If you’re visiting Oxford, I’m going to guess it’s for one thing – exploring its world-famous university and its delightful colleges! There are 45 Oxford colleges in total, and each has its own unique history and charm.
From colleges like Balliol and Merton, established in the 13th century, right up to Reuben College, established in 2019, there are so many factors to consider when choosing which colleges to visit that it can get a bit overwhelming! Of course, in an ideal world, you’d be able to visit them all, but realistically most visitors only have time to see a handful of them.
When choosing which Oxford colleges to visit, you’ll need to keep a few different factors in mind. These include the entry price, how beautiful it is, how busy it gets and whether or not the college will be open to visitors when you plan to visit.
I spent a full week at Oxford when I applied for an undergraduate palace there, and my best friend also attended Oxford for four years. Needless to say, I’ve visited a respectable amount of the colleges and know which ones are the best to visit! Not all Oxford colleges are created equally, and I’m here to help you with your search for the ones that you can’t miss out on.
But first, what are the Oxford colleges?
The University of Oxford, unlike most universities in the UK, has no central campus. Instead, numerous colleges collectively form the university. On being accepted at the university, a student is assigned a college. It is here that they will live, socialise and usually take the majority of their classes.
Each college usually has its own dining hall, a common room and of course, student accommodation. Some colleges are more exclusive than others (there’s a big debate around certain Oxford colleges which accept almost exclusively privately-schooled students), and some colleges are for graduate students only.
How to get to Oxford from London
Presumably, you’ll be visiting Oxford from London, which is a really easy day trip! On any given weekday, there are around 118 trains from either London Marylebone or London Paddington train station to Oxford.
The journey takes around 1 hour, and return tickets purchased on the day cost £28.10. If you book in advance, you can score return tickets for as little as £10! From the train station, all the colleges in Oxford are within walking distance. If you’re in a rush, use the City Sightseeing bus to get around the top tourist sights.
Phew! Now that that’s out of the way, here are the prettiest colleges in Oxford which you absolutely need to visit!
Founded in 1458, Magdalen is one of the wealthiest colleges in Oxford. This isn’t surprising when you first see its immaculately kept lawns and gorgeous grounds. For literary fanatics, Magdalen was the college of such icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde and C.S. Lewis!
Entrance to the college costs £7, but you can easily spend ages exploring its gorgeous grounds and taking in its breathtaking architecture, so the entry price is well worth it. The large Magdalen Tower is one of the most iconic landmarks in Oxford, and is an essential photo stop! Once you’ve admired the buildings of Magdalen, take a stroll along Addison’s Walk, a tranquil footpath along the river inside the college grounds.
Magdalen’s position opposite the river offers an amazing opportunity to sit on the grass and watch the world go by. Magdalen also has its very own Deer Park! The deer have been roaming this area for over 300 years, but you have the best chance of seeing them in summer when they tend to hang out in the riverside meadows.
Don’t be caught out – you should (confusingly) pronounce Magdalen as Mawd-lin. Mispronouncing it is the easiest way to reveal yourself to be a tourist! It is open from 10 am – 7 pm or dusk, whichever is earliest.
My personal favourite of all the colleges, Balliol is one of the oldest and most centrally located colleges in Oxford. Its ancient charm is nothing but alluring! Stepping through the gates of the college, it’s hard to imagine all the hustle and bustle happening on the other side of the walls in Oxford city centre. The grounds of Balliol feel like their own peaceful world!
The college was founded in 1263 and has produced many UK Prime Ministers, including Harold MacMillan, Edward Heath and Boris Johnson. Literature fans will want to know this college was also home to authors Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, and the poets Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Balliol is imposing, impressive, and (thankfully) less crowded than traditional favourites such as Christ Church college. Another perk of visiting Balliol college is that entrance costs only £3. This is a veritable bargain in comparison to the more popular colleges! Entry is from 10 am to 5 pm or dusk, whichever is earliest.
Here’s a great walking tour of the Oxford Colleges with a guide.
Christ Church College
Undoubtedly the most iconic college, Christ Church is THE Oxford college to visit if you only have time for one. It’s gorgeous, it’s impressive, and it’s huge! That being said, given its popularity you’ll probably have to compete with hundreds of other tourists to get those sought-after perfect photos!
There’s a chance you might find Christ Church familiar, and that will be because it was used as a filming location for the Harry Potter movies. The most popular place to visit for Potter fans is the dining hall, which inspired the Hogwarts dining hall. You’ll also recognise the steps up to the dining hall, which is where Professor McGonagall welcomed the new first years when Harry arrived at Hogwarts.
Harry Potter aside, Christ Church is also home to the iconic Tom Tower, an Oxford landmark designed by world-renowned architect Christopher Wren (who also designed St Paul’s Cathedral). Of course, everywhere you go in Christ Church will blow your mind with its staggering beauty, so you should plan to spend an hour here at the very least!
To explore in full, you’ll have to pay to enter the college, which costs between £7-9 (depending on what time of year you visit). Opening times can often change at short notice, so it’s best to check their website for up-to-date information. You can also take a Harry Potter walking tour of the colleges and city which also includes a visit to the Bodleian Library.
Since the college is so popular with visitors, there’s an option to buy your tickets online in advance. I highly recommend doing this as the ticket queue, especially in summer, can be intense. Besides, if you’re only visiting Oxford for one day you don’t have time to lose!
To get off the beaten path in Oxford, take the stroll out to Worcester College. As it’s not as centrally located, you’ll escape the manic tourist crowds at the more popular Oxford colleges. That isn’t to say Worcester College doesn’t have just as much to offer visitors!
It’s another one of the larger Oxford colleges, boasting 26 acres of grounds. The college’s gardens have also frequently won the Oxford in Bloom competition. What’s more, entry to Worcester College is completely free, and visitors are welcome between 2-4pm daily.
The main quad of the college is next to a set of medieval cottages which are the remnants of Gloucester College, which was active between the 13th and 16th centuries. Further into Worcester, you’ll find a lake where students gather around to study, catch up with friends or just get away from the pressure of their studies for a while.
Again with the weird pronunciation, pronounce Worcester as Wuss-ter.
The most mysterious and most exclusive of Oxford colleges, All Souls is also one of the wealthiest of Oxford colleges. Taking no undergraduates, and granting all accepted applicants with instant fellowship, getting a place at All Souls is like finding a golden ticket.
The gruelling admissions process is regularly referred to as “the hardest exam in the world”! It’s no surprise so many people want a coveted place in All Souls though – the college is drop-dead gorgeous!
Luckily, visitors to the college can easily side-step that admission ordeal by simply turning up to the college between 2-4pm on weekdays, or anytime on Sunday. Surprisingly, entry is free! Many visitors are intimidated by the exclusivity of All Souls, but there’s a certain thrill about exploring such a greatly revered college!
Fans of the beloved All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness will probably realise that the trilogy is named after this college, which is where one of the main characters, Matthew de Clairmont, is a fellow.
New College is another Harry Potter filming location, which draws a decent amount of visitors, but it’s also much more than that! Despite its name, the college was actually founded in 1379, making it a piece of living history. Just don’t be surprised if you see visitors wearing the iconic red and yellow Harry Potter scarves!
Like a lot of Oxford colleges, New College looks pretty small and unassuming from the outside. It’s only when you enter that you get an idea of its sheer size and grandeur! For Insta-worthy settings from start to finish, you don’t need to look any further than New College. Entry is £5, and entry to the college chapel is free.
The college chapel has exceptionally lavish interiors, and countless statues! It’s definitely worth stopping by before you pay your entry fee. Inside, the gates welcoming you to the college gardens were inspired by Paris’ Gates of Versailles! The college is open to visitors from 10.30 am-5 pm Easter-October, and 2-4 pm in winter.
Of course, as you may have noticed by now, Oxford has a lot of beautiful colleges. What makes New College unique, though, are the stretches of the old town wall which run through the grounds. For another unique experience, you can even stay overnight in the college when the university is on a break!
There are so many beautiful colleges which didn’t make this list but are definitely worth your time. Merton, Brasenose and Jesus colleges, to name just a few, are also especially gorgeous. This means that you really can’t go wrong when choosing which college to visit.
No matter where you go, I’m sure you’ll be blown away by how beautiful Oxford colleges are (St Catherine’s college aside). You’ll also come away trying to imagine what it must be like studying there. I bet it’s a lot more enjoyable exploring the colleges with no essay deadlines, though!