Must-Visit Attractions in Oxford

Punting on the River Cherwell is one classic activity you can't miss in Oxford
Punting on the River Cherwell is one classic activity you can't miss in Oxford | © Stanislav Halcin / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Sarah Dawson
4 August 2021

From the glorious Bodleian Library to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford is jam-packed with fantastic things to see and do. It has incredible architecture, superb art and a storied past dating back to Anglo-Saxon times – here, you can follow in the footsteps of Prime Ministers, poets and, of course, Harry Potter. Planning a trip to the City of Dreaming Spires, but have no idea where to start? We’ve whittled down the very best things to do in the beautiful city of Oxford.

Tour the Bodleian Library

Library, University, Building, School
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Interior of Bodleian Library
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The Bodleian is the historic heart of the University of Oxford. It’s the institute’s main research library and one of the oldest in Europe, dating back over 400 years. It sits in Radcliffe Square and houses ancient manuscripts, rare books, printed ephemera and maps. Take a guided tour for a deep dive into the drama of its 17th-century rooms, originally used to maintain order in the University but also used by King Charles I during the English Civil War.

Smell the roses at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden

Botanical Garden, University
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Magdalen College Tower, Viewed from Oxford Botanic Gardens, Oxford, England
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The oldest of its kind in England, Oxford’s small botanic garden was founded in 1621 for the study of medicinal plants, and remains a department of the university today. It is run more for research purposes than for display, but it’s in a tranquil and colourful spot beside the River Cherwell. Wander around vibrant greenhouses and open beds with ‘Plants that Changed the World’ including potatoes and pineapples. A riverside van sells coffee and snacks.

Peek inside Oxford Castle & Prison

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Step back in time with a unique guided tour around Oxford’s historic castle, dating back 1000 years. Costumed characters reveal the interesting history behind the building, plus you have the chance to climb the Saxon St George’s Tower for a 360-degree panoramic view of the city, as well as explore the ancient crypt and prison. If you’re lucky, there will be an event taking place inside the castle walls – like the Jericho Comedy Festival or a Shakespeare performance.

Visit the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Museum, University
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England, Oxfordshire, Oxford, Museum of Natural History, Interior View
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Here, you can see specimens from all over the world, including a 150-year-old Japanese spider crab, a stunning example of neogothic architecture and a meteorite that fell from space 4.5 billion years ago. But it’s the dinosaurs that really draw the crowds. As well as a towering T-Rex skeleton – ‘Stan’, the second most complete ever found – you’ll see pieces of Megalosaurus, which, in 1677, was the first dinosaur ever mentioned in a written text.

Stay in Keble College

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Keble College part of the University of Oxford in the UK, taken on the 25th June 2020
© Oxfordshire Photography Project / Alamy Stock Photo
Keble is one of the largest colleges at the University of Oxford, housing 800 students during term time and has been around since 1870. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to go to Oxford – or perhaps Hogwarts – now you have the chance to stay over here. Choose from a variety of traditional rooms with college green views. Breakfast is included and served in the magnificent gothic dining hall.

Ponder curiosities in the Pitt Rivers Museum

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This quirky museum is a real feast for the eyes, with over half a million objects and artefacts from around the world displayed inside. From Japanese Noh masks and Hawaiian feather cloaks to gruesome shrunken heads, there is so much to discover here. Highlights include a leather Roman shoe, dating back at least 1,500 years, and a pair of women’s knickers from Siberia made from reindeer skin.

Admire the view from University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Building, Church, University
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The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. Image shot 12/2011. Exact date unknown.
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With its distinctive decorated spire and beautiful architecture, St Mary’s is one of Oxford’s most-loved buildings. A church has stood on this site since Anglo-Saxon times, and was adopted as the first university building in the very early days of Oxford University. Take a trip up to the top of the 13th-century tower for unbeatable views across the heart of the city. While entering the church is free, there is a fee to climb the tower.

Peruse the Ashmolean Museum

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UK, Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum.
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Explore half a million years of art and archaeology, spread out of five fascinating floors. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is the world’s second university museum and Britain’s first ever public museum. Its first building was erected between 1678 and 1683. Exploring it makes for a fantastic free day out. From Egyptian mummies to Uccello’s masterpiece, The Hunt in the Forest, you won’t run out of things to see.

Stroll through University Parks

Park, Sports Center, University
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Bridge over [River Cherwell] in summer, [University Parks], Oxford, England, UK
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Spread out of 70 acres, University Parks is a green oasis right in the heart of the city. With a great choice of walks, a wide collection of trees and plenty of open-space, it’s the perfect spot for enjoying a relaxed picnic and watching the world go by. Chances are you’ll be able to catch a game of cricket, lacrosse, football or even Quidditch – yes, you read that right! The Harry Potter sport is actually played in real life.

Pop into Modern Art Oxford

Art Gallery
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Barbara Kruger Exhibition, Modern Art Oxford
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Proving not all the best attractions in Oxford are thousands of years old, this modern art museum shows stimulating temporary exhibitions in its bright white, airy galleries. Discover a carefully curated programme of workshops, films, performances and revolving art residencies. There’s an excellent shop and a lovely cafe bar serving a menu using locally sourced ingredients, decent coffee and delicious homemade cakes.

Walk to a pub through Port Meadow

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Cooling off at Port Meadow, Oxford, UK.
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You wouldn’t expect to find a large stretch of ancient open meadow land in the city, but that’s precisely the charm of this tranquil slice of Oxford countryside. Take a walk through the wildflowers, past grazing horses and cattle, before stopping for a pint at the ever-popular, 17th-century pub, the Perch. They do an excellent Sunday lunch with varied vegan options too.

Shop inside the Covered Market

Market, Shopping Mall
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Oxford is a city known worldwide as the home of the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. England, U.K.
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Opened to the public in 1774, the Covered Market has been a hub of Oxford life ever since. Inside this striking building, you’ll find a fantastic mix of permanent stalls and shops selling fresh fruit and veg to artisan cheese and hand-crafted jewellery. Take a wander around and soak up the lively atmosphere of this world-famous market. It’s open every day with shorter trading hours on Sunday.

Snap a photo at the Bridge of Sighs

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Hertford Bridge, commonly known as the Bridge of Sighs,  joins two parts of Hertford College at Oxford University, Oxfordshire, England, GB, UK.
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Officially named Hertford Bridge, but more commonly referred to as the Bridge of Sighs, this decorative skyway joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane. It picked up its nickname due to the supposed similarity to the famous Bridge of Sighs in Venice, and is now a much-loved Oxford landmark. Grab your phone and take a selfie – the best time is early morning or late afternoon before its swamped with tourists.

Marvel at the great Christ Church

Cathedral, Church, University
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A gardener with a wheelbarrow attends to the Christ Church War memorial Garden with Christ Church Cathedral behind
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The compelling combination of majestic architecture, literary heritage and a double identity as (parts of) Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, Christ Church is an unmissable tourist attraction. Founded in 1525, it sits with Oxford’s busy town centre on one side, and the peaceful, green Christ Church Meadow on the other. A highlight here is the Renaissance Great Hall, the college’s jaw-dropping dining room, with its hammer-beam roof and portraits of past scholars.

Go punting on the River Cherwell

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Punting on the River Cherwell | © Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock
© Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock
You can’t visit Oxford without giving punting a try. Hire a boat from the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, pack a picnic and go for a punt down the scenic River Cherwell. Essentially, you use an extraordinarily long oar to push against the river bed and propel yourself forwards. It’s a quintessentially Oxford, timeless way to spend an afternoon – especially when the sun is shining.

Catch a show at the Sheldonian Theatre

Building, Theatre
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This Grade I-listed building, the first major design by world-famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, is where it all happens for Oxford University students. Inside these hallowed walls, students are admitted to the university and receive their degree. The theatre also regularly holds classical music concerts, so treat yourself to tickets to experience the grandeur of the place for yourself.

Buy a paperback at Blackwell’s Bookshop

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Blackwell's bookshop, 48-50 Broad Street, Oxford UK
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The Oxford branch of Blackwell’s isn’t your typical bookshop. An integral part of University life, Blackwell’s is the biggest academic and specialist bookseller in the UK, stocking hundreds of thousands of titles. The famous Norrington Room boasts a whopping three miles (5km) of shelving, earning a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest single room selling books.

Judy Cogan contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on August 4, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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