Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Oxford
The main research library of the University of Oxford and one of the oldest of its kind in Europe, the Bodleian Library is also one of the UK’s five "copyright libraries," famously housing a copy of every book printed in Great Britain—a collection that spans more than 11 million works. Founded by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602, the Bodleian Library, or "the Bod" as it’s known to students, is actually a complex of libraries and reading rooms located in the heart of Oxford, including the domed Radcliffe Camera, the vaulted Divinity Room, the Duke Humphrey's Library and the Old and New Bodleian Libraries.
With its towering shelves of prized books and manuscripts, exploring the Bodleian libraries is a rare treat for book lovers, with everything from early manuscripts, biblical texts and ancient maps to rare literary editions, Oriental manuscripts and a large collection of original J.R.R Tolkien works.
With its striking neoclassical dome looming over the neighboring Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera (or Radcliffe Room in Latin) is one of Oxford’s most iconic sights and one of the most photographed of all the university buildings. Funded by Royal physician John Radcliffe and designed by architect James Gibbs, the "Rad Cam" was completed in 1749 and was originally used as the university’s principal science library.
Today the Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodleian Library complex and houses two reading rooms and an underground library, where about 600,000 English and history books are available for browsing. The interior of building is closed to the public except with guided tours, but the dramatic circular façade still draws crowds of daily visitors with its three tiers of Headington and Burford stone elaborately decorated and encircled with Corinthian columns.
The largest and arguably most renowned of Oxford’s many colleges, the hallowed halls and exquisite cathedral of Christ Church College have a long and illustrious history. Founded by Cardinal Thomas Woolsey in 1524, the grandiose complex includes architectural highlights like Sir Christopher Wren’s Great Tom bell tower and the Great Hall, where King Charles I held court during the English Civil War. Despite being just one of 38 colleges, for many visitors to Oxford, Christ Church is synonymous with Oxford University. Today, the legendary buildings see almost as many tourists as they do students. Christ Church’s esteemed alumni include philosopher John Locke, Albert Einstein, architects John Ruskin and Sir Christopher Wren and former Prime Minister William Gladstone. But its academic resume isn’t the only string to its bow. The prestigious college has also made its mark in popular culture, starring as the now-iconic Great Hall of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
Built by master architect Sir Christopher Wren, whose later works included the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Sheldonian Theatre stands out among Oxford’s many landmarks with its grand semi-circular design reminiscent of a classical Roman theater. The Grade I-listed building has been one of Oxford’s principal venues since it opened its doors in 1668, and it even hosted the first performance of Handel’s third oratorio Athalia. Today, the theater is primarily used as the ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford.
If you’re not lucky enough to attend a lecture, concert or graduation ceremony in the Sheldonian’s 950-seat auditorium, you can still admire the opulent interiors and magnificent hand-painted ceiling when the theater is not in use. Also open to visitors is the rooftop cupola, renowned for its impressive panoramic views of the city.
One of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford is All Souls College, though the official name is the Warden and the College of the Souls of All Faithful People Deceased in the University of Oxford. It is primarily a graduate research institution with no undergraduate students. The college's library collection is housed in the Codrington Library building, an impressive building that was completed in 1751 and has been in used ever since. Today the library contains about 185,000 items, of which about one third were published before 1800. A four story gate tower and two story ranges on either side of the entrance on High Street are mostly the same as they were originally built in the 1440s. Battlements were added in the 16th century, and the windows are from the Victorian period. Once you pass through the gate house, you will see a medieval building where the Warden once lived and now provides individual rooms for Fellows.
Hertford Bridge, more commonly known as the Bridge of Sighs, is a skyway bridge linking two parts of Hertford College over New College Land in Oxford, England. The Old Quadrangle, which houses the college's administrative offices, is to the south, and the New Quadrangle, which is mostly student accommodation, is to the north. It was completed in 1914 and is often referred to as the Bridge of Sighs because it supposedly looks like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy. However, many say it more closely resembles Venice's Rialto Bridge. It is one of the area's top tourist sights due to its unique look and design.
There was a famous legend about the bridge from decades ago that said a survey was taken of the health of the students of the University of Oxford. The results of the survey indicated that Hertford College students were the heaviest, resulting in the college closing the bridge in order to force the students to take the stairs and get more exercise.
With its lone tower and man-made grassy mound, the once mighty Oxford Castle is now a shadow of its former self. But the striking landmark still offers a fascinating insight into the city’s grim and gory history. Originally built by William the Conqueror in 1071, the Norman Castle was later converted into a prison and execution tower, linked to the county court by an underground passageway and remaining in use until as late as 1996 (although the last public execution was held in 1863).
Today, the castle ruins stand at the heart of the Oxford Castle Quarter, an atmospheric hub of cafes, bars and restaurants, and is open to the public through via Oxford Castle Unlocked tours, typically led by a guide in period costume. As well as climbing the 101 steps to the top of the Saxon St. George’s Tower and taking in the views from the mound, visitors can brave a peek into the allegedly haunted crypt and explore the preserved prison wings.
Balliol College is the oldest continuously operated college in the University of Oxford and was created around 1263. The oldest parts of the college include the north and west sides of the front quadrangle and the medieval hall. The Balliol Library holds a collection of medieval manuscripts that are considered to be the finest and largest private collection to survive in England from the Middle Ages. You can still visit the medieval reading rooms, and the library's collection includes many other early printed books, medieval manuscripts, and rare books.
The Chapel is the third one that has been on this site. It was built in the mid 1800s but contains stained glass windows from the 16th and 17th centuries. At the entrance to the Chapel there are war memorials honoring Balliol members who died in World War I and II. Visitors to the college can also explore the gardens that accent the historical and modern buildings as well as the theater and concert hall.
More Things to Do in Oxford
The meeting point of Oxford’s main throughways, Carfax Junction is the central point of the city and is within walking distance of all the top attractions. The city’s principal streets converge here – the pedestrianized shopping avenues of Cornmarket Street to the north and Queen Street to the west; the High Street to the east, which leads to Radcliffe Square and Magdalen College; and St Aldate's Street, which runs south to the Christ Church College.
Carfax Junction is also renowned for its 23-meter-tall clock tower, the Carfax Tower, which rings its bells each quarter hour and provides a memorable navigational landmark for both locals and visitors. Once part of the 12th-century St Martin's Church that stood on the site, the Carfax Tower now stands alone, and climbing the 99 steps to the rooftop ramparts is rewarded with a panoramic view of Oxford’s “Dreaming Spires.”
Whether you’re meeting friends for coffee or bartering over artisan produce, wandering around Oxford’s bustling central market serves as a lively introduction to the city. Drawing a steady stream of both locals and tourists, the Oxford Covered Market has been at the center of local life since it opened its doors in 1774, and today remains in its original building, designed by architect John Gwynn.
Dozens of permanent stalls are found here, including butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers all selling fresh, local produce, as well as a number of clothing, jewelry and gift options. Once you’ve stocked up on picnic essentials and souvenirs, and sampled local specialties like Oxford sausage and steak and kidney pies, take a break at one of the cafes or bakeries, where you’ll find freshly brewed tea or coffee, alongside an array of freshly made sandwiches, home-baked cakes and pastries.
Not only Britain’s oldest public museum but also among the oldest in the world, the Ashmolean is more than just a museum – it’s an internationally renowned institution and one of Oxford’s most visited attractions. Founded in 1683, the esteemed museum is one of four of the University of Oxford, with a focus on art, archaeology and natural history.
Benefiting from a thorough renovation in 2009, the Ashmolean Museum now boasts a 21st-century redesign by award-winning architect Rick Mather, including a rooftop restaurant looking out over the university buildings. Highlights of the huge permanent collection include the world’s biggest collection of Raphael drawings, an array of pre-dynastic Egyptian jewelry and artifacts, manuscript copies of the Old and New Testaments, the Western World’s most important collection of modern Chinese Art and a significant assemblage of British and Western Art.
Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, is one of the largest country houses in England and known as the birthplace of Winston Churchill. The Palace has been in the Churchill family since it was constructed as a gift from the English nation to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, in 1704 for a significant military triumph against the French at the Battle of Blenheim.
The house was completed in the short-lived English-Baroque style, and its reception rooms, devoid of any unnecessary comfort, reflect the palace’s present role as a national monument rather than a family home. The imposing main hall leads to a frescoed saloon, which looks out over the Column of Victory in the adjacent castle park, with the surrounding trees symbolizing Marlborough’s soldiers. The saloon is highly decorated, complete with a bust of the vanquished Louis XIV at its back.
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