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What are the best things to do in Oxford?
This beautiful destination is ideal for weekend breaks and longer, surrounded by picturesque countryside, boasting street after street of impressive architecture and contemporary culture to rival many.
Whether you're planning a weekend away with the family or a romantic night in Oxford, you'll be spoiled for choice when exploring the best things to do here. A walk around the well-kept streets reveals centuries of unique historical architecture. At the same time, excellent modern shops and restaurants are nestled around every corner.
There's no shortage of great food and drink in Oxford, from traditional pubs and sleek cocktail bars to modern British eateries and international delights.
The city is known as a centre for knowledge and learning. With that in mind, it's only fitting to visit a museum or two during your stay. Several excellent university-owned museums are dotted around Oxford, including something to appeal to visitors of all ages.
The medieval castle and prison, found in the attractive Castle Quarter, make a great day out for families, couples and groups new to the city. If you're blessed with good weather when you visit, Oxford Botanic Garden is a perfect setting for strolls in the sun.
Getting to Oxford
Visiting the city for a weekend break from London? If you're wondering how to get to Oxford, good news! Thanks to a direct rail connection from the capital, your journey couldn't be more straightforward.
Trains connect Oxford with Paddington station in under an hour – just take your local tube or bus to Paddington and hop on the National Rail service to cruise between cities. Oxford is one of the easiest and most rewarding destinations for a weekend break if you live in London.
Train travel is also among the best ways to get to Oxford is from elsewhere in the UK. The city has two train stations, Oxford and Oxford Parkway, with regular services arriving from across the country. Pick a central hotel close to a train station to drop off your luggage in no time. Driving to Oxford can be straightforward, too, depending on the distance. If you'd prefer to arrive by car, choose a hotel with parking to make things more manageable.
The City of Dreaming Spires
Oxford's charming nickname stems from the beautiful architecture displayed across its 38 colleges. More than just a pretty face, the University of Oxford is a global leader and the oldest of its kind in the English-speaking world.
Teaching in some form has been ongoing at Oxford since 1096. The university's development escalated quickly after 1167 when English students were banned from studying in Paris.
Visiting the University of Oxford
Exploring the university is one of the top things to do in Oxford.
Start by looking around ancient and modern college buildings – there are 38 stunning buildings to discover. Many colleges are free to visit, while others charge a small fee. Book a tour to make the most of your experience, learning about the college history and famous alumni along the way. Some of the most impressive colleges include All Souls College, Balliol College, Blackfriars, Christ Church, Jesus College and Magdalen College.
Next, head to a couple of University of Oxford museums, like the Museum of Natural History or the History of Science Museum. If you prefer to spend a sunny day outside, visit some beautifully landscaped parks and green spaces around the campus, like the Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum.
Museums and libraries
The University of Oxford's museums and libraries are central to the institution. More than just resources for the university, they're exciting places for the public to visit, too!
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is home to a significant collection of natural history specimens and archives. Its set inside a beautiful neo-gothic building and is entirely free to visitors. Be sure to check out the program of events before you arrive - you never know what's in store.
The History of Science Museum boasts the oldest purpose-built museum building globally. Head here to see Einstein's blackboard and the first Penecilin cultures that changed the shape of medicine.
Don't miss the world-famous Bodleian Library and Weston Library. The most extensive academic library system in the UK, the Bodleian and Weston Libraries, was founded by Sir Thomas Bodley and opened in 1602. Choose a guided tour to learn more from an expert along the way.
Gardens and green spaces
On sunny days, Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum is a must. The gardens were founded in 1621 to grow various herbs used to teach medical students. They were renamed the Oxford Botanical Garden in 1840. Today, it plays a significant role in experimental botany, developing hybrid plants and flowers like the unique Oxford Physic Rose.
See over 5,000 plant species while wandering around the gardens, then explore over 130 acres of rare and endangered trees in the Harcourt Arboretum – a perfect place to stretch your legs.
Oxford Castle Quarter
You can't visit this city without spending a little time in its Castle Quarter. Once home to the Norman Oxford Castle and the infamous Oxford Prison, the area is among the must-see attractions in Oxford today. Parts of the historic buildings remain, while many exciting shops, bars and restaurants mean the surrounding streets are always abuzz with locals and visitors.
Oxford Castle & Prison today
Although the castle and prison in Oxford are partly ruined, they're still well worth visiting for their historical significance. Embark on a tour led by a costumed guide and discover 1,000 years of history – it's fun for the whole family!
When you take the guided tour, you'll be invited to climb St George's Tower, one of the oldest buildings in Oxford, and enjoy panoramic views of the city below. Tours also mean exploring the 900-year-old crypt, the 18th-century tower and the surviving part of the prison. When the guided portion of your visit is over, you'll be able to wander around at leisure and discover more unique features of Oxford Castle & Prison.
Want to enjoy a little retail therapy while in Oxford? You won't be disappointed. The pretty streets are lined with charming independents and high street names. At the same time, modern shopping centres provide a whole day's browsing, dining and entertainment under one roof.
The Westgate is the city's most attractive shopping centre. Although it was initially opened in the 1970s, extensive remodelling in recent years means excellent facilities and a bright, airy setting. The centre is home to many prestigious brands and high street favourites in covered and open-air areas. There are also plenty of choices for refreshments and entertainment, including a beautiful roof terrace for lunch, dinner or drinks.
The Westgate is Oxford's one-stop-shop for great days in the city. More than 100 brands include Gant, Jo Malone, John Lewis, Levi's, Office and Zara. Enjoy more than 20 restaurants, bars and cafés, including Nando's, Mowgli, Pizza Pilgrims and The Alchemist. There's a Junkyard Golf Club and a boutique cinema in the Westgate, so any reluctant shoppers can find fun elsewhere.
Where to eat and drink in Oxford
As London's quieter neighbour and one of the most beautiful cities in the UK, it's no surprise that Oxford is home to many excellent restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs.
The city's culinary offering is diverse. Take Taste Tibet, for example. This tiny spot went from market stall to brick and mortar favourite mid-pandemic, serving flavourful Tibetan food and supporting the local community. Bhoomi Kitchen is a South Indian restaurant where aromatic curries are in the spotlight.
Or try Arbequina, which serves excellent tapas from a converted chemist location. Prefer something more quintessentially British? The Perch is a lovely riverside pub complete with a thatched roof, the perfect endpoint for a short walk out of the city centre. More of the best restaurants, pubs and bars in Oxford include:
- The Cherwell Boathouse
- The Old Bookbinders
- The Folly