Any Oxford tour is like stepping back in time. Here’s my step-by-step free walking tour of Oxford as part of our to help you discover this beautiful city at your leisure. Love this? Check out my Ultimate Guide to Spending 24 Hours in Oxford.
The Ashmolean Museum – Begin The Tour
We start our Oxford tour at the Ashmolean Museum (which is well worth a visit). From the entrance of the Ashmolean, turn left and cross St Giles to walk along Broad Street.
Pop into Balliol College, one of Oxford’s oldest colleges (which de facto means it’s one of the oldest learning institutions in the English-speaking world).
You’ll learn that almost all of the University’s oldest colleges have a building or two that some of the students (and definitely the visitors) aren’t so sure about – in this case it’s the Balliol Chapel. William Butterfield (who also designed Keble College down the road), envisioned a neo-gothic glory that would inspire visitors to give praise to God. The final result is fairly controversial: it’s been described as looking like a slice of streaky bacon and Aldous Huxley (a Balliol alumnus) couldn’t stand the sight of it.
After feasting your eyes on Balliol’s chapel, walk back onto Broad Street until you come to the Sheldonian Theatre. The Sheldonian, as it is affectionately known, is used for the university’s matriculation and graduation ceremonies. It was the first major commission for Christopher Wren (of St Paul’s Cathedral fame) and was the first Neo-Classical building to be built in Oxford. If you’re not impressed by these facts, you might be a tad more taken with the building itself.
The Sheldonian often hosts interesting talks and concerts – make sure you check out the programme when you visit to see if there’s anything that catches your eye. But for now, our Oxford tour continues, so no time to rest.
The Bodleian Library
It’s a hop, skip and a jump from The Sheldonian Theatre to our next destination, the Divinity School. This is a part of the Bodleian Library – the ceiling consists of lierne vaulting (whatever that means). Safe to say, it’s beautiful and well worth seeing, particularly when you are five seconds away anyway.
From there, you can wander to the Bodleian Library (sorry guys, I do not create the University’s websites, they can be a bit dry but are really useful). The Bodleian (or the Bod to those in the know) is one of the oldest libraries in the UK, and is also one of the biggest.
Last year, the Bodleian purchased its 12 millionth printed book. 12 million! The average book is 25cm long, so there’s 3,000 km of end-to-end book in the Bod. I know I’ve been hitting you hard with the fact train but I’m really quite pleased with that one geeks out in a major way. I’m maybe being a bit misleading by saying the Bodleian Library has 12 million books, because really the Bodleian Libraries (of which there are several) who collectively own that number of books but whatever, creative licence and all that.
Anyway, the Old Bodleian Library has a lot of books and a beautiful building.
I’ll bet when you look at the picture of the Old Bodleian Library you are going to do a double take. “Surely, this girl Julianna is an idiot – even I know what the famous library in Oxford looks like,” you’ll think before clicking away onto some Buzzfeed article about ugly cats in medieval pictures. Why would I want to read her Oxford tour when she doesn’t know what the super-famous Oxford library even looks like?
Wait a moment! Is this what you are thinking of?
The Radcliffe Camera
Yeah, thought so. If you turn right out of the main entrance to the Old Bodleian Library and walk about 10-15 metres you’ll see it for yourself. This is the Radcliffe Camera (otherwise known as the building that launched a thousand Instagram snaps (#pursuepretty #thatsdarling #myunicornlife amiright?)). The Radcliffe Camera is a part of the Bodleian Library so we were both right (though I was more right, obviously).
You won’t be able to get into the Radcliffe Camera unless you book onto one of the tours of the Bodleian but it’s so pretty from the outside that you can probably live with that.
Narnia in Oxford
Stick your head into Hertford College and have a nose around before making your way to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. There’s been a church on the site of St Mary’s for over 1,000 years. A much newer addition is the Vaults and Garden Cafe, which serves up a mean piece of cake – I dare you to resist.
After St Mary’s, C.S Lewis lovers should detour down the right hand side of the church and look for an ornate door flanked by two golden fauns.
Legend has it that this is the very door that inspired the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. In fact, if you turn and look back to the Radcliffe Camera, you’ll see an ornate lamppost, which is also supposed to be the inspiration for the famous post in the book.
Examination Schools and Magdalen College
Your next stop is Magdalen College, a fairly short walk down the High Street. If you think you have enough time, Queen’s College and University College are both very pretty and quaint, but it’s up to you.
On your way to Magdalen, you can also spy the Examination Schools. If you are in town during exam time, expect to see students dressed up in sub-fusc and either smiling like the cat that has got the cream or crying tears of sheer panic. I’ve been in both positions and there’s nothing like having a full out meltdown while a tourist on some Oxford tour or another snaps a picture of you in your silly costume failing at life. Snap away.
Whether or not you’ve stopped at Queen’s, Univ and Exam Schools, you’ll eventually get to Magdalen. Magdalen is one of Oxford University’s most famous colleges. In a city that’s fairly fancy overall, Magdalen is so fancy it has a deer park of its own. I KNOW.
Apart from being mega-fancy, Magdalen is also renowned for its May Day tradition, where the choir sing from the top of Magdalen tower at 6am. If you are ever around in Oxford for May Day, it’s traditional to stay up all night (preferably around a bonfire in Port Meadow to the north of the city) and then trundle over to see the Magdalen choir sing, before having breakfast and passing out from exhaustion in bed.
Christ Church Meadow
After Magdalen, cross the High Road and walk down Rose Lane to Christ Church Meadow. The meadow is a peaceful haven from the busy High Street. Both of Oxford’s rivers, the Isis (the Thames) and the Cherwell run alongside the grounds.
Christ Church Meadow hasn’t always been this peaceful. Oxford was the Royalist capital of England and home to the court of Charles I during the English Civil War. The meadows played an important role – they were an important defence against the Parliamentarian forces, and, when that failed, Charles I and his army used the meadow to escape from Cromwell’s army in 1646.
On a much lighter note, the meadows are also the setting for some of the scenes in Alice in Wonderland. Writer Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson who was a lecturer at Christ Church) took Alice Liddell (for whom the stories were written as well as inspired by) for many a walk in the meadows. In fact, he wrote a large part of the book while sitting in them.
Christ Church College
Christ Church Meadows are (unsurprisingly) owned by Christ Church College. If Magdalen was one of Oxford’s most famous colleges, Christ Church is the most famous. It was where Charles I lived and dined during his tenure in Oxford, it boasts the smallest cathedral in the world and…. it’s home to the dining hall of Harry Potter fame.
There’s also the Tom Tower, which was designed by Christopher Wren (again). Overall, there’s so much to see at Christ Church that if I tried to describe it, this already mammoth post would become even bigger, so check out their website.
I’ve put together this handy map of the tour too, so you shouldn’t get lost (thanks Alpaca Maps!).
Your two hour walking tour of Oxford University is over. Want more? Read the full Oxford City Break Guide here.
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