2 Oct 19 / Oxford
Top 10 things to do and see in Oxford
As well as its world-renowned university, Oxford is a beautiful city with stunning architecture and fascinating history. The 'city of dreaming spires' has world-class museums and oodles of quintessential English charm.
WHERE TO STAY
Malmaison Oxford is a unique boutique hotel as it is in a building that was once the local prison. You can even stay in a prison cell or in the House of Correction building where everything is now wonderfully luxurious. This is definitely the most stunning and original hotel in Oxford. Even if you don’t stay in a cell, do ask to see the preserved cell near Reception.
When the prison closed it was used as a film and TV location including for Inspector Morse, another big draw for the city. (There’s a joke that there should be a plaque on the buildings in Oxford that haven’t been used for Morse!) Brad Pitt and Glenn Close have also filmed here.
The in-house dining is recommended as Chez Mal Brasserie is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a simple but adorable afternoon tea. And don't end your evening too early as the sophisticated bar has indulgent cocktails.
OXFORD CASTLE & PRISON
Right next door to Malmaison Oxford is Oxford Castle. This was Oxford's prison up to 1996 before the whole site was redeveloped into the hotel and a visitor attraction. Oxford Castle & Prison has costumed tour guides to tell the building’s 1,000 year history.
You get to climb up the Saxon St George’s Tower for great views of the city before going down to the 900 year old crypt, and then the prison cells. This is great for families as Horrible Histories fans will enjoy the gruesome stories.
Founded in 1683, this was the first-ever public museum. The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford's museum of art and archaeology and it's free to visit. The collection ranges from Egyptian mummies and ancient Greek and Roman statues to contemporary art and Lawrence of Arabia's robes. Admission is free and there are half a million years of exhibits to explore across five floors.
As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford is a unique and historic institution. The university is made up of 38 colleges and Christ Church is the largest and most impressive. It was founded in 1525 and counts 13 British prime ministers among its alumni.
One of Victorian Britain's most famous authors is also connected to Christ Church as Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson who was Tutor in Mathematics here. His muse for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.
And Harry Potter fans will enjoy seeing the Great Hall. The stairway to the Hall was used as a filming location for the first two movies where Professor McGonagall greets the new students to school. Then enter the magnificent Great Hall which directly inspired the Great Hall of Hogwarts.
TAKE A PUNT
There's something quite timeless about going for a punt down the scenic River Cherwell. Situated underneath Magdalen College Tower, you can hire a boat or a punt and chauffeur at Magdalen Bridge Boathouse.
University Parks is one of the most popular picnic spots in Oxford, or you could simply admire the architecture and sightsee from the water. Punting is an idyllic form of transport and an opportunity to see Oxford in a totally unique way.
There is also Cherwell Boathouse with 80 punts available to hire. The punting season doesn't include winter but for the rest of the year, you can trail your fingers in the water as you drift past University buildings and relax on the waterways.
OXFORD BOTANIC GARDEN & ARBORETUM
Founded in 1621 as the first botanic garden in the UK, Oxford University's Oxford Botanic Garden is beautifully laid out next to the River Cherwell. It is one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world with nearly 6,000 different types of plant from around the world in the gardens and glasshouses.
While the Botanic Garden is within walking distance of the city centre, Harcourt Arboretum is a 15-minute drive from Oxford. It contains some of the finest conifer collections in the UK set within 130 acres of historic, picturesque woodland. Both locations are perfect for feeling inspired by nature.
EAGLE AND CHILD PUB
Eagle & Child was the pub where Tolkien, CS Lewis and other members of The Inklings literary group used to meet, enjoy a pint and discuss their works between 1933 and 1962 (though Tolkien stopped attending in the 1950s).
The Inklings meetings were convivial and an opportunity for each member to read their latest literary works to a welcoming audience. (The first drafts of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were discussed here.) They met once or twice a week at the pub and the meetings were fuelled by beer and banter.
There is a handwritten note to the landlord, pinned up above the fireplace that reads ‘The undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk to your health’, and is signed by the group.
Another pub with a strong connection to literary classics is the St John's College-owned Lamb & Flag. This is where Thomas Hardy wrote his novel Jude the Obscure.
The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford – the library of the prestigious University of Oxford – opened in 1602 so is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. In Britain, it is second in size only to the British Library in London.
The Bodleian is not just one library in one building. It’s now known as the Bodleian Libraries as it includes major research libraries, libraries attached to faculties, departments and other institutions of the University as well as the principal University library – the Bodleian Library. Together, the Bodleian Libraries hold over 13 million printed items.
There are regular tours of the Old Bodleian Library to allow visitors to see inside its historic rooms including the 15th-century Divinity School, medieval Duke Humfrey's Library and the impressive Radcliffe Camera.
Duke Humfrey's Library was used as the Hogwarts library and the Divinity School as the infirmary in some of the Harry Potter films, and the stunning Convocation House was a filming location for The Favourite (2018) and The Madness of King George (1994).
Founded in 1884, Pitt Rivers is a wonderfully quirky museum of archaeology and ethnography. The Museum is a department of the University of Oxford and has over 500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world.
Rather than organising the collection chronologically or by region, artefacts are arranged by type which can raise fascinating distinctions and parallels across cultures. There are rows of glass cabinets and you can borrow a torch to explore the dark corners.
You can see everything from a warrior helmet made from a porcupine fish and Hawaiian feather cloaks to the world's smallest doll and the famous shrunken heads. And entry is free.
MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Another recommended free museum is the Museum of Natural History which adjoins Pitt Rivers. The cathedral-like Victorian neo-Gothic building displays Oxford University's geological and zoological specimens.
After the dinosaur skeletons, the highlight is the most complete and only soft tissue remains of an extinct Dodo in the world. It is said to have inspired Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in creating the character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
BRIDGE OF SIGHS
This city landmark is located close to the iconic Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre. It connects the Old and New Quadrangles of Hertford College (the college of Brideshead Revisited author Evelyn Waugh) over New College Lane and is officially called Hertford Bridge.
Completed in 1914 and designed by Sir Thomas Jackson, the Grade II listed bridge actually bears little similarity to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and instead is more like Venice's Rialto Bridge. Nevertheless, the ornate covered bridge provides a popular photo opportunity.
There is a false legend saying the bridge's name is because Hertford College's students were once the heaviest at the University so the college closed off the bridge to force them to take the stairs. It's not true though as if the bridge is not used, the students actually climb fewer stairs than if they do use the bridge.
Written by Laura Porter - Travel writer for Malmaison & Hotel du Vin