With any luck, a read of our Sightseeing page will have convinced you that Oxford has enough to keep visitors occupied for a week, a month, or possibly even the rest of their lives. However, we are conscious that many people only experience the city in day trip format, often as part of the London-Oxford-Bath-Stonehenge tourism axis. If you are pressed for time, keep reading. We've listed below what we think are the top ten things in Oxford that simply cannot be missed.
Don't forget to check out what events are happening during your visit!
Oxford Top 10
1) Oxford University's Historic Colleges
It's what everybody has come here to see, and for very good reason. The 38 colleges which comprise the University of Oxford are iconic, architecturally diverse and endlessly atmospheric. Nobody is going to visit them all, so it is important to be selective. Some of our favourites include the riverside splendour of Magdalen, the lovely gardens of Worcester and the bold modernism of St Catz. Read about these and more on our University Sightseeing page.
2) The Ashmolean Museum
The oldest public museum in the UK is also one of the finest. Its collections span everything from ancient Egypt to contemporary China, and all have been enhanced by their elegant, light-filled surroundings following a 2011 renovation. Wind your way to the top of the galleries and then celebrate with tea, cake and views over Oxford from the museum's rooftop Restaurant.
3) Christ Church Meadow
A beautiful flood-meadow that is so utterly lovely you will scarcely be able to believe it is located in the heart of a city. Good for strolling, picnics, punting, jogging or, best of all, admiring the University's very own herd of longhorn cattle (which, legend has it, were originally a gift from Bill Clinton). Particularly recommended early in the morning, when a layer of mist can often be found hanging over the river.
4) The Pitt Rivers and Natural History Museums
Either one of these museums would be worthy of a visit in their own right, but since they are both located in the same building they absolutely cannot be overlooked. The bright, cheery surroundings of the Natural History Museum are a fun counterpoint to the atmospheric dinginess of the Pitt Rivers. While exploring the latter, make sure that you seek out the cabinet of shrunken heads.
The quintessential Oxford activity is also the best way to see many of the city's riverside sights. Pack a picnic, stow away your phone and be prepared to get soggy. Read our Guide to Punting for more information and crucial advice on how not to fall in.
6) Radcliffe Square and the Sheldonian Theatre
Indisputably the most beautiful public square in the city - and possibly the most beautiful in the whole country, Radcliffe Square spans the high gothic University Church at one end to the Bodleian Library at the other, with the iconic Radcliffe Camera nestling picturesquely in between. Just round the corner, you can still catch regular concerts in the extraordinary, grade 1 listed surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre.
7) Ancient Pubs
For all of the University's history, some of the oldest establishments in Oxford are actually pubs. The Turf and the Bear, for example, both have 13th-century origins and admirably lopsided roofbeams. See our Food & Drink page or our Pub Crawls guide for more details.
8) Port Meadow and Binsey
Since most of Oxford is precariously located on an island and prone to seasonal flooding, the city has more than its fair share of meadows. If anything this one is even more tranquil than Christ Church. Stroll across the river to earn your drink at the Perch pub in the charming hamlet of Binsey, where Gerald Manley Hopkins lamented the loss of the Binsey Poplars.
9) The Covered Market
Perhaps unexpectedly for somewhere as historic (founded in 1774) and quaint, the Covered Market still somehow manages to actually remain useful. The carcasses of pheasants, turkey and even whole deer hanging from its rafters are a reminder that this is still very much a living, functional place to go shopping. Also the proud home of the majestic Ben's Cookies.
10) Cowley Road
Vibrant, diverse and now increasingly gentrified, Cowley Road is the artery running through the 'other Oxford' and the site of the city's annual summer Carnival. Good for window shopping and coffee shop hopping by day; even better for eating out, pub crawling and live music by night. Some of our favourite places here are Moya, Yeti, Rick's and the Cape of Good Hope: take a look at our Food & Drink guide or our Shopping page for more recommendations.
Things to Do In One Day
Oxford has plenty more to offer and it seems a shame to squeeze our local expertise into just ten suggestions. Here are some possible itineraries suggested by Daily Info staff past and present (who by my - admittedly rough - calculations have over 200 combined Oxford life years between them) on how best to spend your time if you have one glorious day in our city...
In order to thoroughly experience Oxford, you have to embrace both sides of the city: Town and Gown. The University tends (unsurprisingly) to dominate guidebooks, but you’re missing out if you just stick to the museums and colleges.
Start the day with the best the “Town” has to offer: an artery-hardening breakfast at the St Giles' Café [ed. The St Giles' Café has changed ownership since this piece was written and is now considerably less likely to induce a heart attack], then a stroll down the High Street. Here you can window-shop for impossibly expensive silverware, antiques and the sort of clothes you can only buy if you’ve got a double-barrelled name and at least one title. Console yourself with a milkshake from Moo-Moo’s in the Covered Market. Alpha Bar’s salads and Pieminister’s pies are both well-executed examples of often-disappointing dishes, and make an ideal lunch! Now, time to try the "Gown" side of things by visting the famous Oxford colleges.
Wear a pair of pyjamas and carry a large pile of books under one arm and a bottle of Pimms under the other. College porters will assume you are a student, and let you in without charging a ruinous entrance fee. Older visitors can replace the pyjamas with tweed and the Pimms with sherry to impersonate a don instead. As well as the usual suspects of Magdalen, Christ Church (the “Harry Potter college”) and Merton, try Worcester’s lake, the Woody Allen gargoyle in Teddy Hall, and The Light of the World in Keble College Chapel.
Continue your student experience (and put that Pimms to good use), by heading to Magdalen Bridge for a spot of punting; if it’s a terrible day, so much the better! Unimpeded by tourists travelling in slow circles in the middle of the river, you should be able to get the punt up to a full speed of 2, perhaps 2 ½ mph. See our Guide to Punting for more information on how not to fall in (or, if you must fall in, how to do so in the most dignified manner possible).
Once towelled off, stroll across Magdalen Bridge and down Cowley Road and appreciate how the other half of Oxford lives; if the fantastic street art and vibrant international atmosphere don’t draw you in, the most important place in Oxford should. If you have time, head up to Headington to check out their famous shark, buried head first in a house. Eating places to watch out for are retro-chic diner Atomic Burger and authentic pizzeria Mario’s. If you’re feeling brave, try the Red Star Spice Challenge, and have your photo put alongside those of spice lovers and macho posturers from across the world.
To tackle the feeling that your throat is about to burst into flames, head out for a cocktail. It would be unfair to single out one particular Oxford cocktail bar as especially excellent: Kazbar, Café Tarifa, the Grand Café, Raoul’s, the Duke of Cambridge and Angels are all worth a try. More importantly, all of these establishments have different Happy Hours, so get the timing right and you won’t pay full price for a drink all night.
To inject a final touch of authentic student colour into your visit, get a late-night snack at one of Oxford’s (in)famous kebab vans. Cheesy chips are probably safest, but a chicken, egg and cheese burger will, once tried, never be forgotten.
Sitting here in the office with the sun shining outside, contemplating an ideal day in Oxford, my mind is so full of fun possibilities that it's hard to imagine cramming them into sixteen or so hours, especially given that one of the nicest things you can do round here is spend an afternoon lying on the grass in your park of choice with a bottle of Cava and a cryptic crossword. Assuming you've got limited time in the city and actually want to do some stuff, I'd suggest the following:
Rise early. Work up an appetite with a stroll (or a run) round Christ Church Meadow, hopefully while the mist is still hanging over the water, and look out for crazy people rowing instead of sleeping (or strolling), then breakfast at the Grand Café on the High Street. It's arguably somewhat overpriced, but offers low-key elegance in terms of menu and decor, with a nice line in lethal coffee. Having hopefully survived the coffee, pop into a couple of nearby colleges (clap at the mound in New College and graze with the deer in Magdalen), before continuing on a round of sightseeing. Other people have recommended the Pitt Rivers Museum on this page, and they're not wrong - it's wonderful - also the Bodleian Library, the Covered Market, Blackwell's Bookshop, St Mary's Church, Modern Art Oxford, and of course lots of the other colleges, are well worth visiting. Consider trying a Walking Tour - a good way of absorbing lots of historical titbits, taken with a pinch of salt. Stop off at intervals for lunch in the garden of the Vaults and Garden café on Radcliffe Square, or a pint at the Bear, the Turf or the Eagle and Child. Finish up by wearing your legs out for good and all at the fabulous new-look Ashmolean, working your way up to the Roof Terrace for a well-deserved round of tea and cake.
Now go home, relax - then put on your sparkly eye make up and go out for dinner in East Oxford at the Magdalen Arms, (or try Fishers, Aziz, Door 74). Yes, they're right about Moya too. Eat lots - you've earned the calories. For the evening's entertainment, I'm not really qualified to recommend gigs or clubs; after such a busy day I'd rather split the evening between a couple of favourite pubs: If you're a bar person I'd try Kazbar on Cowley Road, but I'd probably usually recommend the Fir Tree on Iffley Road and the the Half Moon on St Clements, where you'll hopefully come across a lively folk music night.
Stumble home at two in the morning singing snatches of traditional ballads and vowing to take up the fiddle. Sleep.
Walk through New College Lane to look at the gargoyles, then, if fine: buy a basketful of goodies (from Maison Blanc or Gatineau, Manos or the Co Op plus or minus alcohol from Oddbins), and punt from the Cherwell Boathouse to the Vicky Arms for lunch. If wet: the recently revamped Ashmolean for Art, the Natural History Museum for Nature or the Pitt Rivers for all kinds of human weirdness. Or if your visitor prefers their nature a bit more animated, to the Goldfish Bowl on Magdalen Road - one of Europe's leading aquarium shops, it's almost as good as the zoo. Or, your companion may prefer the elegant simplicity of a day spent gently lurching between the Turf Tavern, the Angel and Greyhound and the King's Arms.
I'd plan to return in the evening to a concert or play (preferably in one of the colleges in order to show off the unique architecture and student vibe). Edamamé, a Japanese restaurant of amazing food and unusual opening hours, is good for a brisk meal if you're trying to fit a lot into an evening (you may have to queue but it usually moves swiftly). If you decide to skip culture for the evening, and especially if your visitor eats meat or fish, you mustn't miss Moya, that jewel of Oxford dining. Civilised yet unpretentious, with beautiful dishes intelligently designed and exquisitely cooked. If it's a Sunday night, and if neither of you have to work the next day, you could finish up with the folk night at the Half Moon.
Head down to George & Danver on St Aldate's and grab a breakfast bagel. If it's sunny, take it into Christ Church Meadow and sit for a while by the river. If not, eat it there (would a mid-morning ice cream be wrong?) and head down Pembroke Street to Modern Art Oxford.
Once you're done being cultured, head over to Hythe Bridge St and wander up the canal into Jericho, past the assorted houseboats and towards the Gardener's Arms on Plantation Road. It's an unpretentious, friendly pub out of the bustle of the city centre that serves excellent vegetarian food, of the sort you needn't be a vegetarian to enjoy.
Rain or shine, a visitor can't leave Oxford without a trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum, at the back of the Museum of Natural History on Parks Road. Make sure you check out the items hidden away in drawers and behind curtains - it's an eclectic, occasionally creepy collection, but worth a peek. If it's a sunny day, the University Parks next door provide an escape from the shrunken heads and Tim Hunkin installations.
In the evening, the Cowley Road is the place to be. Mario's Trattoria doesn't look like much but is where the city's Italians go to eat (be prepared to wait). Afterwards, there'll be a gig on, or there are plenty of great places to go for a drink. (Maybe start at the Library?) Alternatively, for something a little calmer, wander down to the Victoria Arms in Old Marston for a meal as you watch the sun go down over the river.
- Get up early and walk/jog through the University Parks. The trees are fantastic in the morning mist.
- Walk from Magdalen Bridge into the Botanic Gardens and then Christ Church Meadow, following the Cherwell till it meets the Isis, then back up towards Merton College. Ideal route for watching plants, people and punts.
- Head from Carfax along Cornmarket, right into Broad St, right down Turl St, left along the High St and left up Catte Street, stopping in as many shops and colleges as you feel like! Try the tower of St. Michael's at the North Gate, the two Blackwell shops, Exeter College Chapel, Scriptum, the Black Sheep Gallery and the Bodleian Library.
- Have dinner... there is just far too much choice to discuss here! Have a browse on our Food Page.
- Round off the evening with a concert at the Sheldonian Theatre or the Holywell Music Room; a film at the Phoenix Picturehouse or the Ultimate Picture Palace; a gig at the Jericho Tavern, the Cape of Good Hope or the Wheatsheaf; or just a pint at the Bear, the White Horse or the Half Moon.
Start out at the Grog Shop on Kingston Road, equipped with a picnic, and walk down to Port Meadow. Cross the river and walk along the Thames Path. The first stretch is lovely, with wild flowers and views across the river to cattle grazing. Past the station, you come to Osney Island, and after the that the old industrial part of the river before approaching Folly Bridge and Christ Church.
Leave the Thames path here and cross over to the Head of the River for a pint: stay on the north bank for a picnic in Christ Church Meadow. Follow the north river bank through some spectacularly beautiful trees before coming to the Botanical Gardens, where you can while away a very pleasant hour or two - do make sure you visit the hothouses as well and see bananas, waterlilies and carnivorous plants.
For tea, if you are feeling rich, go to the Grand Café - otherwise cross over and go to the Queen's Lane Cafe. From there you can wander up Queen's Lane itself into the heart of Oxford - and then home.