Date of Publication: 10 November 2020
With its imposing spires and picture-perfect cobblestone streets, there’s few cities that match the heritage feel that Oxford has.
Its name may evoke images of libraries, gowned students on cycles, riverside picnics and afternoons spent punting, but there is so much more to the city than just that.
What is There to Do in Oxford for Students?
This is a question we get asked a lot by our prospective students, and one we get very passionate about. For students, there’s never a shortage of things to do in this magnificent city. In fact, we’ve compiled a list of 40 things to do in Oxford.
Take a look at them below and make a list of any you may want to do when you join us for a summer course in Oxford. Have you seen or done any of them before?
1. Walking Tour of the University
Although you may be studying at the university, we bet you haven’t seen all the 45 colleges which make up this famous establishment.
Go behind-the-scenes of one of the world’s most famous universities with a university walking tour. Led by an expert guide (or self-guided if you fancy) who knows the colleges, quads and hidden student spots like the back of their hand, it’s a great activity to help you find your bearings around the city (and get college envy!)
2. Take a Walk Through Time at the Ashmolean Museum
Having opened in 1683, the Ashmolean is the oldest public museum in England.
Housing a huge collection of antiques and artefacts from art and archaeology, their collections span from the ancient Egyptian times to modern China.
There are a number of impressive antiquities available to view, including Guy Fawkes’ lantern and Michelangelo’s studies for the Sistine Chapel. One of our favourites is the impressive Djed-Djehuty-Iuef-Ankh Mummy, used to preserve and transport their body to an afterlife.
Once you’ve finished exploring the museum’s collections, take a look at the rooftop restaurant for a place to rest your legs and enjoy a spot of lunch or afternoon tea. It’s one of the best spots to sit and take in stunning views of the city.
Admission to the museum is free, so it’s hard to think of a better thing for students to do in Oxford – especially if it’s a typical British rainy day.
3. Go Shopping at Westgate or On Nearby Streets
If you ever find yourself with a free day to spare and are wondering what to do in Oxford, you can’t go wrong spending it window shopping around the city centre.
In recent years, Oxford has had its Westgate Shopping Centre extensively remodelled, where it now houses the majority of main chain retailers, as long as high-end fashion brands and a variety of restaurants, cafes and pop-up eateries.
Head outside and onto the nearby Queen Street and Cornmarket Street, you’ll find even more high-street shops available, as well as popular cafes and take-out stores. Sprawling from these main roads, you’ll also find a labyrinth of side streets and cobblestone lanes, filled with antique stores and quirky boutiques.
Beyond the city centre, there are also plenty of shops and markets in and around the popular suburbs of Summertown, Jericho and Cowley Road – so you’ll never fall short of places to shop!
4. Visit Oxford Castle and Prison
Did you know that Oxford still has a standing castle? One which is still used today as a living, dining and hotel quarter?
Located just south of the Westgate shopping centre, Oxford Castle is a classic motte and bailey castle which, during its existence, has been home to royalty, used as a centre of justice, and, for several centuries – acted as a Gaol for petty criminals.
Today, you can still visit the site and delve into its 1,600 years of history; go underground into the candle-lit crypt; explore the prison cells from the 18th century; or step outside and venture up the castle’s outdoor mound for great views of the city.
If history isn’t your thing, you can enjoy views of the castle over a spot of lunch at one of the restaurants in the quarter. There’s also a hotel, apartments, as well as a learning centre nearby.
5. City Sightseeing Bus Tour
Short on time? Take a speedy trip around the city on a bus sightseeing tour.
These tours may only be approximately 1 hour in length, but they do ensure you get to see some of the best sites and historical buildings within the city. Great for those who don’t have a lot of time to spare.
For those buildings which are a little more difficult to see by vehicle, each ticket also comes with an optional 30 minute walking tour, allowing you to see monuments such as the Bodleian Library and its famous Radcliffe Camera, as well as the hidden streets of North Parade and Little Clarendon Street.
6. Cycle Around the City
As convenient as it is to see the city of Oxford by bus, you can only gain an authentic experience by cycling around the city.
With its narrow side-streets and cobblestone lanes, Oxford is quite a pedestrianised area, making it difficult to see some of the best sites by vehicle, especially if there is a lot of traffic.
Whereas if you hire a bike (or use your own), you can plan your own or book onto a self-guided cycle tour of the city, where you can ride along some of the oldest paths within the city walls, as well as the peaceful Oxford Canal and Port Meadow.
7. Spook Yourself Out With Bill Spectre’s Ghost Trail
Running throughout the year, Bill Spectre’s theatrical ghost tours delve into Oxford’s past, with spooky shenanigans which can be enjoyed for all ages. The tours are award-winning, using a number of props, tricks and costumes to make the experience even more spine-chilling.
As you make your way around the city on this 1 hour 45 minute tour , you’ll discover some of the most haunted buildings, hear stories of fallen cavalry, and learn exactly how Dead Man’s Walk got its name.
8. Enjoy a Film at the Phoenix Picture House
Nestled in the heart of popular district Jericho, the Phoenix Picture House is an historic, century-old cinema, located on Walton Street and just a short walk from nearby Worcester College.
Showing both classic and contemporary films, the cinema is much-loved by the students of Oxford. With just two screens at the venue, the cosiness of this picture house is what makes it such a special place to visit. Definitely a must if you’re looking for things to do in Oxford on a Sunday afternoon.
9. Get Lost in History at the Pitt Rivers Museum & Oxford University Museum of Natural History
If you ever find yourself stuck on a rainy day and thinking about what to do in Oxford, Then look no further than a trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Home to some of the most famous collections of dinosaur skeletons, elephant bones and taxidermized animals, the Pitt Rivers Museum and Museum of Natural History are home to more than 500,000 different artefacts.
One of their standout features is that it is home to part of the remains of the dodo bird – a creature which became extinct in around 1662. With such historical significance in the world of natural history, it was also chosen as the perfect location for Charles Darwin’s famous debate on research and his theory of evolution.
10. Check out the Bodleian Libraries
Drawing thousands of culture-seeking tourists and students alike, the world-famous Bodleian Libraries are renowned for its prestigious academic collections and beautiful architecture.
Having first opened to scholars in 1602, the library has expanded over the centuries to keep up with its growing collection of books, manuscripts and paperwork. Today, it now comprises of five buildings near Broad Street: the Duke Humfrey’s Library, Schools Quadrangle, Weston Library, the Clarendon Building, and iconic Radcliffe Camera.
For those seeking the best things to do in Oxford, visitors can enjoy tours of the Bodleian Libraries, getting behind-the-scenes access to some of the world’s most famous collections.
11. Play Crazy Golf at Junkyard Golf
When the Westgate Centre in Oxford was refurbished, one of the best entertainment activities which came from the renovation was Junkyard Golf.
Junkyard Golf is a great place to meet with friends and while away an afternoon or evening. Filled with loud disco music and vibrant lighting, this crazy golf site has three themed courses to choose from, containing 9 holes each.
Once you’ve finished your golf course, there’s also a great social area to hang out in, with tennis tables, photo booths and plush seating areas. Not to mention an extensive drinks list, including quirky mocktails topped with retro sweets and lollipops! It’s definitely one of the coolest places to visit.
12. Enjoy a Drink at the City’s Oldest Pub
A hidden gem, the Bear Inn is the oldest pub in Oxford, with its records dating back to 1242.
Situated just off the busy High Street, this pub is popular with students and tourists alike, famous for its quirky collection of ties which are on display. They also serve delicious home-cooked and traditional pub food, with produce from local and national suppliers.
If you’re looking for somewhere to relax and soak up centuries’ worth of history, then a trip to this historic pub is a must!
13. Walk Around Christ Church Meadow
Want to escape the bustling city centre? Head down St Aldate’s Street and turn left into Christ Church meadow – a rare, expansive open space within Oxford’s city centre.
Open to the public all year round, this tranquil meadow backs onto the stunning Christ Church College and is filled with a variety of seasonal wildlife and cattle. It has long been used as a site for picnics, recreational sports and entertainment.
The meadow is also enclosed by the rivers Cherwell and Thames, where visitors can enjoy the intercollegiate regatta which takes place each summer, and has done since its inauguration in 1815.
Christ Church meadow truly is a stunning place to escape to, and its free entry means students, locals, and tourists can enjoy it throughout the year.
14. Visit the Botanic Garden
For some of the best things to see in Oxford, then look no further than the University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden and Arboretum.
As the oldest botanical garden in the UK, it boasts a stunning 130 acres of wildlife and woodland for you to escape the bustling city and take a moment to recharge. On-site, there are over 6,000 types of plants grown in the grounds and greenhouses – all of which contribute to scientifically-important research.
But, just a ten-minute drive from the city centre, there’s a further important site for research – the Harcourt Arboretum. Here, you can enjoy acres of Oxfordshire’s best collection of trees with a series of woodland walks and trails. Arrive in spring, and you can marvel at the bluebell wood which blooms with glory.
Visiting the Botanic Garden really is a must-do thing in Oxford. That’s why we make it part of the timetable for all of our spring and summer courses in Oxford.
15. Sight-See the Famous Bridge of Sighs
Spending the day sightseeing? Make sure the Bridge of Sighs is on your list as one of the essential things to see in Oxford.
Sat opposite the entrance to the Bodleian Library, the Bridge of Sighs is a covered skyway which connects the two buildings of Hertford College over New College Lane.
Known for its uncanny resemblance to the bridge of the same name in Venice, the Bridge of Sighs has become a famous spot for tourists to visit after its appearances in TV shows such as Inspector Morse, as well as films such as X Men: First Class.
For students at the University of Oxford, the bridge is still used daily as a walkway for them to access the old and new areas of the college. So keep an eye out for their crossing when you go to visit!
16. Climb Carfax Tower
Bearing great historical significance, Carfax Tower is all that remains of the 13th-century St Martin’s Church – the official church of Oxford from 1122. In 1896, most of the church was demolished in order to allow for growing infrastructure as the city’s population and traffic grew.
Today, the historic Carfax Tower still holds a lot of power in Oxford. Standing at 74 feet tall, today it is illegal for any building in central Oxford to be constructed higher than it – to prevent the city from being over modernised.
As the tallest building in the city, it’s also the best place to catch views of the amazing Oxford cityscape. For £3, you can climb its 99 steps to the top of the tower and take in the views of the dreaming spires and its surrounding countryside.
17. See the Ponies & Cattle at Port Meadow
Head to the north of the city and eventually you’ll arrive at Port Meadow – one of the largest open spaces in Oxford at over 300 acres in size.
With the River Thames flowing through the heart of the meadow, the flood plains are home to a variety of wildlife, cattle, and horses which roam freely. On a warm sunny day, it’s a popular space for locals and students to relax, and a picture-perfect place to enjoy a picnic with friends and family.
Access to the meadow is unrestricted, and there are two car parks nearby which make it easily accessible if you live a little distance away.
18. Watch Sport at University Parks
Offering another place of sanctuary to escape the city and enjoy some greenery, University Parks is conveniently located in the centre of Oxford.
As the name suggests, the oasis is owned by the University of Oxford, where it was traditionally used as a park for sports and recreational activities.
Today, many college sports are still played on the park’s mowed lawns, including cricket, lacrosse, football, and even Quidditch! But unlike tradition, the park is now open to the public almost every day of the year (with the exception of Christmas Eve).
With gravel paths for walkers, runners and cyclists, as well as large patches of trees and wildflowers, there’s also plenty of space for picnics or social meet-ups.
19. Catch a Show at the Theatre
For those looking for a show to see one evening in Oxford, there are a selection of professional and student-run theatres in the city centre.
One of the largest and most established is the New Theatre, located on George Street. Home to some of the country’s biggest touring shows and performers, it’s the place to go if you want to catch a mainstream production.
But theatres such as the Oxford Playhouse, as well as the Old Fire Station and North Wall Arts Centre also create and showcase a diverse range of productions, including shows from upcoming writers, directors and performers.
No matter your mood or interest, there’s something for everyone to enjoy at the theatre in Oxford.
20. Go Ice Skating at Oxford Ice Rink
Looking to do something different? Why not take a trip to the Oxford Ice Rink for some ice skating practice!
A great place to meet with friends and fellow students, this leisure centre is open every day of the week, with a whole range of skating sessions, including lessons, general skating, as well as disco skating in the evenings.
There’s also a cafe and seating area on-site, so you can your friends can catch up properly after having some fun on the ice.
Ice skating not your thing? You can also attend events held by the Oxford Figure Ice Skating Club or matches played by the city’s official ice hockey team, Oxford City Stars.
21. Sample Some Delicious Homemade Ice Cream at G&D’s
On a sunny afternoon in Oxford, there’s nothing better than treating yourself to a locally-made ice cream and strolling around the city.
Thanks to G&D’s (George & Davis), there are a number of independent cafes around the city which offer ice cream, mouth-watering desserts, plus baked goods and bagels.
Open almost every day of the year, G&D’s make their ice cream on-site at their Little Clarendon Street shop and deliver the different flavours daily to the different cafes across the city. Everyday there are new flavours to sample, including everything from Lavender, Mango to Banana, Orange Chocolate Chip and Daim Bar. There’s even a ‘flavour suggestions’ book in their stores, where customers can write down recommendations for new flavours they want to see.
22. Harry Potter Locations Tour
Set off on a spell-binding tour of the locations in Oxford that inspired and were used in the Harry Potter film franchise.
Whether you use our location guide to map out your own tour, or take part in a group walking tour, you’ll get to explore the parts of the city and its university that were used as a stand-in for Hogwarts.
From the ancient Duke Humfrey’s library which is used as the student’s central study space, to the spectacular dining hall at Christ Church College which inspired the replica Great Hall at Pinewood Studios, the city really does play a starring role in the franchise.
So, for fans of this film series, this is certainly one of the things to do in Oxford that you cannot afford to miss.
23. Watch the Boats at Iffley Lock
Located in the pretty village of Iffley (a suburb of Oxford), the historic Iffley Lock has been a point of interest in Oxford since it was first built in 1632.
Marking the starting point of the ten regattas which take place in the city each year, Iffley Lock is a great place to watch riverboats pass along the River Thames.
There’s lots of restaurants and pubs located along the tow path, making it the perfect place to stop and enjoy a peaceful afternoon by the river. But it’s also a popular spot for families looking to feed the ducks and geese which flock here every year.
24. Visit the History of Science Museum
Stuck in the city on a rainy day? Take a trip down Broad Street and pay a visit to the city’s History of Science Museum.
Explore the history of science through the museum’s collection of objects, inventions, and the stories of how innovators changed the world. From historic mathematical, medical and microscopic equipment to the first ever astronomical devices, the museum houses a whole range of man-made artefacts.
There’s also a refreshments area and shop on-site, so fans of the museum can take a souvenir home with them.
25. Browse Free Exhibits at the Weston Library
One of the most popular educational and free things to do in Oxford is visit the Weston Library.
Part of the famous Bodleian Library establishment, the building houses millions of published works belonging to the university, and holds a collection of rare manuscripts.
Though the library itself is accessible only to students and scholars at the university, its public exhibitions are free to visit. From the maps of the world to the evolution of the British language over the centuries, there’s a range of displays to engage with, many of which are filled with interactive widgets.
26. Take a Look At C.S. Lewis’ Home
The Kilns, or as it is famously known as – C.S. Lewis’ house – is located on the outskirts of Headington Quarry in Oxford.
The house has become renowned for being the place where the author wrote his collection of books in the Narnia Series, as well as other classics. But fans of the novels may also recognise it as playing a starring role in the Narnia books themselves.
Today, the house can still be seen by those keen to book a private tour and is easily accessible by bus or car.
27. Indulge Your Creativity At The Story Museum
Oxford is renowned for its literary history – having produced world-famous authors like Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. As such, for those looking for things to do in Oxford, The Story Museum feels like a must-see site.
Many consider it to be one of the most enjoyable museums to visit, filled with interactive exhibits, storytelling sessions and opportunities for dressing-up.
Every inch of the building presents subtle literary references; from the restroom door which warns of Moaning Myrtle, to the Story Craft room which will have you soaring in the sky with Philip Pullman’s fantastic creatures.
28. Spot the Headington Shark
Take a short trip to the suburb of Headington and you’ll see something rather unusual sitting atop one of the terrace house: a 25-foot-long sculpture, known as the Headington Shark.
Commissioned by local journalist Bill Heine to decorate his home, the sculpture was made by John Buckley and erected in 1986. Heine wanted the decoration to be a commentary on war and the feeling of helplessness when disaster strikes. But today it’s seen as more of a quirky monument for visitors to come and see.
29. Enjoy a Picturesque Picnic At South Park
Occupying over 50 acres of open space with magnificent views overlooking the city, Oxford’s South Park is a popular place for students and their friends to meet, particularly students at Oxford Brookes University (because of its convenient location).
Throughout the year the park is busy with locals enjoying the fitness trail, children’s play area and hilltop views of Oxford and its beautiful dreaming spires.
The park is open all day, every day and is just a short walk away from Cowley Road in East Oxford. Access can be gained on Morrell Avenue, Headington Road, Cheney Lane and Warneford Lane.
30. Visit J.R.R. Tolkien’s Grave
As an Oxford alumni, professor, and long-serving resident, J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the literary giants most famously associated with the University of Oxford.
Today, fans can go and pay their respects at his and his wife’s grave at Wolvercote Cemetery, located just a few miles from the centre of Oxford and easily accessed by bus or car.
Once you arrive, it’s very easy to find, with signs directing to the Tolkiens’ graves throughout the cemetery. The gravestones are planted with rose bushes and other flowers, and visitors often leave rings in homage to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels.
31. Enjoy a Quintessentially British Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea is a traditional English treat which dates back to the 1800s. And what place better to enjoy this quintessential treat than surrounded by the city’s dreaming spires?
There are a whole range of cafes, restaurants and hotels in the city which offer Afternoon Teas, ranging from a simple scone and cup of tea at the Quod; High Tea at the famous Randolph Hotel; or even an Afternoon Tea served on a cruising boat on the Cherwell River.
So, if you’re looking for a reason to sit back, relax and enjoy taking into the atmosphere of the city, make sure you book yourself a place for an Afternoon Tea sitting.
32. Investigate the Inspector Morse Tour
For fans of the Inspector Morse detective series, a tour of the locations which inspired Colin Dexter – pubs, colleges and streets – is an essential thing to do in Oxford.
Take a tour around the areas that Inspector Morse and his sidekick Lewis frequented when trying to puzzle their way around a case. Episodes of the show have showcased the historical Sheldonian Theatre, Bodleian Library, as well as the world-famous Ashmolean Museum.
And, if you’re lucky – you may just see Morse and Lewis driving around the cobbled streets in their red Jaguar.
33. Watch the Students Get ‘Trashed’
An old University of Oxford tradition, students take part in a messy revelry known as ‘trashing’ to mark the end of their final exams.
This obscure but rather hilarious tradition takes place in the Trinity term, where groups of students spray their friends in substances such as ketchup, shaving cream, eggs, and even champagne as they leave the doors of the Examination Schools.
Typically, these celebrations take place on the cobblestone streets behind Christ Church and Merton College, but they finish in the Cherwell river, where students often jump in to clean themselves off.
34. Discover Wonderland in Alice’s Shop
Written by Lewis Carroll – a lecturer at Christ Church – Alice in Wonderland is just one of the famous literary works that was dreamed up in Oxford.
The book was inspired by one of Caroll’s friend’s daughters – 10-year-old Alice Liddell. As he was looking after her one afternoon and looking for a way to keep her entertained, Caroll imagined a whimsical story about a little girl who shared the same name as her.
For lovers of the tale, Alice’s Shop is located on St Aldate’s Street in an historic 15th-century building. Once a beloved candy store which was loved by the real Alice, today the store is filled with all manner of curious things, including collectibles and gifts.
It’s a shop rich in history and the perfect place for literary students to visit when sourcing some inspiration. Definitely don’t miss out!
35. Enjoy a Coffee Concert at Holywell Music Room
If you’re ever looking for things to do in Oxford on a Sunday morning, then you’ll struggle to find anything better than a Coffee Concert in Holywell Music Room.
Established in 1986, Coffee Concerts are weekly music events, taking place in the stunning Holywell Music Room every Sunday morning. As the name suggests, the concerts are to be enjoyed with a cup of coffee, which are complementary with all ticket purchases.
Over the years, some of the country’s finest soloists and groups have performed here, including acclaimed pianist Tom Poster, violinist Andrew Haveron, and the Schubert Ensemble.
36. Shop Local at the Covered Market
What better way to spend a free Saturday morning than to browse the alleys of the historic Covered Market in Oxford.
Established in 1774, the market has been home to local tradespeople and shopkeepers for centuries, who fill the area with a range of vibrant stores and pop-up trader stalls. From fresh produce, handmade jewellery to delicious milkshake and freshly baked cookies, there are a whole range of things available to shop.
The market is open every day, but each shop has its own opening hours. So before you check it out, make sure you do some research to ensure the shop you’re looking for is open.
37. Go punting
It would be impossible to write a list of the top things to do in Oxford for students without including punting.
Punting is a timeless and quintessentially Oxford sailing tradition, involving long and narrow boats (punts) which are gently guided along the river by an individual using a quant pole. You can see some of our students giving it a try here.
If you head down to Magdalen Bridge or Cherwell Boathouse, you will find two boathouses, where you can hire traditional punts, rowing boats or pedalos. There’s even the option to spoil yourself with a Chauffeured punt or pre-order a picnic to enjoy during your session.
38. Walk or Cycle Along Thames Path
For outdoor explorers looking to see some wildlife, you can enjoy a walk along the Thames Path National Trail.
The entire path stretches 184 miles, from the source of the River Thames in the Cotswolds, through the city of Oxford and out to sea. Along the way, the trail passes through a number of quaint villages, peaceful water meadows, and expansive countryside. More specifically, the trail in Oxford follows the flowing River Thames in the city, usually surrounded by blooming wildflowers, swans, ducks and kingfishers.
Within Oxford, the route is mostly level and paved, offering an easy route for walkers looking to enjoy some greenery. Wherever you are in the city, there’s plenty of access routes to the path, so you don’t need to travel too far to enjoy the wildlife.
39. Get Inspired at The Eagle and Child Pub
What do students in Oxford do on the weekends?
Well, if you look back to the 1930s and 1940s, many of its literary students like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to hang out at the Eagle and Child Pub.
Known as ‘The Inklings,’ this famous group of writers would meet at this pub to mull over their manuscripts and inspire one another’s work. In fact, it’s where the first drafts of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ were written.
Today, you can find The Eagle and Child on St. Giles – just a short stroll from Cornmarket Street and St John’s College. Step in and discover a traditional British pub, revered for its quality tasting pub food and history.
40. Discover Narnia
For all fans of C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia series, you can step behind the scenes and discover some of the sites which inspired his famous novels.
Plan your route so that you visit the pubs where C.S. Lewis and his fellow ‘Inklings’ met and discussed their fantasy fiction, as well as a trip to Magdalen College – the university college which he called home for several years.
You should also take a trip to Radcliffe Square where, sat opposite University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, you will find a carefully carved ornate door, sat opposite a black lamppost which both bear an uncanny resemblance to features in the film franchise.
Has our list of things to do in Oxford got you desperate to visit the city?
Take a look at our available range of summer courses in Oxford. Offering an authentic experience into life as a student here, our award-winning programmes combine a range of social, academic and leisure activities around the city to maximise your experience.
You’ll be able to tick a few of these sites off your bucket list, as well as enjoy the summer of a lifetime living and studying like a real student in the city.