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Top things to do on a city break in Oxford

Plan a short break or day out in Oxford

Affectionately named the City of Dreaming Spires, the medieval metropolis of Oxford revolves around its prestigious university, established all the way back in the 12th century. Though while it’s certainly popular for its scholarly history, there’s so much more to Oxford than meets the eye. Whether it’s visiting the UK’s first public museum, punting on the River Cherwell or learning about Alice Liddell – the real Alice in Wonderland – there are heaps of things to do and see on a city break in Oxford.

With restrictions easing across England, please continue to follow government guidance and remember to plan ahead and check attraction websites before travelling. Take a look at our top tips on how to escape the everyday responsibly to see how you can make the most out of your day trips and breaks. 

1

Take an Oxford University tour with a twist

Oxford University

View of Durham Quad, Trinity College, Oxford

The University of Oxford is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, made up of 45 historic colleges, many known for their striking architecture and notable alumni. But you don’t have to be a student to wander the colleges – you can follow in the footsteps of many a famous figure and great mind on a themed tour. See the inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall in Christ Church College or learn about the student lives of some of the greatest authors in the world. Or how about uncovering the filming locations from the famous TV detective show, Inspector Morse?

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If you want to delve deeper into Oxford’s academic history, book onto an Oxford Official University & City Tour. You’ll visit the iconic Bodleian Library, see the Radcliffe Camera (another university library and iconic Oxford landmark), and explore more of the university’s colleges, including Magdalen and Trinity. Keep an eye out for gargoyles on the buildings – some of their facial expressions are rather amusing. Or listen in on the paranormal stories that haunt the city on an after-dark ghost tour. Learn about the spooky sites and eerie nooks and crannies of Oxford, and be introduced to the city’s most famous ghosts.  

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2

Explore Oxford in your very own boat

Magdalen Bridge Boathouse

Wandering the streets of Oxford may be one of the best ways to see the city, but it’s equally as fun from the water. Steering your punt along the River Cherwell, you’ll glide past the famous botanic gardens, through Christ Church College Meadows and, if you’re in it for the long haul, out into Oxford’s surrounding countryside. With Oxford Punting you can hire punts, rowing boats and pedalos for an hour or for the entire day, or spoil yourself by opting for a chauffeured punt who’ll do all the hard work for you. For an extra touch of luxury, you can even pre-order picnic platters to enjoy on your trip. 

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Once back on solid ground, pay a visit to Oxford Botanic Gardens & Arboretum, the very first botanic garden in the UK (founded in 1621). Experience a range of climates in the seven glasshouses – from tropical jungle to oozing swamp – wander the Walled Garden with its medicinal plant beds, and discover the literary wood, home to the oldest plant in the collection, a 17th-century English yew. Or head to Port Meadow for an amble around 440 acres of grazing land for local cattle and horses. Walk up the west side of the meadow to reach a selection of pubs, or pack a picnic to enjoy beside the River Thames.

Find more outdoor spaces and gardens in Oxford
3

Dine at an iconic riverside restaurant

River Cherwell

View of riverside restaurant, Cherwell Boathouse

One of the most exciting things about cities is their incredible selection of restaurants, and Oxford is no different. If you like your meals with a view, book a riverfront table at Cherwell Boathouse, a family-owned restaurant housed in an authentic Victorian boathouse. Seasonal menus are prepared by head chef, Paul Bell, and tend to include a myriad of exquisite flavours and ingredients, from the likes of crab cannelloni and beer-brined poussin to a 10-layered vegetable lasagne. Wrap all that up with views of people calmly floating past on their punts, and you’ve got yourself a meal out worth shouting about. *chefs kiss*

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In the centre of Oxford, you’ll find Gee’s, a uniquely rustic Mediterranean dining experience set inside a Victorian glasshouse. Formerly a greengrocer and florist, the restaurant’s airy conservatory is now filled with olive trees and plants – rather fitting as their menu is inspired by dishes from Spain and Italy. Or satisfy your sweet tooth at one of G&D’s ice cream cafés. Founded by an Oxford student back in 1992, G&Ds products are made by hand on Little Clarendon Street (the flagship café) and delivered by bike to its other Oxford shops. Dig into flavours like Daim Bar Crunch, Chocolate Orange and the intriguingly named Purity & Danger.

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4

Spend the night in a former prison cell

Oxford

Escape the 9-to-5 with a stay at a former lock-up. Malmaison Oxford, just five minutes from the city’s best bars, restaurants and museums, is so unique it would be a crime not to book a room. Each of the 95 hotel rooms and suites was once your average prison cell, now reformed into luxurious and stylish places to lay your head – complete with lavish little extras. Expect superfast WiFi, uber-comfy beds, roll-top baths and powerful rainforest showers – and when you’re in the mood for food or a late-night cocktail, just swing by the hotel’s Chez Mal Brasserie for a bite to eat. You can even dine outside in the old prisoner’s exercise yard.

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Get stuck into traditional Oxonian life with a stay in an Oxford University College, as many students have done for centuries. The reasonably priced rooms (available during academic breaks) come with an excellent breakfast in the college’s grand dining hall and the chance to explore corridors and passageways otherwise closed to visitors. Alternatively, you could splash out on a weekend retreat at The Randolph Hotel. This boutique accommodation is inspired by Oxford’s rich history, with many of the rooms decorated with playful nods to ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ alongside the University’s architecture and icons.

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5

Go on a glam shopping trip near Oxford

Bicester

View of Bicester Village street over the tops of colourful flowers

Sometimes, there’s nothing better than finding discounted deals on big-name brands, and Bicester Village is the place to make those fashion dreams come true. This open-air shopping outlet on the outskirts of Oxford houses some of the world’s most exciting designers, from Alexander McQueen and UGG to Balenciaga and Versace – all at reduced prices. Once you’re all shopped out, you can reward your efforts with a bite to eat at one of the village’s restaurants or food stalls, with choices like Maitre Choux’s decadent handmade eclairs and Café Wolseley’s scrummy chicken schnitzel.

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Bookworms can find all their literary needs at the very first Blackwell’s Bookshop, whose doors have been open since 1879. From academia to autobiographies, Blackwell’s stocks thousands of books – and with a 19th-century bookcase still standing strong, is like browsing a mini-museum. Speaking of books, Oxford is also home to Alice’s Shop, which sells a wonderful array of Alice in Wonderland-themed trinkets. And don’t forget to refuel with a coffee at The Handle Bar – a cosy café with Instagram-worthy interiors (there’s a bike hanging from the ceiling) and a number of delicious nibbles.

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6

Immerse yourself in Oxford’s magical museum

Oxford

Woman reading book to children in oversized bed

Rediscover some of your favourite childhood books as you explore the endless magical depths of human imagination at The Story Museum. Adults and children alike can explore interactive exhibitions, gallery spaces and events that celebrate stories in all forms. Enter The Whispering Wood – a mysterious indoor forest where every tree has a tale to tell; peruse The Enchanted Library, where you can wander between the shelves to find yourself inside a story; or pay a visit to Small Worlds, a patchwork land of picture books and nursery rhymes for the very young and young at heart.

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Unearth seven million fascinating objects and specimens at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. See the fossils of the world’s first scientifically described dinosaur, the Megalosaurus bucklandii, and the famous Oxford Dodo – the only surviving soft tissue remains of the bird anywhere in the world. Or head inside the oldest public museum in the UK, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, to admire a ground-breaking collection of art and antiquities, from Italian Renaissance oil paintings to Egyptian mummies and the lantern Guy Fawkes is said to have been carrying when he was arrested at the Houses of Parliament.

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7

Order a pint at one of England’s oldest pubs

Oxford

Round off a long day of exploring Oxford with a trip to The Bear Inn, which has been serving locals since 1242. Order a pint of ale and kick back in the large heated garden – perfect for warm, sunny days – or grab a table indoors. The interiors of this old-school boozer are particularly distinctive, thanks to its collection of over 4,500 snippets of ties displayed in glass cases on the walls and ceiling. The tradition started in 1952 by landlord Alan Course, when he offered punters a free half-pint of beer in exchange for clipping the ends of their ties with scissors.

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Another famous haunt is the Eagle and Child Pub, notable for being a meeting place for authors (then Oxford University students) CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. The pub is currently closed for refurbishment and isn’t planning to open until 2022 but do stop by to see the plaque commemorating the writers’ get-togethers. Or step further into the world of alcohol-making at the Oxford Artisan Distillery. Take a behind-the-scenes tour to see how their spirits are made, from seed to still and into the bottle. The tour also includes a tasting of their award-winning vodka, three craft gins and a short of pure rye spirit.

8

Revel in Oxford’s unique nightlife

Oxford

With a city full of students, it’s no surprise there are plenty of things to do after dark in Oxford. Surround yourself in flashing lights, neon paint and loud music at Junkyard Golf Club – a trendy indoor crazy golf joint that’s taken the UK by storm. Grab a group of mates and take on one, two or three courses filled with twisted clowns, towers of car tyres and tropical jungles. If that doesn’t feel nightlife enough for you, you can accompany your round with a selection of over-the-top cocktails decked out in tuck-shop sweets and old-school umbrellas. A Ribena Turner, anyone?

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If you’d rather leave the entertainment up to someone else, book to see a show at an Oxford theatre. The New Theatre Oxford hosts some of the biggest productions on the circuit, as well as stand-up comedy and live music. Or grace the domed hall of The Sheldonian Theatre, an architectural jewel at the heart of the medieval university for over 350 years. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and inspired by Roman architecture, The Sheldonian not only holds the university’s public ceremonies but puts on a range of concerts, talks and lectures.

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13 May 2021(last updated)

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    Oxford University

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    Magdalen Bridge Boathouse

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    River Cherwell

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    Oxford

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    Bicester

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    Oxford

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    Oxford

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    Oxford

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