Best Things to do in and around Oxford for Book Lovers

Oxford

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With cobblestone streets, ancient colleges, and a history that includes more famous authors than a Norton anthology, Oxford, England, has some serious appeal (especially for English majors like me who read Dickens in high school just for fun!). While the university city is popular with day trippers from London, we believe there is plenty to keep book-loving visitors busy for several days.

We spent five days in Oxford with my parents last August and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had been twice on previous trips, but it was a first for Sam and Claire.

These are some of the best things to do and see in Oxford, England, for book nerds.

What to do in Oxford, England

Experience Afternoon Tea at the Randolph Hotel

Henry James’ famous novel Portrait of a Lady opens with the line, “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

When I was 16 and in England with my parents, my mom and I had a proper English afternoon tea at the historic Randolph Hotel in Oxford. It was everything my Jane Austen-loving, anglophile teenage self could have desired, complete with multi-tiered tray of dainty sandwiches and bottomless tea. It was so much fun, in fact, that we decided to do it again!

Tea at the Randolph is served in a beautiful dining room from 12pm to 6pm every afternoon. Though the assortment of sandwiches and cakes vary, the food is all delicious. Our favorite was the scones with Devonshire clotted cream and jam—just heavenly.

We ate until we were sick and still managed to discreetly sneak a few desserts into our purses for our husbands.

The full afternoon tea costs £39.50 per person, which was a (totally worthwhile) splurge for us. Reservations aren’t required, but expect to wait to be seated if you show up without one (we waited 30 minutes or so for our table and food to be prepared).

Indulge in a Meat Pie at the Eagle and Child Pub

For a vastly different type of dining experience (more Charles Dickens than Jane Austen), dig into a hearty meat pie at The Eagle and Child. The iconic pub was founded in the 1600s and is probably most famous for being the meeting spot for “The Inklings,” the writers’ group to which literary geniuses J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis belonged.

It has a cozy pub feel, despite being something of a tourist destination. We didn’t have to wait for a table, even though it was quite crowded.

Tour One of the Oldest Working Libraries in the World

The Bodleian Library is the second largest library in Britain (after the British Library) and one of the oldest working libraries in Europe. It first opened in 1602 and has been operating ever since.

Tours can be arranged online and should be reserved in advance (up to two weeks) to ensure space is available. There is also a café on site where visitors can enjoy a cup of tea and a pastry. Some of the guided tours have a minimum age requirement of 11.

Visit C.S. Lewis’ House

Another must-see in Oxford, especially for fans of The Chronicles of Narnia, is The Kilns, the home of Christian apologist and writer C.S. Lewis. A highlight of the tour is seeing the C.S. Lewis’ office, complete with the typewriter he used to write many of his famous works.

Tours are by appointment only and can be scheduled for Tuesdays, Thursdays, or Saturdays. Cost is £12.50 per person (£10 for children, students, and seniors age 60+). Find more information here.

Pop into a Bookshop for Some Browsing

Obviously, it’s only right to visit a bookstore when in Oxford. It is, after all, a place where countless books have been both read and written by some of the world’s most brilliant minds. And if you love bookstores (like I do!), you’ll have several good choices in Oxford.

The most iconic bookshop in Oxford is Blackwell’s (the Broad Street location). Though it doesn’t look like much from the outside, The Norrington Room in the basement contains more than 150,000 volumes of books along more than two miles worth of shelves. Just thinking about it makes my adrenal glands start pumping. Unfortunately, due to a catastrophic planning oversight, we weren’t able to see it! The store isn’t open on weekends, something we didn’t realize until too late. DON’T MAKE OUR MISTAKE.

Another bookshop we slipped into multiple times was Waterstones. Though it’s part of a chain (not a “cool” indie spot), it’s located in a beautiful five-story building and has a cozy café on the top floor with street views. There are also plenty of secluded reading nooks if you’re ready to nestle in for the afternoon.

Visit Some of the Colleges 

The Oxford University system is made up of 39 different colleges and six permanent private halls. Sam and I actually stayed in a dorm room on the campus of Wycliffe Hall, so we got an inside look at student life, including eating our breakfast in the school cafeteria.

But even if you aren’t staying in a dormitory (I can’t say the twin size bed and sparsely decorated room screamed luxury, especially with our 6-month-old roommate who had the unfortunate habit of waking up crying at 3am), it is definitely worth touring some of the college campuses.

One of the most popular colleges to visit, especially for book nerds, is Christ Church. Not only is it stunning, but it is also the college Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) attended and the filming location for parts of Harry Potter. In fact, though not used in the films, the Christ Church dining hall was the inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall. We didn’t visit Christ Church this time, but I did on a previous trip and really enjoyed it. Find more tour info here.

Another great pick for literature lovers is Exeter College, one of the Oxford’s oldest colleges and the school where J.R.R. Tolkien studied (calling all Lord of the Rings nerds!).

Trinity College is another beautiful college to visit. It’s also the school where the fictional character Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby briefly studied.

Stroll the Ancient Streets

Some of the greatest literary minds in history have studied or taught at Oxford University, including Sir Philip Sidney, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and T.S. Eliot to name a few (not a shabby lineup). A great way to pass a morning in Oxford is simply strolling though its historic streets without a plan or agenda—they have witnessed a lot through the years!

Best Day Trips from Oxford

If you’ve thoroughly soaked up the attractions in the city of Oxford, consider taking a day trip slightly further afield. There are plenty of incredible destinations easily accessible from Oxford by car, bus, or train.

Visit the Real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle is only a 45-minute drive from Oxford. The beautiful English mansion, which looks like something straight out of a Brontë novel, is the current residence of Lord and Lady Carnavron. 

Look familiar? Yup, that’s because it was used as the primary film location for the insanely popular BBC drama Downton Abbey. I half expected to find Carson standing at the doorway ready to welcome me politely, yet with a slightly disapproving air.

Though no pictures were allowed during the self-guided tour, exploring the inside of the house was one of the highlights of the trip for my mom and me. We were surprised by how much the house looked like it does in the show, especially the library and dining room.

We barely made it to the castle during our ticketed entry window (which was near the end of the day), so we ended up rushing through the house in about 45 minutes. A full hour or two would have allowed us to take a more relaxed pace.

It’s connection to Downton Abbey is obviously Highclere Castle’s biggest draw, but here are a few other interesting tidbits about the beautiful Victorian house:

  • Highclere Castle is where the British North America Act of 1867 (which was written by the 4th Earl of Carnavron) was signed, leading to the foundation of Canada later that year (something that interested my Canadian mother and me!).
  • The 5th Earl of Carnavron spent much of his time on archeological digs in Egypt. In 1922, he and his colleague Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, a major archeological find. The Earl’s interest in Egyptology led him to put together an incredible Egyptian exhibit at Highclere Castle comprised of items he either discovered or purchased. Though many of original artifacts were sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the present-day basement exhibit still boasts an impressive array of items.
  • Highclere Castle has gotten more than its fair share of screen time. Though most famous for its prominent role in Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle has been used as a film location for numerous other television shows and feature films, including The Secret Garden (1987) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). It was even featured in a John Legend music video for his 2006 song “Heaven.”
Practical tips for visiting Highclere Castle:

Though visiting Highclere Castle is an absolute must for Downton Abbey fans (and anyone else who loves big beautiful Jane Austen-esque mansions!), there are a few things to know before you go:

  • It’s only open on limited days. Because it is still a private family residence, Highclere Castle is only open to the public a limited number of days per year. Most of those days fall in the spring and summer (we visited in August). Check the website for the most up-to-date schedule.
  • Limited tickets per day. Only a set number of visitors can tour the castle per day, so we recommend purchasing tickets online in advance—preferably several weeks or months—to be sure you and your party are able to get tickets! We booked ours about a week early, and we got some of the last available tickets for the entire week.
  • Tickets have specific entry times. To keep visitor numbers lower, tickets are only valid for certain times of day. Be sure to arrive near the beginning of your entry window to allow for plenty of time inside the house.
  • No pictures of the interior. Though photography is permitted on the grounds, no photos are allowed inside the house.
  • Strollers are also not permitted. If you have a small child, plan to take a carrier (like this one) instead of a stroller.
  • Ask the staff questions! Though the tour was self-guided, the staff positioned in each room are more than happy to answer any of our questions. Many of them were on-site during the filming of Downton Abbey and have some interesting stories to share!
How to Get to Highclere Castle from Oxford

By Car

Renting a car for the day and driving to the castle is certainly the easiest way to get to Highclere Castle (that’s what we did). There is ample parking on site.

By Train

Alternatively, you can take a train to Newbury (from Oxford, about 1.5 hours with a change in Reading) and then hail a taxi from there (about a 15-minute ride).

Explore England’s Quaintest Villages in the Cotswolds

As England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it’s unsurprising that the Cotswolds have been the inspiration for many of England’s most notable authors. J.K Rowling grew up in this region, and other authors such as J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan) and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) spent a great deal of time in the area. J.R.R. Tolkien was a frequent visitor.

Though one could easily spend several days exploring the idyllic little villages dotted throughout the region, the Cotswolds is fairly easy to reach as a day trip from Oxford as well.

Moreton-in-Marsh is the most accessible village by train. My mom, Claire, and I had a wonderful time in Moreton-in-Marsh enjoying cream tea (despite being swarmed by wasps), admiring the beautiful stone buildings, and visiting the parish church. I even bought an original watercolor painting and some hand crocheted booties for Claire at the local craft market. All in all, it was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. And an interesting tidbit for Lord of the Rings fans: the pub at The Bell Inn in Moreton-in-Marsh is thought to be the inspiration for The Prancing Pony.

Sam and my dad visited Stow-on-the-Wold.  The lovely town is a great place for tea and antique shopping. And Lord of the Rings fans should be sure to visit St. Edwards Church. The door with the two trees on either side is believed to be the inspiration for the door to Moria!

Other popular spots in the Cotswolds we didn’t have a chance to visit on this trip are Bibury and Chipping Campden. Pretty well any of these villages look like the setting of a romantic BBC period drama. I would have loved to spend more time in this region.

How to Get to the Costwolds 

By Car

If you rent a car, you will have much more freedom to explore the villages. Just be wary of the very narrow roads!

By Train

That said, neither my mom nor I are fond of driving in unfamiliar places, especially on the left side of the road! We took the train instead. Moreton-in-Marsh is an easy 30-minute direct train from Oxford (trains leave every hour).

Visit Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s Birthplace 

Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was gifted to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, as a reward for his triumphs in battle over the French. Many years later, the Duke’s descendant Winston Churchill was born within its walls. Winston Churchill, of course, went on to become a politician, army officer, and brilliant writer.

My dad is a Winston Churchill fanboy (he thinks Churchill’s two-volume biography of the Duke of Marlborough is second only to the Bible), so he very much enjoyed visiting the palace–even though he had been on a previous trip already!

Take advantage of the audioguide (included in the admission price) and wind your way through the exquisite staterooms and corridors while learning about the palace’s long and interesting history. Then head outside to enjoy some fresh air in the luscious gardens.

How to Get to Blenheim Palace from Oxford

By Bus

Blenheim Palace is only 30 minutes from Oxford by bus. Take the S3 or 7 bus from Oxford City Center to Woodstock.

Be sure to show your bus ticket when you arrive at the palace to get 30-50% off admission.

By Car

If you prefer to travel by car, the drive from Oxford to Blenheim Palace is only about 20 minutes. There is a free gravel parking lot available five minutes from the palace.

How to Get to Oxford from London Heathrow

If you’re arriving to the UK by air, you will likely land at London Heathrow (LHR) Airport, which is roughly 30 minutes from London’s city center. If you are planning to head directly to Oxford from London Heathrow Airport, these are the best options.

By Bus

One of the easiest ways to reach Oxford from LHR is to take The Airline bus, which will get you to Oxford (or back to the airport) in roughly 90 minutes. We took this bus back to the airport at the end of our stay. Find more information on tickets and timetables here.

By Train 

The train journey from London Heathrow to Oxford takes about 90 minutes as well and involves one change at London Paddington station.

By Car

Renting a car provides the most flexibility (it leaves when you do, so no waiting for buses or trains). There are plenty of rental car options available at the airport.

That said, London traffic can be a bear and driving on the left-side of the road takes some practice for North Americans. Because Oxford is such a compact, walkable city, you may not use a car much once you arrive. Parking in Oxford can also be expensive and challenging. We ended up just renting a car on days we planned day trips.

How to Get to Oxford from London’s City Center 

If you plan to spend some time in London before heading to Oxford (which is what we did), here are some options for getting to Oxford from London’s city center.

By Bus

The cheapest way to get from London’s city center to Oxford is by bus. National Express and Oxford Tube are the main bus operators, and both leave London from Victoria Station and arrive at Gloucester Green Station in Oxford. Tickets can be purchased online or directly from the driver. Buses leave frequently, and the journey takes a little longer than 1.5 hours. Discounts are available for children, students, and seniors.

By Train 

From Paddington Station, direct trains to Oxford are fairly frequent and take around an hour. One-way tickets from £5. Buying tickets online in advance is the best way to get a good price, as last-minute tickets are often more expensive. We chose to travel by train, because it’s the fastest option. 

By Car 

The journey to Oxford by car takes roughly 1.5 hours, though traffic can sometimes add significant time to the journey (especially if traveling during rush hour). For most travelers, we don’t recommend renting a car in London!

When is the Best Time to Visit Oxford?

The best time to visit Oxford depends on your priorities. The UK is certainly not known for its balmy climate but visiting during the summer (June-August) will give you the best odds of having pleasant weather. We were there in mid-August and the weather was warm and sunny some days but chilly and rainy others. Also keep in mind that the summer is high season, so expect the most crowds and possibly higher prices of hotels.

The winter (January-February) will have fewer crowds, but the weather might be especially gloomy.

Generally speaking, our favorite time to visit the UK (as well as continental Europe) is in the shoulder seasons (April-May or September-October) when the weather is still generally pleasant but there are fewer people.

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A Book-Lover's Guide to Oxford, England

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