1. For everyone: explore Oxford by foot
I would recommend beginning your visit to Oxford by exploring the city on foot, either with an organized tour or on your own. The city, with well-preserved streets, home to renowned scholars, historic buildings, cafes, and architectural quirks, is best enjoyed by walking as opposed to a bus tour or biking.
There are official walking tours organized by the tourist office, as well as unofficial tours run by several companies, providing either a general or thematic overview of Oxford. Special interest tours cover themes such as Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, literature, or history. (In part three of this series, I will review some of the walking tours the city.)
Tip: The streets of Oxford are often quite busy with pedestrians and bikers. If you want a peaceful walk, try to explore the city at the beginning or end of the day. The city’s cobbled lanes are especially atmospheric at night. Thematic tours are primarily offered on specific dates during the summer months.
2. For lovers of architecture, academia, and Harry Potter: visit a college or two
Oxford University, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, is made up of colleges for undergraduate and/or graduate students, making Oxford a quintessential student town. Visiting a college gives you the unique opportunity to see the place where scholars and students have studied and lived, hear stories about its alumni, and learn about Oxford University’s academic traditions and culture.
A tour of a college is often included in guided walks, but you could also explore some on your own. The majority of colleges are open to visitors, though some charge entrance fees.
Christ Church College is a beautiful college to visit, as you can visit its ancient staircase, elegant dining hall, square quadrangle, and Christ Church. The staircase and dining hall were both used as Harry Potter film locations, serving as the setting for Harry’s initial arrival to Hogwarts and the beginning-of-term dinner where he is first sorted into Gryffindor. However, as a popular film location, it is generally filled with tourists and charges the highest entrance fee among the various colleges.
Tip: Christ Church offers regular evensong services, and it is sung by the College Choir during term time. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, attending evensong is a unique way to experience Oxford’s historic and religious roots. Entrance to evensong service is free.
If you have time and want to learn more about the lives of Oxford students, it would be worth visiting more than one college, as every college has its illustrious alumni, unique history, and traditions.
Tip: If you’re a student traveler who is interested in applying to study at Oxford, you could also plan your visit to coincide with one of the Open Days.
3. For book lovers: Tour the Divinity School, Duke Humfrey’s Library, and/or the Radcliffe camera
For a special glimpse into Oxford’s academic history and some of its book collections–which are normally only accessible to students and staff–you could take one of the several special tours open to the public. There is a basic tour to the Divinity School, while longer tours that include areas such as Duke Humfrey’s Library, the Radcliffe Camera, or even the underground book stacks.
The Divinity School, with its ornate ceiling and carvings, dates back to 1488. Harry Potter fans may recognize the room as the backdrop used for the Infirmary in the Harry Potter movies.
Duke Humfrey’s Library, where photos are normally not allowed, is definitely worth a visit, as it houses rare books such as chained books. Kings, British Prime Minsters, writers such as Tolkien, and many other alumni have used the library in the past. It was used as the film location for the Forbidden Section of Hogwarts library in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Radcliffe camera, a dome-shaped library tat dominates the city’s skyline, also houses book collections and provides a study space for students.
Tip: Tours are quite popular and can sell out. The longer tours, such as those that visit underground book stacks, only run on certain dates. Sections of the library might also close on a short notice. You can visit the Bodleian Library website for details and advance online bookings.
4. For history, museum, and art enthusiasts: the Ashmolean Museum
This museum, a part of the University of Oxford, has an extensive art and archaeology collection. Some highlights include Anglo-Saxon, Minoan, and Egyptian artifacts, drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael, and modern Chinese art.
Tip: The museum is closed on Monday, so keep this in mind when scheduling your itinerary. An appointment must be made at least 24hrs in advance to see the works of Michelangelo and Raphael.
Full disclosure: I would like to acknowledge the support of Visit Oxford & Oxfordshire, which provided me with a press pass giving entry into some attractions (I used it to visit the Divinity School and Christ Church College, as well as took an official walking tour). My blog is based on my independent research and first-hand experience, and represent my own opinion.
If you have visited or lived in Oxford, what recommendations and tips do you have? If you have never visited, what do you want to know?