Top 6 Inspiring Historical Places to Explore in Oxford City Centre

Oxford: The City of Learning and Culture

As someone who has studied in Oxford for 3 years and worked at Oxford Colleges after graduation. It did not take me long to realise the beauty and history of Oxford and its significance as an iconic city. Here are some of the most inspiring and historically significant sites in Oxford City Centre.

What comes to mind when imagining Oxford is historical, grand architecture, a bustling student population, and a rich and vast list of famous Oxfordians who once studied and lived in the city. Whether you’re a student, local, or tourist, these are the top 6 must-see historical places to explore in Oxford.

1. University of Oxford Colleges

With University College, Balliol College, and Merton College being the oldest colleges at about 700 years old, it cannot be denied that the University of Oxford is the most historical and well-known institution in the city, single-handedly contributing £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19. Many of the 39 College grounds are open to the public, although some have a small fee for entry. A visit to one of the Colleges this summer would make a great group or individual trip, and a fantastic chance to contemplate the great work done by students and scholars of the University. Some Colleges also host free or affordable talks and events open to members of the public, so it’s worth checking their individual websites and social media accounts to find out about these opportunities.

 Oriel College, image by Jieruo Zhang.

2. The Covered Market

The Covered Market dates back to the 1770s and is a must-see historic site. It hosts a range of small and independent generational businesses and traders ranging from eateries, cafés, produce stands, chocolateries, boutiques, and craft stores.

Image of Gulp Fiction, Image by Jieruo Zhang.

Gulp Fiction is one of the newer members of Covered Market. The indie store sells coffee and beverages with long opening hours from 9 am to 10 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Visitors are welcome to enjoy free hot drinks with their books and visit live events every Sunday. For flower fans,

The Garden of Oxford, Image by Jieruo Zhang.

The Garden of Oxford is another place you do not want to miss. The 40-year-old flower retailer works 7 days a week, offering the finest seasonal varieties of flora.

The Garden of Oxford, Image by Jieruo Zhang.

With multiple entrances on High Street, Market Street, and Cornmarket Street, the Covered Market owns a hidden yet central location, making it a quintessential Oxfordian spot. The market has even created an audio tour for it complete with spoken-word poetry!

Map of the covered market, by the Oxford Covered Market.

3. University of Oxford Botanic Gardens and Arboretum

inside a glasshouse of the University of Oxford botanic gardens and arboretum
Inside one of the Glasshouses. Image by Gul Imaan Ali

For your nature lovers, this botanic garden is an ideal place to picnic or simply take a good break from the hubbub of the city this summer. In 2021, the Oxford Botanical Gardens and Arboretum celebrated its 400th  anniversary! It has been described as ‘the oldest botanic garden in the UK and home to over 5,000 different plant species’. Entry is free for Oxford students, but if you are not a student, the fee for both the gardens and arboretum on High Street is £6.30 for adults. Once you visit, see if you can spot the reference to Lewis Carroll hidden somewhere on the grounds, who used to sit in the gardens as he wrote the novel Alice in Wonderland.

Inside one of the Glasshouses, image by Jieruo Zhang.

4. Punting on the Thames: Magdalen Bridge Boathouse

 Photo of Magdalen Bridge Boathouse by Laurie Byrne on Unsplash.

If you prefer a more active nature immersion experience, punting could be for you! Punting has been a popular Oxford activity for students since the 1880s. The price is more affordable than you may think with a group of up to 5 costing £30 per hour. Punting can be hard to master, as it uses only one long metal pole to direct and propel the boat; also, it requires a good deal of balance. If this is a little too adventurous for you, there is the option to ‘hire traditionally crafted punts, rowing boats and pedalos or spoil yourself by hiring a Chauffeured boat’ with a cost of £40 per 30 minutes. You can even order a picnic basket to enjoy whilst on the boat!

5. The Bodleian Libraries

The Old Quad, Bodleian library
Image of the Bodleian Library entrance by Gul Imaan Ali.

The Bodleian Libraries are a collection of 28 libraries, with the Radcliffe Camera and the Main Quadrangle located in the City Centre. Although not fully open to the public, as it is used by Oxford students, tours and paid entry to certain areas can be booked. The libraries first opened 421 years ago in 1602, while the oldest room (the Duke Humphrey’s Room- featured in the Harry Potter films) is over 700 years old, the libraries ‘hold over 13 million printed items’ in their physical collections.

The Radcliffe Camera, image by Jieruo Zhang.

6. The Sheldonian Theatre

Photo of the entrance gates to the Sheldonian Theatre by Ray Harrington on Unsplash.

Many musical events and talks occur in the Sheldonian Theatre year-round. It is also one of the places Oxford students must to go during their matriculation and graduation ceremonies, as well as the annual traditional Oxford event ‘Encaenia’. The building has been standing in the City Centre for more than 350 years. Its spectacular ceiling was painted by ‘Robert Streater, [who] adapted his ambitious baroque composition to Wren’s conception of the building as a Roman theatre open to the sky’. During the annual Oxford Literary Festival, the theatre is used for hosting talks by world-renowned experts from across the globe.

And there you have it! 

6 Historically and culturally significant sites all in close proximity within Oxford City Centre. Many of these can be visited in one day with enough planning and preparation, so why not go ahead and plan a summer’s day out in the city of learning and culture?

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Article edited by Jieruo Zhang on May 2023.