The best ways to experience the grandeur of Oxford
Do you want to make the most of your trip to Oxford, but don’t know where to start?
Oxford has an amazing culture, and boasts some of the most renowned museums, libraries and architecture in the world. Home to the world’s second oldest university, Oxford has no end of grand sights to see and experiences to offer.
If you’re overwhelmed by the endless list of things to see and do in this famous and historic city, don’t worry. We’ve put together a list of the best ways to experience the grandeur of Oxford.
Find more days out in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in my big round up of 101 UK attractions for families.
What are the best ways to experience the grandeur of Oxford?
The best ways to experience the grandeur of Oxford are to visit its stunning landmarks such as Christ Church College (where Harry Potter was filmed), Oxford Castle, and the Bodleian Library.
To enjoy an authentic Oxford experience, you could go on walking tours around Oxford’s famous colleges, try punting, or live and study for two weeks on the premises of Oxford University with an elite summer school. Let’s dive in, and look at these experiences in more detail.
Bodleian Library tours
As one of the oldest and most famous working libraries in the world, a tour of Oxford’s Bodleian Library is not to be missed. As soon as you step into the creamy stone Quadrangles of the Bodleian Library, with its grand carved doors bearing Latin script, and branching off into mysterious hallways, you know you are somewhere extraordinary.
The Bodleian Libraries offer an exclusive, Covid-safe guided tour which will introduce you to the most impressive and grand features and rooms of the Bodleian Library.
You’ll enter in through the Quadrangle, and straight into the impressive Divinity School. This splendid medieval room with its intricate, vaulted ceilings is the oldest teaching and examination room in the University of Oxford. Imagine standing by those exquisitely carved walls, and soaking up centuries of academic knowledge and history.
You’ll also enjoy an exclusive, 30-minute guided tour of the Duke Humfrey’s Library, which is the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library. It is an amalgamation of stunning architecture from different ages, from its original medieval section (built in 1487), to its Selden End (built in 1637). Gaze down its walls lined with oak bookshelves, take in its curved windows streaming with light and look up at its panelled ceiling, painted with the arms of the university.
The Radcliffe Camera is one of Oxford’s most iconic landmarks, and the building that appears most in representations of the city’s splendour. 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 (which hold many a tired student needing a break from their studies), it is an extraordinary testament to Oxford’s matchless architecture. Inside, gorgeous spiral staircases loop its rounded walls, all the way to its roof. 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 Royale Academy
Looking at the colleges is great, but what if you could actually live in them? Imagine spending two weeks in dining halls, dormitories and libraries that tourists can only dream of entering. Oxford Royale Academy, a UK summer schools provider, offers the most authentic experience of life in the University of Oxford for students aged 18 over.
Oxford Royale Academy offers a variety of Oxford University colleges as accommodation for its summer courses. You could be living in famous 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, occupying the same spaces as kings (King Henry V, who won the Battle of Agincourt, stayed at The Queen’s College), and the most brilliant minds in history.
Oxford Royale Academy, which offers a variety of exciting and innovative courses, gives you access to some of Oxford’s grandest and most exclusive locations, which are barred from ordinary visitors. You’ll gain life-changing knowledge in elite locations such as Oxford University’s Examination Schools. 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 get to partake in more of Oxford’s grandeur, with an opulent, black-tie ball at the end of your course. The ball includes a delectable, three-course dinner, which is structured the same way as Oxford’s grand tradition of Formal Hall, where grace is spoken in Latin. You’ll also enjoy a formal graduation ceremony, to celebrate your hard work and achievements.
Harry Potter tours
The directors of Harry Potter shot many of the series’ most iconic scenes in Oxford’s grandest locations – particularly the ornate surroundings of Christ Church College.
Experience Oxfordshire offer a Harry Potter walking tour, with an expert and enthusiastic guide, who will show you all the film locations, and places used as inspiration for the Harry Potter films. You’ll see everything from the Bodley staircase in Christ Church where Professor McGonagall first meets Harry, Ron and Hermione, to the famous gothic Divinity School, which was used as Hogwarts’ hospital wing. This is exactly where Hermione lies after her confrontation with the Basilisk, and where Harry recovers after multiple fights with Voldemort.
You’ll see the splendour of the different locations in Christ Church College, including the renowned Tudor Great Dining Hall, which was used as the inspiration for the Hogwarts dining hall, with its famous feasts and self-clearing magical plates. The sleek and stunning hallways of Christ Church were also used to film the scene where Hermione shows Harry the Quidditch trophy his father won, and tells him that Quidditch is “in his blood”.
You’ll visit the splendid cloisters and courtyard of New College, where Malfoy taunts Harry from a gigantic oak tree (also on the grounds of New College), and gets turned into a ferret by Mad-Eye Moody. You’ll see the eerie medieval rooms, and awe-inspiring panelled ceilings of the Duke Humfrey’s Library, which directors used to film the scene where Harry walks through the Hogwarts library in his invisibility cloak, to steal a book from the restricted section.
Walking through the world-famous colleges that were used as filming locations for the Harry Potter series is a great way to explore Oxford’s most magnificent landmarks and settings.
You’ll be truly awed by the grandeur of Blenheim Palace, a sprawling and opulent aristocratic estate, and one of the largest palaces in England. Blenheim Palace is famous as the birthplace of Winston Churchill. The exterior of Blenheim palace is an immeasurably stunning Baroque creation. Inside, the Palace state rooms are gilded masterpieces, brimming with sumptuous and intricate portraits, tapestries and furniture.
The extraordinary gardens at Blenheim Palace also feature highly in the imperial grandeur of the palace and its magnificent estate. Gracing over 750 hectares, when you enter the Blenheim Palace gardens you will think you have been transported to an exotic paradise.
The Formal Gardens reflect the changing styles of the centuries. They boast majestic Water Terraces, the Duke’s Private Italian Garden, the tranquil Secret Garden with delightful hidden treasures and the achingly beautiful Rose Garden.
The Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums
One of the most exciting ways to experience Oxford’s grandeur is to immerse yourself in its world-renowned museums. The Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers museums are both incredible monuments to the Oxford’s 900 year old legacy of learning and venerable tradition.
The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. Founded in 1683, it has world-renowned collections of everything from Egyptian mummies, to the most stunning and valuable contemporary art.
The Ashmolean museum is a testament to human traditions and intricate grandeur across cultures and centuries. Its treasures range from as Astrological Bowl, Saucer and Spoon at the Persian Court, to a prehistoric ‘Sun Disc. Some of its exhibitions include 18th and 19th Century Greek Embroideries, and Roman Gold Coinage.
The Pitt Rivers
The Pitt Rivers museum is the perfect place to enjoy some of Oxford’s grandeur, in warm and child-friendly surroundings. The Museum displays incredible archaeological and human objects from all parts of the world. the Museum’s grand collection of famous artefacts ranges from a 2500-year-old cylindrical glass bead featuring a human face, to the volcanic rocks used for grinding food in Mesoamerica.
Punting on the rivers
Punting is a truly classical Oxford experience, and one of the best ways to experience the grandeur and beauty of the city and its surrounding meadows 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 stunning and relaxing route, as you drift past Oxford’s famous and gorgeous 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 beautiful, grand and imposing architecture in the whole of Oxford. There’s nothing better than lying back in a punt and gazing on the proud arches of Magdalen Tower, perhaps with a cool drink in your hand.
With Magdalen Boathouse, you can choose to hire a boat yourself, or if you prefer the ease and elegance of a guided journey, you can book a Chauffeured punt.
Oxford Castle and Prison
1,000 years of Oxford’s history are locked up in Oxford’s grand and imposing Castle and Prison. If you want a true, panoramic gaze at the scope of Oxford’s stunning grandeur, book onto a tour at Oxford’s Castle and Prison, and enjoy the experience of a lifetime. You’ll climb to the top of St George’s tower, which is one of Oxford’s most ancient structures (built in 1020 AD). There, you’ll gaze over the whole of Oxford, taking in the matchless 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. Don’t forget to take a trip to the gift shop, for historically inspired gifts from mock weaponry to cuddly dragons.
University of Oxford Botanic Garden
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Great Britain, and includes a truly matchless array of 5,000 different plant species. Founded in 1621 as a physic garden for medicinal research, it now boasts one of the most diverse collections of plants in the world. The Oxford Botanic Garden is a strikingly beautiful location, also preserving some extremely old and rare trees in its arboretum.
The Botanic Garden is a very special way to experience Oxford’s grand tradition of learning and research. You can book a tour with an expert volunteer to witness the layout, structure and famous educational history of the gardens, and its glasshouses and arboretum.
There’s no denying that Oxford is breathtakingly beautiful, and that it boasts some of the grandest locations in the UK. Now you’ve had a chance to look into some of Oxford’s best landmarks, locations and experiences, we hope you have an amazing time in this unrivalled city.
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