Lose yourself in the City of Dreaming Spires for a day, and wander the medieval streets home to England’s most prestigious university.
Oxford is perfectly sized for a day trip – you can get a good grasp on the city in 24 hours, and everything is compact enough to be within walking distance. It’s surprisingly affordable too, as many of the city’s top attractions are free.
Oxford is of course dominated by its famous university. It has been an intrinsic part of the city for a thousand years – the institution is even older than the Aztec empire.
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If you don’t recognise Oxford from the university alone, you might find familiar locations from films. The charming side streets and twisting alleys have inspired many creative minds. It’s no wonder that Oxford is a popular filming location – from Harry Potter to His Dark Materials, the city has always been a popular setting for fantasy epics.
I’ve gathered a handful of my favourite things to do in Oxford – all are easily manageable for a day trip.
Breakfast at The Handle Bar Café
Start the day with breakfast at the Handle Bar, a quirky café situated above a bike shop. The interior takes inspiration from the shop – penny farthings and vintage bikes line the walls. It’s whimsical, but muted; the café has character, but it’s chic, not over the top. All in all, the Handle Bar has a pretty low-key, casual vibe.
More importantly, the food is amazing. You can get a locally-sourced full English breakfast in the HB Full House, or pick from an extensive brunch menu. There are plenty of vegan-friendly options, with everything from kimchi bowls to cauliflower fritters available.
On top of the delicious food, the Handle Bar is known for its artisan coffee.
Explore Oxford University with an Alumni Guide
What better way to explore the most prestigious university in England than with someone who studied there? Get the inside track on the hallowed halls of Oxford University, listening to stories of famous alumni, unusual traditions and the history of the colleges.
You can book a tour here.
Take a Photo of the Radcliffe Camera
Easily the most iconic location in Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera is instantly recognisable in the image if not by name. The distinctive domed building is the most photographed landmark in the city and the first thing we picture when we think of Oxford.
The beautiful Palladian-style building was designed by James Gibbs in the 18th Century. Despite its name, the building has nothing to do with cameras: The camera is Latin for the chamber. Its actual use is as a reading room – an extension of the Bodleian Library.
Keep in mind that it is a strictly stop and stare visit, as access to the library is restricted to limited guided tours for the general public.
Walk under the Bridge of Sighs
The Hertford Bridge, or the Bridge of Sighs, earned the name with its famous resemblance to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But for all their similarities in appearance, their purposes couldn’t be more different.
While the bridge in Venice was used to walk guilty prisoners from court to their cells, in Oxford, the bridge was used to connect the Old Quadrangle and the New Quadrangle buildings of Hertford College. Legend has it that the bridge was once closed to encourage the overweight students of Hertford College to take the stairs.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, it’s worth stopping by New College, on the same street. The cloisters were a filming location for Goblet of Fire – the Oak Tree was the location used for a duel between Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter.
Browse the Restricted Section in the Bodleian Library
Okay, there is no ‘Restricted Section’. Or there is – but it’s only for us, the general public, and it’s the whole library. You need to be on a guided tour to actually enter the building – and you should book as early as you can, as these tours tend to sell out quickly.
You can still see the Restricted Section of the Harry Potter movies on a private tour, as the library scenes from the Philosopher’s Stone were filmed in the Duke Humfrey’s Library. The Bodleian Library is the oldest reading room in the world, opening in 1602.
You get the chance to wander the same halls as some of history’s greatest scholars. Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkein are just a few of the literary greats to have studied here.
Grab a Coffee at The Society Café
Oxford, a city with a huge student population trying to cram deadlines, was practically guaranteed to have a thriving coffee culture.
There are great coffee shops all over the city, but if you’re looking for one reasonably close to the university you can’t go wrong with the Society Café. This independent, family-run café serves speciality coffee sourced from the highest quality coffee farms around the world.
The café is relaxed and minimalist – you can grab a quick drink to go or sit and enjoy the peaceful setting.
Climb the Tower of the Church of St Mary the Virgin
Use the caffeine to power your way up the 127 steps of St Mary’s Tower.
It is well worth climbing the slightly treacherous spiral staircase – the view of the Radcliffe Camera is exceptional, and the panoramas over the city are unparalleled. There’s no better way to get a glimpse of those famous spires.
Built in 1280, the tower is the oldest visible part of the church. But the rest of St Mary’s is also worth exploring. There’s little pieces of history everywhere: if you look closely at the south porch, you can see bullet holes carved out by the troops of Oliver Cromwell.
Entrance to the church is free, but it does cost £5 to climb the tower. Due to the age of the tower, there is no disabled access.
The ‘Narnia Door’, a wooden door with a lion carving, and a solitary streetlamp, both said to inspire C.S. Lewis, can be found just around the corner.
Punting along the Cherwell River
Forever intertwined, Oxford and Cambridge are constantly bickering over who does what best. You might have heard of the Boat Race – but did you know both cities offer the opportunity to try your hand at punting?
Cambridge may be more famous in that regard, but Oxford is no slouch. Ignore the River Thames and try the River Cherwell for a lovely meandering experience seeing the city from the water.
It should technically be serene and peaceful, an idyllic and quintessentially English way to pass an hour or two. It can be very romantic and relaxing – if you’re good. If not, half the fun is staying upright on the boat and avoiding other tourists!
Discover Exotic Plants at the Oxford Botanic Garden
You will find over 5000 different species of plant in the University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden. Founded in 1621, it’s one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world, and the oldest botanic garden in the UK.
You can spend as little or as long as you’d like in the gardens. It can stretch from a quick escape from the city to a lengthy stroll, admiring every corner of the garden. There’s a lot to see if you’re fascinated with plant life – it has one of the most diverse plant collections in England.
The walled garden is classically English in design and is still framed by the 17th Century stonework at its borders, while the glasshouses are filled with plants that could not typically survive an English climate.
The gardens were frequently visited by some of the most famous fantasy writers England has ever produced. J.R.R Tolkein was thought to use an ornamental black pine tree as inspiration for the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Some of the early illustrations of Alice in Wonderland feature the glasshouses – Lewis Carroll also used to frequent the garden.
Journey Down the Rabbit Hole at Christ Church College & Cathedral
Back at the University again – it’s an absolutely sprawling institution – Christ Church College & Cathedral are essential viewing for fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It was here that Lewis Carroll first met Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the titular character. There’s a tiny tribute to Alice in Wonderland in the stained glass windows of the dining hall. If you look carefully, you will see small figures of characters like the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Alice herself in the corners of the window.
Another link to the book is through a secret door, said to be Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for the rabbit hole. This is in a private part of the college, so is not available for public viewing.
Besides Alice in Wonderland, Christ Church College’s dining hall was used to design the Great Hall in Harry Potter. The room was unfortunately too small to film on location.
Take a Detour Through the Covered Market
The Covered Market has been a fixture of Oxford’s shopping scene since 1774. The market is essentially a blend of a traditional market and an old-fashioned shopping centre. The shops and market stalls are permanent – around half are food stalls, the rest are boutiques and independent shops.
You can grab a bite to eat or buy a new handbag on a quick detour through the market.
Visit a Museum
As you would expect from an educational behemoth, Oxford has some great museums.
- Ashmolean Museum – the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology was founded in 1683. You can see everything from Ptolemy to Picasso in this museum. Whether you’re interested in Egyptian mummies or modern art, you’re sure to find something to fascinate you in this vast collection – and best of all, you get to do it for free.
- Pitt Rivers Museum – the Pitt Rivers Museum is another of the University of Oxford’s museums. It houses the archaeological and anthropological collections of the university, with artefacts gathered from all around the world. Free entry.
- The Story Museum – taking a page out of the University of Oxford’s book, this independent museum takes inspiration from the whimsical literary heritage of the city. While aimed towards children, people of all ages can enjoy the displays, which take you on a journey through stories from Winnie the Pooh to Horrid Henry. Tickets are £8.
Explore Oxford Castle & Prison
The imposing Oxford Castle is a remnant from the Norman Conquest of England, almost 1000 years ago. Its walls have seen a huge amount of history in the centuries since! The medieval castle is partly ruined due to damage inflicted during the English Civil War, between 1642 and 1651, when the battlements were taken apart and replaced.
In the 18th Century, the castle became a local prison. You can explore the ruins and the cells of the castle on a guided tour. The tour includes a climb up St George’s Tower for views over the city and gives some fantastic insight into the castle’s history. The tickets are £14.45 for adults.
Have a Pint at the Turf Tavern
This tiny tavern can be easily missed if you’re not looking carefully. Tucked around the corner on a narrow cobbled street just off Holywell Street, the Turf Tavern is a traditional English pub.
I loved the atmosphere of this pub – it’s usually filled with students and locals, so it always feels lively and welcoming. The tiny rooms and low timbered ceilings give the pub that authentic historic pub feel, and the food and drink will give you the chance to try some traditional pub grub.
The Turf Tavern is well-known for more than just its picturesque setting. The future Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously set the Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds in 1963. It’s also known for featuring on Inspector Morse, and was frequented by the Harry Potter cast and crew during filming.
A Day in Oxford
There’s more than enough to keep you occupied for a day in Oxford. It is truly a lovely city to explore – one of England’s most picturesque.
You could spend more time here if you want to take it at a slower pace, but it really is perfect for a day trip. If you’re lucky, by the end of your visit some of that famous Oxford intellect might have rubbed off!
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.