A tour of England isn’t complete without spending some time in the college town of Oxford, England. An easy train ride from London, this bustling town full of academics, good bookstores, and Harry Potter-themed souvenir shops is a fun way to get out of the big city.
The town of Oxford has been in existence since Anglo-Saxon England and became known as England’s center for higher learning with the founding of Oxford University in the late 11th/early 12th century. It is the oldest English-speaking university in the world.
During the English Civil War, Oxford served as the location of Charles I’s court. Belgian refugees were brought to the city during World War I, and many of the town’s buildings became hospitals for wounded soldiers. WWII brought even more changes as the area became home to numerous airfields, huge targets for German bombers that resulted in military and civilian casualties. As early as a few days into the war in 1939, Oxford had welcomed almost 20,000 refugees.
Oxford continues to be dominated by the university, and its 39 separate colleges are diverse and spread throughout the city. Some were even scenes in the Harry Potter movies and are some of the most picturesque buildings in all of England.
Oxford is only 60 miles northwest of London, making it a good day trip via car, bus, or train. It’s also on the way to the Cotswolds, so it’s an easy add-on to any trip in that direction.
If you’re day-tripping from London, taking the train from Paddington Station is very easy (usually multiple an hour; one hour train ride). I’ve also taken a bus to Oxford from London’s Heathrow airport, which was very economical and good if you’re landing and heading straight to Oxford. We’ve also driven to Oxford and found easy parking at the garage attached to the Westgate Mall.
Once you’ve arrived in Oxford, I recommend hitting the major sites first. These include several colleges you’ll recognize from movies and High Street with its quaint shops and stores.
University of Oxford Buildings
Almost all of the 39 colleges that make up Oxford are open to visitors, but you may need advance tickets at the most popular sites. Check out the University of Oxford visitor site to double check the ones you’d like to visit. The two most visited sites include the Bodleian Libraries and Christ Church College.
The most famous of the Oxford sites is the Bodleian Library buildings, including the iconic Radcliffe Camera. Guided tours are the only ways to see the inside of most of the buildings, including the Duke Humfrey’s library that appeared in the Harry Potter movies. My kids balked at doing a 1.5 hour tour to see inside the Radcliffe Camera, but it’s on my to-do list for my next visit! Check out the library’s city walking tours as well. Entrance is near the Bridge of Sighs on Catte Street.
You can do a self-guided tour of the Divinity School, which appeared in the Harry Potter movies and is Oxford’s oldest teaching room (be sure to secure your timed entry tickets in advance). Your kids will be in awe of its elaborate ceiling! There is a 15-minute time limit in the room, and the cost is £2.50 per person.
You can also take a self-guided tour of the famous Sheldonian Theatre (£3.50-4.50/person) and can even take in a show!
The other must-see college is Christ Church. Be sure to buy your timed tickets (costs vary starting at £15/person) in advance and are only available to purchase online the Friday before your visit. You’ll enter off St. Aldate’s Street (follow signs to visitors center in the meadow). You’ll get a multimedia guide with earphones at the visitors center. Plan for the tour to take 1-1.5 hours.
Cross the walk and follow the path of the tour. It will take you into the Christ Church buildings, which your kids will recognize from Harry Potter movies.
The hall staircase is one of the most recognized areas of the college – don’t miss the “no peel” door at its base (a political statement from 1829).
At the top of the stairs is the Great Hall, which is worth the price of admission! Built in 1520, this room was used for banquets and is still a dining room for the college to this day! It was copied on a soundstage for the Harry Potter films and the entire room is watched over by another Harry – King Henry VIII. As the founder of Christ Church, he is placed in the highest seat of honor, surrounded by portraits of other famous members of the college (including Lewis Carroll – look for the Alice in Wonderland-inspired window.
Next you’ll see the Tom Quad with its picturesque clock tower built by Sir Christopher Wren.
The tour will take you to the Christ Church Cathedral, which is just beautiful.
I grew up in the Wesleyan Church so I was especially intrigued by the plaque honoring John and Charles Wesley.
The last place to visit is the reflective cloister.
Head back to the visitor center to drop off your guide and buy souvenirs at the gift shop. Afterwards don’t miss walking through the beautiful meadow to the River Thames.
Oxford is also home to several great museums.
- The Ashmolean Museum (free) is a fantastic art museum with mummies and has a great guide for families.
- The Story Museum (£12/person) looks delightful as it takes families through fairy-tale worlds.
- Oxford Museum (free) is a great place to learn about Oxford’s history.
- For older kids who like tales of woe and doom, visit the Oxford Castle and Prison (£10-15.50/person) – you can even stay in a hotel that was part of the prison!.
Other fun activities in Oxford
- Punting: For a fun and memorable experience, walk down High Street past Magdalen College to the Oxford Punting boathouse. You can hire a guide or man your own boat (be forewarned, it’s much harder than you think!).
- Gardens: Across the street from the boathouse is the Oxford Botanical Garden, the UK’s oldest botanical garden. Tickets cost £5-6.30/person. Each college also has its own unique courtyard garden or meadow that is lovely to explore or have a picnic.
With so many books or authors associated with Oxford, there are a variety of related tours you can take.
- CS Lewis fans will love this walking guide to Lewis’ Oxford and visiting his home, The Kilns, just a 15-minute drive (note you have to make an appointment to visit). He is buried at Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, just outside of Oxford.
- JRR Tolkien attended and taught at Oxford and used its picturesque beauty to inspire his fantastical world. Check out this guide to all of the Tolkien sites in the town. He is buried in Oxford’s Wolvercote Cemetery.
- Alice in Wonderland super fans should check out this cool bicycle tour! And don’t miss the Alice-themed shop near Christ Church.
- Harry Potter movie fans will love seeing the rooms I mentioned above and visiting the movie-themed shops, The House of Wonder and The Shop of Secrets.
Day Trips from Oxford
Oxford is centrally located which makes it a great base city for further exploration.
- Blenheim Palace: Located just 30 minutes north of Oxford, Winston Churchill’s ancestral home is a great place to visit and includes an amazing playground. A car is needed to get to Blenheim.
- Cotswolds: The quintessential English countryside is just a short one-hour drive from Oxford. If you’d like to see rolling farmland and visit quaint villages, this is a great option. A car is needed to visit the Cotswolds.
- Stratford-upon-Avon: All Shakespeare fans want to visit his hometown, which is just a 1 hour, 15 minute drive or direct train ride from Oxford.
- Highclere Castle: Just 45 minutes south of Oxford is the home of Downton Abbey. A car is needed to visit Highclere Castle.
Whether you spend just a day walking its storied streets or several days taking in the surrounding countryside, Oxford is a great place to see the intellectual heart of England.
- Most of Oxford’s main sites can be seen in one day. I recommend visiting both Christ Church and the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library and then doing something active with your kids like punting or a bicycle tour.
- If you would like to stay in Oxford, it makes a great base for the day trips mentioned above. We didn’t stay in Oxford, but Malmaison (in a former prison!) and The Randolph hotels were recommended to us. For a luxurious stay, consider the Old Parsonage Hotel or the Old Bank Hotel. Check out the tourism site’s list for more ideas.
- Dining: Between the pubs with literary history and the hip restaurants catering to the “gowns,” you can’t go wrong. For a quaint riverside pub that was popular with CS Lewis, eat at The Perch. Looks lovely! I always recommend Cote Brasserie for families as well. Or grab something to go and have a picnic on the riverbank! Visit the tourism board’s site for more recommendations.
- For an unforgettable experience, make reservations for afternoon tea at The Randolph hotel.
- Shopping: The main shopping area in Oxford is located along High Street, and kids will love popping in and out of its quaint stores, especially the Harry Potter-themed ones. Cornmarket Street and Broad Street also have lots of shops. Westfield Mall has many department stores and popular chain stores.
- Bookstores: Oxford is a booklover’s dream town! Just across the street from the Sheldonian Theatre is Blackwell’s Bookshop, a must-see for any book lover! Many of us in the US love Blackwell’s because it ships the beautiful UK versions of books to the US for free! There’s also a Waterstones, an outpost of the famous Daunt Books, and bookshops at many of the colleges.
Books to Read:
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(Last two books for mature audiences only)