Founded in the 8th century, Oxford is just 90 kilometers northwest of London and is home to the oldest English-speaking university, Oxford University.
With over 800 years of history, Oxford has been home to royals, scholars, and well-known authors. As a result, the architecture in Oxford ranges from ancient Anglo-Saxon structures to contemporary British design.
Oxford is known for being the location of the popular TV show “Downton Abbey.” The famous author, C.S. Lewis, wrote much about key sites throughout the city. If you love coffee, you can visit one of the oldest coffee shops in England here. Visit the birthplace of William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill. The city is packed with landmarks you don’t want to miss.
I have gathered here the top attractions in Oxford for you to visit.
The Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest of a series (28 individual libraries) of interconnected libraries throughout Oxford. It is the second most extensive library in the UK, with over 13 million printed items. The library has one of the most impressive histories, with some buildings dating back to the Middle Ages.
What makes the library a big attraction in Oxford are the famous scholars who graced the halls, such as Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. In addition, the stunning Medieval and Gothic architecture is why the Bodleian Libraries are so highly revered.
The most distinguished of the libraries is the Old Bodleian for its Medieval-paneled frontage. The library was first opened in 1602, including an older library built in the 15th century, which received donated books by Humfrey, the Duke of Gloucester.
The Lower Reading Room, the Upper Reading Room, and Duke Humfrey’s Library are filled with history. The Old Bodleian is connected to the Radcliffe Camera via an underground tunnel.
One of Oxford’s most sought-after buildings, the Radcliffe Camera, was built between 1737-1749. Its most beautiful dome, the third largest in the UK, makes Radcliffe Camera most recognizable.
Although you can not enter the building unless you are a student at Oxford University, it is a stunning piece of architecture in Oxford. It is the main reading room of the Bodleian Library and still houses some of the library’s collections.
It was built to hold scientific and general books for the university. The building’s name, Radcliffe Camera, was named after Dr. John Radcliffe, a well-respected physician to William III. The word ‘camera’ means ‘room.’
The second most popular library is the iconic Divinity School, built between 1427 and 1482. Built-in a Perpendicular Gothic style, intended for lectures or exams, it later became a library with a breathtaking design. Of course, one must see the ceiling, a significant feature of the Divinity School.
- If you are interested in guided tours or timeslots, visit the website.
Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum is Oxford University’s museum of art and archeology and the first modern museum in the world. Here you will learn about the human stories that make up history dating from 8,000 BC to the present day. The museum houses over 120,000 objects in its collection ranging from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art.
- Pick a guide and spend a few hours meandering through the different exhibitions.
- Hours: 10:00 – 17:00 (Monday – Sunday)
- Admission: FREE
The Sheldonian Theater was the first significant architectural project of Christopher Wren, who went on to design important landmarks in London.
Situated next to the Old Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theater is used for graduation and special ceremonies. It is the first Neo-Classical building to be built in Oxford.
If you plan to stay more than a day in Oxford, check their calendar for performances they may be hosting at the Sheldonian Theater.
BEST COLLEGES TO SEE
With over 30 colleges that make up Oxford University, it can be overwhelming to try and visit them all. However, all are beautiful, with ornate décor and breathtaking grounds to wander.
- Here is my list of suggested colleges to visit:
One of the wealthiest colleges within the university is Magdalen College. Established in 1458, it has taught many notable figures in history, such as the Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde. In addition, the campus is one of the only ones with its own deer park. Here you will find a herd of Fallow deer relaxing or grazing!
- Hours: 10:00 – 19:00
- Admission: Adult £8 or combined ticket to the Oxford Botanic Garden; Adult £13
Keble College is a Victorian Gothic masterpiece, with its largely redbrick with contrasting white, black and golden patterns making a statement. You don’t want to miss the striking chapel with the world-famous Light of the World painting by Holman Hunt. The college hall is the longest in Oxford- not to mention its most impressive.
Christ Church College
One of the most popular colleges to visit in Oxford is Christ Church, whose iconic architecture is affiliated with Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland. It is one of the largest colleges in Oxford and was the 13th college established out of the current 45 colleges throughout the city.
The college was founded almost 500 years ago by Cardinal Wolsey- until he fell from the favor of King Charles I’s royal parliament during the brief four-year period when Oxford was England’s capital during the Civil War.
The architecture mixes English Gothic and Romanesque, making it a visual feast. Stained glass windows can be seen dotting the walls with intricate vaulted carved ceilings.
Things worth seeing at Christ Church College
Christ Church Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral is the original church for St. Fridewide Priory, an old nunnery that sat where the college is today. One of the oldest parts of the college is the cathedral, dating back to the 12th century.
The cathedral is a visual feast, from its stone vaulted ceilings to its vibrant stained-glass windows. One of the most spectacular stained glass here is the Becket Window, dating back to 1320.
In the 19th century, the Gothic revivalist, Sir George Gilbert Scott, renovated the cathedral.
- Hours: 10:00 – 16:15 (Monday to Friday); Sunday 14:00 – 16:15
- Admission: Adult £17 (which includes the entire college). Guided Tours are available.
Tom Quad and Tom Tower
As you enter the main entrance at St. Aldates, you will enter the Tom Quad or Christ Church’s maid quad. This is the largest quad in Oxford, flanked by the Tom Tower at one end.
Home to the loudest bell in Oxford, the Great Tom, is in the Tom Tower. The well-known architect Christopher Wren designed the octagonal lantern dome.
Christ Church Hall
With grand paintings hanging on the walls, long rows of tables with benches sitting between them, topped with a 16th-century hammer-beam ceiling, is the Christ Church Hall.
The paintings are of famous alumni such as W.H. Auden or Robert Burton.
Christ Church Meadows
An idyllic location, the Christ Church Meadows, is a popular picnic location nestled alongside the River Isis.
If you enjoy rowing, visit the boathouse and catch a glimpse of rowers.
The Meadows are known for the first English hot-air balloon flight in 1785, when James Sadler took off, landing in Woodeaton, six miles away.
- Access the meadows from Folly Bridge or Broad Walk.
Christ Church Picture Gallery
The collection of paintings is of Italian art from the 14th to 18th centuries. Significant works by Fra Angelico, Tintoretto and Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, and Michelangelo and Da Vinci.
- Entrance into the Picture Gallery is a separate charge from the college.
Other Colleges Worth Visiting
- Oriel College -if you are interested in medieval history, check out this church. The college is open between 14:00 – 16:00 every day except for Summer Term. Admission: Adult £2.
- Balliol College – Founded in 1263, it is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford. Check out the college tortoises that race each year on campus as their mascot. Admission is Adults £3.
- New College – This college’s courtyard was used to film Harry Potter. Notable alumni include Hugh Grant and Kate Beckinsale. Admission Adult £8. Hours: a couple of hours in the afternoon.
- All Souls – The church is only open to a select few recent graduates. This building is an incredible beauty on the inside. Unfortunately, the only area open to the public is the Great Quadrangles and Chapel. Hours: 14:00 – 16:00 on weekdays.
- Trinity College – Starting as an all-men college, it became coeducational in 1979. It was established in 1555 on the grounds of the once Durham College. The Trinity Chapel is the only Oxford chapel that contains the tomb of the college founder. Admission: Adults £3.
- Queen’s College – Founded in 1340 and named after Queen Phillipa of Hainault. These neoclassic design buildings stand out in the center of the city. You are required to contact the tourism office for a tour.
- Merton College – Founded in 1264 by the Chancellor of England, Walter de Merton, and Bishop of Rochester. The college is one of the oldest continuously functioning libraries for students worldwide. Admission is £3 per adult.
- Jesus College – was the first Oxbridge College to be founded after the Queen’s Protestant Settlement in 1571. At one time, it only gave scholarships to Welsh descent. Visit the website to schedule your visit.
Alice in Wonderland (Alice’s Shop)
Across the street from Christ Church is Alice’s Shop store to purchase memorabilia from the book Alice in Wonderland, as the original story took place at Christ Church College. In 1856, Henry Lidell moved to the college to become the College Dean. Lidell befriended a mathematician, Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a talented writer publishing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.
Dean Lidell took his three daughters and his friend out on the River Isis for a picnic. The girls soon became bored, so Dodgson began telling them a story of a young girl going on a fascinating adventure.
Lidell’s middle daughter, Alice, was mesmerized by the stories she asked for a keepsake of the story in writing. Honoring her request, Dodgson expanded on the stories, adding a few illustrations. The book became known as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
- Hours to Alice’s Shop: 10:30 – 17:00 (Monday – Friday); 10:00 – 18:00 (Saturday and Sunday)
- Admission to Christ Church: Adult £16 and £15 for concessions. Tickets must be booked in advance.
C.S. Lewis Residency
The home is known as The Kilns, a popular Oxford attraction for those that love literature and C.S. Lewis. Today, the home is now a residential home for scholars, so the only way to see it is to book a private tour.
- Hours: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays by appointment only
- Admission: Adult £15
Packed with 40 shops, cafes, and stalls selling everything from fresh produce to handmade accessories, Covered Market is a great place to do a little shopping. The market was opened in 1774 and is still popular with the locals.
This 250-year-old covered market is fun to browse or grab a bite to eat.
- Hours: 8:00 – 17:30 (Monday to Saturday); 10:00 – 16:00 (Sunday)
Gloucester Green Market
Explore an outdoor street market with colorful stalls selling fascinating items and tasty treats.
The Gloucester Green Market is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It is in the center of the city.
- Hours: 9:00 – 16:00 (Wednesday – Saturday)
The Pitt Rivers Museum
Check out the Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers collection at The Pitt Rivers Museum, which opened in 1887 to showcase its anthropological treasures worldwide.
Over half a million artifacts can be seen, telling the story of the history of man. Today the museum aims to provide a space for individuals to discover the darker, more complex side of British history, containing many stolen artifacts and remnants of colonial England culture.
- Hours: Monday 12:00 – 17:00; Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 17:00
- Admission: FREE
University Church of St. Mary’s
Near Radcliffe Square is the St. Mary’s Church, surrounded by All Sou’s College, Brasenose College, the Old Bodleian, and the Radcliffe Camera.
A climb to the top of St. Mary’s Tower is worth the fee for the city’s best views. Here’s a word of caution: the winding stairs are a bit terrifying but well worth it.
Make sure to get a great photo opportunity outside the church, with the 14th-century spire being one of Oxford’s best-known landmarks.
- Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9:00 – 17:00; Sunday, 12:00 – 17:00
- Admission: Free to get into the church; Tower Ticket Adult £5
Oxford Castle & Prison
This medieval Norman Castle that has been transformed into a historical site, hotel and entertainment complex is worth visiting.
Climb the Saxon St. Gorges Tower to get a panoramic view of Oxford. Next, visit the dark confines of the Debtor’s Tower and the Prison D-Wing. Finally, go underground into the candle-lit crypt.
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The museum was founded in 1860 to showcase all the scientific study conducted at Oxford University.
An extensive collection of zoological and geological specimens can be found in the Museum of Natural History. Fossils and replicas give a personal look at the different species on display. A highlight is the Oxford Dodo – one of the few of its kind in the world.
If you are interested in paleontology or dinosaurs, you will find more than enough to captivate you here!
- Hours: 10:00 – 17:00 (Monday – Sunday)
- Admission: Free
Blackwell Book Store
If you enjoy reading, make sure to stop at Blackwell Book Store, which was established in 1846. Benjamin Harris Blackwell becomes the first Librarian at the new Oxford City Library.
Although this location was not open until 1968 on Broad Street, it is a cozy bookstore with a coffee shop.
- Hours: 9:00 – 17:00 (Monday – Friday). Other locations have different hours.
The Carfax Tower is all that remains of the 13th-century St. Martin’s Church, the official city church of Oxford from 1122.
The tower is 74 feet tall, and no building in central Oxford may be constructed higher than it. Climb 99 steps to the top and learn about the history of this beautiful construction.
- Hours: 10:00 – 15:00 (November – February), 10:00 – 16:00 (March), 10:00 – 17:00 (April – Sept.), 10:00 – 16:00 (October)
- Admission: Adult £3
Oxford Botanic Gardens
Established in 1621, the Oxford Botanic Gardens is the oldest botanical garden in the country. Filled with a collection of plants from around the world, running along the bank of Cherwell River near the Christ Church Meadows.
We entered through the gateway, one of the three entrances designed by Nicholas Stone in the 1630s. Enjoy a stroll through the gardens and relax from sightseeing!
Hours: 10:00 – 16:00 Daily