One of my closest friends has been living in Oxford for two years. Shame on me for taking so long to visit! I had been to the University city once before, but strangely, I can hardly remember it (and no, before you ask, alcohol was not involved). During another brief stint at home in Ireland, I knew this would be my best chance to visit and finally see the beautiful place properly. Oxford always brings to mind old-school architecture, robed scholars laden with books, boating on the Thames, certain TV series my parents loved and of course… Harry Potter. How could anyone resist this place?
I by no means covered everything there is to see and do in Oxford during my two days there, but I’m pretty happy with what I did see. Here are seven ways to explore Oxford and see what all the fuss is about!
Enter Hogwarts at the Bodleian Library
Didn’t get that all-important letter when you turned 11? Yeah, me neither. Well now you can make up for it by visiting not one, but two locations used in the filming of the Harry Potter series. As part of the guided tour, you can visit beautiful tiered rooms behind heavy wooden doors, see the medieval Duke Humfrey’s library (a.k.a. the Hogwarts library, minus the screaming book), and the Divinity Room, where Ron was thoroughly mortified by having to dance with Professor McGonagall. Even non-HP aficionados will enjoy the stunning architecture and rich history of the college. Beware though, the tours sell out REALLY fast, so either book online in advance (with an extra fee) or get there first thing in the morning to nab a ticket before they’re gone. There are different tour lengths, with the standard one taking half an hour. I highly recommend going for this shorter one, as the Bodleian Library is really all you want to see! I have to admit, the fact we didn’t walk right into the library was quite disappointing, as was the fact that you can’t take photos of it. If you miss out on tickets, or have limited time, the beautiful Divinity Room is available to see at any time for just £1.
Let the University Campus take your breath away
Oxford University is spread all over the city, but the main historical campus includes the Bodleian Library building, the Radcliffe Camera and the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The stunning architecture that surrounds you will take your breath away – guaranteed. The circular Radcliffe Camera is the centrepiece, and will always have a crowd of tourists snapping photos of every angle. Keep wandering around the many buildings as there is always something more to see. What for us is a tourist attraction is a place of learning for others, so you’ll often see students working through the windows, some of which I saw held open with huge books!
Climb a tower to take in the views
I was told by said friend who had spent the last two years living in Oxford that the Castle was not worth visiting. I wandered over to have a look at the exterior, and paid £1 to climb the adjacent hill. My opinion – the hill isn’t even worth that. For a much better view over the roof tops of Oxford, try either Carfax Tower or the tower of St. Michael at the North Gate, the oldest building in the city, dating back to 1040 and the Saxon period. Both are fairly steep climbs with very narrow stairs, but on a sunny day the top is worth the effort. Carfax Tower has some interesting history of the area on boards as you climb, while St. Michael’s is entered through the lovely little church, a nice place to sit for a few minutes to rest aching feet and get away from the bustling noise outside.
Walk around Christchurch Meadow
Had enough of walking? Tough, there’s plenty more to see. For a brief respite from the busy streets, take a stroll around Christchurch Meadow. Following the little stream through the trees is a great way to get a breath of fresh air, and you won’t see many people here. It’s not a particularly long walk, but it does bring you around to the Thames (if you’re walking it clockwise, otherwise the Thames is your starting point), as well as offering a gorgeous view across the meadow to Christchurch at one point. Joggers run past, little old ladies stroll along, so it’s the perfect place for a solo traveller to unwind, or for some friends to have a great chat as you walk. Or you can do as the locals do and bring a book to read by the water.
Watch tourists trying to punt on the river
One thing I discovered while in Oxford is that the locals find it either cringeworthy or hilarious to watch the tourists attempting to punt (many do it backwards). If you have no idea what I’m talking about, a punt is a small, flat-bottomed wooden boat that is propelled by using a long pole to push against the river bed. It’s the done thing in places along the River Thames. So a great thing to do in Oxford is to watch these attempts (often with comical fails) or be brave and give it a go yourself.
Eat way too much food at the Covered Market
Dating all the way back to 1774, the Oxford Covered Market was created as a way to center all market stalls in one place to clean up the streets of the city. Nowadays, you can find dozens of different food stalls, groceries, bakeries, gift shops and clothing here. All in a gorgeous red-ceiling building located between High Street and Market Street. If you weren’t looking out for it, you might miss the entrances completely. There’s certainly enough stalls to keep you occupied for a while, but be careful…you’ll want to eat everything!
Visit Tolkien’s old haunt
It’s no secret that I was a huge Lord of the Rings nerd when I was a kid. Ok, I still am. So when I discovered Oxford was the home of Tolkien in his heyday, not to mention C.S. Lewis (of the Narnia series, another love of mine), I simply had to visit their meeting place. Both writers were founding members of the Inklings, an informal group of scholars who met regularly for lunch and to critique each others literary works. The pub takes well advantage of this fact; the place is covered in quotes, plaques and photos of the famous writers. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why they chose this place – it’s dark wooden beams, small cubbies tucked away offering privacy, and easy ambiance certainly makes for a pleasant experience. I only ran in for a quick look, but I could happily have stayed for a drink or a bite to eat.
So what do you think of Oxford so far? Have you ever been or would you love to go?
On a side note – Lord of the Rings fan or not? (This will determine if we can be friends. Kidding. Kind of.)
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