The oldest university city in the UK, Oxford boasts an incredible array of centuries-old colleges, dignified monuments, and soaring spires. While the world-renowned university’s historic halls certainly dominate and define the town, there are also pretty riverside walks to enjoy and a thriving pub scene.
Located between both the Cherwell and Thames rivers, exploring the well-preserved medieval center is one of the best things to do in Oxford, with beautiful buildings and charming cobbled streets.
As well as taking in the incredible historic tourist attractions and exquisite architecture, visitors can stroll around Oxford’s idyllic meadows or go punting along its tranquil waterways. Steeped in tradition, but lively and youthful at the same time, Oxford is well worth visiting and makes for a great day trip or weekend away from London.
15. Trinity College
Lying along Broad Street, Trinity College’s main entrance can be found between Balliol College, their fierce rivals, and Blackwell’s bookshop. Besides a gorgeous garden quadrangle, it also has a marvelous chapel, along with awe-inspiring architecture.
Founded in 1555 by Sir Thomas Pope, a prominent Member of Parliament and wealthy landowner, its age-old buildings occupy the site of what was once Durham College. Such is its splendor that numerous TV shows such as Inspector Morse and Endeavour have been filmed here over the years.
In addition, countless academics and three British prime ministers count among its former students.
14. Merton College
One of the oldest of Oxford’s colleges, the pretty and peaceful Merton is located just a short stroll to the southeast of the center. Established in 1264, its grand grounds are home to centuries-old buildings with lovely quads and historic halls dotted about its lush lawns.
Visitors can take a tour of the college, which stops by the magnificent medieval library and 13th-century chapel. While the former houses an incredible collection of rare and antique books, the latter exhibits some delightful Gothic architecture with a sturdy stone tower looming above its enormous east window.
13. Sheldonian Theatre
Just a stone’s throw from Trinity College you can find the historic Sheldonian Theatre which hosts an extensive array of concerts, lectures, conferences, and ceremonies. Built between 1664 and 1669, it was designed by Christopher Wren, one of the most acclaimed English architects in history.
Named after Gilbert Sheldon, the chancellor of the university at the time and the monument’s main financier, the breathtaking Baroque theater was originally built to hold both graduation and degree ceremonies. Nowadays it also puts on music recitals, choir performances, and theatre productions with its elegant interior making it a very atmospheric place to attend an event.
12. Bridge of Sighs
Right around the corner from Sheldonian Theatre is another of the city’s standout sights – the Bridge of Sighs. Connecting two parts of Hertford College, the striking skyway crosses over New College Lane. Its distinctive design makes the landmark a popular place to visit and photograph.
Although officially named Hertford Bridge, it is now known by its nickname which derives from its supposed similarity to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Designed by Sir Thomas Jackson, the bridge was completed in 1914 and showcases some marvelous Neo-Baroque architecture. Fine carvings and the college’s coat of arms are both on display.
If you’re in Oxford during the summer months, no trip can ever be complete without punting along its tranquil waterways. The ever-popular activity sees you, or a guide, propel a flat-bottomed boat along the river, using a pole to push against the riverbed to move forwards and change direction.
As it takes you past various colleges, gardens, and woods, most people enjoy punting on the River Cherwell. While it is possible to take to the Thames, the river is a bit busier and harder to navigate although Port Meadow’s scenery is just as stunning. A quintessential Oxford experience, punting is lots of fun and a great way to see the city and its surroundings.
10. Balliol College
Another college that claims to be the oldest in the university is Balliol College, which was founded in 1263. Rivalling both Merton College and University College in terms of age, it is located right next to Trinity College on Broad Street.
Balliol’s grounds are peaceful and picturesque to explore with most of its current buildings dating to the nineteenth century. Besides checking out its charming quads, it is well worth strolling along the delightful Logic Lane which runs between its chapel, hall, and library.
9. University of Oxford Botanic Garden
Set to the southeast of the center is the beautiful University of Oxford Botanic Garden, which lies right next to Merton College. One of the oldest scientific gardens in the world, it has a plethora of paths stroll along with colorful flowers, plants, and trees wherever you look.
Originally established in 1621 as a physic garden full of medicinal plants and herbs, it now contains over 8,000 different species with everything, from ferns and lilies to palms, roses and even Venus flytraps on display. In addition, its greenhouses have different environments from around the world to explore with arid, alpine, and tropical areas on offer.
8. Radcliffe Camera
Radcliffe Camera operates as a reading room for Oxford University students and is inaccessible to the public, but it is still well worth stopping by for its architecture. One of the most famous and photographed landmarks in the city, it exhibits some spellbinding Palladian style features, such as grand Corinthian columns and a balustraded parapet lining the circular library.
Built between 1737 and 1749, the building was designed by James Gibbs, one of Britain’s most influential architects, and sports one of the largest domes in the country. Its interior is just as arresting, with elegant arches, a finely decorated cupola and bookcases full of rare editions.
7. Oxford Castle
Aside from the university and all its colleges, gardens, and monuments, one of the city’s main tourist attractions is Oxford Castle. Located to the west of the center, the sprawling ruins of the medieval castle are fascinating to explore with crumbling crypts, towers, and prison cells.
Originally a wooden motte-and-bailey castle with a moat around it, it was rebuilt and reinforced out of stone by the Normans around the late twelfth century. Scattered about its sprawling grounds are informative panels which teach you about the castle’s history. Commanding views can be enjoyed from atop St George’s Tower; the city’s oldest building.
6. Magdalen College
On the opposite side of town you’ll find Magdalen College; one of the largest and loveliest of the university’s colleges. As well as the renowned and resplendent Magdalen Tower, it boasts cloisters, quads and a chapel, with even a large deer park to be found within its confines.
One of the wealthiest and most academically successful of the colleges, it was established in 1458 with notable alumni including Edward VIII, Oscar Wilde, and numerous members of the UK parliament. While wandering around its green spaces you’ll spy lots of beautiful buildings. The college’s fifteenth-century cloisters and iconic tower are its standout sights.
5. Pitt Rivers Museum
Nestled away to the northeast of the center is the fabulous Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses an eclectic array of artifacts and archaeological findings. As its collection is still largely arranged and displayed in a Victorian style, this makes exploring its hall all the more memorable.
Since being founded in 1884, its already extensive ethnographic and archaeological collection has expanded considerably and now includes over 600,000 items and objects. As well as carvings and sculptures, artefacts of note include a Haida totem pole, Japanese Noh-theater masks and the gruesome shrunken heads of sloths, monkeys, and even humans.
4. Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Offering a fascinating look into the history and diversity of life on Earth, is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Adjoining the Pitts River Museum, its equally impressive collection is housed within a stunning Neo-Gothic building that was fittingly designed to be a cathedral to science.
Founded in 1850, its exhibits are centered around a decorated inner court. While the building’s elegant arches, cast-iron columns and glass roof look a treat, the artifacts themselves are just as interesting to peruse. Besides innumerable mineral and zoological specimens, there are also countless complete skeletons of dinosaurs and even a dodo on display.
3. Ashmolean Museum
Just a short stroll away is the Ashmolean Museum which is remarkably the oldest public museum in the country. First opened in 1683, it has an collection of artworks, artifacts and archaeological findings for visitors to enjoy; all housed within a magnificent Neoclassical building.
In total there are 39 galleries to wander around that focus on various civilizations and cultures from around the globe. Besides excellent exhibits on Egypt and Nubia, it also displays plenty of paintings by world-renowned artists such as Michelangelo, Picasso, and Rubens. With many curiosities and rare artifacts on show, the Ashmolean Museum is certainly not to be missed out on.
2. Bodleian Library
Not only one of Europe’s oldest libraries but one of its most beautiful too, the Bodleian Library lies on the east side of town between the Sheldonian Theatre and Radcliffe Camera. In total, a staggering thirteen million books, manuscripts, and maps make up its huge collection.
The main research library of the university, it was established in 1602 with countless kings, prime ministers, and Nobel laureates having studied within its hallowed halls. On tours around the historic site, you can see centuries-old chambers, courts, and the Schools Quadrangle with its Tower of the Five Orders.
1. Christ Church
Arguably the most popular and picturesque of Oxford’s colleges, the sprawling Christ Church has a whole host of interesting sights to check out. Just south of the city center, it boasts attractive architecture with an impressive quad, cathedral, and halls amidst its picturesque grounds.
Founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, it now encompasses its own art gallery and library, as well as an idyllic meadow. Its standout sites however are the superb Tom Tower and its delightful Romanesque and Gothic cathedral.
Due to all the splendor on show, Christ Church has appeared in numerous TV shows and films and its Great Hall was the setting for Hogwarts’ dining hall in the Harry Potter films.