Seeping with history and energized by a student buzz, Oxford is an enchanting excursion within the UK. Be seduced by the charm and grandeur of the renowned university town on a day trip to Oxford.
When King Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris in 1167, they made the journey to a sleepy town surrounded by green meadows to complete their education. Seduced by the growing reputation for academic prowess and the bucolic location close to the villages of the Cotswolds, King Henry III granted the university a royal charter in 1248.
The great and the good have flocked to Oxford ever since. A host of prime ministers, a couple of US presidents, 12 saints and Kate Beckinsale were all educated here. Many have bequeathed gigantic contributions to the world.
While history seeps from cobble stoned laneways and golden architecture, there’s a huge variety within the city of dreaming spires. From esteemed gothic chapels to exquisitely decorated libraries; atmospheric English pubs and trendy hipster diners a day out in Oxford is a wonderful mix of old and new. And for Harry Potter fans, there are few better day trips in the world.
Here are our recommendations for what to see on an Oxford day trip, and how to squeeze it all in. For the full list, read our guide to the best things to do in Oxford.
For more inspiration, read our guide to the most enthralling places to visit in the UK.
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IN THIS GUIDE
OXFORD DAY TRIP
Exeter & Magdalen
MAP / OXFORD DAY TRIP ITINERARY
Oxford is a conveniently compact city with most of the sights on this day trip itinerary within easy walking distance of each other. All the sights listed in this guide are on the below map.
OXFORD DAY TRIP / MORNING
Start your day out in Oxford with brunch at The Handle Bar Café. Located above a bike shop, the quirky cycle-inspired decor and interesting brunch menu is a great introduction to the hipster side of Oxford. Their coffee is pretty good, but for a more serious brew, head to Society Cafe just down the road.
Energised, proceed to one of Oxford’s most photographed landmarks, the Radcliffe Camera. The neo-classical 17th-century gem is part of the Bodleian Library and acts as an exquisite centrepiece to the golden-hued heart of Oxford. It’s best seen from above, so head up to the rooftop of the Church of St Mary the Virgin for unparalleled sweeping views.
Church of St Mary the Virgin / 9:30am – 5pm Mon to Sat; 12pm – 5pm Sun | Tower: last admissions 30 min prior to closing | Cost: £5 (£15 family)
Next, take the 60-minute Bodleian Library tour which includes the Duke Humfrey’s medieval library. This is the oldest reading room in the university which was also used as inspiration for the Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter films. It’s a thoroughly atmospheric building and a very popular attraction in Oxford, so book well in advance.
You’ll exit the Bodleian tour at the Sheldonian Theatre, the architectural jewel that houses the graduation ceremonies and a worthy addition to your Oxford photography collection. Just across the road is Hertford Bridge, colloquially known as the Bridge of Sighs due to its resemblance to the real one in Venice. It too deserves a photo.
If you decide to skip the Bodleian Library tour then all the sights listed above can be visited on an excellent walking tour led by an ex-student of the university.
Read More – Best Cotswolds walks
Have lunch at No.1 Ship Street which offers great value meals right next to some of the oldest houses in Oxford. Or for something less formal grab a pie, sandwich, or snack from the covered market.
The Covered Market dates back to 1770. Today, it houses a mixed assortment of traders with everything from old-time butchers to tacky souvenirs. When in Oxford we always make a pitstop in the market for one excellent reason: to savour the goodness of a salted caramel brownie from Columbia Coffee Roasters. The coffee is pretty good too.
OXFORD DAY TRIP / AFTERNOON
CHRIST CHURCH MEADOW
Walk off that brownie with a stroll through the Christ Church Meadow. In 1784, the meadow was the scene of one of England’s first balloon flights. Today, the roughly triangular green space edged by the River Thames and the River Cherwell is a lovely place to admire the more tranquil side of Oxford.
CHRIST CHURCH COLLEGE
There are many colleges open to visitors in Oxford but with just one day, we recommend Christ Church College – the grandest of them all. Founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, Christ Church has educated 13 prime ministers and a host of other well-known personalities including Lewis Caroll and John Locke – the influential philosopher who was booted out for his controversial views.
The college chapel doubles as the Cathedral of Oxford with all the necessary ornamentation befitting its titles. The dining hall was the seat of parliament during the English Civil War and more recently, the inspiration behind the dining room in Harry Potter.
Tip // Christ Church is a must for any Harry Potter fan with many scenes being filmed here. Combine visiting Christ Church with a Harry Potter walking tour and no Harry Potter fan will leave disappointed.
Christ Church College / 9:30am – 4:30pm Mon to Sat; 10:30pm – 4:30pm Sun | Cost: £15 | Bookings: online in advance
EXETER COLLEGE, NEW COLLEGE & MAGDALEN
If you have the time (or if the price of entry into Christ Church puts you off) several smaller colleges open their doors in the afternoon (many for free). We suggest you try Exeter (with a fine chapel and good views over the Radcliffe Camera), New College (with its beautiful cloisters) and Magdalen (with its hydrangea-filled quads).
Exeter College / 2pm – 5pm | Cost: Free
New College / 1:30pm – 4:30pm (Tue-Sat, 12 Oct-6 Mar); 10:30 – 5pm (Daily, 9 Mar-9 Oct) | Cost: Free
Magdalen College / 10am – 7pm | Cost: £8 (£25 family)
WALKING TOUR OF THE COLLEGES
Spend what remains of the afternoon exploring the exteriors of the colleges you didn’t go into. Here’s a quick walking tour to collect some beautiful college façades.
Head down cobbled Merton Lane, past Merton College and Corpus Christi. Re-join the High Street and absorb the imposing Magdalen before heading up Longwall Street past New College and onto Broad Street. Here stand the traditionally left-wing colleges of Wadham and Balliol either side of the impressive grounds of Trinity College.
Merton College / 2pm – 5pm (Mon to Fri); 10am – 5pm (Sat & Sun) | Cost: £3
Trinity College / 10am – 12pm & 2pm – 5pm (term time); 10am – 12pm & 1pm – 5pm (outof term) | Cost: £3
OXFORD DAY TRIP / EVENING
Glide into the evening on your day out in Oxford with a pint in an atmospheric old English pub. Our pick would be the Turf Tavern. Down a wobbly cobbled lane, the Turf is a low-beamed, crowded pub bursting with stories. Famous patrons have included Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. But the most notorious client is former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who set the Guinness World Record at the Turf for downing a yard of beer in 11 seconds.
If you’re classier than Bob Hawke you might prefer Evensong in a college. Listen to soaring choir music inside one of the grand college chapels. Evensong usually starts in the early evening, lasts about 40 minutes and is free to enter. We recommend Christ Church, Magdalen or New College.
ASHMOLEAN AFTER HOURS
If your day trip to Oxford coincides with the last Friday of the month, you can take advantage of Ashmolean After Hours. The museum is open until 8pm where you can take in a talk, listen to free music or relax in their rooftop bar.
Take it down a notch after Evensong with an expertly crafted cocktail at Raoul’s Bar & Liquor Store in Jericho – one of Oxford’s trendy student neighbourhoods. Then, head into the Ashmolean Rooftop Restaurant for well-prepared dishes in a spectacular setting.
Read More – Things to do in the Cotswolds
OTHER IDEAS FOR ONE DAY IN OXFORD
We picked our favourite Oxford attractions and experiences that capture the grandness and history of one of the most famous university towns in the world. Of course, there are plenty of other sides to the city of dreaming spires. Here are a couple of other ideas for your day trip.
To learn more about the city, join a walking tour run by an alumni. Not only do you get a better insight into its history, you get to hear about the fun and games of student life.
Much of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was inspired by Oxford and many of the scenes were filmed here. Any dedicated fan should join the Harry Potter walking tour. It includes entry to the Divinity School film site (where they filmed the classroom, dance, and infirmary scenes) as well as other historic literary buildings. On route the guide tests your knowledge with a Potter-mania quiz. Note that the tour does not include entrance to Christ Church, so make sure to book that independently.
Oxford is blessed with world-class museums. The Ashmolean is a stunning museum with a diverse collection including everything from Egyptian mummies to modern art. Pitt River’s Museum has a weird and wacky collection of archaeological and anthropological treasures. Modern Art Oxford has a regular rotation of exhibitions and installations, most of which are free.
Established in the 17th century as a small garden growing plants for medical research, the Oxford Botanic Gardens are the oldest in Great Britain. It’s said to contain over 5000 plant species and still has well-maintained medicinal beds growing plants to treat illnesses.
Oxford Castle is a partly ruined Norman castle just outside the main centre. The Saxon St George’s Tower is one of the oldest buildings in Oxford and has stunning views over the city.
Try your hand at punting on the River Cherwell. It’s a fine line between competent and inept as you navigate the river in a narrow wooden boat with nothing but a long pole. Book a chauffeured punt from Magdalen Bridge Boathouse or try your luck with a self-guided adventure.
If you want to get out of the city and explore the area, there are a number of country walks that are easy to do from Oxford. We’ve compiled what we think are the best walks in the Cotswolds with detailed maps to get you started.
HOW TO GET THERE / A DAY TRIP TO OXFORD FROM LONDON
A mere 65 miles west of central London, one of the best ways to see Oxford is on a day trip from the capital. You could also incorporate it on a UK rail route collecting several other historic centres.
Trains leave from London Paddington every 30 minutes and take around 45 minutes depending on the service. There are also services from Marylebone to Oxford which take just under 1 hour. The train station is a 10-minute walk into the centre of Oxford.
LONDON TO OXFORD TRAINS
44 minutes | 55 services per day | 4am – 12:30am
59 minutes | 63 services per day | 5am- 1am
The strangely named Oxford Tube bus service leaves from London’s Victoria Station every 20 minutes and collects passengers at Marble Arch, Baker Street, Notting Hill Gate and Shepherd’s Bush underground stations. The trip takes around 1 hour and 40 minutes. The bus station is a 2-minute walk to the centre of town.
If you have your own car it takes around 1 hour and 30 minutes to drive to Oxford on the M40. There are Park & Ride services on the outskirts of the centre, so you don’t need to pay for, or stress about, getting parking in the city centre (which is not easy and expensive).
If you want to let someone else take the strain in getting to Oxford join a tour. Combine it with a chocolate box village in the Cotswolds, Windsor Castle, or the home of Downton Abbey. For Harry Potter fans combine a day trip to Oxford with the magical Warner Bros. Tour ‘The Making of Harry Potter’.
BEST TIME TO GO TO OXFORD
Oxford is good all year round, however in May, when the gardens are in full bloom and the students in full celebratory mode, there’s an unmistakable bounce to the city.
Students disappear in summer to be replaced by tourists. So, while the vibe changes, the punting is ideal and a picnic on the River Thames or Cherwell is the perfect way to unwind after soaking up the grandeur and history of the city.
With the gaudy Christmas markets of European counterparts not gaining a foothold over Oxford, the town takes on a quiet slumber in winter. The old streets with their medieval buildings frosted in snow can be quite magical.
WHERE TO STAY IN OXFORD
Oxford is a great day trip, but there is easily enough to do for a 2 or 3 days. If you plan on a weekend break or longer trip, here are our recommendations on where to stay.
The Old Parsonage has a chic country house feel with a blend of luxury and character in a friendly environment. The walled garden is a lovely place to relax and at around 5 minutes to walk into the centre of Oxford, the location is bang on.
The Galaxie is a friendly, family-run guesthouse in a leafy suburb just outside the centre of Oxford. There’s a hearty breakfast every day and facilities include parking and free wifi. It’s a 20-minute walk into the centre of Oxford but there are several restaurants in the area.
QUIRKY & AFFORDABLE
At just a 10-minute walk to the centre of Oxford, the Osney Arms is a great, budget-friendly option with bright clean rooms. The grab-and-go breakfast is perfect for getting on your way in the morning and the public transport options are excellent.
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