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Best things to do in Oxford 2020

Matt Breen
6 Jan 2020
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You needn’t be a student to appreciate Oxford – here’s the best of all that the charming university town has to offer

It might share, with Cambridge, the title of “world’s most famous university town” – but there’s plenty more to enjoy in Oxford besides a prestigious education. Alongside its college halls, rolling lawns and winding cloisters, the Thames-side town is also absolutely bursting with museums, galleries, pubs, restaurants, tours and plenty of other gems - all guaranteed to entertain adults and kids alike.

This is why there’s always been a staggeringly high tourist footfall in Oxford all year round – and even more so in the last couple of decades, which might just have something to do with the university being used as a filming location for the adventures of a certain boy wizard. 

Not sure where to start? Here we’ve put together a list of the best things to do in Oxford and the surrounding area, as well as tips on how to get there and where to stay.

How to get to Oxford

If you're visiting the UK from overseas, you'll find that the nearest airports to Oxford are London Heathrow and London Luton. Londoners can take regular trains run from Marylebone or Paddington - with journeys lasting between 50 and 70 minutes - or hop aboard the Oxford Tube – which, despite the name, is a coach service. There are also direct trains from Birmingham New Street and Reading. Conveniently, Oxford Railway Station is just a five-minute walk from the town centre.

Where to stay in Oxford

Given the huge influx of visitors, it isn’t surprising that there’s lots of choice of accommodation in Oxford, from shoestring to splurge. Those looking for luxe should check out the five-star Old Bank, whose tastefully understated rooms are located in, yes, a former bank opposite All Souls College. The Head of the River is a homely inn-style hotel located directly on the Thames, where breakfast can be enjoyed in an outdoor area beside the water. If you’re looking for mid-range lodgings, The Buttery offers rooms at prices that are highly competitive given its slap-bang location, while the Hampton by Hilton Oxford Hotel does cheaper rooms still (but is a short distance outside of town). If you’re travelling on an absolute budget, Oxford Backpackers hostel offers beds in 6- to 18-bed dorms, and is just a few minutes from the train station.

The best things to do in Oxford

1. Visit the colleges

A visit to Oxford wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt around its various university colleges. Dating back to the twelfth century (though evidence suggests teaching took place a century before that), the prestigious institution counts 28 British prime ministers among its alumni and remains a byword for world-class education. It’s easy enough to wander haphazardly about the town from one college to the next - but for something a little more informative, we suggest you join a walking tour. The guide will delve into the university's illustrious past, and take you to landmarks like the Bodleian Library, University Church of St Mary, the Bridge of Sighs and Trinity College.

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2. Take a river cruise along the Thames

If you want to dodge the crowds of students and sightseers for a while, hop aboard a cruise boat on the Thames, and see Oxford from the water. This 90-minute trip will take you on a leisurely journey downriver from the centre of the city, past sights like Christ Church Meadow and the University Boathouse, all the way to 17th-century Iffley Lock, a mile or so outside of town. To cap off the full quintessential English experience, an afternoon tea of sandwiches, cakes and scones with cream and jam is included in the package.

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READ NEXT: Best weekend getaways from London

3. Wander through the Pitt Rivers Museum

Given its long academic history, it’s hardly surprising that Oxford is home to some of the finest museums and displays that you’ll find outside of London. The Ashmolean is Oxford’s largest museum, but for eccentricity, the Pitt Rivers Museum can’t be beaten. Founded by the ethnologist and archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, the museum first opened its doors in 1884 and houses an astonishing collection of more than 500,000 artefacts, which includes everything from carvings to jewellery to weapons to (gulp) shrunken heads. The museum is both a fascinating trip through the many diverse cultures of the world, and a celebration of eccentric Victorian collecting. Best of all, admission is free – below, you can read visitor’s reviews, and their favourite exhibits from the collection.

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4. Explore the Cotswolds

People from outside of the UK tend to harbour incredibly rose-tinted ideas of rural England. But those picture-postcard images – thatched cottages, village greens, cobbled lanes – are all present and correct in the Cotswolds, an absurdly idyllic area of Southern England that covers several counties, including Oxfordshire. This seven-hour tour will take groups via minivan from Oxford and out into the rolling hills of the Cotswolds. You’ll stop by a number of charming hamlets and villages, including Great Tew, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water and Minster Lovell, where you can admire the ruins of a 15th-century manor house. 

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5. Visit Oxford Castle

Who doesn’t love a good castle? England is full of them, and the one in Oxford dates back to the Norman era, which was subsequently left semi-ruined after the Civil War, and was even used a prison from the 17th to the 20th century. (Although, these days the accommodation is a little more upmarket, since the Malmaison hotel chain took over some of the castle). If you want to be taken on a 1,000-year journey through the castle’s history, book a spot on the Oxford Castle Unlocked guided tour – you’ll admire the views from St George’s Tower, venture down into the crypt and discover where those prisoners were chained for all those years.

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6. Modern Art Oxford

If all the centuries-old colleges and medieval architecture starts to feel a bit samey after a while, then head to the city’s foremost contemporary art gallery for a palate-cleanser. Despite its relatively small size, Modern Art Oxford delivers a rich, bold and frequently challenging programme of art that changes on a quarterly basis. You can expect to get up close and personal with everything from minimalist sculpture to video performance art – and there’s a vibrant calendar of talks, film screenings and workshops, too. 

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7. Stop for a pint

As a general rule, any town in Britain that has a lot of history also tends to have a lot of pubs, and Oxford is no exception. You’ll find no shortages of boozers if you’re in need of a pitstop, but it’s worth seeking out the gems. The Turf Tavern is the classic college pub – many generations of university dons would have clinked glasses here over the years. Older still is The Bear, which opened in 1242 and so probably deserves its reputation as the oldest pub in Oxford. The Old Bookbinders is decorated with fun posters and memorabilia – and if you don’t mind heading off the beaten track, The Trout Inn is a fabulous riverside pub located by Port Meadow: the perfect place to sit with beverage and watch the boats go by. 


8. See where the Harry Potter movies were filmed

Most self-respecting Potter nerds will know that Oxford University stepped in to help play the role of another educational institution in the film franchise: that of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. So if you’re a dedicated fan and you want to explore the various filming locations in detail, this tour is the perfect opportunity. It takes you through New College, Christchurch College and the Bodleian Library’s breathtaking Divinity (not Divination) School. Don’t worry about not being able to recognise your tour guide when you gather at the tour’s muster point: he or she will be dressed in traditional Hogwarts garb. An excuse to dress up yourself?

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9. Check out Oxford’s restaurant scene 

There’s nothing like a day of sightseeing to build up an appetite - and when it comes to sitting down for a decent meal, you’re spoilt for choice in Oxford. Turl Street Kitchen does reliably slick modern British dishes in a canteen-style setting. If you’re looking for something a touch more exotic, Mowgli does fun spins on traditional Indian chaat and other street food, while Oli’s Thai offers a cosy, cheek-by-jowl South-East Asian experience. The Ashmolean’s rooftop restaurant does a seasonal menu alongside sweeping views of the city, and has a terrace too if you’re just popping by for afternoon tea after wandering around the museum’s collection. 


10. Take a day trip to Bath and Stonehenge

While there’s plenty to see and do in Oxford itself, if you’re staying for a few days, you should consider taking a day out to venture further afield. This day-long coach tour takes you out to two other popular destinations into neighbouring counties. The first is Stonehenge: the world-famous stone circle in Wilshire that predates the Pyramids by several hundred years and continues to confound historians and archaeologists. The second stop is Bath, a genteel Georgian spa town famous for its Italianate architecture and Roman-era springs, and one that counts Jane Austen among its previous residents. An Oxford-educated tour guide will wax lyrical on both destinations – click on the link below for details of the itinerary.

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