Oxford – If there isn’t a more whimsical place in all of England – The place of Dreaming Spires. No other university in the world has more history than Oxford. (No, not even Cambridge). Whatever brings you to Oxford, you will, without a doubt, find something that is charming or a place that will make you wonder what great minds came before you. Oxford is the place where dreamers make their dreams come true. A place that gives you endless amounts of resources, great thinkers, and tools to achieve your goals. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it’s a good start on everything Oxford has to offer, or at least enough to get you started down a rabbit hole. So, where to begin?
There are 39 colleges and 6 private halls at Oxford University. A college is a place where you find your community as a student. They are all outfitted with a dinning hall, bar, JCR and/or MCR, and most have a chapel as well. The difference between a hall and a college is that halls were founded by particular religious denominations. For example, Wycliff Hall was founded by Evangelicals. Each one is wonderful in its own way; however, there are certainly some that are more grand than others. Most of the colleges allow visitors during certain parts of the day, as to when, well, that’s totally up to each college and the mood of the porters. I found that most are open in the afternoon, from 2-5pm. If you are an Oxford resident, and mind you, some of the porters are sticklers and they’ll want an Oxford resident card to prove it, then you are allowed admittance and one guest for free (students enjoy the same right). A Bodleian reader’s card might suffice as well (commonly called a bod-card). Otherwise, admittance is typically a few pounds. Here is a Google Maps list of my favorite. In addition, here is a link and list of all the colleges and halls
Ok, so that’s a lot of colleges. Personally, I’d make it a goal to see all of them; however, most of us are not going to have that much time. So here are my top picks:
So you like Harry Potter, right? Well, then this is “THE COLLEGE” to see. Easily one of the most grand and wonderful colleges at Oxford, Christ Church has a magnificent chapel, quad, and, of course, the grand dining hall. I don’t think you’ve really been to Oxford if you haven’t seen Christ Church. Oh, and for you literary buffs, the Christ Church gardens are what inspired Lewis Carroll to write, Alice In Wonderland. Plus, if you are an American or philosopher, John Locke was a member of Christ Church. I say American, because most of our ideals in the constitution are built off of his ideas. There are plenty other famous folks who are members of Christ Church, but that should suffice for now.
This is my favorite college at Oxford. I’m a big LOTR fan. J.R.R.Tolkien was a member of this school. In my opinion, this college offers the best view of the Radcliffe Camera. You’ll find the view along the college wall. Also, the chapel is stunning. If you catch at the right time of day, the sun makes everything radiate gold.
Some of the oldest remaining parts of Oxford can be found within the walls of New College, which really isn’t that new at all. One site worth seeing is the old city wall. Also, there is a strange rumor that there is a mass grave site for bubonic casualties, but it think it’s just a rumor to keep you off of the grass. OXFORD LOVES ITS GRASS. You should also find another Harry Potter film spot in the cloister – I believe it’s the scene were Malfoy is transformed into a ferret. New College’s student pub is pretty cool as well.
Merton is one of the oldest, if not the oldest college at Oxford; however, depending on who you ask, there is room for debate as to which college is the oldest. University and Baliol both boast that they are oldest as well. Exeter comes in fourth, and I’m sure that the other colleges believe four is a crowd. The organ and chapel at Merton are absolutely splendid. If you are fortunate to be here during the winter, there is a charming candle-lit service that could get anyone into the holiday spirit. Yes, even your family’s Mr. Scrooge. The college also boasts plenty of famous alumni; one such being T.S. Elliot. Merton also offers some splendid gardens and a beautiful castle wall that overlooks Christ Church Meadow.
Pronounced Maud-len – not Mag-Da-Lin. This is a great college, likely my second favorite. We lived just down the road – about a block away after your cross the bridge. There is a great path that makes a complete loop around one of the meadows in the college – w. If you are lucky, the deer that Magdalen care for will be in the meadow – yes, I did say deer – there is even a white / albino stag that can be spotted with the herd. Among other noteworthy things to mention, C.S. Lewis was a member of Magdalen College. If you go into the college pub, you will see some of the more recent films about C.S. Lewis were shot on site. Plus, you can watch, or, even partake on some putting on the river. It’s also worth noting that the college patterns with the botanical garden across the street, so you will no doubt find beautiful grounds at Magdalen. In fact, my favorite tree can be spotted just outside the cloister. It is magnificent – you will know it when you see. And, I’d be remised if I did not mention May Day here. May Day is the official day to celebrate spring. A choir sings at the top of the iconic Magdalen tower, and then all sort of weirdness breaks out in the streets. Get there early – I think it starts at 6 am.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t inform you of Formals, which are possibly one of the best parts about being a student at Oxford. A formal is an alternative name given to college dinners and you appropriately dress more formal. The food at most formals is exceptional, often a three course meal with wine – some colleges even include their own bottled wine. Formals provide the unique opportunity to engage the minds of other great and ambitious students at Oxford. It’s possibly were some of the more intriguing conversations happen – conversations with astrophysicist, medical doctors, artists, and really anything that you can think of as a research practice can be found sitting at your table. Take advantage of these as often as possible. You can find students to invite you or offer tickets to their college’s formal. I had one friend that made it to every college. Formals are a definite must.
Oh my goodness, there are sooooo many balls in any given year. A ball is typically a white tie attire party with dancing, live music, activities, and a glorious amount of good food and booze. You’ll definitely get a sense as to which ones are just going to be grand beyond belief. Most of the college balls that only happen every couple years are the ones worth attending. Be warned – the union ball, harry potter ball, and annual balls tend to be subpar. We went to the St. Hugh’s Ball and it was over the top! * different food stations, booze, 4 different live bands, star gazing, dancing, astronomy dome, fireworks – a night worth remembering!
Places to Eat
The UK is not known for its culinary skills. Fortunately, you are in luck, as most of the world’s delightful cuisines can be found in Oxford – especially in Cowley. ALL THE GOOD FOOD IS IN COWLEY. Here are some of my top picks for places to eat.
- 4500 Miles from Delhi – easily the best Indian food in the area
- Dosa Park – great for catering for large groups
Fish & Chips
- Cuttlefish – A bit of fine dining seafood. Good for upscale dishes or a classic fish n’ chips
- Turf Tavern – My favorite pub in Oxford. They make a good Fish & chips
- Angel & Greyhound – a classy pub with great food options
- Antep’s Kitchen – Delicious – Go here for your birthday : )
- Gail’s Bakery – If we could all start our mornings at Gail’s, I’m confident that everyone would be happy. Heck, might even bring world peace.
- The Handle Bar Cafe & Kitchen – nice place for coffee or avocado and toast
- Turl Street Kitchen – Service and noise can be an issue sometimes, but the food is REAL good
- Vaults & Garden – one of the best outdoor seating areas – take in views of the Rad Cam as you enjoy your pot of tea.
- Ticktock Cafe – Classic diner option
- The Perch – Expect to wait a while, but this place is exceptional
- The Bear & Ragged Staff – a bit of a hike out of Oxford Ring Road. Visitors here will be well rewarded.
- Red Lion – nice atmosphere – especially for group dinners.
- No 1. Ship Street – wonderful food options. Good for dates.
- La Cucina – Great dishes and reasonable prices
- IL Principe – Authentic pasta and pizza dishes. No dining – just takeout and cooking supplies
- The White Rabbit – Best pizza in Oxford
- The Coconut Tree – Lots of wonderful little tapas – go here often
Thai / Asian
- Oli’s Thai – Easily one of the best restaurants in Oxford. Books months in advance – does not allow children though………
- Pan Pan – one of our frequent spots – lots of street food options. Everyone likes this place.
- The Alternative Tuck Shop – This is THE sandwich shop. Just look at the lines – they go out 20 strong during lunch rush
- Taylors – good for a quick option. Multiple locations.
- Za’atar Bake – this place is great. Good for just about every meal – good baked goods.
- Spice Roots – wonderful cuisine options
- Kazbar Restaurant – Great wines and lots of yummy tapas
Night Time Munchies
- Solomon’s Grill – a food truck usually seen on Broad Street – three pounds for an ungodly amount of fries – yum. Moves location from time-to-time
- Peppers – might be one of the best burgers in Oxford
- Kebab King – chicken and fries. Good on a late night……but not any other time. Kind of like Waffle House
One quick note: High tea is widely regarded as a tourist thing. However, I love it : ) these are two good options.
- Old Parsonage Hotel – Wonderful place to get your afternoon tea
- Vaults & Garden – again, a great spot
Places to get groceries other than Tesco and Sainsbury
- Gloucester Green Market – happens every Wednesday. Lots of fresh veggies and fruit options. On Thursday there are food stands for lunch options.
- Hamblin Bread – Amazing bread options. Also, fresh honey – great for aiding seasonal allergies – hay-fever comes in strong every summer.
- Gail’s Bakery – Just go there already. Lots of fresh bread options
- Ocado – Get your food delivered to you. Usually some great deals on your first order(s)
That’s a lot of food – go eat your heart out : )
Oxford is place you could drink yourself silly, and believe me, plenty of undergrad and even graduates do – the city has so much to offer and is sure to quench whatever you fancy for in a pub. Only in the UK will you find 500+ year old pubs that have only modestly changed over the years. Here are some of my favorites:
Almost all of these serve food. I’ll add a few notes on some of these. If I were you, I’d do a pub crawl one night and hit up a few.
- Turf Tavern – supposedly where Clinton smoked but did not inhale. When you get here, it’s like going to a secret location.
- The Rickety Press – Great option for games and foosball
- The Head of the River – beautiful area where you can also get a boat tour or see rowers
- The Victoria – great setting and place to eat in Jericho
- Eagle & Child – where the Inklings frequented (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien)
- Lamb & Flag – Also where the inklings frequented. Likely they crossed the road when the Eagle was full.
- The Kings Arms – One of the oldest pubs in Oxford
- The Lighthouse – Great spot right on the river
- The Oxford Retreat – Sister pub of the Lighthouse – definitely bigger and hosts dances and coffee mics.
- The Varsity Club – one of the best views of the city for a pub
- The Chequers – Great place for trivia and foosball – Wonderful selection of brews beyond just ales.
- The Cape of Good Hope – great location in Cowley. Nice outdoor settings
- The Bear Inn – another one of the oldest pubs
- Jericho Tavern – great spot in Jericho – occasionally has concerts in the upstairs room
- The Angel and Grey Hound – Another great spot if you are in the Cowley area. Great food options and lounge seating. There is outdoor seating in the rear.
Ok, that should be enough for your first crawl. Believe me, there are sooo many more, and I’m sure there are some good ones that I left off the list. Honestly, I don’t think there are too many that are going to disappoint you.
Must See Sights
The Bodleian houses over 12 million books and counting. Supposedly, they have every book in the English language, and that’s what all the guides are going to tell you, but…….I’m not buying it. There are a few missing for sure. Also, the Bodleian is actually a collection of libraries that spans the entire university and is comprised of over 27 libraries. The principle library is in the old school square. So you might say, “even with 27 other libraries they would need more space.” Well, there’s a good chance you are standing on a floor of the Bodleian if you are in Oxford’s main square. There are several areas that have multiple levels beneath the ground that house the books. Some of the libraries even have tunnels that connect them, like the old divinity school has a tunnel to the Radcliffe Camera. Maps Link.
Here you will find one of the oldest parts of the University. In the square, you’ll notice that the building entrances have latin signage for varying academic disciplines. These are, in fact, the original areas of study for students at the University of Oxford. Those who studied those areas of practice would enter the appropriate door accordingly.
The Divinity School
The Divinity School is a beautiful ornate room with a fantastic vaulted ceiling featuring the cotswold classical honeycomb stone. Harry Potter fans will be quick to spot that the room was featured in Chamber of Secrets. This room was primarily used to defend one’s thesis. Interestingly, anyone in the university, not just professors, could show up and sit on the benches and challenge you. Admission cost a few pounds, but this spot is worth it. Map Link.
The Duke Humfrey’s Library
Located just above the Divinity School is the Duke Humfrey’s Library. It’s the most famous reading room in Oxford. Its initial purpose was for reading maps, but now it is well known for holding rare books. The tapestries on the ceiling are ornate, and the supporting beams often give what people describe as an old viking hull warship look. No pictures are allowed here. Map Link.
The Martyrs’ Square
A humble cross in the middle of Broad Street, adjacent to Baliol College. This is one of those sights that often goes overlooked, but if you did so, you’d be missing out on one the best stories in Oxford. This sight marks the physical location were Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. The two men were against the merit based efforts to achieve admission into the kingdom of heaven and desired to give access to the scriptures to the commoner. Back then, members of the Church Clergy were the only individuals who were allowed access to the physical scriptures. To this day, flame marks can supposedly be seen on the doors of Baliol College.
The setting: October 16, 1555 – during the Reformation Movement.
The story: Two Bishops, Hugh Latimer – the Bishop of Worcester and Nicholas Ridley – the Bishop of London, were sentenced to burn at the stake after a quick trial for their Protestant beliefs. Large piles of faggots and brush were placed around the stakes, and the two men were led to the area to await their fate. Prior to being chained to the stakes, Ridley’s brother provided the men with gunpowder around their necks to help make a quick passing rather than endure the bite of the flame until their finality.
The guards lit the brush and piles of wood. Flames quickly approached the two mens’ feet. Latimer’s wood was burning faster and cleaner than that of Ridley’s. Those who had assembled Ridley’s pyre had used green-wood, which caused large amounts of smoke to begin to suffocate Ridley. Latimer, seeing his friend suffer cried out, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.” After saying this, Latimer met a quick death – either by the gunpowder ignition or by a quick engulfment of flame. Ridley, was not so fortunate. He agonized much longer. Eye witness accounts mention that Ridley’s shirt and upper body were not even singed, yet his legs had all but burned off. After crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me!” the flames reached a point were Ridley could lean into them and ignite the gunpowder.
At the time, these two men were championed and beloved by the common folks. Many surrounding were left in tears not just from the love of these two men, but also witnessing the suffering of Mr. Ridley. To this day, many credit individuals like Ridley and Latimer for improving religious freedom in Christianity.
There is a larger monument that was erected during the 18th century just around the corner, adjacent to St. Mary Magdalen Church. However, I find this spot a bit more intriguing. Map Link.
The Bridge of Sighs
Named after the more well known Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the Oxford Bridge of Sighs is an iconic university landmark despite only recently being constructed in 1914. The bridge connects Hertford College’s quads, and is a well known spot for students to snap celebratory pictures after exams and graduation. I will warn you, the inside of the bridge is rather lack luster compared to the external view.
The Sheldonian Theatre
Erected in 1669, the Sheldonian is the place of matriculation for all Oxford students. Matriculation is a ceremonious event completely in Latin that officially marks a student’s admittance into the University of Oxford.
The building, designed by Sir. Christopher Wren, is fashioned after roman architectural design. Wren, being of little renown at the time, made his mark on the world with this masterpiece. At the time, no building had as great of a ceiling space without the aide of support beams. Wren discovered that by deploying triangular support beams in the building’s frame and ceiling that the weight of the ceiling could be maintained. Without this first architecture triumph, it is likely that Wren would not have completed his more well known accomplishment, St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The inside is as grand as the outside, featuring 13 large mural paintings on the ceiling. The fresco was created by Robert Streater, who beautifully capture the depiction of the heaven’s being open to those below. The thought here is that “all wisdom and knowledge comes from above.” In addition, you can see a hedge blocking what Streater would describe as ignorance out of the university.
The Sheldonian is often used for musical performance and events. Should you be so fortunate to find yourself in the area, I’d make certain to check the schedule of events to see if you could attend one.
Lastly, the cupola at the top makes for one of the best views of the city. Plus, it is here that you can discover Wren’s genius of his truss system. Map Link.
Affectionally called the “Rad Cam” or the Camera for short, the Radcliffe Camera is the first known library in England of round design. Located in the middle of the university, the Camera’s unique design distinguishes itself from any of the surrounding buildings. As a result, it is “the” building featured in all drawings or pictures of the University of Oxford.
The building is named after the noteworthy doctor, John Radcliffe, after he left funds and a dying wish to construct a library to house the scientific texts. He left 40,000 pounds for its construction. The “Camera” name is from latin origin coming from the word, camera, meaning room. The building finished construction in 1748.
You’re not going to find a better view in all of Oxford. It will cost you about 10 pounds, but you’re going to see some great views of the Camera and the dreaming spires. From here, you will also be able to see the two towers at All Souls College. Supposedly, these two towers inspired Tolkien’s second book, The Two Towers. Sauron’s Eye is the sundial seen adjacent to the towers.
Christ Church Meadow
One of the most splendid walks you can take in Oxford is the path that leads to Christ Church Meadow. ALong this path you will encounter a lovely stream that leads all the way to the rive Thames and the college boat houses. There are two main entrances: One adjacent to the Botanical Gardens and the other adjacent to the Christ Church Gardens.
If it’s the summer months, your time in Oxford would simply not be complete without a picnic at Port Meadows. It’s not uncommon for various groups to bring a grill out near sunset and have a wonderful time watching the sun go down. There are also a few areas to jump into the river if you would like – and, of course, there’s some Oxford tradition around finishing exams that student take a dip in the river – clothing optional……or so I’ve heard. One last thing to note is that there are horses and cows in the meadow, so be aware. Some of them are a bit too curious or not kind to other furry companions.
The museums at Oxford boast a marvelous collection of world artifacts. All of the museums, from my memory, are completely free. So do make sure to add at least one of these to your list.
Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Museum
The University Museum houses displays of various animals from across the world, and features the most complete remains of the Dodo Bird, which supposedly inspired Lewis Carroll in the his book, Alice in Wonderland. During our time here, we did a fun drink with dinosaurs event – not sure though if the “Dinosaurs” title was a reference to the literal fossil displays or to our professors.
The Pitt Museum is only accessible through the University Museum and features the university’s archaeological collection.
Britain’s first public museum, the Ashmolean, is a world class museum with a large collection of art and archaeological artifacts. It’s also a wonderful events space.
The History of Science Museum
Housed in the original Ashmolean building, the History of Science Museum displays a collection of progressive scientific artifacts, with the most noteworthy piece being Albert Einstein’s chalkboard, which can be found on the lower level.
The main research arm of the the Bodleian Library system. The Weston typically holds special exhibits that are traveling or temporary. We really enjoyed the Tolkien and Maps exhibits.
First day of spring celebration that commences at 6am with a choir on top of Magdalen College. A lot of folks drink through the night for this event. You’ll definitely see some fairy folks or individuals dressed-up as trees.
A charity fun run event that helps raise funds for the Helen and Douglas House charity. This was awesome! Held typically near November/December.
Guy Fawkes Night
An event with fireworks and bonfires to celebrate the failed Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes and company on taking King James’ I life. Always on November 5 – remember, remember, the 5th of November. We watched this one in South Park near Cowley.
Located right in Broad Street, the Oxford Christmas Market is absolutely charming. Make sure to get your fix on chocolate churros and mulled wine.
There are so many others, but these standout in my memory. There are also a few fairs that come through the area.
Off The Beaten Path
So these are a few things to do that are not too far from Oxford
The Cotwolds: Beautiful rolling hills and country charm – you got to make several trips.
Rector Farm: Strawberry picking and fresh to table food.
Blenheim Palace and Churchill’s Grave: The home and birth place of Winston Churchill – amazing events year round. We attended Shakespeare plays, Christmas light displays, and a Bentley car show.
C.S. Lewis’ Home: Artifacts and tours of the home of author and professor, C.S. Lewis.
Hey, I hope you found this a good read or helpful. If there is something you think I missed, let me know and I’ll add it. Cheers!