18 Fun Things To Do in Oxford Over the Summer
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The historic university city of Oxford is one of the UK’s biggest tourist attractions, and it’s not hard to see why.
It’s absolutely packed to the brim with interesting things to do and see, and the summer is a particularly good time to visit and enjoy its beautiful architecture, leafy parks and fascinating museums.
If you find yourself with a bit of time to spare in Oxford over the summer, here’s a list of fun things to do if you want to immerse yourself in some of its best-loved traditions and enjoy this wonderful city to the full.
Every list of things to do in Oxford over the summer should start with punting, because it’s just about the most traditionally ‘Oxfordy’ thing you can do. There’s nothing more tranquil than gliding along the river on a summer’s afternoon, spotting the wildlife and guiltily laughing at those unfortunate enough to fall in.
There are three main boat houses: one at Magdalen Bridge, one at Folly Bridge and one in North Oxford (the Cherwell Boat House). Punting takes a bit of getting used to if you haven’t done it before, as it requires using a long pole to propel your boat along by pushing off from the riverbed and steering it at the same time. Because you’re standing up when you do this, it’s easy to lose your balance and fall in, so only people who can swim are allowed to do the actual punting. If you’re just a passenger, you’ll be fine, and you can even hire a ‘chauffeur’ if you don’t fancy giving it a try yourself. (You can also play it safe by hiring a rowing boat or pedalo instead, but that’s less easy to do as a big group and not quite as Oxfordy.)
To make the most of your punting experience, gather together a group of friends (five to a boat), buy some picnic food (and Pimm’s, if you’re old enough) and make an afternoon of it. A popular thing to do if you leave from the Cherwell Boat House is to punt up the river and moor your punt at the Victoria Arms pub to enjoy a drink in its back garden, which backs onto the river.
The University Parks are extensive, bordered on one side by the river and with several entrances (the main one being on Parks Road, opposite the entrance to Keble College). Popular with students and Oxford locals alike, there’s a large and scenic pond where you can go to feed the ducks. More surprisingly, and a classic example of Oxford quirkiness, there is now also a Quidditch pitch on which Oxford students compete in the popular broomstick-based game just as they do in the Harry Potter series (except that they don’t actually fly, obviously). Another great spot for a picnic is the elegant cricket pavilion, where you can sit on the grass to watch the cricket on a hot and sunny day – a quintessentially English experience.
3. Get an ice cream at G&Ds
‘G&D’s’ is an independent chain of Oxford-based ice cream parlours, hugely popular with the student population. With a choice of scrumptious and sometimes strange ice cream flavours, as well as delicious cakes, pastries and bagels, G&D’s is open until midnight everyday, and is a must on a hot day. You have three branches to choose from: one on Little Clarendon Street, one on St Aldate’s and one on Cowley Road.
4. Walk in Port Meadow
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, venture out to Port Meadow. As the name suggests, this is a large open space (and ancient grazing land) on the outskirts of the city, popular with dog-walkers and runners. The river runs through it and it’s a scenic walk along the riverbank, stopping off at the Perch pub for a cooling drink. It’s said that Lewis Carroll was rowing a boat through Port Meadow with three young girls in 1862 when they asked him to tell them a story – which later became Alice in Wonderland. One of the girls was Alice Liddell, upon whom Alice was based.
5. Visit the Ashmolean Museum
If it gets too hot outside, cool off by going into the pleasant marbled halls of the Ashmolean Museum. Filled with archaeological artefacts spanning many centuries, as well as an excellent collection of art and even the lantern said to have been used by Guy Fawkes during the Gunpowder Plot, there’s enough in this free museum to keep you occupied for several days. If you get tired of wandering round, head down to the basement for a slice of cake in the cafe, or to the top floor for a pricier meal on the sophisticated rooftop terrace.
6. Take a day trip to Woodstock
There are lots of memorable day trips possible from Oxford, but none more so than taking the 20-minute bus journey up to the Cotswold town of Woodstock, a picturesque village with a sprinkling of nice shops and the imposing Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. This vast country house is one of the country’s finest, and it’s set in acres of beautiful grounds, which are ideal for a sunny walk on a summer’s afternoon.
7. Visit the Pitt Rivers Museum/Museum of Natural History
The second (and third) museum on our list is the combined Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum (entrance is free of charge to both). In the light and airy space of the former you’ll find all sorts of interesting skeletons and stuffed animals, and when you pass through the doors at the back into the gloomier Pitt Rivers Museum, you’ll step back in time into a Victorian museum packed with curiosities from all round the world, including the famous ‘shrunken heads’ from South American tribes. With its original Victorian cases and beautifully handwritten Victorian labels still used, the Pitt Rivers is a museum of how museums used to be, so its interest and appeal goes beyond the weird and wonderful artefacts it houses.
8. Feed the ducks in Christ Church Meadow
Situated on the banks of the river, but right in the heart of old Oxford, Christ Church Meadow is a beautiful place to walk and admire Oxford’s stunning architecture in the form of Christ Church and Merton Colleges. Venture along the riverbank for a peaceful walk, perhaps stopping to feed the ducks and watch tourists punting by (and falling in).
9. Go swimming in Hinksey Outdoor Pool
For hot days when you fancy a bit of a swim, try Hinksey Outdoor Pool, a heated open-air pool that’s been there since 1934 and keeps the old-fashioned ‘lido’ very much in vogue. It’s much-loved by locals but little known by tourists, so you’ll feel like a proper Oxford resident if you choose to take a dip yourself.
10. Wander around the Botanic Garden
Oxford’s Botanic Garden is a haven of tranquillity just beyond the busy city centre, with all manner of interesting plants and two large glasshouses reminiscent of the more famous ones at Kew Gardens in London. You’re sure to find a quiet bench or a shady spot under a tree to read a book, and admission is only £3 for students. Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will also be interested to know that it’s in the Botanic Garden that you can find ‘Lyra’s Bench’, a bench that exists in the worlds of both Lyra and Will and on which they promised to sit for an hour on Midsummer’s Day each year to try to feel each other’s presence. The Botanic Garden also makes an appearance in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, when Charles and Sebastian go to “see the ivy”.
11. Explore some Oxford colleges
A warm summer’s afternoon is the perfect time to explore some of Oxford’s beautiful colleges. Ask the porter at the entrance Lodge whether you can have a look round (this shouldn’t be a problem, particularly if you’re a prospective student), and immerse yourself in a world of perfectly manicured lawns, gorgeous architecture and scholarly surroundings. Don’t forget that you should assume you can’t walk on the grass, even if there isn’t a sign saying you can’t!
12. Try a milkshake from Moo-Moos in the Covered Market
The Covered Market, just off the High Street and Cornmarket Street, is an old indoor shopping area crammed with small shops selling artisan goods and high-quality fresh produce. If you need to cool down, head to the milkshake shop ‘Moo-Moos’, which offers milkshakes in every flavour you can possibly imagine. You name it, they’ll put it into a milkshake – even jam doughnuts.
13. Sip a cool drink outside at the Turf
Oxford city centre doesn’t have that many pubs where you can sit outside, but the Turf is one of the few where you can. With a number of outdoor seating areas, the Turf is a popular destination in summer and can get very busy, but it’s an Oxford institution and worth a visit. Customers under 18 can enjoy non-alcoholic drinks such as lemonade. You might have a bit of trouble finding it though; it’s hidden away down an alleyway just next to the famous Bridge of Sighs.
14. Play frisbee in South Park
The Council-owned South Park, just off St Clements, offers excellent views of Oxford’s famous ‘dreaming spires’, and has loads of space for a game of frisbee, rounders or any other group game that takes your fancy. And it’s yet another great picnic spot for you to choose from.
15. Go to an open-air play
The Creation Theatre Company puts on performances all around the city, in places you wouldn’t expect – like bookshops, college gardens or even the roof of the SAID Business School. A fantastically memorable way to see a Shakespeare play (though other playwrights are available), going to see one of their magical performances will be the icing on the cake of your trip to Oxford.
16. Climb to the top of the University Church
For the best possible view of Oxford’s famous skyline and its dreaming spires, pay £4 to climb to the top of the 13th-century University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, on the High Street. The climb takes a bit of effort, but the breathtaking views you’ll be rewarded with at the top are more than worth it. Look out for Oxford’s famous landmarks, such as the Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Library) and the Sheldonian Theatre, where Oxford students go through their ‘Matriculation’ ceremonies to become official university students, and then their graduation ceremonies to mark the end of their degrees. You’ll also get a great view of All Soul’s College, the Oxford college reserved for Fellows only – the country’s true academic elite.
17. Go ice skating
Ok, so it may not be the most summery of activities, but it’s a great way to cool off if it’s really hot outside, and it’s good exercise too. Even better, Oxford’s Ice Rink might be less busy if everyone else is out enjoying the sun!
18. Attend an Oxford Royale Summer Schools summer school
If you want to experience an Oxford summer like a real Oxford student, you can’t do much better than attending our summer school. All our courses include time to explore the city and go on day trips to places like Blenheim Palace, not to mention plenty of opportunities for taking part in traditionally Oxfordy activities such as punting and playing croquet. If you like the sound of that, why not apply online now?
With so much to do on a summer’s day in Oxford, we’re sure you’ll agree that the only difficult part is deciding what to do first. The best thing about Oxford is how much there is to do that won’t even cost you a penny, from endlessly fascinating museums to entering the world of Harry Potter and watching a Quidditch match in a beautiful park. Where else can you do that?