Oxford is a treasure trove of attractions and things to do. Looking for some advice on where to start? Our list is packed with ideas from the local experts at our boutique hotel in Oxford. But first, we’re answering some key questions.
How do I spend a day in Oxford?
Firstly, take a look at this list and write down some of your must-see attractions. Then you can start to plan your route. Oxford can be a little spread out, so be prepared with a map and decide whether you can walk, or whether you need transport. If you want to see some of the key sights, and get a backstage pass to some of them, try our exclusive walking tours. We also recommend taking a look at what’s on in the city during your visit. Oxford is full of culture, and there are events aplenty. Lastly, you need some incredible food. Read our blog on what we think are the best restaurants in Oxford.
Are there things to do in Oxford for free?
Absolutely. A lot of the famous sights in Oxford can be seen simply by strolling around the city. Admire the architecture of the iconic Radcliffe Camera, Christ Church Cathedral and The Sheldonian. Many of the museums are free to enter, including the famous Ashmolean, so you can soak up history and culture. Some university colleges also have free admission at certain times. The friendly staff at our hotel in Oxford are always happy to give their top tips on free activities.
Is Oxford a walkable city?
Yes, depending on where you want to go. Oxford is a larger city than many people think, so look at where you want to go on a map before you commit to a mode of transport. Most people should be okay to walk the city centre with ease. There are a lot of pedestrianised areas where cars are unable to drive, making it much safer and easier to get around. You can also get a local taxi or bus if you’re wanting to go a little further afield.
No, this isn’t a piece of photography equipment. The Radcliffe Camera is perhaps the best-known building of the Bodleian Library. Its magnificent dome is an iconic part of the Oxford skyline, adding to the ‘dreaming spires’ nickname. Surprisingly, it’s one of Oxford’s newer buildings, constructed in the 18th Century. Its main use today is as a reading room, along with housing a couple of book collections.
Tucked away near the Bridge of Sighs, Turf Tavern is one of Oxford’s oldest pubs. It’s had many famous guests, including Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Blair, CS Lewis, Stephen Hawking and Margaret Thatcher. Along one side of the pub lies the remains of the old city wall. The pub itself was strategically placed just outside the walls, meaning it was outside the jurisdiction of the colleges and their rules.
Oxford Covered Market
Sat in the heart of Oxford, the Covered Market is a collection of eateries and shops. Celebrating independent, local businesses, you never know what you might find. The best way to navigate it is just to walk right in and start exploring. An unmissable store is Bens Cookies, which everyone in Oxford is obsessed with (and for good reason). Try them, and you’ll see why.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Step back in time and explore the ancient world. Dominated by dinosaurs, The Oxford University Museum of Natural History provides a fascinating look at extinct creatures. Permanent fossils and replicas set the scene, accompanied by changing events and exhibits which can be found here. Another must-see is the Oxford Dodo, said to have inspired one of Lewis Carroll’s characters in Alice in Wonderland.
At first glance, this sculpture appears like one of the world’s most random guerilla art pieces. Upon learning more, you discover that it is in fact protest art. It was put up without permission, to symbolise bombs being dropped on people’s houses. Unofficially titled the Headington Shark, its real name is Untitled 1986, and it was created by John Buckley.
The Eagle & Child
Don’t be fooled by its outside appearance. Although The Eagle & Child looks like a classic pub, it’s been a favourite haunt of some of the world’s most famous authors. The spot is a former meeting place of a group of writers known as ‘The Inklings’, which included Tolkien and C.S Lewis. They met here to give feedback on one another’s work and refine their writing skills.
The Door to Narnia
Oxford is said to have heavily inspired C.S. Lewis whilst he was writing The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis was a Fellow of Magdalen College, so traces of his fantastical world can be found all over the city. The most famous, however, is the Narnia Door. Found in the alley next to St Mary’s Church, this carved wooden door is adorned with a lion’s head and flanked by two fauns.
Widely hailed as the first modern museum in the world, the Ashmolean houses a fascinating collection of items. Since 1683, the library has housed Oxford University’s historical and archaeological collections. Interestingly, the current museum building is not the original, no matter how grand it looks. The collection grew so big that the building had to relocate to make room for everything.
With a relaxed atmosphere and traditional pub grub, the Magdalen Arms is a local favourite. Seasonal menus are accompanied by a diverse range of drinks, meaning there’s something for everyone. A little out of the centre on Iffley Road, it’s worth the trip to get a taste of the real side of Oxford. Listed in the Michelin guide, a recent TripAdvisor review by samrF4190VF called the pub “Better than excellent.”
Looking for something a little more quirky on your Oxford trip? The Story Museum is an excellent stop. To put it simply, the museum celebrates stories and the art of storytelling. Guiding you through some of Oxford’s most famous stories, you’ll be hooked at every turn. In a review on their website, a visitor says, “The Story Museum is like the little door Alice comes across in the wall. Boring reality on one side. Fantastic magic on the other.”
Kazbar calls itself “Oxford’s best restaurant, party venue and cocktail bar”, which is backed up by their 4.5 star TripAdvisor rating. Their tapas menu is second to none, and their sangria is very authentic. Head there on one of their Spanish music nights, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported overseas. The best part? Their friendly, welcoming attitude.
Christ Church Cathedral
A breathtaking feat of architecture, sat between Christ Church College and Meadow. The cathedral is still a functioning place of worship, serving as the college chapel and the cathedral church for the Diocese of Oxford. Members of the public can book a tour around the college and cathedral, or simply marvel at the magnificent exterior.
Located right on the River Cherwell, Cherwell Boathouse was established in 1904. It serves as both a restaurant and a dock for punting hire, making it the perfect place to spend a summer day. In winter, when the punting season has ended, enjoy the stunning waterside views whilst you dine on seasonal menus and sip on wine recommended by a sommelier.
Oxford Castle and Prison
Once a medieval Norman castle, now a historical site and entertainment centre. History buffs will adore the guided tours, complete with costumed tour guides. It’s an opportunity to see a side of old Oxford that doesn’t relate to the university, offering a unique perspective. If you have more modern tastes, the complex is home to buzzing bars and restaurants.
Sandy’s Piano Bar
Sandy’s Piano Bar is an intimate venue that is perfect for a relaxed cocktail after a day of exploring the city. Live music brings a welcoming atmosphere, with elegant decor to match. Cocktail menus change with the season, reflecting the best produce at the time. A regular of the bar, Sarah S, wrote in a TripAdvisor review “This is my go-to bar at the end of the evening for good live music and drinks. I haven’t yet found anyone that doesn’t love this place.”
A historic suburb just north of the city centre, Jericho is home to a myriad of independent shops, bars, restaurants and cultural hotspots. A favourite of locals and students alike, every corner reveals a new and unique place to explore. With pastel coloured terraces and a laid-back atmosphere, it’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering these streets.
Bridge of Sighs
Look familiar? The Oxford Bridge of Sighs, real name Hertford Bridge, is reminiscent of the original Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Built in 1913, the bridge is a newer addition to an old college, which was first constructed in 1282. It’s a wonderful piece of architecture which has even featured in films and TV, such as Inspector Morse and X Men: First Class.
The Grand Cafe Oxford
England’s oldest coffee house – but ironically there’s no place better to take afternoon tea! A quintessentially British pastime, it would be odd to visit Oxford without trying it. Fluffy scones, fresh cakes and hot drinks are their specialities. Inside, you’ll find truly ‘grand’ interiors, including marble pillars and gold leaf.
The Sheldonian Theatre
This D-shaped building is hard to miss, partly because the fencing is decorated with busts of 13 Emporers. The official ceremonial hall of The University of Oxford, students are enrolled and graduate within its walls. Tourists can visit by booking a tour or watching a show. In a recent TripAdvisor review, FTMDave shares a top tip, “Climb to the top for a great view of Oxford”.
The Varsity Club
Located at No.9 The High Street, The Varsity Club has four floors with different atmospheres. The lower two levels serve as a bar and dance floor on weekends, for a more energetic night. Head to the third floor, however, and you’re greeted by a chic cocktail lounge. Finally, The Roof has unparalleled, 360-degree views of Oxford’s dreaming spires and is open year-round.
Just over the road from Christ Church lies Alice’s Shop. Named after Alice in Wonderland, who was inspired by the Dean of Christ Church’s daughter. The store itself was once a sweet shop that the ‘real Alice’ visited in her youth. Inside you’ll find an eclectic mix of gifts and souvenirs inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Oxford Botanic Gardens & Arboretum
The oldest Botanic Garden in the UK, and one of the oldest in the world, the living collection has been growing for hundreds of years. Featuring multiple collections that span over 6000 plant species, the gardens look wonderful all year round. Be sure to pay a visit to the Glasshouses, where tropical palms and cacti flourish no matter the season.
Famous for being one of the oldest and largest libraries in Britain, with some of its buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. If you’re not literature-obsessed, you’ll definitely want to see the incredible architecture inside and out. One of the most renowned Bodleian buildings is the Radcliffe Camera, but others include the fortress-like Old Bodleian Library.
The Bear Inn
While you’re here, don’t miss the chance to visit Oxford’s oldest pub. The Bear Inn dates back to 1242 and is an Oxford institution. Expect all the traditional features of a pub this age, including low ceilings and creaky floors. It’s small, seating just two dozen people inside, but has a mighty selection of food and drink on offer.
Located less than half an hour away from our boutique hotel, Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over 300 years old, it is owned by the Churchill family and is the only non-royal residence in the UK to have the title of Palace. Fun fact: part of Blenheim Palace was designed by architect Sir John Vanbrugh and built by the Piesley family – the same people who created Vanbrugh House Hotel.
Where to stay in Oxford
If you’re looking for a hotel in Oxford city centre, Vanbrugh House Hotel is ideally located. Our boutique hotel is inspired by the culture and history of our city, and our staff are always on hand to give you a warm welcome. Discover our Oxford hotel deals here.