Date of Publication: 04 May 2021
It may be small, but the city of Oxford is home to an outstanding collection of architectural masterpieces, many of which have become world-famous. In fact, Oxford’s architecture is so renowned that it has even earned itself recognition as the ‘city of dreaming spires.’
Many of them owe their thanks to the growth of the University of Oxford, which has built throughout the city for more than over 800 years. But, look further afield, and you’ll also discover some fine examples of houses, churches, and other famous buildings in Oxford – which have existed for centuries.
Its inspiring craftsmanship, golden brickwork and history of famous buildings mean that a stroll through the city really is a true walk through time. Keep reading below to discover our list of some of the most famous buildings in Oxford and how they came to gain international acclaim.
The Most Famous Buildings in Oxford
Below, you’ll find a list of some of the most famous buildings in Oxford, famed for their stunning architecture. Many of these buildings can still be visited today, giving you plenty of things to do and see when you next visit the city.
St George’s Tower, Oxford Castle (11th Century)
Oxford Castle, attached with St George’s Tower on the right.
Kick-starting our list of famous Oxford architecture is St George’s Tower, which makes up part of the historic Oxford Castle. Standing at four-storeys high, St George’s Tower was built in the early 11th Century, presenting a rare example of early stone and military design.
In 1071, when William the Conqueror appointed his fellow fighter and colleague, Robert D’Oilly, to lead the construction of Oxford Castle, he did so with the provision that needed to be positioned in such a way that it could hold off any threats to the city. As part of this instruction, D’Oilly chose to incorporate St George’s Tower – an already proven defence tower which had stood for many years before – as part of the designs in his Norman Castle – which sat upon an earth mound to the west of the city.
During its existence, it has been used as defence against the west gate of the Saxon town of Oxford and acted as a crypt during the castle’s operation as a prison for more than 6 centuries. Rumour has it that during the Castle’s years in operation as a prison, one of the punishments for its inhabitants was to climb the 101 stairs up to St George’s Tower over 5,000 times a day!
Today, St George’s Tower and the remainder of the castle are Grade I listed buildings and recognised as a Scheduled Monument, which you can visit along with the site’s educational centre and exhibit.
Christ Church Cathedral, University of Oxford (12th Century and later)
Christ Church College, with the Cathedral Tower in the background.
Established in the first quarter of the 12th century, Christ Church Cathedral is considered to be the first of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires,’ and one of England’s earliest towers. The original cathedral was of Norman design, but owes much of its design to the early Gothic Revival of the Victorian era, when much of the church was redesigned and rebuilt.
Founded on the site of the former monastery of St Frideswide’s, much of Christ Church Cathedral was built at the end of the 12th Century for the Augustinian Canons who resided here. A shrine was constructed in memory of St Frideswide, but was broken up in 1538 during the Reformation under King Henry VIII. However, parts of the shrine were found in a nearby well in the 19th century and restored to the church where they can be seen today.
By the cathedral’s main entrance are a set of war memorials, dedicated to those members of Christ Church College who lost their lives to the two World Wars. As you pass this and enter into the cathedral, you’ll notice that a tall organ rises above you, which was only installed in 1979. Look to your left and you’ll see one of the college’s most precious stained glass windows, which were commissioned in 1630 to add beauty and colour into the building. It really is a building filled with unique and impressive details.
15th-Century vaulted ceilings support the building’s narrow but tall and strong towered structure. Coated in the same stone that washes much of the city’s great architectural sites, it remains one of the most famous and historic buildings in Oxford.
New College, University of Oxford (14th Century)
New College exterior, surrounded by city walls.
Founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, New College (one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford) is one of the finest examples of English Perpendicular Gothic style that remains today.
At the time of its founding, New College was larger than all of the (then) six colleges combined together. Today, it remains one of the most famous buildings in Oxford, as it was one of the first colleges to construct a number of key buildings: a Chapel, Dining Hall, Library and sleeping accommodation around a quadrangle – which later became the building model that influenced all later colleges.
Over the centuries, the college’s initial quadrangle has been added to, including an upper story (also known as “the attics”) in the 16th Century, and an oval turf. Today, the College and its gardens are enclosed by the city walls down New College Lane, which date back to the 13th Century. Many of its buildings are listed as being of historical importance, making it one of the most widely visited destinations.
The college is also currently building a new development on its Savile Road site, which sits next to New College School. The “Gradel Quadrangles” as it will be known, have been designed by David Kohn Architects, and will provide additional accommodation for 70 students and a new learning hub – contributing to the ongoing development of modern architecture in Oxford.
Radcliffe Camera, University of Oxford (18th Century)
Radcliffe Camera in Radcliffe Square.
The 18th Century was filled with plenty of creative exploration in building styles; with much of the Oxford architecture from this time being defined as either Palladian, Baroque or Neoclassical. But it was also defined as the century when the construction of one of the most famous buildings in Oxford was built: the Radcliffe Camera.
The Radcliffe Camera was inspired by Palladian architecture, which takes its influence from Venetian architect, Andrea Palladio, who placed emphasis on the need for symmetry and perspective for the viewer. In contrast to some of the Neoclassical architecture which we’ve featured on this list, it is far less detailed and simpler in its design, making it really stand out amongst other Oxford architecture in the city.
Commissioned by the late John Radcliffe, who was one of the most successful English physicians for his time, the Radcliffe Camera was designed by architect James Gibbs. The domed building was the first library of this shape, constructed with pillars in a symmetrical, repeating pattern.
Sitting centrally in Radcliffe Square, surrounded by the other Bodleian Library buildings, the Radcliffe Camera is imposing, giving definition to its shape and the illusion of height. Interestingly, from the outside, the building gives the illusion that it has three stories, but in reality, it actually only has two levels on the inside. If you want to get a glimpse of how tall it actually is, climb St Mary’s Tower (also in Radcliffe Square) and you’ll soon gain perspective.
Church of St Mary the Virgin, Radcliffe Square (14th – 15th Century)
Church of St Mary the Virgin exterior, from High Street.
On the same street of the Radcliffe Camera sits another stunning piece of Oxford architecture; the Church and Tower of St Mary the Virgin. The church is at the centre from where the University of Oxford and its constituent colleges grew, with its parish containing almost exclusively a collection of university buildings.
One of its oldest and most defining features is the 14th Century Gothic spire, which is magnificently detailed with triple-gabled outer pinnacles, gargoyles, and other intricate statues – so much so that it has gone on to be claimed as one of the most beautiful churches in England.
Later, in 1637, an eccentric baroque porch was designed and added by Nicholas Stone, which faces the High Street. Drawing on influence from the Roman baroque architecture period, it is highly ornate, with sleek, spiralling columns, with a statue of the Virgin and Child sitting underneath a gothic fan vault.
Inside, the church has six bay-arcades, which are canopied with archangels holding shields above them. The roof has traceried spandrels, the seating is surrounded with cusped arches, and beautiful stained glass windows emit sunlight throughout the day.
Today, the church is one of the most famous buildings in Oxford to visit and popular amongst the locals. When you visit, you can dine in the church’s cafe (formerly the Old Congregation House) and climb its impressive tower to capture unrivalled views of Oxford’s unique cityscape.
Divinity School, University of Oxford (13th Century & early 17th Century)
Interior vaulted ceilings, Divinity School.
When the Church of St Mary the Virgin was created, the university acknowledged the need to create a library space to house the books and teach Theology to its students. And so, the Duke Humfrey’s Library was built.
Below this, lies the vaults of the Divinity School, one of the finest examples of Medieval, Perpendicular Oxford architecture to exist, Built over a fifty-year period from 1427 to 1483, it is the oldest surviving purpose-built building for university use, having been used for lectures, oral exams, and Theology teaching.
Physically, the building is attached to the Bodleian Library, with the Duke Humfrey’s Library sitting on the floor above it. Those who have visited Oxford may be familiar with the Sheldonian Theatre which sits opposite it – the building which is used for students’ matriculation and graduation ceremonies.
Its most striking feature is the elaborate lierne vaulted ceiling, which is constructed of over 450 bosses. These were designed by architect William Orchard and offer an intricate star-shaped design, connecting the 455 stone carved-stone plaques of the individuals who donated funds to the building work.
Externally, its turreted roof and barred windows give it a defining attitude, while the external door which offers access to the Sheldonian Theatre showcases its prestige, as mounted with the University of Oxford’s coat of arms.
Sheldonian Theatre, University of Oxford (17th Century)
Sheldonian Theatre, exterior.
Elegantly modelled but strong in design, the Sheldonian Theatre has been central to thousands of Oxford students’ journeys throughout university, as it is the building in which they initially matriculate and later graduate from the University of Oxford.
Modelled on a U-shaped open-air theatre in Ancient Rome, the Sheldonian Theatre is the first piece of Oxford architecture modelled on a Neoclassical design, and the first and one of the most famous buildings in Oxford which were designed by Christopher Wren.
At the time, Wren was a Professor of Astronomy of Oxford, with little experience of architecture or building. Yet, his fascination with the elegance of Roman theatre drawings is what inspired him to design the great building.
Externally, the theatre is guarded by the heads of “The Oxford Emperors,” giving the building its distinct and unique style. Each of them are carved from hard Clipsham stone and weigh around one tonne in weight; there are seventeen in total and have been replaced three times during the building’s existence – meaning we don’t know who exactly they were meant to be based on originally.
Look up above the railings, and you’ll see a small dome which sits atop the building (also known as the eight-sided cupola), which has large, surrounding widows, offering fine views of the city. Internally, you can expect intricately painted ceilings, which shield a 70-foot supporting roof structure. It really is an architectural marvel which demands to be explored.
Radcliffe Observatory, University of Oxford (18th Century)
Radcliffe Observatory, exterior.
Inspired by the 1st Century Tower of the Winds in Athens, the Radcliffe Observatory is a major feature of Classic design in Oxford’s architecture scene. In fact, architecturally, it’s even considered to be Europe’s finest observatory.
The observatory was founded and named by the Radcliffe trustees, after the astronomer, Thomas Hornsby, who held the Savilian Chair of Astronomy at the University of Oxford, noted an observation of the notable transit of Venus across the sun’s disc from a room in the nearby Radcliffe Infirmary in 1769.
In 1772, the building commenced, designed by Henry Keene – who had previously worked with Christ Church and Balliol College. However, the Observatory was later completed to a different design by James Wyatt.
Wyatt designed a three-storey, semi-circular central building, with an arc which faces north. This central semi-circle provides space for the pillared entrance hall, which sits at the base of the stairwell. Externally, the very top of the building features a statue by John Bacon of Atlas, holding up the world.
Up until around the early-to-mid 20th Century, Observatories worked by directing telescopes through large glass windows. Hence, the large glass windows which surround the very top of the tower on its third storey. However, as new technologies developed, the need for these buildings diminished. So, in 1934, the Observatory was sold, with a new one being built in Pretoria, South Africa. Today, it remains as a Grade I listed building and a part of Green Templeton College of the University of Oxford.
Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford (21st Century)
Blavatnik School of Government, exterior.
One of the finest examples of modern architecture in Oxford is the Blavatnik School of Government, which was established in 2016. Standing out against Oxford’s stately stone facades, the building is constructed entirely of concrete and glass, giving it a unique and distinctive finish.
Designed and built by Swedish architect firm, Herzog & de Meuron, the building hosts the Blavatnik School of Government, which teaches governance in a way that strengthens unity between communities and fosters collaboration. These founding principles can be demonstrated in elements of the building’s design, which includes a central meeting space known as The Forum.
Formed by an irregular stack of cylindrical and horseshoe-shaped blocks, curving glass structures surround the building and its rooms to allow lots of natural light, as well as resonating with the university’s Radcliffe Camera and Sheldonian Theatre buildings. The tiered construction of the building supports a series of ring-shaped walkways, encouraging communication amongst students and staff.
The building also features a large double-glazed window – which the architects claim is Europe’s largest – and frames a view across the street to the Neoclassical Oxford University Press building. Both buildings are located within the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and can be seen with ease from the street.
Be inspired by Oxford’s architecture this summer
Can’t wait to explore some of the buildings on our list of Oxford’s most impressive architecture? Join us for a summer course this year and immerse yourself amongst the very same buildings that have inspired some of the world’s greatest minds for over 800 years.
Offering an authentic experience into life as a student here in the city, our award-winning programmes combine a range of social, academic and leisure activities around the city to maximise your experience. So you’ll literally have an opportunity to eat, sleep, and study within some of these world-famous buildings.
Want to find out more? Take a look at our available range of summer courses in Oxford.