standard admission will grant you access to the Cathedral, Hall, Hall Staircase, Cloister and Quads.
First raised in the second half of the 12th century, the cathedral predates the college and serves as the seat of the Diocese of Oxford, as well as the chapel for the college and the university as a whole.
The nave, choir, transepts and tower all go back to the church’s 12th-century foundation, while the chancel ceiling has superlative Gothic star vaulting.
6. Magdalen College
The 46-metre Magdalen Tower has long been a familiar landmark at the eastern entrance to the city.
This square bell tower, capped with pinnacles and crockets, was completed in 1509 and is one of the oldest pieces of architecture at the college.
Every 1 May, at 06:00, the college’s choir sings two traditional hymns from the roof, one of many eccentric and ancient rituals observed by the University.
The Cloister meanwhile was built at the end of the 15th century, but has been updated a few times over the years.
Check out the fanciful gargoyles above the first floor windows, and the grand Palladian facade of the New Building, begun in 1733. Follow up a visit with a stroll through The Grove, roamed by a herd of fallow deer.
7. Sheldonian Theatre
Perhaps the most illustrious English architect of all, Sir Christopher Wren drew up the design for the 17th-century Baroque Sheldonian Theatre.
The monument is named for Gilbert Sheldon, chancellor of the university at the time.
With a capacity of 1,000, the theatre has played host to a few historic events, like the first performance of Handel’s third oratorio Athalia in 1733. A few highlights in the university’s academic calendar, like matriculation and graduation take place here, but the theatre is normally visitable during the day.
Head in to be wowed by the exquisite eight-sided cupola and a 17th-century ceiling fresco by Robert Streater.
The theatre hosts a line-up of concerts by the likes of the Oxford Philharmonic, various college choirs, as well as talks and conversations involving prominent intellectuals, artists and political figures.
8. Hertford Bridge
Popularly known as the Bridge of Sighs and one of Oxford’s abiding images, the Hertford Bridge is a covered footbridge over New College Lane and spanning the old and new quadrangles of Hertford College.
The nickname comes from Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, but that name is erroneous as the Hertford Bridge is in fact modelled on a different Venetian crossing, the Rialto Bridge.
The Neo-Baroque structure isn’t quite as old as it looks, and was completed in 1914 according to a design by Sir Thomas Graham Jackson.
9. University of Oxford Botanic Garden
Among the world’s oldest scientific gardens, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden was first plotted in 1621. The garden squeezes 8,000 plant species into just 1.8 hectares, all representing nine tenths of the higher plant families.
Here you can peruse the Walled Garden, with a formal layout and contained within 17th century stonework, seven glasshouses including an Insectivorous House, as well as a Rock Garden, Bog Garden, Rose Garden and a set of exquisite borders.
The oldest tree is a yew planted in the Walled Garden in 1645 by the first curator Jacob Bobart.
And the most dignified way to enter the gardens is via the pedimented Danby Gateway (1633), one of the first Baroque structures in Oxford.
10. University Church of St Mary the Virgin
The University of Oxford grew around this church, which dates from the 13th century.
The building has mostly Gothic architecture in the 15th and 16th-century Perpendicular Style, but the tower is older and is from the church’s origin.
You can climb the tower any day of the week for a gratifying view of the city.
The church’s South Porch is both beautiful and has a tale to tell.
The bold Baroque style, typified by its Solomonic columns and image of Virgin and Child in a shell niche, abhorred the austere Puritans of the day.
The portal was even cited as causing idolatry during Archbishop William Laud’s trial in 1645 when he was executed for treason.
Look closely at the image of the Virgin and you can make out bullet holes made by the Puritan Cromwell’s troops in the Civil War.
11. Oxford University Museum of Natural History
A repository for the university’s plethora of natural history specimens, this Victorian museum is in a sensational Neo-Gothic hall with a glass roof held up by cast iron pillars.
On the lawn outside is the reconstructed trail left by a megalosaur, made from moulds of footprints discovered at a limestone quarry not far outside Oxford in 1997. The museum collections are broken down into the two main chunks: The Earth Collections and Life Collections.
The first deals with minerals, palaeontology and rocks, while the Life Collections are entomological and zoological specimens, and these gathered by famous natural scientists like Justin Pierre Marie Macquart, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.
Here you’ll see the world’s most complete remains of an individual dodo, comprising a head and a foot.
12. New College
Another college that offers a privileged inside look, New College opens its doors to outsiders between 11:00 and 17:00, although it pays to check the website in advance.
On a self-guided tour you’ll see the cloisters, hall, chapel and formal gardens.
The buildings are mainly in the Perpendicular Gothic style and mostly went up in the last decades of the 14th century.
The wooden panelling in the hall has been in place since the beginning of the 16th century, while the marble floors are from the 1720s.
On the chapel’s choir stalls are 62 stunning misericords (carvings on the underside of the seat), produced in the 14th century.
Outside are Baroque formal gardens, and a piece of Oxford’s city wall maintained by the college since it was founded in 1379.
13. Christ Church Meadow
A restful green space in the middle of the city, Christ Church Meadow is a flood-meadow just south of the college of the same name.
The grass is grazed by English longhorn cows and bordered to the west and south by the Thames and to the east by the River Cherwell.
There are boathouses by the water, and in November the Christ Church Regatta takes place by the meadow.
Look north and you’ll see the Romanesque spire of Christ Church and the 13th-century Merton College Chapel.
The meadow has witnessed some interesting times, and was where the first shot in the Third Siege of Oxford (1646) landed during the English Civil War.
Later, in 1784, the balloonist James Sadler launched some of England’s first ever flights from these fields.
Practically a compulsory summer activity in Oxford, punting involves propelling a small flat-bottomed boat (punt) with a pole through shallow water.
The boat will have a square-cut bow and the pole has a metallic tip, or shoe, with blunt spikes to help you grip the riverbed as you push off.
Punting is mostly done on the River Cherwell, a tributary of the Thames, wending its way past several colleges, the Botanic Gardens and Christ Church Meadow in the east side of the city.
If you’re more confident you can go west to Port Meadow on the Thames.
Generally each punt carries up to five passengers and is charged by the hour, and most rentals offer a quick training session to get you started.
15. Thames Path
If you find yourself in Oxford for more than a day or two you could break out into the countryside on a walk.
This couldn’t be easier as the Thames Path is a National Trail on the banks of England’s greatest river.
The path beckons you through quiet water meadows, around old stone bridges, past herds of livestock and next to old locks that have made the river navigable since the 18th century.
You’ll never be more than a mile or two from a country pub and on Oxford’s outskirts you may get to see competitive rowers sculling by.
The Thames Path begins at the river’s source in Gloucestershire and follows the serpentine course of the river for 184 miles to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich.