A castle with one thousand years of history and a notorious gaol have now been transformed into a vibrant area of up-market food and craft stalls, bars, restaurants and galleries. Outdoor jazz, opera and theatre fill the air of Oxford Castle in summer. Despite all this the history of the castle is still very much in evidence and can still be explored.
Oxford is awash with museums, the most famous of which is the Ashmolean (the world's first university museum) with its huge collection of art and archaeological artefacts. Many rave about the Pitt Rivers Museum, with its period atmosphere and major collections from around the world. Entrance to Pitt Rivers is through the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with its vast dinosaur skeletons. For science lovers the Museum of the History of Science is stuffed full of weird and wonderful instruments from 500 years of science.
Libraries & Bookshops
Millions of books on 176km of shelves make The Bodleian Library, one of the largest (and oldest as it happens) in Europe. Housed in five university buildings visitors can wander freely around their quadrangles. Tickets to access the interior andor join guided tours can be purchased from building entrances.
Blackwell's Bookstore (48-51 Broad Street) is a book-lovers delight and an Oxford institution. Its Norrington Room is the largest book sales room in Europe. Staff also run literary walking tours of the city.
Gardens and Parks
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Britain's oldest, lie on the banks of the River Cherwell. The delightful outdoor gardens are especially spectacular in summer months. Inside the large greenhouses are a wide variety of exotic plants and flowers. The Christchurch Meadow is a popular spot for walks and picnics, nestling between the Rivers Thames (Isis) and Cherwell, and Christ Church College. Watching the punts drift past pursued by a procession of ducks and swans is a very tranquil way of escaping the bustle of the city.
Enjoy this quintessential Oxford experience as you glide peacefully past willow trees and flower meadows and under ancient bridges. Punts can be hired by the hour, for ½ day or full day from any of several family-run boathouses on the River Cherwell. Picnics are to be encouraged and no previous punting experience required! If punting doesn't appeal then there are many rowing boats for hire as well.
Take a tour
Joining a guided tour is a great way to understand the city and all it has to offer. Tours are available on foot, open top bus, bike and even rickshaw. Most are general sightseeing tours but some are arranged around a particular theme - examples of which are the Medieval City, University Colleges, Literary tours, Film and TV (think Inspector Morse) and Science. There is even an English Ale tour of historic pubs (starts on foot, finishes in a wheelbarrow). Most tours last 1 hr 30 mins and some are free (Footprints).
Visit an Oxford University College
After all, the university is what Oxford is all about. Admire the impressive quadrangles, dining halls and gardens of the university colleges and follow in the footsteps of their famous ex-students. The main colleges charge a small admission fee in return for a map and the chance to wander round. Christchurch is popular for its quad and dining hall (where Harry Potter was filmed). Others worthy of a visit are All Souls, Magdalen, Brasenose, Merton and Lincoln Colleges. Also, watch out for the famous Bridge of Sighs that links the two buildings of Hertford College.
Three Towers with Views
A mere 99 steps will take you to the top of Carfax Tower for an unusual and rewarding view of the medieval city and the university. The tower is located at the exact centre of the city.
Take 124 steps up the tower of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin for fine uninterrupted views across the city and the surrounding countryside. A guide book available in the church identifies the main buildings on view.
The Saxon Tower of St. Michael is the oldest building in Oxford and the easiest to climb (solid stairs, handrail and rest areas). Its six bells are so heavy that if rung they would demolish the tower - so thankfully they are gently chimed instead!
Oxford has some truly historic pubs full of charm and character. Ideal for lunch or an early evening drink. Among the best are:
The Turf Tavern
The Lamb and Flag
The Red Lion
Jude the Obscure
Checklist of Top Ten Things to See and Do
1. Christchurch College
2. Bridge of Sighs
3. Botanic Gardens
5. Lunch in an historic pub
6. Pitt Rivers Museum
7. Carfax Tower
8. Open top bus tour
9. Oxford Castle
10. Bodleian Library