When we think of travel, we always picture getting on an aeroplane and jet-setting off to a to a country far, far away – but sometimes, you don’t need to travel a large distance to see something wonderful. Sometimes, there’s something great to see closer to home.
Oxford has been one of those towns that has been on my to ‘get to’ list for a few years now. As such an iconic place where famous authors have tread and found their inspiration, and where many films and TV shows have been shot (including Harry Potter!), it seems almost criminal that it’s taken me 24 years to wander down their fancy streets.
As bookworms, I know you’ll appreciate some of the things I got to see more than most, so I just had to share my adventure with you! I’ve also tried to write this in a format that may be helpful if you ever decide to take the trip for yourself!
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Most people go to Oxford to see its university, but it’s worth noting Oxford doesn’t have one central university but 38 individual colleges scattered around the centre – most of which are gorgeous light-coloured stone structures with beautiful courtyards.
- Depending on when you go, you may not be able to access some areas. I went during exam season which meant we did get shooed out of one college and had to skip a few on a tour. On the plus side, exam season does mean you get to see students walking around covered in shaving cream and dye which is a celebratory tradition. WORTH IT.
- Entry into most of the colleges is at a fee, so make sure you bring your piggy bank!
It’s always tough when you first arrive somewhere tired, disorientated and (if you’re like me) maybe a tad travel sick. For this reason, we chose to start our adventure with a restorative breakfast/brunch at The Four Candles Wetherspoons on George Street. They have cheap English breakfast options and unlimited caffeine refills to wake you up after your journey. It’s also right in the centre, so it’s a great springboard location!
Learn about the city’s history with one of Oxford’s Free Walking Tours. This was the first walking tour I’d ever done (having learned about their existence on other blogs). You’re asked to make a donation at the end but don’t have to, and it’s your choice how much you choose to give. I picked the Scholar’s Walking Tour because it seemed the most comprehensive, but there’s also a Harry Potter themed one run by the same people.
The tour took us through many of Oxford’s key locations, we stopped at several colleges where the likes of famous writers such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to hang out, and there were some fun anecdotes about well-known politicians. We wandered past the famous Bridge of Sighs, a quirky little piece of architecture connecting two colleges, and we saw the building where the Oxford Dictionary was made.
The set up of the vast Oxford libraries was also described to us – they have so many books that most are underground and the library network is so big that decades ago when students requested books it would take so long to get from one side of the library to the other, you’d have almost given up and gone home!
The next stop on the tour was the breathtaking Divinity school, which many of you will recognize as one of the filmings locations for Harry Potter (it was used as the infirmary). This building was so beautiful I could have sat there for hours picking out the intricate details, from the huge glass windows, the grooves and initials on the ceiling to the funny little gargoyle-like statues.
In the past, this building was used for final exams when students were expected to argue their case on a topic with one of the professors; if they argued well enough, they would pass their course (no coursework back then folks, gulp). Now, the Divinity school is used as a robing room for students about to graduate!
The final stop on the tour was the street many claim gave C.S. Lewis his inspiration for writing The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s said that he used to regularly walk home down the street and found something magical about it. When you look around, you can see an ornately carved wooden door (like the famous wardrobe) and on each side of it is a golden faun creature (like Mr Tumnus), and when you look down the street you’ll see one of Oxford’s many old-fashioned lamp posts, like the one Lucy encounters when she first enters Nania. Whether true or not, I thought it was extremely cool!
Take a break after your walk and get refreshments at The White Horse. A cosy, very small traditional British pub with dim lighting and lots of dark wood. It’s famous for its association with Lewis and Inspector Morse. While we didn’t eat there, the food looked AMAZING. Oh, and it’s also right next to a bookshop. 😉
To end your day, get that iconic snapshot of the Radcliffe Camera building by going to the top of the University Church of St Mary’s. This place is directly opposite the Radcliffe Camera (one of Oxford’s libraries which, unfortunately, only students can enter). It has 127 steps but they are worth it. There’s a breathtaking view at the top which includes a fab view of All Souls College which has the building said to have inspired Tolkien’s imagining of The Two Towers in The Lord of the Rings.
Dinner at Bella Italia. As with breakfast, the first day is all about finding somewhere convenient and reliable as the long day starts to take its toll. When in doubt, I always pick Italian, but if you’re looking for something more unique to Oxford, going back to The White Horse would be a good bet!
On day two of any trip, you always deserve a lie in, so I would recommend a slow start and then grabbing brunch at Gloucester Green Market, which has a range of street food options including Chinese, Spanish, Greek. If it’s your thing, you can also check out the used clothing, jewelry, and art stalls.
After this, wander over to University Christ Church, famous for hosting 13 British prime ministers and Lewis Caroll, writer of Alice in Wonderland. It’s also another biggie Harry Potter filming location. Christ Church gave filmmakers inspiration for Hogwarts Great hall, and it’s cloisters and the dramatic sweeping hallway were used for a number of famous scenes from the Philosopher’s Stone and the Chamber of Secrets where Harry, Hermione and Ron congregate. Yep, I nerded out BIG TIME on their stairway and had to be dragged away, looking back longingly.
Before you leave the campus, make sure you wander down to the river to watch the rowers practicing for their big races, it’s Oxford’s most famed sport after all! As you leave by Meadow Gate, pop your head into St Philips secondhand bookshop as well, you may find a bargain.
In the afternoon, head to the Weston Library and check out their current exhibitions. When I went, they had a feminist exhibition highlighting powerful women through history, but most exciting of all they had a Tolkien exhibition which had me squealing in delight! They had all the original covers and artwork, a wall of all the different editions of The Lord of the Rings, several of Tolkiens hand-drawn maps of Middle Earth, and even some of his doodles that eventually became the cover of The Similarion. #NerdingNerdingNerdingNerding
For dinner, walk under the Bridge of Sighs and down a hidden ally to find the Turf Tavern, which has seen many famous people walk through its doors including prime ministers, Stephen Hawking, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway and Emma Watson. It’s a tourist trap, but for a good reason. They have a wonderfully huge pub garden and a drool-worthy menu. I had a sharer burger platter all to myself and demolished it. I DID A LOT OF WALKING OKAY?
For your final day, get breakfast at The Covered Market. They have a whole range of fresh options to suit everyone, and afterward, you can check out all the cool shops which range from the niche to your standard tourist nick-nack stores.
Go back to the Bodleian for Duke Humfrey’s library tour – a MUST for any bookworm. This tour takes you through the medieval section of the library where the ancient books live, and you can smell the must as you ascend the stairs before the door is even opened. Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures in there so you’ll have to do with this google search to get an idea. This room struck me completely speechless, it was the library of my dreams. Our guide explained that due to the uniqueness of the books they used to be tied to the shelves with metal chains, which meant the books had to go on the shelves backward, pages out. Um, NOT OKAY. Also, no oil lamps were allowed in because FIRE HAZARDS, so scholars were only able to use the room during the day. Humphrey’s library was also used in bookish Harry Potter scenes.
All Oxford students have to take an oath before they can use the library. Oxford also has a copy of every book ever written, which means space has become their greatest enemy. This is why Oxford has the Bodleian, the Radcliffe, and Weston library, and they’ve now also purchased a warehouse as well!
Grab refreshments at the last literary hotspot on my list, The Eagle and Child pub, where a famous writer’s group used to regularly meet, which included Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
The actual pub does feel kind of grimy, so I’d only recommend it if you’re going for its associations, however, it’s dark atmosphere quintessential Britishness made me feel like I had stepped straight into the Green Dragon Inn! There’s also a sign that says ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS WITHOUT A BEER’.
Make your final stop the famous Ashmolean Museum, which started as collector’s cabinet of curiosities. You’ll find all sorts of unusual and unexpected bits of history in there, and if you’re a writer who likes fantasy or history, you’ll find all sorts of inspiration!