It feels like every street in Oxford, England has a story to tell.
From the cluster of downtown streets where 600-year-old Universities spire up into the sky, to medieval towers that suddenly appear in the middle of a modern shopping street, and the small winding cobblestone alleyways that take you to hidden bars made for tiny people, history is around every turn!
Unlike other historical cities with their own stories to tell, Oxford speaks of excitement of those stepping into adulthood for the first time to embark on a journey of great discovery, like those of many famous revolutionary thinkers that helped pave the path before them.
You feel that spirit emanating from the stones walls that talk. You also hear it in the polite, yet loud, arguments about quantum physics and economics over splashing pints of beer in the pub.
It’s the kind of energy that permeates magical worlds like Hogwarts. Its spell giving you permission to hope, dream and remember the unencumbered spirit of those student years.
One reason we chose to go on our London, Bath, and Oxford trip (and why we travel so much with our kids) is to expand their horizons, so they can believe in a future where anything is possible.
I want them to come to a places in England like Oxford, this prestigious place of learning where big dreams are followed and big discoveries that change the world are made, and see that door open for them.
Now, after wandering around this UK city, Kalyra has noted New College as her kind of place and Savannah has decided she wants to attend Christ Church College (although she’s conflicted between that and Harvard!)
You can’t help but dream when you visit Oxford. The stories of those University students who have walked this path help those come after to BELIEVE.
We spent two very full days and nights experiencing the best things to do in Oxford and could have happily stayed longer, if only to continue to wander and feel these stories, old and new.
While many visit Oxford on a day trip from London, we recommend staying for at least a night, so you don’t rush your Oxford trip.
I honestly don’t know how I can fit all there is to see and do in Oxford, England, in this post.
About Oxford University
If you’re a new visitor to Oxford, you may be as confused as me. Oxford University is not just one University, but a collegiate college made up of thirty-nine colleges.
That means there is no actual Oxford University that you attend. The students enroll in a particular college, which is part of the greater Oxford University.
There are shared facilities throughout Oxford University like the Bodleian Library and common parks and grounds.
The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest surviving university – there is evidence of teaching as early as 1096.
It has connections with many famous people including 27 British Prime Ministers, 26 Nobel Prize winners, and writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Without a doubt, Oxford is one of the best places to visit in England. I don’t know why it took me so long.
Guided Walking Tour of Oxford (Harry Potter Themed)
There are many guided walking tours to choose from in Oxford, from university tours, to CS Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, to our kids preferred, Harry Potter.
Oxford and its colleges have been the backdrop for several of the scenes filmed in the Harry Potter films and are waiting for you to step right into them.
Whilst in London we spent a day at the Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio getting a look at the real sets used in the film. On this UK trip we wanted to see as many of the real sets as well as places that inspired the magical world we love so much.
Sally from Experience Oxfordshire was our guide for this Harry Potter Highlights tour of Oxford. She took us to see some key filming locations from the movies, or places that inspired the Harry Potter Stories. She also shared her insights into fun little symbolism connections between Oxford and JK Rowling’s characters.
It wasn’t just all about witches and wizards. She did dip into the real muggle world to tell us stories of other famous Oxford characters, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who were students and fellows of Oxford University.
We learned about the history of several of the colleges; the architecture of Oxford – much of which was the work of Sir Christopher Wren (as is half of London and St Paul’s); and valuable information as to how to get into Oxford University, and the students favorite pub (more below).
A guided walking tour of Oxford will help bring the stories of this fascinating city alive. I suggest making the walking tour your first attraction, so that you know what to come back and explore deeper, and then you don’t waste time experiencing things twice.
As we had already done an audio tour of Christ Church College (see blow) , Sally was great at pivoting and not revisiting there.
Instead, we got to see a little more of Oxford like the covered market. Sally was great at pointing out little Harry Potter connections everywhere we went, like the Harry Potter themed cakes in the covered market.
A Tour of New College
Sally took us into New College on our walking tour. You do have to pay an extra entry fee to enter and I’m so glad we did. Kalyra and I loved New College the most.
It has a quiet excellence about it.
Whereas Christ Church is front and center and demands attention, New College sits hidden down a dark cobblestone walkway.
New College was actually new in 1379 when it was founded by William of Wykeham, the bishop of Winchester, as ‘the college of St Mary of Winchester in Oxford’.
It was the first college to be built around a quadrangle and it soon became a model for other colleges around the world.
Oxford City Wall
Inside the college is the remains of the old 13th century Oxford city wall. When the college was founded, William made a promise to maintain the city wall. The Lord Mayor and Councilors inspect its condition every three years. Sally tells us it’s quite the grand affair.
There are beautiful gardens in this area of the college. I could imagine sitting here in the sun during my lecture breaks.
The Dining Hall
Said to be the inspiration for the Hogwarts Great Hall is the dining hall of New College.
You will see the resemblance as soon as you walk into the rows of student tables, elevated seating position for the elders (in this case seniors), and the portraits surrounding the walls. (No photographs allowed so I can’t show you what it looked like.)
IMO, the Dining Hall at Christchurch (see below with photos) was more like Hogwarts.
The Cloisters and the Tree of Spells
Kalyra immediately recognized the holm oak spreading its branches out across the quad to offer a shady respite for kids (Wait a minute. Does England even need shade?).
Those branches also serve another purpose – for ferrets to run around. That is, white ferrets called Draco Malfoy. This is the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Moody casts his infamous spell on Draco.
The cloisters surrounding this area are stunning and have several modern looking sculptures in them.
Speaking of sculptures, don’t miss the fascinating one of Jacob Epstein’s Statue of Lazarus in the chapel – said to be reminiscent of Dumbledore.
An Audio tour of Christ Church
Christ Church is one of the largest and most well-known colleges of Oxford University. It was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII (whose portrait takes center stage in the dining hall).
It’s been the setting for several films, including Harry Potter.
Thirteen prime ministers have been educated at Christ Church. It’s also where student Lewis Carroll found inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
The character of Alice is based on a girl called Alice Liddell, who was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church at the time. You’ll find a stained-glass window in the Dining Hall with references to Alice in Wonderland.
All of this will be told to you on the self-guided audio tour of Christ Church College, which is one of the best things to do in Oxford.
From our 10-year-old tween, to our 14-year-old teen, and forty-something-year-old parents, we all enjoyed it very much. It swept all of us up into the magic of higher education, and of course, the hallways of Wizarding Worlds.
Christ Church Dining Hall
As soon as you walk through the Cloisters, upon the Grand Staircase, and into the Great Hall of Christchurch College, you’ll feel as if you have arrived at Hogwarts.
The Dining Hall is the Great Hall at Hogwarts. In fact, it felt more real to me than the actual Great Hall at the Warner Bros movie set.
I think because this Great Hall is a real dining hall for students, the tables were laid out in rows and the walls were covered with portraits of past students – of which only ONE was female.
Oxford University did not allow female students until 1920. The demographics now are around 54% female, so I think they can add more female portraits to the walls!
The cloisters (covered walkways) and staircase were also scenes from Harry Potter. As our followers on Instagram stories said, “OMG. That’s so Harry Potter REAL!”
Other sights to see at Christ Church
The tour takes you through the Tom Quad (the largest quad at Oxford University); the student dorms (where you can see their sporting victories chalk drawn on the walls); and into the 12th Century Christ Church Cathedral (which also serves as a church for the Oxford diocese).
Sir Christopher Wren designed the iconic Tom Tower, which stands over the front entrance to Christ Church. Every evening at 9:05pm, it chimes 101 times in honor of the 101 first students to ever attend Christ Church.
One of the most fascinating things to see in Christ Church was the Graffiti on the door marked, “No Peel.”
The graffiti was made in protest against Christ Church graduate, Sir Robert Peel, who was the British Prime Minister in the early nineteenth century.
It was here that I learned he started the London police force, which is why they have the nickname “Bobbies!”
Walk along the Meadow Trail, and the Thames and Cherwell River
From Christ Church College, walk down the orange gravel path (the Meadow Trail) to the Thames River for a leisurely stroll. You’ll have the river on one side and the Christ Church Meadow on the other.
Keep following until it meets up with the Cherwell River and takes you past Oxford Botanical Garden and around to Magdalen College (pronounced ‘Maudlen’). Sally said she thinks it’s the most beautiful of all the colleges, especially with the deer roaming around their one hundred acres of grounds. We saw them peeking through the gate on Longwall St.
You can also go punting from Magdalen Bridge here, which is one of the best things to do in Oxford.
For a much quieter and cheaper Oxford punting experience go to Cherwell boathouse (see down below).
The Bridge of Sighs
One of the other top things to see in Oxford is The Bridge of Sighs – named so because of its apparent resemblance to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.
Officially, the bridge is called Hertford Bridge as it connects two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane in Oxford. It is beautiful and may make you sigh.
The Bodleian Libraries stretch across multiple buildings and blocks of Oxford University. It needs to, so it can house its collection of thirteen million books. In fact, it has other places outside of Oxford where it stores them!
The Bodleian Libraries is the largest academic library service in the UK and one of the largest library services in Europe.
It’s a reading library only, so students can’t check books out, but they have access to whatever they need to nail their studies.
Radcliffe Camera (Rad Cam)
Imagine wandering along a cobblestone path through the courtyard of the Bodleian library and then stumbling upon the grandeur of the Radcliffe Camera – “Surprise!”
No wonder this stunning building is one of the most photographed in Oxford.
Named after Dr. John Radcliffe, the most successful physician in England, it is the first xample of a circular library in England.
Wondering about the name? Camera simply means room in Latin. The Radcliffe Camera functions as the main reading room of the Bodleian. It is linked by underground tunnels to the main library.
It’s not just the stunning architecture of the Rad Cam that’s mesmerizing, but the grandeur of the buildings surrounding it in the square – the Bodleian Library, St Mary’s Church, and the intriguing All Soul’s College.
All Souls College
I was so intrigued by All Souls College. It’s not a college for enrolling students. Instead its graduate members automatically become Fellows (academics who are full governing members of the College), after applying and sitting what is said to be the most difficult exam in the world!
All Souls College was built in the 15th century by Henry VI for the clergy as a center for prayer and learning. Its name was chosen as a remembrance for those who died during the Hundred Years’ War with France in the 14th and 15th centuries.
You can poke your head through the gate for a clearer look at the quad and the buildings that surround it, including Christopher Wren’s sundial up on one of the towers.
Don’t miss the even better views of it from atop St Mary’s Church Tower.
Climb St Mary’s Church Tower for incredible views
Climbing the The University Church of St Mary the Virgin’s Tower for these magnificent 360 degree views overlooking the Radcliffe Camera, All Souls College was one of our favorite things to do in Oxford.
I would arrive first thing in the morning. We were first up the stairs at 12pm Sunday and were so glad, as I can’t imagine how crowded and challenging it would be once the steady stream of people came in.
The stairs going up to the top of the church tower are very narrow as is the viewing deck. There is only one way up and down and around, so you could get stuck up there for some time.
We were in a rush to get our train so we had to squeeze past people coming up to get back down.
It opens at 9am during the rest of the week. The sun will be in a great spot at that time and hopefully you’ll get blue skies! The clouds covered ours right before we went up!
The Sheldonian Theater was one of the first major commissioned architectural designs for Christopher Wren. If that’s his first, it’s no wonder he went on to create half of the magnificent buildings in London including St Paul’s.
And get this – he was actually Professor of Astronomy at Oxford at the time. Let’s call that a #smartman.
It looks somewhat similar to the Radcliffe Camera, except it is a semi-circle, not a circle. And despite its name, it has never been a theater. It serves as the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford for matriculation and graduation ceremonies.
Another place high on the list of things to see in Oxford is the Divinity School. It is the oldest teaching hall of the whole of the University of Oxford, dating back to 1427 and considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Oxford.
The Dance School and the Infirmary scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed inside the Divinity School.
Sadly, we could not enter due to the Oxford Literary Festival, but could enjoy the beautiful views from outside with those windows that kinda sparkled. The photos from Sally’s book showing us the scenes form the movies so we could get a sense of the grandeur inside.
Punting on the Cherwell River
- Address: Bardwell Road Oxford OX2 6ST
- Hosted Experience
Punting on the river is a fun chapter of the Oxford University story.
Punting is when you use a long pole to push against the bottom of the river to move along while your friends relax in the long flat-bottomed boat. It’s thought to have become an Oxford thing to do in the 1860s.
We loved Cherwell Boathouse in comparison to the Oxford punting we saw downtown. It was quieter with fewer people, cheaper, and the scenery was more countryside. You have the option to punt back towards downtown to see the colleges if you want to.
After a brief lesson, and a shaky practice, Craig had us cruising along the river against the current out towards the country.
We had great laughs in the boat at his paddling, Karate Kid moves, and when the storm quickly came over and he got stuck on the bank with the faster moving water and wind.
His muscle power eventually got us out – although I think my assistance with the tiny paddle helped! (You an see all that fun in our reel)
I can only imagine how fun this is on a warm summer’s day. You could pack a picnic and explore the lush green foliage of the trees draping over the river.
One of our favorite Oxford experiences was punting on the river here at Cherwell and following it up with an amazing dinner at the Cherwell Boathouse.
Cherwell Boathouse: An Oxford Fine Dining Experience to Love
- Address: Bardwell Road Oxford OX2 6ST
- Hosted Experience
This is a dining experience to remember in Oxford.
The Cherwell Boathouse sits on the banks of the Cherwell River. You get pretty views at dinner with swans majestically floating by a sky turning from blue to pink and black.
The Guinea fowl has made me never want to eat chicken again. It was so moist and melt in your mouth.
Loosen your belts, it would be a sin to skip out on dessert. I was pleased they had one of my favorite desserts, panna cotta washed down with a glass of local Ortega wine. I had no idea Oxford did wine!
We recommend walking to the Cherwell River Boathouse for your punting/dinner experience. (We caught a cab back). It’s only 30 minutes and you can walk along the river through the beautiful University Parks.
Pay attention to the Dragon School near the boathouse. It’s a preparatory school that Emma Watson attended. I am convinced that was destiny leading her to Hermione.
Afternoon Tea at Victors
- Address: 307 The Westgate, Queen Street
- Hosted Experience
Time to experience modern Oxford with a high tea at the very stylish, elegant, yet informal Victors.
Located in the newer mall is this light and bright lavender themed restaurant with bountiful draping wisteria framing different seating areas.
Outside the floor-to-wall glass windows is a beautiful view of a few college spires and towers. You can get even closer to these views by sitting out amongst the flowers on their pretty terrace.
This is a restaurant to suit any kind of diner or occasion. We saw a group of young thirtysomething friends celebrating, couples on a romantic lunch, and other families like ours enjoying the magic of an afternoon tea.
Not only does it have a beautiful ambiance to sit and eat in, but its food is an experience not to miss.
Craig and the girls enjoyed a smoking Afternoon Tea laid on the table with sparklers and dry ice magic. Forget boring ham and cheese sandwiches and scones, this tea came with sushi, smoked salmon and cream cheese buns, and a mixture of delicious mini desserts including key lime pie and scones for those traditionalists who can’t live without them #raiseshand.
A gluten free version wasn’t available on our visit, which I was okay with as my baked stonebass was delicious. Its strong ginger and lemongrass flavors transported me right back to Thailand.
Matching it’s vibrant style are colorful signature cocktails. Truly, this is an unmissable Oxford attraction with a difference.
Climb Carfax Tower for a View
It’s only ninety-nine steps and a couple of pounds to reach the highest viewpoint in Oxford. There’s not much else to see in this Carfax Tower, which is all that remains of the old St Martin’s Church, the official city church of Oxford from 1122 onwards.
Go here in the afternoon as the lighting will be better for photos and your view back over “The city of Dreaming Spires” as was the name given to Oxford by poet Matthew Arnold for the spires and towers beautifying Oxford.
The Covered Market is a historic market with permanent stalls and shops in a large, covered structure. This is a great spot to escape from the rain – not the cold though as it seeps in through the open doorways.
The markets will give you an insight into the stories of everyday people here, from the butchers to the cake makers, fresh produce, and flower sellers, to the quaint coffee shops and bakeries.
This is a great spot to pick up a quick lunch or breakfast.
Be sure to check out the Harry Potter themed cakes. I absolutely loved the mandrake cake.
And in the butchers, you can find hanging up the world’s oldest ham – preserved since 1892. I told you Oxford is full of stories.
The House of Wonders: Harry Potter store
- Address: 48 Cornmarket St, Oxford
You’ll find several stores in Oxford selling Harry Potter Merchandise (and Oxford University Merchandise as well).
We liked the mystical energy of The House of Wonders. It has hundreds of licensed Harry Potter items, including a wide variety of items from every Hogwarts House – Savannah bought herself a Ravenclaw sweater.
- Address: 48-51 Broad Street Oxford
If you love books, head to Blackwell’s Bookstore, an Oxford institution since 1879. They’ve now grown to a chain of thirty bookstores across the country, but this one on Broad St, Oxford was the first for the family run business.
Many famous writers debuted at Blackwell’s and in 1915 J. R. R. Tolkien’s first poem, Goblin’s Feet, was published.
Be sure to go below ground to their Norrington Room, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the single largest room in the world selling books with 160,000 volumes on two-and-a-half miles of shelving.
Our avid teen reader, Kalyra, picked up a couple of books from there.
The bookstore is across the street from the theater and Science Museum (which was closed when we went to squeeze it into our itinerary on Sunday morning (opens 12).
Oxford Pubs to Visit
As with any UK destination, the pubs are part of the cultural experience. Even more so in a city as old and rich in history as Oxford. You just know many meetings of great minds have been had over splashing English ales from within these pub walls.
Traveling with a teen means we could duck out for a quick pint in the evening to a couple of these pubs as the girls wanted to crash out on their beds.
Having the hotel so close to the city center was very comforting for us to do this!
- Address: 4 Holywell St, Oxford
If it weren’t for Sally’s guided tour, we would have missed the Turf Tavern. That would have been a great Oxford travesty.
We walked past the alleyway several times and ignored it. I don’t know how when it has an arrow on the wall with the crafty sign: “Turf Tavern: an Education in Intoxication” directing you to wonderful things.
In my defense I was most distracted by the stunning Bridge of Sighs right near it.
Just walking down the narrow medieval alleyway to get to the pub will transport you back to an age long ago – where notorious deeds happened and good times rolled.
The Turf Tavern has been a hangout for Oxford University students for centuries, including many famous ones. Poster sized plaques tell the story of a few.
This was the place where Bill Clinton “did not inhale” that funny cigarette. And where Bob Hawke, our beloved late prime minister of Australia, made history in the Guinness Book of Records for downing a yard glass the fastest – 11 seconds to be exact. Our nations’ greatest accomplishment. Could you do the same?
The cast and crew of the Harry Potter films also liked to visit here during filming throughout Oxford.
Don’t be deceived by the tiny room with very low ceilings upon entry. (Although cute to stay in. Keep walking past and it will open up to two larger rooms, these ones with slightly higher ceilings.
They have great gluten free beer here and the menus look really good. This is the cozy pub to snuggle up in on a cold Oxford night.
The Bear Inn
- Address: 6 Alfred St, Oxford OX1 4EH
The Bear Inn is Oxford’s Oldest Pub at over 778 Years Old (dating back to 1242).
The ceilings are also very low here and the room is tiny and cramped. They also have a small beer garden out back.
Check out the ties on the wall, it’s a tradition that started back in the fifties with the donation of a school membership tie which has led to a collection of more than 4,500 ties on the wall and ceiling, representing clubs, sports teams, colleges and more.
I enjoyed hearing a group of guys argue over philosophy, economics, and quantum physics here. It is how it should be in Oxford.
St Aldates Tavern
- Address: 108 St Aldate’s, Oxford
I will forever remember St Aldates Tavern as the pub that gave me gluten free fish and chips – that tasted just like the traditional version!
Craig and I stopped in here for dinner sans girls. But it’s also very family friendly with a great menu, plenty of seating space, and boardgames available. It’s also centrally located near Christ Church College.
- Address: 131 High Street, Oxford,
The Chequers is another English pub that looks small from the outside but once you walk in you discover a myriad of rooms stretching far back and across split levels.
In the fifteenth century it was a private house used by a money lender, which is thought to explain its present name, as the chequer board was the old money-lending sign. It was rebuilt as a tavern by Alderman Richard Kent in about 1500.
We stopped in here for lunch with the girls. The interior has a traditional, yet modern and cozy feel and there is a beer garden if the weather is nice.
Where to get good Coffee in Oxford
We are always on the search for good coffee and are sharing our favorite coffee shops in Oxford to help you save time. They offer a nice chance to relax amongst the busyness of your day’s adventures.
Society Café: A UK chain (also in Bath) that serves up creamy espresso drinks and a fun atmosphere. Head downstairs to leave your message on the wall. Savannah shared her love for Oxford.
The Paper Boat Café: A lovely spot on the river to grab a coffee, either to sit outside with views, or take with you on a walk along the river trail.
- Queens Lane Coffee House claims its’ fame is in being the longest established coffee house in Europe since 1654. How can you say no to an afternoon Bailey’s coffee then? They also have meals, cakes, and other goodies.
But the Grand Café across the road also claims to be the first coffee house in England (according to Samuel Pepys’ Diary, 1650). We did not stop in here, but I have heard the high teas here are good!
Where to stay in Oxford: Courtyard by Marriott Oxford City Center
- Address: 15 Paradise Street
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Courtyard by Marriott Oxford City Center. This Oxford hotel only opened just before the pandemic, so you’ll have a very modern and comfortable experience.
Its location can’t be beat – right across the canal from the Oxford Castle (a top Oxford attraction we did not get time for) and then only minutes’ walk into Oxford City Center.
Be sure to check out the roof top terrace for views of the Castle and Oxford. This would be a nice spot to sit, with a morning coffee, or afternoon drink.
Families can get interconnecting rooms which we always enjoy, especially now we have a teenager who loves to have her own space away from us.
Their buffet breakfast was also fantastic. We love buffet breakfasts in the UK – a full English breakfast is perfect energy for the day ahead.
It’s also only an 8-minute walk from the train station!
Getting around Oxford
All the things to see and do in Oxford we’ve listed above in this post, are in easy walking distance. You won’t need transport in Oxford, and parking is meant to be very difficult. If you are staying outside the city, take advantage of the park and rides just outside.
Just walking from A to B in Oxford is an adventure!
Getting to Oxford
We caught the train from Bath to Oxford on the Great Western Railroad which was comfortable and effortless. It did involve one train change. We also caught the train from Oxford back to London, which also involved a train change. It still only took just over an hour.
I would book tickets via The Trainline especially if you are traveling internationally, and we found their website to be seamless with good prices! We had a lot of problems booking with GWR. They only accept international credit cards with 3D verification.
There is also the National Express (Buses). We figured the train would be quicker and easier. But, due to track work, we did have to get a replacement bus for the first leg of our train journey back to London and it was super quick and easy.
If you are on a longer UK road trip, Oxford is around 90-minutes northwest of London, 90-minutes northeast of Bath, and just over an hour east of the Cotswolds. You can check rental car prices here.