Oxford is pure magic, a city which holds so many treasures that it’s difficult to know where to start. You could be punting down Christ Church river one moment, and eating delicate gyoza dumplings at Gloucester Green Market the next. There are really are so many unique things to do in Oxford.
Oxford is of course home to the University of Oxford, one of the oldest and most beautiful universities in the world. From the Bodleian Library, with its medieval rooms and graceful, stone courtyards, to the famous Bridge of Sighs, Oxford University boasts stunning architecture from all ages, and the city is worth visiting for that reason alone.
Oxford is also a book lover’s haven. Blackwell’s bookshop is a true treasure trove, and one of Oxford’s rarest gems. With over three miles of bookshelf space, it is officially the biggest bookselling room on the planet. You’ll never be short of a good meal in Oxford – the city has a fantastic food culture, with its restaurants and markets selling delicious delicacies from all over the world.
It’s also an easy day trip from London making it very accessible for anyone on a tight schedule.
Things to Do In Oxford that You May Not Have Thought Of
Let’s dive into the details, and explore the special things you can only do in this beautiful and historic city.
Punting is a quintessential Oxford experience, and one of the best ways to experience this beautiful city and its iconic architecture and countryside. The easiest place to rent a punt is from Magdalen Bridge Boathouse. It costs £22 per hour to hire a punt during the week and £24 per hour on the weekend.
You’ll enjoy a relaxing route, as you drift past Oxford’s breathtaking Botanic Gardens and Christ Church College meadows, where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland. You can then either choose the route past St Hilda’s College and the rose gardens of Magdalen School.
Alternatively, you can punt north along the grounds of Magdalen College. This is well worth doing as Magdalen college has some of the most staggering architecture in the whole of Oxford. Lying back in a punt and gazing on the soaring spires of Magdalen Tower, perhaps with a drink in your hand, is a truly unique experience.
Oxford Royale Academy
Did you know that you can live and study at the University of Oxford, even if you didn’t get in or haven’t applied yet? Imagine spending two weeks in dining halls and libraries that tourists can only dream of entering.
Oxford Royale Academy, a UK summer schools provider, offers a truly authentic experience of life in the University of Oxford for students ages 12-19+.
Oxford Royale Academy offers a variety of Oxford University colleges as accommodation for its summer courses. You could be sleeping and dining in University College, potentially the oldest college in Oxford. You might dine every night in the grand dining hall of Balliol College, with its vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows.
You could be sleeping in dormitories at The Queen’s College, and walking daily across its quad, which a famous architectural historian famously described as, “the grandest piece of classical architecture in Oxford”. You’ll live, sleep and dine in your college, following in the footsteps of the most brilliant minds in history.
Oxford Royale Academy offers a wide range of exciting and innovative courses, from Archaeology to iOS app development. You’ll study subjects you’ll never come across at school, and enjoy Oxford’s most exclusive locations, such as the Examination Halls, which ordinary visitors are barred from.
If you’re aged 16-19, you’ll attend a Great Debate in Oxford’s famous Sheldonian Theatre. This extraordinary building, creating in the neo-classical style, is where Oxford University students matriculate and graduate. You’ll end your course with an opulent, black-tie ball. The ball includes a delicious, three-course dinner, which reflects Oxford’s tradition of Formal Hall, where grace is said in Latin. Truly a unique experience in Oxford.
Read More: A Day in Oxford for Culture Lovers
Zheng Restaurant Oxford
The food at Zheng is as famous as it is delicious. Giles Coren, prestigious food critic for The Times called it “possibly the best authentic Chinese / Malaysian restaurant in the country. Zheng boasts everything from dim sum and succulent appetisers, to Malaysian, Singaporean, Szechuan, Cantonese and Shanghainese cuisine.
Step into its smoothly panelled, cavernous interior and enjoy crunchy salt and pepper squid, Cantonese roast duck, which Coren describes in his review as “lukewarm, sweet, and melting gently”, and a gorgeous chicken rendang.
Zheng has some of the most delicious dim sum in the UK, with perfect har gao and siew mai (prawn and pork dumplings), and pork char siu buns that are out of this world. Zheng is, incidentally, a great environment for kids. They have cute, child-size red arm chairs in their entrance, a tank full of beautiful fish that will distract many a bored child and free lollipops (they’re also kind enough to ask the parents before offering the kids any!)
The Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library makes Oxford truly unique. The library has existed since the 15th Century and now holds over 13 million printed items. Since the 15th Century, the library has developed from small, abandoned medieval room to an institution which now holds over 13 million printed items, including a copy of every book ever published in England!
One tradition, fiercely guarded, is that no books in the Bodleian Library are to be lent to readers. Even King Charles I was refused to borrow a book in 1645! The Bodleian Library has a collection of books and manuscripts from all over the globe. This collection attracts scholars from every corner of the world.
The Bodleian Libraries’ Special Collections (at the Weston Library) holds the second largest collection of manuscripts and archives in Britain, with items ranging as far back as papyri of the 3rd Century B.C.
For anyone who visits Oxford, a tour of the Bodleian Library is an absolute must. The Bodleian Libraries offer an exclusive, Covid-safe guided tour which will introduce you to the most extraordinary and beautiful features of the Bodleian Library.
You’ll enter in through the Quadrangle, and straight into the impressive Divinity School. This medieval room with its exquisitely vaulted ceilings is the oldest teaching and examination room in the University of Oxford.
You can also enjoy a 30-minute guided tour of the Duke Humfrey’s Library, which is the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library. Gaze down its walls lined with oak bookshelves and its ceiling painted with the arms of the university.
Take in the stunning architecture from different eras from its original medieval section (built in 1487), to its Selden End (built in 1637).
The Radcliffe Camera is also one of Oxford’s most unique landmarks. Built by James Gibbs in the neo-classical style, it is a working library for Oxford University students. From its soaring dome roof, to the archways gracing its base, it is a proud representation of Oxford’s breathtaking architecture.
Although you can’t get access inside, you can find some walking tours where an expert student guide will show you the building and give you inside knowledge on it.
Oxford University’s Colleges
It’s worth visiting Oxford just for a glimpse of the famous colleges of Oxford University, and their stunning array of architecture, from the medieval to the modern.
Footsprints Tours offers a two hour free walking tour of Oxford colleges including Christ Church College, alma mater of 13 British prime ministers, the mysterious All Souls College, which is nearly impossible to get a place at, and Hertford College. You’ll also see the Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera, two of Oxford University’s most iconic buildings.
At Christ Church College, where many of the most famous scenes of Harry Potter, you’ll see the renowned Tudor Great Dining Hall (which was used to create the Hogwarts dining hall in Harry Potter, with its famous feasts and self-clearing magical plates.
You’ll also see the famous Bodley staircase in Christ Church. You’ll get to see the splendid cloisters and courtyard of New College, and Hertford College, with its iconic Bridge of Sighs, linking the Old Quad to the New Quad.
Read More: Discover Oxford’s Most Beautiful Colleges
Oxford Castle and Prison
Visit Oxford imposing castle and prison Castle and Prison, and discover 1,000 years of Oxford’s history. Climb to the top of St George’s tower (one of Oxford’s most ancient pieces of architecture, built in 1020 AD), and enjoy a panoramic view over the whole of Oxford, taking in the extraordinary sights of the city and university.
You can then descend underground into the candle-lit crypt of the castle’s prison. You’ll get the shivers as you step inside 18th Century prison cells, and hear the stories of some of Oxford Castle’s most infamous prisoners, such as Empress Matilda.
An outside tour of the castle will take you up its famous mound, where you’ll see how it turned from the original Motte and Bailey castle, to the grand and defensive structure it is today. Oxford Castle and Prison also has a gift shop which sells historically inspired gifts, including mock weaponry and cuddly dragons.
After soaking up the fascinating stories of Oxford Castle and Prison, you can also research your own family history in the gift shop. Oxford Castle and Prison have a Hall of Names system, where they can search for your surname history in an extensive database of records. Printed in just 5 minutes, you can also take your history home with you.
Oxford is a book-lovers paradise. Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford is one of Oxford’s rarest treasures. Situated on Oxford’s stately Broad Street, its famed Norrington Room holds one of the richest collections of books for sale in the world.
With over three miles of book shelf space, it is officially the biggest bookselling room on the planet.
The Last Bookshop, folded into the Jericho area of Oxford, is a fantastic discount bookshop, offering both new and second hand volumes. There’s also a tiny cafe, where you can sit and look at your new purchases.
The shop also sells vinyl records, so if you’re a fan of vintage-style music, this is the place for you.
Arcadia bookshop is a very special treasure trove, situated on St Michael’s street in Oxford. It’s a tiny shop selling a range of gifts, but specialises in rare and vintage books. There are rumours that the shop is run by fairies, as the items it sells are so delicate and adorable. You can find anything from antique maps to rare, Penguin classics, all perfectly packaged in cellophane.
Gloucester Green market
Visit Gloucester Green Market in Oxford, and taste food from Tibet, Japan, India, and any other far-flung corner of the earth. This open air market includes delicious street food from more than 20 countries, and features vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options.
In one corner of the market, you could be tucking into a rich Spanish paella with succulent king prawns and deliciously spiced falafel in another.
Gloucester Green market also offers a compelling range of general produce, from fresh fruit and vegetables, fabrics and stunning jewellery, to haberdashery, watches and clothing. There’s so much to do and see in this vibrant and bustling market, you could easily spend hours gazing at every stall and still not feel ready to leave.
Oxford has some of the world’s most famous museums and collections of artefacts, and visiting them is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone. Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum is truly unique, and houses over 500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world, and from all eras in human existence.
The museum’s extraordinary collection of artefacts ranges from brass mermaid dishes from Nigeria, to axe heads from the Archaic period (8,000 BC to 1,000 BC). It’s one of our favourite things to do in Oxford as it’s impossible not to be amazed by the quirky collection.
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is one of the most extraordinary museums of art and archaeology in the world. It has some of the richest and rarest collections, from Egyptian mummies and royal relics such as the Alfred Jewel, to Guy Fawkes’ lantern and the mantle of Powhatan (Pocahontas’ father).
If you enjoyed this guide to the unique things to do in oxford, make sure to pay a visit to Cambridge too.