Oxford is an historic university town with beautiful sights to see. Here are eight things you should see and do if you are in Oxford for a few days.
Cruise The Isis
As it passes through Oxford the River Thames is known as the Isis. The river is a great place for a stroll, a boat ride or to go punting! Never been punting before? You can hire a boat and try it yourself or get a boat chauffeur to do the work for you. This website has a terrific guide to punting and where you can find boats for rent.
If you are more interested in a walk, we’d suggest heading from Folly Bridge to Iffley Lock, it’s about 1.5 miles one way. The full path is on the south bank. If you’d like to take a shorter stroll you can simply walk around Christ Church Meadow, on the north bank. It’s a good combination with two of our other suggestions, the botanic garden and Christ Church College, keep reading for more info below.
Feeling lazy? You can also hop onboard a river boat for a cruise. Check out Salter’s Steamers for a variety of trips.
Pitt Rivers Museum
If you are interested in anthropology, a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum is an absolute must. Located behind the Natural History Museum, Pitt Rivers is a treasure trove of amazing objects from all over the world. The objects are organized by function rather than by place of origin as in many museums. So you’ll find a cabinet with all kinds of lamps or a cabinet with divination tools or a cabinet (actually many cabinets) with guns and rifles. Many of the items have handwritten labels. Amazing! Be sure to schedule enough time to explore this fascinating museum, it is chock full three floors of delights, literally packed to the rafters. Docents lead regular short tours through the museum, so ask and you might catch one. The guards are also knowledgeable and ready to talk about their favorite items. Pitt Rivers is a crazy cabinet of curiosities from cultures all around the world. This is one of the coolest museums I have ever been to! I hope you like it too.
Museum of Natural History
In front of the Pitt Rivers Museum is another one of the most awesome museums I have ever seen. Do you like dinosaurs or collect rocks? You will love this museum. In addition to their great displays about zoology and geology, the building itself is absolutely gorgeous.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History was completed in 1861 and is neo-Gothic in style. There is a beautiful arched glass roof supported by cast iron pillars. The pillars each have amazing wrought iron decorations of leaves and flowers at the top. Stone columns supporting the second floor are each made of a different local British stone and are topped by sandstone carvings. There are so many beautiful details it makes your head spin. There are chairs scattered around the museum and I saw folks sitting and reading novels like in a library. The glass roof creates such a lovely open atmosphere, perfect for relaxing I have to agree. If I lived nearby I would come everyday and sit in this beautiful space to draw. Artists- bring your sketchbook!
The building was the location of a famous debate about the theory of evolution in 1860.
Head to the rear of the Museum of Natural History to enter the Pitt Rivers Museum mentioned above. The Pitt Rivers was designed by the son of one of the designers of the Natural History Museum. It is simpler in style as the budget was depleted after the first building was done.
Christ Church College
Many of the Oxford colleges are open to visitors and Christ Church College is one that should not be missed. The college is home to stunning architecture and fascinating history and has inspired literature and films including Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter.
Head to the majestic entrance off St Aldate’s Road to purchase an entry ticket. Check the times before you go as sometimes the Cathedral or Hall are closed and you definitely want to see both. The Hall is closed daily for lunch.
The Cathedral is absolutely beautiful. Take your time to explore the famous stained glass windows. You may hear the organist or choir practicing, they perform nightly at dusk services. The cathedral can also be visited free of charge each evening when the choir performs. Head up the stairs to The Hall, you’ll likely recognize it from the Harry Potter films. It’s incredibly grand, with portraits along the walls, dark wood paneling and stained glass windows. I cannot even imagine being fortunate enough to eat there daily. Those lucky students!
Christ Church also has the Picture Gallery, which contains works by Leonardo da Vinci, Frans Hals and Paul Rubens among many others.
After your visit to the buildings of Christ Church you can stroll around the meadow to get some fresh air and see the Isis.
Oxford Botanic Garden
The oldest botanical garden in Britain, The University of Oxford Botanic Garden is a special place to visit for plant enthusiasts. It’s a compact garden compared to some others, but lovely. The seven small glasshouses each have a different climate, I especially loved the swamp one. The oldest part of the property is the walled garden that dates from 1621 when the garden was founded to grow plants for medicinal research. This history can still be seen today in beds that correspond to different ailments and the plants that can be used to treat them. Students of health sciences and herbalists will definitely find this fascinating. Outside the walled garden are the rock gardens, bog garden and herbaceous borders. Some beds are being used as research plots for sustainable gardening methods for public spaces.
Bring a picnic (or a good book) and sit on one of the benches in the garden for a nice way to pass an afternoon. We’d recommend a book by Lewis Carroll or JRR Tolkien. They say that Tolkien could often be found in this garden sitting against his favorite tree. Unfortunately the tree had to be cut down a few years ago but maybe you can still get some inspiration in these quiet, lovely gardens.
The Ashmolean Museum is dedicated to art and archaeology and seems very clean and organized after a visit to the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum. Here you’ll find exhibits arranged by region and time period, with ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt on the ground floor, Asia and the Middle East on the first floor and Asia and Europe on the upper floors. This museum is full of treasures, from ancient coins to modern sumi-e paintings. There is a lot to see. Luckily the museum has wisely put together a package for people who don’t have a lot of time – with 10 objects that visitors should see. This will take you through the museum, and you might get distracted and end up perusing pottery for a few hours.
One of the most famous sights in Oxford is the Bodleian Library. You can walk through the Quadrangle, Blackwell Hall and the exhibition rooms in the Weston Library for free. An entry ticket is required for all other areas. Some areas can only be visited while on a guided tour. Check out the website for detailed information. The tours often fill up in advance during the summer months so be sure to plan ahead.
The 15th century Divinity School is the oldest teaching and exam hall of the university. It has stunning vaulted ceilings. Duke Humfrey’s medieval library is the oldest reading room of the library and is a must for any book lover. This library was also used on the set of the Harry Potter films. The painted and carved ceilings and beams are absolutely marvelous.
The Eagle & Child Pub
OK, enough about Harry Potter. Are you a fan of The Lord of the Rings? Me too. So you simply must make a stop into the Eagle & Child. This pub was the gathering place for The Inklings, a writers’ group that included C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and JRR Tolkien. The writers would meet weekly in a room in the back they called the Rabbit Room. Pop into this charming pub for a drink or a bite to eat and soak up that literary history.
Oxford is an amazing town with so much history. You can spend many days exploring the sights. But if you have some extra time why not visit some neighboring places including Avebury Manor, the Cotswolds, Stonehenge, and Bath.