When I was originally planning my trip across Europe, Oxford never entered my mind. The goal of my European adventure was to see as much as I could on a shoestring budget. To do this, I put the word out on Facebook to all my friends and family that I was headed to Europe and any connections that people may have for a place to stay over there would be appreciated! I then received a message from a relative that they had a cousin married to a professor at Oxford University and that I could possibly stay with them. I had never thought of Oxford as a destination, I had never thought of Oxford much at all actually. I figured if it was boring though, I would easily be able to take a train or bus to nearby sites and attractions. So, I sent an email off to these Oxford relatives explaining my travel plans and asking if they had a couch I could stay on possibly! They responded that they were in fact in the process of moving, but that their in-laws would be happy to have me. That is how I came to spend an amazing and wonderful few days in Oxford, with my relatives, cousins, in-laws! I became absolutely enchanted with the history and secrets of this city!
Here’s my list of the top 10 sites and secret of Oxford:
1. The Oxford CastleThe castle is located right in the center of Oxford and looks like a castle in every bit of the word. This castle has been around since 1073 and has been used for everything from a home, to a military fort, to a prison, and now even as a hotel. You can take a theatrical guided tour of the castle for a small price, which I did, it was fantastic! You also get to go to the very top of the castle during the tour. At the top there is a great view of Oxford and the rolling hillside farms in the distance. I also suggest packing a picnic lunch and eating up on the grassy “Mound”. The Mound has another great above view of Oxford. This place is a must see if you love history and are looking for a great view of the city.
2. The Pitt-River Museum
This is an Oxford secret I stumbled across by complete accident, but I’m so happy I did! It was one of my favorite sites I found in Oxford. I was actually following a sign, thinking I was going to the museum of natural history, but when I got inside I found it closed for renovations until next year! They did have a few things from it set out to still look at though, which led me down a hall and dumped me out right at the entrance to the Pitt-River museum. This museum is amazing! It will leave you at a loss for words to describe it. It is set up in a giant, open, three story room and it is crammed full. I can only describe it like a cross between an antique store and your grandma’s attic. It’s an amazing collection of artifacts from all over the world and all different time period. It’s a feast for your eyes! It had everything from Totem poles to shrunken heads. You’ll just have to see it for yourself! This is a must see!
3. The Alice in Wonderland Tree
While in Oxford, my relatives cousin, who was a professor at Christ’s Church College, took time out of his schedule to give me a personal tour of the college. I took him up on it, mostly because it was free, but also to be polite. I couldn’t have been more surprised though when I found out that Christ’s Church College is the very birth place of the story of Alice and Wonderland. It was actually inspired by certain events that really took place at the school itself! I was told that Alice, long ago, was in fact real, and was the Dean of the College’s daughter. The author was someone who attended the school and admired her. There are so many details to this story that you will really have to see if for yourself. The one that really took my breath away though, was the actual tree that inspired the scene with the Cheshire Cat and Alice talking in the wood. It is absolutely magical!
4. The Turf Tavern Where Bill Clinton, “Did Not Inhale”
After my tour of Christ’s Church, we continued onto lunch at Oxford’s secret hidden pub, the Turf Tavern. The only way to get to this pub is to go to the Bridge of Sighs, find a secret entrance, go down a series of skinny alleys, and pop out at the hidden pub. How great is that?! I ordered an array of food here. It was all tasty, but that’s not what makes this pub so great. Because of it’s hidden location, it is naturally a sought after place for privacy, making it a frequent stop for celebrities and politicians. There is even a spot marked out in the patio with a sign where Bill Clinton famously said his “did not inhale” line. This pub is fantastic not only because of great food and drinks, but also the history around it and the adventure of finding it!
5. Tea Time on the Roof of the Ashmolean Museum
This was another Oxford secret I came upon by lucky happenstance. I had been touring the Ashmolean museum all day and was ready for something sweet to snack on. I noticed that the museum had a restaurant on the top floor, so I headed up in search of dessert. When I got to the top I was surprised and thrilled to find that they had an outdoor rooftop patio! It was designed to look like a lawn and decorated with lawn chairs, cushions, and string lights to give it a laid back feel. I found myself in a reclining lawn chair, with a tea menu in hand, and a fun view of the rooftops of Oxford. I ordered the traditional English tea, scones, and clotted cream. It was so delicious. It may have had to do with the ambiance, but it was hands down the best cup of tea I have ever had! The scones, clotted cream, and jam were heavenly as well. One of the best things about this restaurant is that it is not well advertised. It felt like there were really only locals there. It’s a great place to sit back, relax, and get away from the busier streets of Oxford.
6. & 7. Blackwell’s Shopfront/The White Horse Pub
A stop at this bookshop was recommended to me by my host. It has been around for almost 250 years and has fun little rooms, nooks, and crannies to explore. There is also a coffee shop on one of the floors. You can grab a drink there and sit and read in their café area. One of the highlights of this bookshop was the secondhand room. It was full of antique and rare books on every topic imaginable. A lot of their second hand books are affordable too, making them a fun and unique souvenir idea!
The White Horse pub is connected to Blackwell’s bookshop. It is one of the oldest pubs in Oxford. Many famous people, including Bill Clinton, have frequented the White Horse. I ordered the calamari and thought it was average. Obviously, you are visiting this pub more for the history and the beer than the food! I still enjoyed it a ton though and I loved the crammed style. Also, if walls could talk, I think we’d get quite a story!
8. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ works in the Old Bodlean Library
This was another place I stumbled on while being redirected for renovations and I am so glad I did. There is a free exhibit here that has sketches and watercolors from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was an unforgettable experience to see early sketches of Narnia and Gandalf! Seeing these scraps of paper with drawings and paintings of so many of the characters that played such a large role in my childhood was one for the bucket list!
9. The River Thames
Chalk this up to things I had no idea were in Oxford. While exploring the city, I followed a garden path that led down to the water where people “bunting”. This involves standing on a small, narrow boat and using a giant pole to push yourself down the river. While it looked like fun, it also looked like a lot of work. I opted to find myself a bench and just watch from there. From my seat I could see cows grazing on the other side of the river. There were also a bunch of ducks at my feet hoping for a snack. It was so peaceful and quiet. You would never know that you were in the middle of a university town. It felt like I had been transported to the English countryside. This is a great retreat for those who are looking to get out of the touristy crowds and just soak in the English atmosphere.
10. Harry Potter’s Dining Hall at Christ’s Church College
Let me just start by saying I am actually not a Harry Potter fan. I have never even seen any of the films all the way through. Now, that being said, I know how big of a deal it is and I can easily recognize most of the main scenes. The movies where actually shot at multiple locations around Oxford. One of them just so happens to be at Christ’s Church College. The dining hall in many of the Harry Potter scenes was actually filmed, on location, in the Christ’s Church dining hall! Special effects beef the room up a little and turn it into Hogwarts, but it is easily recognizable and very fun to have seen such an iconic set in person.
I hope that this was helpful and fun. Leave a comment if you have visited Oxford and found any great secret spots or great sites not on our list that you would like to add!