Dreaming Spires: Top Things to Do in Oxford
Explore the city of dreaming spires with our curated guide of things to do in Oxford
Time travel back to your university days with this educational (but mostly fun) list of things to do in Oxford. Whether floating down the river in a traditionally painted punt, admiring the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum or jamming out to 90s rock at the Jericho Tavern, you’ll never be bored enough to remember that you'd probably be ten times more successful if you’d actually gone here. You can always pretend to be a student by booking a Plum Guide home in Oxford – though, we must admit, our professionally vetted homes aren't exactly dorm rooms.
Take a tour of the University
When it comes to things to do in Oxford, you can’t miss the chance to go behind-the-scenes of what may be the world’s most famous university. And to the few of you reading this who actually went there, give yourselves a pat on the back. We wish we were you, but we’ll settle for the tour.
Oxford is not a campus university, with its buildings, quads and colleges spread across the city. Many of the colleges, gardens, libraries and museums are open to visitors, so you can get stuck into exploring and really live out your Brideshead Revisited fantasy. For those of you who love a little pageantry, check if one of the churches is doing a service you might be able to attend.
If you want to check out Oxford's just-as-impressive sister university, cast your eye over our Cambridge recommendations.
Nothing says Oxford quite like a few hours spent on the waters of the River Cherwell. Hire a punt (for those not posh enough to know, that’s a long, narrow flat-bottomed boat propelled with a long pole) from the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse and serenade your better half with the little poetry you remember.
Pack snacks and vino for added enjoyment and if you really want to pretend you actually went to Oxbridge, don’t even think about doing the hard work yourself. Chauffeured punting service is available and highly encouraged. Harken back to the time when your best years were still ahead of you (sorry) and float your stresses away.
The Bodleian Library
Take a gander through this working library you wish you’d been able to study in at uni. The main research library of the University of Oxford, it is also one of the oldest libraries in Europe, first opening to scholars in 1602.
The next time you feel like you’re dealing with a lot of paperwork, remember this place contains over 13 million printed items. And now for a fun fact to share with your in-laws: the library is the second largest in Britain after the British Library. Next family dinner, sorted.
Botanic Gardens and Arboretum
If your kids are a fan of His Dark Materials, or anyone in your family has hopped on the indoor plant trend and fancies themselves a gardener now, then visiting the breathtaking Botanic Gardens and Arboretum is a must to make your cut of things to do in Oxford.
The UK’s oldest botanic garden is set on 130 acres of glorious woodland and there is nowhere better to spend a sunny Oxford afternoon. The pristine grounds and greenhouses contain over 6,000 types of plants, so you can keep your phone-obsessed tweens happily taking pictures for hours.
If gardens are your thing, why not pay a visit to the Garden of England? Read our Kent recommendations here.
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Expand your mind – although it’s too bad you couldn’t do that before you managed to get rejected from Oxbridge – with a visit to the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Home to an internationally significant collection of natural history and zoological specimens, the Grade I listed building is also a majestic example of neo-Gothic architecture.
A special highlight of the museum is the colony of swifts that nest in the museum tower. The swifts have been the subject of a research study since 1948. This makes it one of the longest continuous bird studies in the world. (If that sounds nerdy, it’s because it is).
The Oxfordshire dinosaurs are sure to impress as well. We both know nothing pleases
you a child quite like a t-rex.
Pitt Rivers Museum
For such a small city, Oxford certainly has some very kid-friendly museums and when it comes to things to do in Oxford, the quirky Pitt Rivers Museum is one not to miss. This world-famous gallery of archaeology and ethnography is perhaps most known for its jaw-dropping display of shrunken heads. Just picture your boss's face if you want a laugh.
Other highlights from the half-a-million plus exhibits include a 1930s stone axe from Papua New Guinea, a 2,500 year-old glass bead featuring a human face on both sides and a Roman shoe excavated from Egypt which dates back between 30BC to 395AD.
Eagle and Child Pub
Let your inner bookworm drink proudly at the Eagle and Child pub, a classic Oxford pub owned by St. John’s college. The literary set’s favourite local boozer, pints have been drunk here by J. R. R. Tolkien, CS Lewis and Colin Dexter to name but a few.
The pub has associations with the Inkling writers group, which included Tolkien, Lewis and others. They met here in the early 20th century to read over manuscripts including early drafts of Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If there was ever a reason to drag your little ones to the pub, this is it. You’re welcome.
We may like to joke about how old you’re getting, but the truth is we know you have a lot of living to do. And there’s nowhere better to kick back and have fun in Oxford than the legendary Jericho Tavern. Famous for hosting live music acts, this is where Radiohead first performed a gig. Supergrass were allegedly also signed after they played here.
This off-beat vintage pub and music venue offers tasty food, serious drinks and an upbeat atmosphere. On a nice day, make your way to the spacious beer garden in the back and just keep drinking. After a long night spent here, you’ll definitely want somewhere luxurious and comfortable to lay your head.
Harry Potter Location Tours
If your children (or you - no judgement) are the sort of muggles fascinated with the wizarding world, then a Harry Potter location tour must make your list of things to do in Oxford.
Set out on a self-guided (or accompanied) tour of the parts of Oxford Uni used as stand-ins for Hogwarts. You’ll be taking selfies on Christ Church College staircase, in the New College cloisters and at the Divinity School in the Bodleian Library. Accio parent points.
Don't let the Harry Potter tour end there. When it comes to staying in Oxford, the Slytherins amongst you will appreciate the dark wooden panelling and moody atmosphere at Lapwing's Wing.