Oxford, England: The Essential Itinerary if You Only Have Two Days
All the places first-timers to Oxford, England, need to see, including hotels, pubs, churchs, colleges, afternoon tea locations, and museums.
How to get to Oxford from London
Oxford is located around 60 miles northwest of central London and less than 50 miles from London Heathrow Airport. It’s also relatively close to major tourist destinations in England, including:
- The prehistoric archeological site of Stonehenge (70 miles)
- Oxford’s rival, the prestigious university city of Cambridge (120 miles)
- Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare (55 miles)
- The Roman city of Bath (75 miles)
- Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill (8.5 miles)
Taking the train from London to Oxford: Traveling from London to Oxford by train is incredibly easy. Take a GWR (Great Western Railway) train from London Paddington train station to Oxford station, located in the city center. The ride takes less than an hour, and there are dozens of trains running between the two cities every day.
Taking the bus from London to Oxford: Traveling by bus from London city center to Oxford takes longer than riding the train (two hours instead of less than one hour), but it is a cheaper option. Companies like Oxford Tube and National Express operate buses every day, multiple times per day between the two cities. From London Heathrow, you can make your way to Oxford by riding a bus from Megabus, The Airline, or National Express.
Once you arrive, getting around Oxford is a cinch. Everything you’ll want to see on a first visit is concentrated in the center of the city, allowing you to walk to all the highlights without breaking a sweat. Just don’t forget your waterproof shoes and umbrella or rain jacket — England’s reputation for poor weather is well and truly earned.
The best things to do in Oxford on a short trip
Day one: An iconic hotel, free highlights, and afternoon tea
Start your trip to Oxford by checking in at the most iconic hotel in the city, The Randolph Hotel. Not only is the 1866 Gothic Revival structure as beautiful inside as it is outside, it is also located in the heart of Oxford, just steps away from the main attractions. Drop your stuff in one of the hotel’s impeccably decorated rooms, take a quick tour of the beautiful on-site dining venues, book your breakfast for the next morning, and get out the door to explore the city.
The Randolph Hotel in Oxford, England. Photo: Steve Freihon
Across the street from the main entrance is the Ashmolean Museum. Full of archeological treasures and art, this immense museum was founded in the 17th century and has free entry every day from 10 AM to 5 PM. If that’s your thing, you can spend the entire day walking the many galleries, but don’t forget to make time to visit the gift shop in the basement and the rooftop restaurant and café where you can have lunch (or afternoon tea if you book in advance). The rooftop restaurant and café’s outdoor terrace is a great spot to admire the city when the weather cooperates.
Whether you decide to spend hours or minutes at the Ashmolean, give yourself plenty of day time to take a good walk around the city. Turn right from the hotel’s main exit, or left from the Ashmolean’s, and you’ll stumble upon Martyrs’ Memorial, one of Oxford’s most recognizable structures. It was erected in the 19th century to honor protestants who were burned at the stake for heresy in 1555 and 1556.
From there, Blackwell’s, an extraordinary bookshop located on Broad Street, is about five minutes away on foot. Open since 1879, it is the largest academic and specialist bookseller in the UK, and it will keep book lovers occupied for hours.
Two minutes from Blackwell’s is the Hertford Bridge — AKA the Bridge of Sighs — that straddles New College Lane to connect Hertford College’s two buildings. Nicknamed the Bridge of Sighs for its resemblance to the bridge of the same name in Venice, Italy, this Oxford landmark was built between 1913 and 1914 and it a must-see and an obligatory photo stop for all first-timers.
Across from the Hertford Bridge is what is probably the most well-known building in all of Oxford: the Radcliffe Camera, a working library that is part of the Bodleian Library complex. Walk around the Baroque 18th-century circular building to take in all its beauty. Guided tours of the inside of the Radcliffe Camera are available and very much worth the price. Just make sure you book your tour in advance.
If you have not already indulged in the Ashmolean’s afternoon tea, make your way to the Grand Café on High Street. Said to be located on the site of the oldest coffee house in England (1650), the Grand Café offers affordable and tasty afternoon tea in an opulent setting. And there’s no need to make a reservation.
Come 5:40 PM, stop whatever you’re doing and join the line that forms at the entrance to Christ Church College on St Aldate’s. Every evening at 6 PM you can attend the Choral Evensong in the college’s magnificent cathedral. It’s free, open to everyone, and an experience of rare beauty that’s bound to move you whether you are religious or not.
For dinner, book a table at the Ivy Oxford Brasserie where you’ll be served incredibly sophisticated British cuisine at an affordable price and in a bright tropical Art Deco setting. Ask for the vegan menu, as well as the regular menu, to get an idea of every delicious morsel that’s on offer.
Day two: Oxford’s oldest building, beer at a pub, and a punt on the River Cherwell
If you’ve booked your breakfast at the Randolph Hotel the day before, you’ll be treated to a large and lovely buffet at The Alice, one of the hotel’s restaurants, for just $25/£20 (instead of $33/£26 if not booked in advance). The Alice, stunningly decorated to the theme of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, is a gorgeous place to start the day in Oxford.
From The Alice, walk three minutes down Magdalen Street to the church of Saint Michael at the North Gate. The church’s Saxon Tower is the oldest surviving building in the city (1040) and can be visited for just $4.50 (£3.50). After climbing the 97 steps to the top, enjoy the unique view of the city’s spires. Just check out the admission hours before setting out — they are limited and vary depending on the day of the week.
While several of Oxford’s colleges can be visited, if you have limited time in the city, focus on Christ Church College. Take a combined guided tour of the college and the cathedral to learn more about the institution and its impressive buildings. Of course, you’ll also get to see some of the most emblematic filming locations for the Harry Potter movie franchise, including the cloister, the Great Hall, and the Hall stairs. It is recommended to book your guided tour in advance.
After all the visits, it’s time for lunch and a drink. Walk the 12 minutes to the Turf Tavern, a small and quintessential English pub that’s been welcoming students, teachers, and visitors to the city since 1381. The pub is listed as a significant historic building on the National Heritage List for England, and, most importantly, it serves good beer and good food. When the weather allows, you can enjoy it all from the beer garden.
After this hefty lunch, go take a stroll along the River Thames around Christ Church Meadow and the River Cherwell around Merton Field, and look for the water fowls and the squirrels that make this place unbelievably charming. For a classic Oxford activity that you won’t soon forget, and if the weather is good enough, stop at the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse and hire a punt for a couple of hours to float on the River Cherwell.
For one last tea time in Oxford, pay a visit to the Vaults & Garden Café located on Radcliffe Square. The homemade scones covered in clotted cream and homemade jam will leave you weak in the knees, especially when served with a pot of Earl Grey.
What’s the link between Alice in Wonderland and Oxford, England?
Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, studied at Christ Church College, Oxford, in the mid-19th century. After his studies, he became a lecturer in mathematics at the college until 1881. Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865. Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, is one of Oxford’s most famous alumni.
What does J.R.R. Tolkien have to do with Oxford, England?
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, studied at Exeter College, Oxford, before the start of World War I. He also worked in Oxford, first in 1918 for the New English Dictionary (now known as the Oxford English Dictionary), as a professor of Anglo-Saxon studies in 1925, and as a professor of English language and literature at Merton College in 1945. He lived in Oxford for most of his life. Much like Lewis Carroll, he is one of Oxford University’s most acclaimed alumni.