If you’re planning on visiting Oxford or you’ve found yourself in the city with some time to while away, here are our top picks of must-do activities – things to do and see – according to insiders, that will leave you with lasting memories and a newfound appreciation for this historic and vibrant city and it unique intellectual and academic atmosphere.
Oxford University is not a campus university, so it is not all located on one site. It is made up of many different buildings, including academic departments, colleges and halls – all strewn across the centre of Oxford.
The university is made up of 38 individual colleges, each with its own unique history, architecture, and traditions. Visitors can take guided tours of some of the most famous colleges, including Christ Church, Balliol, and Magdalen, where they can learn about the colleges’ history, architecture, and notable alumni.
The university has several museums and libraries that are open to the public. Visitors can also explore the university’s parks and gardens, including the Botanic Garden and the University Parks, which are popular spots for picnics, walks, and relaxation.
Discover more: An insider’s guide to visiting Oxford University
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is a world-renowned museum of art and archaeology, and it is one of the top cultural attractions in the city. It was founded in 1683, making it the oldest public museum in the UK, and it has an extensive collection of art and artefacts from across the world, spanning from ancient to modern times.
In addition to its permanent collections, the Ashmolean Museum hosts a variety of temporary exhibitions throughout the year, showcasing works from other museums and private collections around the world. The museum also offers a range of educational programs, including lectures, tours, and workshops, for people of all ages.
Climbing to the top of St Mary’s Church in Oxford is a unique and rewarding experience that offers breathtaking views of the city’s skyline. St Mary’s Church is one of the oldest churches in Oxford, dating back to the 13th century, and is located in the heart of the city centre.
To climb to the top of St Mary’s Church, visitors need to ascend a spiral staircase with over 120 steps, which can be a bit challenging for some people. However, once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Oxford’s spires, rooftops, and landmarks, including the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian Theatre, and the Bridge of Sighs.
Visiting the Oxford Botanic Garden is a wonderful way to explore and appreciate nature. The botanic garden is located in the heart of the city, and it is one of the oldest and most diverse botanic gardens in the UK, with a history dating back to the 17th century. It is spread over four acres and features an extensive collection of plants from around the world, including rare and exotic species.
One of the highlights of visiting the Oxford Botanic Garden is the glasshouse complex, which contains a range of plants from different climates and environments, including deserts, tropical rainforests, and alpine habitats. The glasshouses are designed to provide visitors with an immersive and educational experience, and they are an ideal destination for families with children.
The Covered Market in Oxford is a historic indoor market that was first established in 1774. It is located in the heart of the city and is a popular attraction for locals and visitors alike. The market is housed in a beautiful Victorian building with an ornate roof and decorative features.
Inside, you will find over 50 independent traders selling a wide range of products, including fresh produce, local food and drink, clothing, jewellery, gifts, flowers, and more. The market is open seven days a week, and it’s a great place to browse, shop, and enjoy some of the best local produce that Oxford has to offer.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a world-renowned museum that offers visitors a fascinating journey through the natural world. Located in the heart of Oxford, the museum houses a vast collection of specimens, including fossils, minerals, plants, and animals, and offers visitors a range of exhibits and interactive displays.
In addition to its impressive collection of specimens, the museum also offers a range of events and activities for visitors of all ages. These include talks, lectures, workshops, and guided tours, all of which provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the natural world and the museum’s collections.
Founded in 1884, the Pitt Rivers Museum is a unique and fascinating museum known for its extensive collection of anthropological and archaeological artefacts from around the world – it has over half a million objects in its collection, including tools, weapons, textiles, and other cultural artefacts.
What makes the Pitt Rivers Museum unique is its approach to displaying its collections. Rather than arranging objects by culture or geographic location, the museum organises its exhibits according to themes and concepts, such as death, religion, or technology. This approach allows visitors to see how different cultures have approached similar concepts throughout history and across continents.
PS: The Pitt Rivers Museum is located in a building at the rear of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
The Radcliffe Camera (Rad Cam to students and locals) is a stunning circular building in the heart of Oxford. It was designed by the architect James Gibbs and completed in 1749. The building is part of the Bodleian Library and was originally built to house the library’s scientific and mathematical books.
The building is not open to the general public, but visitors can still admire its impressive architecture from the outside. There are several vantage points around the city where you can do this, including from the nearby St. Mary’s Church tower and the Bodleian Library’s Divinity School.
Oxford Castle and Prison is a unique and fascinating experience that offers visitors a glimpse into the city’s history and heritage. The castle and prison complex, which dates back to Norman times, is located in the heart of Oxford and has been transformed into a popular tourist attraction.
One of the highlights of visiting Oxford Castle and Prison is climbing the Saxon St George’s Tower, which offers panoramic views of the city and its surrounding countryside. Visitors can also explore the castle’s crypt, which is one of the oldest surviving parts of the complex, and learn about the history of the castle and its role in the city’s development.
Punting on the scenic waterways of the city – on the River Thames (the part of the River Thames that flows through Oxford is known to locals as the Isis) or River Cherwell – is a popular activity in Oxford during the Summer or when it’s warm enough to do so. It is often seen as a relaxing and leisurely way to enjoy the river by visitors and locals alike.
As you drift along the water, you’ll be treated to stunning views of the city’s spires and historic architecture, including the University of Oxford’s colleges, lush green meadows, and wildlife such as ducks and swans. Take a few drinks with you, or even pack a picnic and make a day of it!
Read more: An insider’s guide to punting in Oxford
A walking tour of Oxford is an excellent way to explore the city’s rich history, culture, and architecture, and there are several options available, each offering a unique perspective on the city and its landmarks.
If you’re visiting Oxford for the day, a typical walking tour will take you through the city’s historic centre, past famous landmarks such as the Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs, and the Bodleian Old Library.
The tour will also likely include visits to some of Oxford’s famous colleges, such as Christ Church, Magdalen, and Brasenose, where visitors can learn about their history, traditions, and architecture – from the medieval walls and towers to the gothic spires and gargoyles that adorn many buildings.
Oxford is a city steeped in history and culture. But the city also has several contemporary art venues that showcase exciting and innovative work by emerging and established artists. The city has a thriving arts scene, and there are always new and exciting exhibitions and events to discover.
Some notable spaces include Modern Art Oxford, The Old Fire Station and the North Wall Arts Centre. There are also several private galleries and exhibition spaces in the city that feature contemporary art exhibitions and events – making Oxford a rich and vibrant destination for anyone interested in the arts.
Discover more: An insider’s guide to the contemporary arts venues in Oxford