During my three-week workcation in England, I spent five days in Oxford. I’m all about history and am also a Harry Potter fan so wanted to check out some of the filming locations. Oxford makes for a lovely day trip from London – with lots to do and see. While I didn’t get to experience everything, this post outlines the top things I recommend to include in your Oxford itinerary.
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Check out my England blog series
I’m currently writing and publishing a series of blog posts about my three-week workcation in England. It’s a work in progress so please check back regularly and/or sign-up for my newsletter updates.
- Best scenic and historic day trips from London
- Best day trip from London – the historic Bletchley Park
- Four of the prettiest Cotswolds villages in England
- Guide to Oxford Castle & Prison
- Guide to the Oxford University Press Museum
A perfect five-day itinerary to Oxford, England
This curated list of the best things to do in Oxford is designed for you to customize your own itinerary. I’ve listed in priority order my recommended list of Oxford attractions so you can add them to a day trip from London, a three-day itinerary, a five-day or more.
Oxford University walking tour with alumni
You’ll find lots of walking tour options of Oxford, England. I chose the two-hour Oxford University Tour by Footprints Tour as the guides are Oxford University alumni. And I highly recommend. My tour guide was very knowledgeable and provided a lot of intriguing history stories and trivia. I also liked that it was a small group walking tour of Oxford University – max of 15 people.
One fascinating fact I learned is that Oxford University is not one central campus. Oxford University is comprised of nearly 40 colleges! You will not be touring all of the colleges. But you will visit several including Trinity, All Souls, Hertford, and Merton. You’ll learn about Oxford University’s history and some of the more famous alumni. And that you must never utter the word, C-a-m-b-r-i-d-g-e while in Oxford.
Additional Oxford walking tour highlights
Additional highlights include Oxford landmarks such as Radcliffe Camera, Bridge of Sighs, the Turf Tavern (where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis patronized back in the day), the Church of St. Mary (read below…I highly recommend visiting on your own). And you’ll also make a stop at Weston Library – part of the Bodleian Library – to take a quick look at some of the exhibits of ancient books.
This particular Oxford University walking tour meets at 5 Broad Street. The meeting place was a little confusing, but you’ll find a freestanding sign outside a shop (Watsons of Oxford when I visited). And then look for a guide with a bright green jacket.
Christ Church in Oxford, England – a Harry Potter filming location
Breathtaking. Inside and out. You can stroll the gardens, the meadow, and grounds of Christ Church free of charge. However, I highly recommend the audio tour to go inside this beautiful historic place. The Grand Staircase and the Grand Hall are filming locations for Harry Potter. But you do not have to be a fan to admire all the history and beautiful architecture.
King Henry VII founded Christ Church in 1546. But it is more than a historical landmark. Christ Church in Oxford is part of the Oxford academic community and home to Oxford’s Cathedral and world-renowned choir.
Here are a few photos from my self-guided audio tour of Christ Church. I plan to publish a post soon about my experience touring the scenic Christ Church – one of the top things to do in Oxford, England.
Do you recognize this Harry Potter filming-inspired location in Oxford, England? The Christ Church dining hall inspired the set of the Hogwarts’ Great Hall in the movies.
Christ Church in Oxford, England is stunningly breathtaking.
Exterior shot of the beautiful Christ Church in Oxford, England. One of the top things to do in Oxford, England.
Bodleian Libraries – Divinity School and Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room
As I mentioned previously, Oxford University is not a single entity. It features nearly 40 colleges. So when you hear Bodleian Library, it is not a single library. You’ll find 27 Bodleian Libraries in Oxford.
I highly recommend taking the 60-minute Divinity School and Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room guided tour. These are two of the top things to do in Oxford. You cannot visit on your own, and you cannot purchase tickets online. Tickets are limited and they do sell out. So I recommend getting there (by 9 a.m.) and then you can choose your preferred time.
These medieval attractions from the 1400s are both Harry Potter filming locations. But you do not need to be a fan to appreciate the beauty and history. I was especially mesmerized by the gothic ceilings in the Divinity School. The ceiling in Oxford’s oldest teaching features more than 400 crests and other images. This is where many students and teachers debated at podiums.
Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room in Oxford
After leaving the Divinity School, you’ll tour the sacred Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room (another Harry Potter filming location). Because of the rare, old books in this reading room, you are not allowed to take pictures. And students are not allowed to remove any of the books. Some are even chained from way back in the day. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester donated his books in the 15th century. The Bodleian Library welcomed scholars in 1602.
The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, the second largest in Britain, and home to more than 13 million printed publications.
The medieval Oxford Castle and Prison
One of the best historic attractions in Oxford is the Oxford Castle & Prison. I highly recommend taking guided tour of this 1,000-year-old castle. While the Oxford Castle & Prison provided me a complimentary ticket, opinions are always my own. And I loved this tour.
Your Oxford Castle & Prison tour guide is in full costume and walks you through 1,000 years of history – literally. You’ll climb the 101 steps to the top of St. George’s tower for beautiful views of Oxford. Please note that children under 5 may take the tour; however, they may not climb the tower for safety reasons.
I especially loved the medieval crypt – although it was a little creepy. And became even creepier when I discovered I was down there by myself. During the tour, you’ll also find interpretive signs and immersive films where it takes you back in time.
Visitors are required to purchase a 50-minuted guided tour at a designated time. Then you may tour the castle, prison, and The Mound (site of the fortifications first built called a motte-and-bailey castle) on your own. I appreciated that this was another small-group tour, limited to 20 people.
See my full review of my hosted visit of the Oxford Castle and Prison and learn why it is a top thing to do in Oxford.
Home of the Oxford English Dictionary – Oxford University Press
This may not be for everyone unless you are a word nerd like me. Anyone else read the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for fun?
I am so grateful to the Oxford University Press for a private tour of their intimate museum to learn more about their history – and the history of the OED. While this museum may not be featured on a lot of itineraries, I do recommend this free tour if you love words, etymology, books, history. Please make your Oxford University Press tour request at least one day in advance.
Here are a few intriguing facts I learned while touring the Oxford University Press. And read my full review here.
- Oxford University first became involved in printing in the 15th century. The first book was printed in Oxford in 1478 – just two years after Caxton set up the first printing press.
- The King James version of the Bible was printed at Oxford for the first time in 1675.
- A little-known writer at the time asked the Oxford University Press to print his book, Alice in Wonderland. The Oxford University Press printed the pages, but did not publish it. Oxford University Press admits they botched it. More on that later when I publish my blog post.
- The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was originally called New English Dictionary.
- While it was estimated to take 10 years to create what became the Oxford English Dictionary, it actually took nearly 50 years! It took five years to publish the first installment. And that only covered the history of words from A through the word ant. More on this in my upcoming blog post.
- All 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary were scanned and went online in 2000.
- Today, the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 600,000 words – with definitions and all its historical uses going back 1,000 years.
- To support war efforts, the Oxford University Press printed top secret Allied naval code books beginning in 1941.
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
This is one of the top things to do in Oxford that I missed! So I will be adding Oxford University Museum of Natural History to my itinerary when I return. I stopped in real quick; however, it was near closing time so I thought I would return on a different day. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. I ran out of time.
But everyone that I know who has visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History recommends that it is one of the best things to do in Oxford. I would really love to see Albert Einstein’s chalkboard of equations in his handwriting.
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and Tower
For some spectacular views of Oxford, I highly recommend climbing the 127 steps of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin Tower. The oldest part of the church, the tower dates back to 1280. Along your climb, you’ll pass the Clore Old Library and the bell ringing chamber. At the top of the St. Mary the Virgin tower, you’ll find hauntingly beautiful gargoyles and grotesques.
It was very windy the day I climbed the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin tower. Children under 8 and pets are not allowed in the tower, and unfortunately, it is not wheelchair accessible. The spiral staircase is very narrow. So if you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia, I would not recommend climbing the tower. Instead, spend your time in the chapel of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It is a beautiful chapel.
The tower is open every day; 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Last admission is 4:30 p.m.
If you’re up for another cardio climb in Oxford, then I recommend the Carfax Tower. No, it’s not named after the Carfax used car company. Carfax means where four roads meet or crossroads. The Carfax Tower was once part of St. Martin’s Church, which was built in the 13th century. The main part of the church was demolished in in 1896 to make room for increasing traffic in Oxford.
Your climb up 99 steps will take you 74 feet above the streets of central Oxford. And you’ll be able to take in some scenic views as no building in central Oxford is allowed to be constructed any higher. This spiral staircase is not friendly if you have vertigo or claustrophobia.
Punting on the River Thames or River Cherwell
I had never heard of punting – outside of football. But punting is a thing in Oxford, England. You can either rent punts or hire a chauffeur like I did. I wasn’t confident I would know what to do. And after another day of walking for miles, it seemed like a perfect self-care excursion.
You’ll find a number of places to go punting in Oxford. I saw several people punting while I strolled the University of Oxford Botanical Garden – another top thing to do in Oxford.
What is punting? Think of it as the gondolas in Venice. They use long oars to push along the riverbed on River Thames or River Cherwell in Oxford, England. My punting tour was at Magdalen Bridge Boathouse on the River Cherwell. I was surprised that the river was so shallow and narrow (as is River Thames in Oxford).
If punting isn’t your thing, you can also find several boat cruises on River Thames – from a lunch cruise, to a sunset cruise, to cocktail cruise or dinner cruise.
University of Oxford Botanical Garden
If you love botanical gardens, then I highly recommend visiting the University of Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s one of the top things to do in Oxford. This 4.5-acre garden is home to more than 5,000 different plant species. Founded in 1621, it is the oldest botanical garden in Great Britain and one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world.
Highlights include the walled garden with 17th century stonework, glasshouses (greenhouses), rock garden, bog garden, and lots of winding and serene pathways along borders, among trees, and along the River Cherwell.
You’ll also see and hear the Magdalen Tower from within the garden.
Bridge of Sighs
Have you seen the Bridge of Sighs in Venice? Well, you’ll find Oxford’s version on New College Lane connecting Hertford College. Opened in 1914, the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford looks very similar to the original one in Venice. You can view the Bridge of Sighs from the street. However, access to the bridge is limited to students only.
And since you are in the neighborhood, stroll down the nearby alleyway to the historic Turf Tavern.
The historic Turf Tavern
Oxford’s historic Turf Tavern is a quaint pub serving bar food and ales. And the oldest pub has been around a few years – its foundations date back to the 12th century. When you visit Turf Tavern, find a table first, and then you can order from an app or go to the main bar and order from the bartender. It gets pretty busy so allow extra time as you may need to wait to find a seat.
This dog-friendly pub also features an outdoor beer garden.
One of Oxford’s most popular landmarks is Radcliffe Camera (aka Rad Cam). It is one of the main reading rooms of the Bodleian Library and is connected to the Bodleian Old Library by the underground Gladstone Link. Built in 1749, the Radcliffe Camera was the first rotunda library in England.
This is one of the top things to do in Oxford that I only got to see from the exterior. I ran out of time to take the tour of both the Camera and the Link. The Radcliffe Camera is on my list for when I visit Oxford next time. And there will be a next time as I fell in love with Oxford, England.
Walk along the River Thames Walkway
I stayed at the voco Oxford Spires where a path from the hotel leads to the River Thames. It’s very charming with houseboats lining the shores. And you’ll most likely see rowing teams practicing on the River Thames. A couple of times I saw coaches in other boats or even on bikes coaching from the unique sidelines. And it’s a beautiful path to reach central Oxford.
Another top thing to do in Oxford: The Oxford Covered Market
Another top thing to do in Oxford, England is to shop small at the historic Covered Market of Oxford. Established in 1774, The Covered Market of Oxford features more than 50 independent shops, restaurants, and bars. And they are all connected under one roof.
You must try the cookies at Ben’s Cookies at The Covered Market of Oxford. They are the best cookies ever! I also loved Wicked Chocolate. And you’ll find lots of fresh produce, locally sourced cheeses, baked goods, meat prepared on site, clothing, and more. Brothers Cafe at The Covered Market serve up a delicious Greek salad and other Mediterranean dishes.
If you love to shop, support local businesses, and appreciate history, this is the place. The Covered Market is one of the oldest continuous market in England. And this covered market is a great place to escape the rain in Oxford.
I’ll soon share dedicated posts on some of my favorite and top things to do in Oxford. Until then, let me know in the comments if you have any questions. Or any recommendations on what I should add to my Oxford itinerary the next time I visit.