Best and top things to do in Oxford England church and tower

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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A perfect five-day itinerary to Oxford, England

Oxford sunset on the River Thames - best things to do in 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

Oxford alumni tour guide walking near Bridge of Sighs

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

Christ Church Oxford England UK

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.

Grand staircase at Christ Church in Oxford leading up to the Great Dining Hall Harry Potter Hogwarts filming location

Great dining hall at Christ Church in Oxford England Harry Potter filming location

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.

Best and top things to do in Oxford England - Christ Church sanctuary

Christ Church in Oxford, England is stunningly breathtaking.

Christ Church best thing to do in Oxford England gardens

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

Divinity School at Oxford University in England Harry Potter filming location infirmary

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

Oxford Castle and Prison Haunted Crypt best day trip from London

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.

Mound at Oxford Castle & Prison best thing to do in England

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

Front entrance of the Oxford University Press in England

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

Exterior of the Natural History Museum in Oxford best things to do in England

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

Top of the tower of the University of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford England Best thing to do

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.

Gargoyles and grotesques at University of St. Mary the Virgin Tower in Oxford England best thing to do scenic views

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.

Carfax Tower

Oxford England skyline from top of Carfax Tower best things to do

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.

Spiral staircase at Carfax Tower in Oxford England best thing to do scenic views

Punting on the River Thames or River Cherwell

Punting on River Thames or River Cherwell best things to do in Oxford England

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.

Punting on River Thames or River Cherwell best things to do in Oxford England

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

Oxford Botanical Garden in Oxford England best thing to do

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

Bridge of Sighs Oxford England UK

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

Turf Tavern oldest pub in Oxford England best thing to do, sign

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.

Beer garden at Turf Tavern Oxford England

Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera best thing to do in Oxford England

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

View of River Thames at sunset in Oxford England best things to do

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.

River Thames path in Oxford England best things to do

Another top thing to do in Oxford: The Oxford Covered Market

The Oxford Covered Market top thing to do in Oxford, England UK

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.

The Oxford Covered Market top thing to do in Oxford, England UK

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.

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Top things to do in Oxford England collage

Top things to do in Oxford England punting

Author

Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller

40 comments

  1. My top things to do in Oxford England would be punting on the Thames – too much fun – and touring Oxford with an alum. My sister got her graduate degree at Oxford.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed reading this blog post and the photography was lovely! My husband is from the UK and we plan on visiting again soon so I will bookmark this post for ideas of what to see in Oxford, England!

    1. I know you would love to take this day trip from London to Oxford. It was cool to see all the history and the Harry Potter filming locations.

  3. Seeing all these top things to do in Oxford would be so much fun! I would love to do the Oxford University walking tour. We did a walking tour of the university in Dublin and it was SO cool, so I’d love to see Oxford as well!

    1. I would love to visit Dublin and take a walking tour there. I loved my visit to Oxford. Lots of history and cool things to do when visiting England.

  4. Oxford England looks so “English!” I am so glad you had the chance to explore so many wonderful iconic places! Oxford, England looks fabulous for the adventurous explorer!

  5. Oxford looks so lovely, and your photos really bring things to life for me! I’d love to visit someday. I’m similar to you in that I love learning the history about the places I visit, and some of these tours sound like so much fun. I’d also love to climb the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and Carfax towers – those views look incredible! Thanks for sharing this helpful guide. Can’t wait to see these spots for myself. Xx Sara

  6. This is an excellent write up!
    I was meant to visit in 2020, but the pandemic had other plans.
    Hope I can visit soon and see and do some of these things for myself..

    1. Thank you! I highly recommend the walking tour and visiting Christ Church when you travel to Oxford, England – definitely at the top of my list of best things to do.

    1. I was surprised there were so many things to do in Oxford. I’m happy I extended my stay to five days rather than a day trip. Loved my tour of the historic Oxford Castle & Prison especially.

    1. Oxford is a great place to explore especially if you love history, architecture, and Harry Potter. Christ Church was especially stunning.

  7. When I visit Oxford, I would enjoy going on a tour of Oxford University. Viewing the grounds and meet some of the students would be fascinating.

    1. I loved my tour of Oxford University from one of the alums. It just happened to be the same day as graduations so was cool to see students in their caps and gowns.

    1. That’s so cool! My favorite tour of the Bodleian Library was Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside so highly recommend as one of the top things to do in Oxford.

  8. I have always wanted to go to Oxford to see Christ Church because I am a huge Harry Potter fan! I would also love to take a tour of Oxford University. Thanks for sharing this super-detailed guide!

    1. You’re welcome! Oxford is a perfect destination with lots to do – especially if you are a Harry Potter fan! Christ Church is so beautiful!

    1. Thank you! I’m such a huge fan of the Oxford English Dictionary. Tpuring the Oxford University Press Museum is a perfect thing to do for people like us.

  9. Such an incredible post! We had no idea that there were this many incredible things to do in Oxford, England. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Lovely post! I used to live in Oxford and you picked some architecturally very interesting colleges that are set up for visitors, too. I would stick to the Cherwell punting… Thames gets deep very quickly. Also, Cherwell is more scenic and a lot easier to punt.

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