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Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
Photograph: ShutterstockRadcliffe Camera, Oxford

The 20 best things to do in Oxford right now

It’s bigger, livelier and more diverse than Cambridge, and even better, the best things to do in Oxford are often free

Written by
Rosemary Waugh
,
Paula Akpan
&
Etain O’Carroll
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Offering all the hushed quods, august architecture and leafy green waterways an A* student could ask for, Oxford also has a grittier side with a rich industrial past and a taut relationship between town and gown. Walk the city streets and it’s the glut of listed buildings, network of cobbled laneways, and canals and backwaters that immediately impress. You can visit colleges, libraries and chapels where prime ministers, Noble prize winners and literary giants spent their formative years, wobble down the river in a punt, or check out the best museums in Oxford where the exhibits rival London’s finest.

When you’re done, sink a pint in a medieval pub, dine in a clutch of new restaurants seeing off the conservative old timers, or check out our list of the best things to do in Oxford to find perennial favourites as well as the hottest things to do right now.

Done something on this list and loved it? Share it with the hashtag #TimeOutDoList and tag @TimeOutEverywhere. Find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world.

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Best things to do in Oxford

Go behind-the-scenes on a University of Oxford tour

What is it? A behind-the-scenes tour of the university’s colleges, quads and libraries led by those who know it best – its students and alumni.

Why go? Didn’t make the cut for the UK’s most prestigious university? Don’t worry, you can still see its hallowed halls, hushed quads and candle-lit chapels on this walking tour that explores its history, ceremonies and weird traditions as well as offering a personal account of what it’s like to study here.

What is it? Oxford’s world-famous museum of archaeology and ethnography where you can discover everything from reindeer knickers and mummified cats to blowpipes and Japanese libation sticks.

Why go? It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust to the half light of the enormous tiered galleries of the Pitt Rivers Museum but once they do, you know you’ve arrived somewhere special. A vast and otherworldly collection of treasures from around the world packed into glass cases and dominated by a giant totem pole, it’s an armchair traveller’s delight and the place to find out about tribal rituals, ancient ceremonies and cultural beliefs across the globe.

Don’t miss: There’s so much to see here it’s hard to take it all in, but the body art and ornament section explores the history of beautification from head shaping and tooth sharpening to piercing and tattooing.

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What is it? An Oxford rite of passage, and a great way to see the city from a different perspective. 

Why Go? Meandering along the river past college buildings and manicured parks is the quintessential way to see Oxford – especially if someone else is doing the punting. Sit back, relax, watch out for stray branches, and make sure you’re the one holding the Pimms and not the pole.

Don’t Miss: Steer clear of the main river where you’ll have to share the water with rowing eights, paddleboarders and fishermen, and stick to the backwaters instead. The best bet is to head up the Cherwell to the Victoria Arms for a pint and a picnic.

What is it? The UK’s oldest botanic garden and its 130 acres of woodland, which between them, house species from across the globe.

Why go? Established 400 years ago to grow plants for medicinal research, Oxford’s botanic gardens and giant glasshouses contain more than 6,000 types of plant including specimens used to treat cancer and heart complaints as well as carnivorous plants and tropical wonders.

Don’t miss: The Harcourt Arboretum, a ten-minute drive away, to see spring magnolias, rhododendrons and bluebells in full glory, or the autumnal glow of acers and redwoods.

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What is it? Britain's oldest public museum, home to a collection that spans continents, cultures and creative genres.

Why Go? A redevelopment turned this magnificent, neo-classical but once-stuffy museum into a modern, light-filled space packed with treasures. Choose a theme and delve into the history of Chinese porcelain, medieval musical instruments or European art. You’ll find works by Michelangelo, Raphael Pisarro and Turner here, along with Samurai armour, a Stradvari violin, Japanese netsuke and everything in between.

Don’t Miss: The Ashmolean’s rooftop bar and restaurant offer a slick menu, great service and a bird’s eye view of the city.

What is it? Said to be Oxford’s oldest monument, this huge meadow is edged by the Thames and a popular outdoor haunt.

Why Go? Need some big sky views? Head for Port Meadow, an ancient grassland grazed by ponies and cattle and loved by walkers, picnickers, birders and photographers. Pick up a picnic in Jericho along the way, bring a blanket and sit back and relax.

Don’t Miss: It’s all good and well getting some fresh air here but you’ll need to freshen up with a drink in The Perch, an ancient thatched inn by the river with a gorgeous garden.

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Get spooked on a theatrical ghost trail

What is it? An interactive, dramatic and ghoulish tour of Oxford's history with some spooky shenanigans thrown in.  

Why go? Possibly one of the most entertaining ways to while away an evening in Oxford, this walking tour is led by costumed actors who lay bare the city’s gruesome past and brutal murders, and conjure up the many spectres that haunt its streets. Hear stories of fallen cavalry and how Dead Man’s Walk got its name before ending up at one of Oxford's most famous pubs.

Cruise down the river

What is it? A river trip past Oxford’s boathouses and meadows into bucolic English countryside. The same scenery, as it happens, that inspired ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Why go? Like its academic rival Cambridge, Oxford is encircled by pastoral scenery. You could strap on your walking boots, or you could kick back and relax on board a boat that plies the same river Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell once floated down while befriending white rabbits, red queens and sleepy dormice.

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What is it? A massive country house with landscaped formal gardens and extensive parkland. It was the birthplace of Winston Churchill and is now home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough as well as regular festivals and events.

Why go? Escape the city and get a glimpse of how the other half lives in this baroque pile in the Oxfordshire countryside. Although strictly speaking, it’s not a palace, its size and splendour are such that it could easily be. Tour the ostentatious State Rooms, see where Churchill was born, walk the parklands, lose yourself in the yew maze, and check out Ai Weiwei’s monumental Gilded Cage.

Don’t miss: Take the ‘Upstairs Tour’ for an exclusive peek at the private apartments of the Marlborough family and see where Charlie Chaplin, Bill Clinton and Sylvester Stallone once stayed.

What is it? A small-group tour of the spellbinding Oxford locations used in the shooting of the Harry Potter films. 

Why go? 

Know right where the sorting hat would put you? Run into the wall at King’s Cross station? Need to know more? Tour Oxford’s streets and colleges to see the inspiration behind Hogwart’s great hall and Knockturn Alley and visit the real life Divinity School which was used as a backdrop for the Hogwart’s infirmary and classroom scenes. Geek out with a Potter-mania quiz along the way and learn how life in Hogwarts compares to university life today.

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What is it? An old-school, independent cinema beloved by residents of East Oxford showing a mix of indie, classic and mainstream films.

Why go? Forget the corporate blandness of cinema chains and go instead to the Ultimate Picture Palace to watch either the latest Hollywood-does-indie film or a brilliant black-and-white classic. Sundays were made for this.

What is it? A 40-minute choral service that gives a sneak peek of college life as well as a chance to hear magnificent music.

Why Go? You don’t need to be religious or even musical to appreciate Evensong in an Oxford college chapel. The hushed atmosphere, classical architecture and solemn sense of purpose make an impression long before the first chord is struck. Once the organ gets going and the voices rise, you’ll find the hairs on your neck rising as you’re transported to a hgher spiritual ground.

Don’t Miss: Although many of the Oxford colleges allow members of the public to join Evensong services, Magdalen is known as one of the best.

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What is it? The pub/music venue where Radiohead first performed a gig, and a mini-mecca for fans of alternative ’90s bands.

Why go? Oxford is home to many great pubs, but the Jericho Tavern is one of the most famous – thanks largely to its connection to various bands who took their baby steps in the late 80s/early 90s. Radiohead performed here under the (not-so-good) name of ‘On a Friday’ and Supergrass were signed shortly after gracing the Jericho Tavern stage.

What is it? Oxford’s first (legal) distillery with a suitably quirky edge, a link to medieval farming and an eye on the future.

Why Go? To sip the award-winning spirits of course – vodka, gin and rye whiskey made from heritage grains rescued from a medieval thatched roof and now farmed locally. Follow their journey from seed to still to bottle, hear about ancient methods of farming, see the handmade custom stills Nautilus and Nemo, and savour how it all comes together in silky smooth spirits with distinctive flavours.

Don’t Miss: The distillery’s garden bar sits at the highest point in hilly South Park. Come for a weekend drink and walk the park for views down over the city. 

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What is it? A magical museum celebrating storytelling from around the world as well as offering the perfect introduction to Oxford’s literary history.

Why Go? To walk through a wardrobe door into Narnia, travel between story worlds, rediscover your favourite book characters and explore an enchanted library where you can wander between shelves and find yourself inside a story. Hands-on, family fun that will transport you into your favourite tales and introduce you to plenty more.

Don’t Miss: The museum hosts loads of interesting talks, events and performances, as well as regular workshops, a comic club, and adult-only nights of fairytales for grown ups.  

What is it? Oxford’s largest and grandest college, inspiration for Hogwart’s and home of Oxford’s cathedral.

Why Go? If the magnificent buildings aren’t enough to draw you in, the history of Christ Church should entice you whether you’re a fan of politics, philosophy, science or literature. A quick look at the alumni list reads like a who’s who of world leaders, writers and thinkers. Most of all though, it’s the connection to Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter that are worth exploring.

Don’t Miss: Visit the Great Hall to see the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole (a hidden door used by the dean when late for dinner), Alice’s elongated neck (the long-necked firedogs) and portrait of Henry VIII (which inspired the Queen of Hearts).

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What is it? One of the UK's leading contemporary art galleries showing a range of bold, temporary exhibitions by international heavyweights.

Why Go? Small enough for a quick visit but ambitious enough to pull in big names in the art world such as Anish Kapoor and Tracey Emin, MAO rarely disappoints. It’s progressive programming and extensive range of workshops and participatory or educational events brings great art to the public in the most accessible ways.

Don’t Miss: The gallery runs a series of workshops alongside its shows, many aimed and children and families. Check out their events guide to see how you can get involved.

What is it? Oxford’s historic castle and prison spans 1,000 years of history and tales of murder, romance, escape and execution.

Why go? It was a grisly lot being a prisoner in Oxford. Between the corrupt warders, plagues of vermin and merciless treatment, it’s no wonder escape attempts were regular. Learn about it all, and the history of the city’s Norman castle, or join a ghost hunt to flush out some of the prison’s former inmates.

Don’t miss: Nip around the side of the prison for a drink the former visitor’s room, now the bar of a plush Malmaison hotel.

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Satisfy your sweet tooth thanks to G&D’s ice cream cafés

What is it? An Oxford institution, these three independent cafés serve the city’s best ice cream, bagels and brownies.

Why go? Proudly independent, locally based and making all deliveries by bike, G&Ds has the feel-good factor as well as scrumptious handmade bakes and ice creams that have earned it generations of loyal followers. Along with sweet treats, you’ll need to be game for cow-themed competitions and hopefully, in time, a return to late night openings to rival any kebab van.

What is it? A tour of the Oxford locations – pubs, colleges and streets – familiar to any fan of the Colin Dexter detective series Morse, Lewis and Endeavour.

Why go? If neither Hogwarts nor Narnia wet your whistle, then this might be the ticket for you. This tour will take you around the areas Inspector Morse frequented when trying to puzzle his way out of a case. Post-walk pint of ale optional, but probably a must.

Now try some of the city’s finest food

The 13 best restaurants in Oxford
  • Restaurants

Worked up an appetite after exploring the city? We’ve rounded up the cream of the restaurant crop, including nostalgia-themed burgers, fancy-pants dining and unbelievably delicious (and cheap) Thai. 

WTTDOxford

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