It’s funny, but it seems like it’s the places nearest to us that always remain unseen the longest. Maybe it’s because places within close proximity to home don’t require much advance planning to visit, making it easier to keep putting them off for a future unscheduled weekend. As if those actually exist. At least that was the case for us with Oxford, anyway. I don’t know how many times we mentioned spending a weekend in Oxford before we finally did it. Too many. To tell you the truth, if we were still living in London, Oxford would probably still be holding a spot on our to-see list because the thing that ultimately convinced us to just choose a date and go was finding out we would soon be moving 7,000 miles away! And so, with only a few weeks left in London, we finally spent that long-talked-about weekend in Oxford and came home kicking ourselves for waiting so long.
An hour’s journey west of London by train, Oxford has much of the same charm as the nearby Cotswolds, but far more energy than its sleepier neighbors thanks to the famous university that lies within it. Home to the University of Oxford, the oldest university in England (and, well, all English-speaking countries actually), Oxford’s beautiful, old colleges are certainly not the only thing worth visiting here. Filled with world-class museums, famous bookshops, lively pubs, charming cobbled streets, and loads of literary/film connections (I’m not just talking about Harry Potter!), Oxford has a lot to offer potential visitors. Although many people visit this city via day trip tours, Oxford also makes the perfect weekend getaway from London. So if you’ve got a little more time to spend in this exciting city, our travel guide to Oxford will help you decide what to do!
10 WAYS TO SPEND A WEEKEND IN OXFORD
EXPLORE THE COLLEGES
The University of Oxford is made up of 38 different colleges and 6 private halls, and many of these can be visited for free or for a small fee. Obviously, visiting all 38 colleges in a single weekend would be impossible, so your best bet will be to choose a few that interest you and try to work in visits during their opening hours. Some colleges are more popular (and more interesting/attractive/historical) than others, so you’ll want to do a little research before you go. Alternatively, if you’re not sure which colleges you’d like to see, consider joining a walking tour. Footprints Tours have an excellent reputation, but do note that their free tour doesn’t actually enter most colleges.
Weekend opening hours and admission fees for the separate colleges can be found here.
CLIMB TO THE TOP OF THE UNIVERSITY CHURCH TOWER
Located on the High Street directly across from the Radcliffe Camera (pictured above), the University Church of St Mary the Virgin sits right at the heart of Oxford. The interior of the church isn’t really anything to write home about, but the church’s 13th century tower is definitely worth visiting. For just £4, you can climb 127 steps to the top of the tower and enjoy the best views in Oxford. Besides the Radcliffe Camera, you’ll also have an excellent view of almost all the colleges that make up the University of Oxford, as well as the countryside surrounding the city. (There is a room on the way up that features a map showing which colleges are which. I recommend taking a photo of it so you know what you’re looking at when you’re at the top!)
Weekend Opening Hours: Saturday (9:30am – 5pm), Sunday (11:30am – 5pm)
VISIT THE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
If you want to take a peek inside the museum that inspired several of Lewis Carroll’s characters in Alice in Wonderland, you’ll want to head over to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Not only are the contents worth visiting for (think: dinosaur skeletons and fossils, the most complete remains of a dodo bird in the world, and an actual dinosaur egg, among thousands of other things), the cathedral-like museum itself is also quite something to see. Entrance to the museum is free, and unlike other museums, the Museum of Natural History has a ‘Please Touch’ policy, making it a perfect place to bring kids!
Weekend Opening Hours: Saturday & Sunday (10am – 5pm)
AND DON’T MISS THE ADJOINING PITT RIVERS MUSEUM
Connected to the Museum of Natural History via an easy-to-miss doorway on the far wall, the adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum features the University of Oxford’s archaeological and anthropological collections. Before you yawn and give this one a hard pass, you should know this is where the creators of the Harry Potter films got a lot of their ideas, so you just might see some familiar items in here! (Actual shrunken heads, anyone?) Displaying over 30,000 artifacts from all over the world (300,000 more are held off-site and rotated regularly), all three floors of this museum are chock-full of oddities and surprising discoveries. And, like most museums in Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum is free to enter.
Weekend Opening Hours: Saturday & Sunday (10am – 4:30pm)
GRAB A PINT AT THE EAGLE AND CHILD PUB
Located on St Giles Street, this traditional English pub is most well-known for its intriguing history as the preferred meeting spot of The Inklings – a group of literature enthusiasts who used to gather in the pub to discuss and critique their unfinished work. Two of the group’s most infamous members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom used to sit at the table pictured above. Since The Eagle & Child is pretty much the equivalent of Literary Holy Ground, the pub is usually quite crowded with tourists. However, it’s still worth dropping by for a pint (or lunch – the fish and chips are great) even if you can’t get a spot around The Inklings’ table. (There’s an addition on the back of the pub that makes a much better spot for grabbing lunch if you don’t want people taking photos of your table while you eat!)
Weekend Opening Hours: Saturday (11am – 11pm), Sunday (Midday – 10:30pm)
DISCOVER ALL THE HARRY POTTER FILM LOCATIONS
Follow in the footsteps of everyone’s favorite wizard on your weekend in Oxford by visiting the various Harry Potter filming locations throughout the city! From Christ Church’s Dining Hall that inspired Hogwarts’ own Great Hall to the Bodleian Library’s stunning Divinity School which doubled as the Hogwarts infirmary in the films, there are many sights to see here that had major roles in the films. The main sights are all located within the colleges, so you can kill two birds with one stone by visiting the colleges and checking out the filming locations at the same time. I’ll have a post up next week about where to find all of these sights if you want to discover them on your own. Otherwise, a Harry Potter walking tour is the way to go!
VISIT THE ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is the oldest public museum in the world, and when they say there’s a little something for everyone in this museum, they mean it. From modern art to classical sculpture, from Picasso to pottery, from Egyptian mummies to Oliver Cromwell’s death mask – the collections in the Ashmolean are rich and varied. And the museum is enormous, so be prepared to spend at least a half-day in here if you want to see “everything”. (We were there for two hours and only made it through two of the museum’s five floors.) The Ashmolean is free to visit, except for special exhibitions which are ticketed.
Weekend Opening Hours: Saturday & Sunday (10am – 5pm)
RELAX IN THE GARDENS
Like London, Oxford offers several lovely green spaces to relax in that feel a world away from the city. Christ Church Meadow (beside the college) and Port Meadow (along the Thames) are two of Oxford’s most popular spots to picnic or go for a walk on a sunny day, but there are many gardens worth exploring as well. The University of Oxford Botanic Garden is Britain’s oldest botanic garden, and for £5 you can wander through the diverse collections of plants contained within it. If you’d rather explore Oxford’s gardens while ticking off some of the other things on this list, then check out some of the beautiful landscaped areas within the colleges instead. Our favorites were the gardens inside New College, but Worcester College and Magdalen College are also famous for their peaceful hidden gardens. (Remember to stay off the quads inside the colleges. It’s forbidden to walk on most of them!)
TAKE A WALK ALONG THE CANAL
Is it just me or is any city with canals instantly prettier just because it has narrows of water running through it? Connecting with the Thames in two different places, the path along the Oxford Canal in Oxford is a beautiful place to take a walk. (There’s a good 5-mile route here.) Or if you’re game, you can give punting a go! Until we visited Oxford, the only punting I had heard of had to do with football (the American kind), but punting here is something entirely different. It’s sort of like rowing, but in a boat semi-akin to a gondola using a long stick to push off the river bed. At Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, you can try it yourself or have a chauffeur do all the dirty work while you relax in the boat Venice-style.
STROLL DOWN OXFORD’S PRETTY STREETS
Picturesque cobblestone streets lined with honey-colored architecture. College towers and church spires that stretch high above the city. Colorful and quirky cafes and pubs. Blooming magnolias in the spring, autumn colors that coordinate with the architecture in the fall. Oxford is essentially a photographer’s dream. Starting from Radcliffe Square, explore down any street or alley and you’re guaranteed to discover endless opportunities for interesting photos. Elegant architecture, history, and a bustling city life – it’s all here just waiting to be seen and photographed, so be sure to factor in some wandering time on your weekend in Oxford!
OXFORD TRAVEL TIPS
HOW TO GET TO OXFORD
The easiest way to reach Oxford is to take the train or a bus from London. You can also drive there if you have your own vehicle, but unless you plan to explore outside the city, it might be easier just to take the train or bus to spare yourself from having to deal with parking!
Trains to Oxford Station leave from Paddington Station in London every 5-10 minutes. The journey takes around an hour. If you purchase tickets in advance, prices are usually much cheaper than on the day. Otherwise, if you travel at off-peak times you’ll also save a little cash. Buses to Oxford leave from London Victoria Coach Station almost as frequently as the train. The journey by bus takes around an hour and a half, but can be subject to traffic. The Oxford Tube and National Express are two operators to check out if you choose to travel by bus.
Trains and buses leave around the clock, so it’s easy to hop on either after work on Friday to arrive in Oxford by evening. However, if you’re on a tight budget, consider taking one of the early trains or buses leaving on Saturday morning to save one night’s room rate – accommodations in Oxford aren’t exactly cheap!
WHERE TO STAY
Oxford offers all sorts of fun options for accommodations. You could stay in a narrowboat along the canal, in a prison turned luxury hotel, or if you’re visiting in the summer, you could even stay inside one of Oxford’s colleges!
Accommodations in the city center can be pretty pricey, so if you’re trying to save a little cash, try staying a bit further out. We booked an Airbnb in the neighborhood of Jericho, about a 20-minute walk from Radcliffe Square, and loved having a quiet area to return to every night. Jericho, as well as other neighborhoods surrounding Oxford, have their own set of shops and restaurants, so you won’t have to walk into Oxford for every meal!
ARE DAY TRIPS WORTH IT?
While a full weekend in Oxford would certainly make for a better experience all-around, if a day trip is your only option, take it! The history, the beauty of the city, and the youthful vibe that pulses throughout the old city is worth seeing and experiencing even if you only have a small amount of time. The one thing I don’t recommend is taking one of the day tours from London that lumps Oxford in with other destinations as well. I’ve seen tours like this offer up to three stops in one day and I just don’t see how you could enjoy anywhere properly like that. Definitely stick with the single destination day tours!
A NOTE ON CLOSINGS
While school is in session, and even during the summer when most students have packed up and gone home until the next term, closures within Oxford’s colleges are common. I recommend checking each college’s website that you plan to visit about a week before your trip to check for any unexpected closures. Sometimes only certain areas of the college are closed off, other times you might not be able to get in at all on a specific day. However, if you know ahead of time when something will be closed, you’ll still have time to rearrange your schedule to see it the next day. You can find a link to each college’s official website here.
Do you have any other travel tips for Oxford? Things visitors shouldn’t miss? Leave them in the comments below!
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