Broaden your mind and horizons amid the dreaming spires.

Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot, JRR Tolkien, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Percy Shelley, Richard Curtis, Richard Dawkins, Nigella Lawson, Kate Beckinsale, Hugh Grant, John Le Carré, Bill Clinton and some 27 Prime Ministers, including the incumbent: these are just some of the famous names whose brilliant young minds have been shaped and nurtured by their time spent at Oxford. And whilst, of course, much of that cultivating has been done behind the closed doors of the oldest university in the country, it also follows that the city should offer a rich, and fairly highbrow, cultural life even to those not currently studying – much of which comes under the auspices of the university itself.

As well as an abundance of visiting international speakers and a roster of lively debates, there are several museums in the grandest of traditions, many of which are free to enter. And then, of course, there are the colleges themselves. These are the cultural highlights that visitors to the city of dreaming spires should put on their must-visit lists.

The Ashmolean

The Ashmolean occupies an important place in the history of museums – and not simply owing to its excellent Neoclassical building, its wonderful Rick Mather Architects-designed extension nor even to its extensive and impressive collection. On top of all of those accolades, it is particularly noted for having been the first-ever public museum in the country when it opened in 1683.

It all began the year before that when the wealthy antiquary, Elias Ashmole, gifted his entire collection to the university, which included Guy Fawkes’ lantern and Jacob’s Coat of Many Colours. The original museum opened on Oxford’s famous Broad Street (today the home of Balliol and Trinity colleges), before moving locations a couple of times until it settled in its existing classical home, just off the St Giles thoroughfare. Come to marvel at all sorts of treasures, from a collection of classical casts to T.E Lawrence’s famous Arab robes; to paintings by Turner, Bacon and Picasso; to a collection of historic musical instruments. Do also make time for lunch or tea on the top floor roof terrace. As Bill Bryson noted, ‘It’s just about the most beguiling museum there is.’ Book your free tickets to the permanent collection here.

The Museum of Natural History

For anyone who has ever visited London’s Natural History Museum, the sight of Oxford’s uncannily named Museum of Natural History might also trigger a sense of déjà vu. For, just like the Waterhouse-designed South Kensington museum, this building too is an example of neo-gothic architecture, in this case influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin. Opened in 1860, that was also the year that it hosted ‘the great debate’ between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley, a biologist from London who had worked with Darwin, on one of the most controversial ideas of the 19th-century: Charles Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species.
As the museum explains: ‘As Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce had reached the pinnacle of a highly successful career in the Church of England. Renowned as an eloquent and influential speaker, Wilberforce also had a first-class degree in mathematics and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the debate, he threw the full force of his theological training into upholding the idea of biblical creation, refuting Darwin's picture of evolution through natural selection.
‘As the debate unfolded, Wilberforce taunted Huxley about his possible ape ancestry, to which Huxley is claimed to have retorted: 'If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.'’
Come to examine the only surviving soft tissue remains in the world of the extinct dodo; to meet a collection of dinosaurs; and to study all manner of creatures – including live insects. Book your free tickets to the permanent collection here.

Pitt Rivers Museum

If you make it to the Museum of Natural History, do also make time to slip through the door at the back into the bizarre and fascinating world of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is housed on the same site. Founded in 1884 when Augustus Pitt left his collection to the museum on the proviso that it appoint a permanent lecture in anthropology, it contains a wealth of archaeological and anthropological artefacts (some half a million, in fact) from world cultures past and present. Last year, it made the decision to remove its set of shrunken heads, which has been on display since the 1940s, from the collection to some hotly debated controversy. Book your free tickets here.

Bodleian Libraries

The Bodleian is the main Oxford University library and features a copy of every book published in the British Isles. It is housed within several marvellous buildings in and around Broad Street, most notably the John Gibbs and Hawksmoor-designed Radcliffe Camera on Radcliffe Square. Although the library itself is restricted to students, there are daily public tours of some of the historic sites, such as the Duke Humfrey Library (as seen in the Harry Potter films) and the Divinity School, another familiar filming site. There are regularly changing exhibitions of literary and photographic interest in the newer Weston Library, which was refurbished and expanded a few years ago. Explore more and book your tickets here.

The Oxford Playhouse

Just across the road from The Ashmolean is The Oxford Playhouse, which produces and tours its own shows as well as receiving touring productions. There is a great range of live performance on offer, from the family friendly (think adaptations of Julia Donaldson children’s books and Christmas pantos) to the classic (think the likes of The Woman in Black) to contemporary dance and music to lecture tours. Explore more and book your tickets here.

Christ Church Picture Gallery

Covid-19 has made life difficult for a huge number of cultural institutions for obvious reasons. But Christ Church Picture Gallery came off worse than most, for reasons not actually related to the pandemic itself. On March 14, 2020, just as the world began to slowly grind to a halt, a gang of thieves pulled off one of the biggest art heists in British history, stealing three sixteenth-century paintings worth in the region of £10m. At the time of writing the gallery remains closed, but we urge visitors to check again when they pay a visit to the city; the gallery is well worth seeing. Christ Church is unique among Oxbridge colleges for having amassed a collection of important Old Masters, all housed within a purpose-built gallery space.

As they say, ‘General John Guise bequeathed his collection of over 200 paintings and almost 2000 drawings to his former college, where it arrived after his death in 1765. This extraordinary gift enabled Christ Church to introduce art into Oxford education without the necessity to travel to Italy or to gain access to stately homes, which still held the majority of art collections in the country. At that date the collection was unequalled by any other Oxford institution. The Bodleian ‘Picture Gallery’ housed mainly portraits and the Ashmolean Museum, the oldest museum in Britain, had a large and interesting collection of artefacts and objects, but at that time included few paintings.’ Explore more about the museum and, when re-opened, book tickets here.

Christ Church College And Cathedral

Once you have taken in its collection of important paintings, do walk across Christ Church’s impressive grounds to the college itself, which may well be familiar, whether thanks to the 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, or latterly from the Harry Potter movie franchise. If the former, do glance up at the upper right-most balcony, from which Antoine Blanche recites The Waste Land through a megaphone – it will fill your heart with the joy and your head with the high baroque trumpet of that extraordinary series’ theme tune. But do be sure to also buy a ticket and explore inside too. There you will find the extraordinary and exemplary dining hall (familiar from the Potter films), and the smallest cathedral in the country whose presence, incidentally, is what makes Oxford officially a city. Book your tickets here.

History of Science Museum

Established in 1924 and opened in 1925, Oxford’s History of Science Museum houses a mind-boggling collection of historic scientific instruments – all within the original home of the Ashmolean, and thus the oldest purpose-built museum building in the country. Book your tickets here.

Magdalen College

The colleges themselves are a big draw for tourists and residents of the city alike, all of whom wish to glimpse their architectural beauty as well as to consider those hallowed alumni who once walked their very halls. Visitors to Magdalen College, founded in 1458 by Wiliam of Waynflete, will no doubt conjure the echoes of Oscar Wilde, Thomas Wolsey, Louis Theroux and John Betjeman as young students here. It also so happens to be, subjectively of course, what we consider to be the most beautiful of all the colleges at Oxford, and boasts the ever-lovely Addison’s Walk, a pretty footpath around a small island in the Cherwell, all within the college’s grounds. Do listen for the heavenly sound of organists practising in the chapel and also marvel at the large, square Magdalen Tower, which dates back to the reign of Henry VII, and is where the choir sing from at 6am every May Morning. Discover more here.

North Wall Arts Centre

For those looking for fresh cultural experiences, the award-winning North Wall Arts Centre in north Oxford – established by St Edward’s School in 2007 – exists to champion emerging artists across a range of disciplines. Having attracted a number of well-known theatre companies, it has also played host to comedians such as Julian Clary and Sarah Millican, while music acts have included Camille O’Sullivan and Spiers & Boden. It describes its mission thus: ‘The North Wall exists to provide opportunities for artists, young people and the general public to make and experience art of the highest quality. We aim to promote the notion of art as a tool for living; timely, relevant and socially engaged. Through the cutting-edge programming choices of the arts centre and ground-breaking outreach initiatives for aspiring young artists, we aim to offer both cultural enrichment for audiences, and an ‘arts laboratory’: a place where people of different ages, experience and disciplines can come together, make connections and explore new ideas and aesthetics. We have a focus on nurturing talent in young and emerging artists, and removing the barriers that prevent them from achieving meaningful careers in the arts.’ Explore more and book your tickets here.

Botanic Gardens

‘Sharing the scientific wonder and importance of plants with the world’ is the succinct bio that accompanies @oxfordbga, the Instagram account for the Oxford Botanic Gardens and Arboretum. What it omits to trumpet is that it is the oldest botanic garden in the UK and, in fact, one of the longest established in the world, having been founded in 1621 as a physic garden for medicinal plants. Housed within a classic walled garden and with Magdalen Tower overlooking it, it is one of the most sublime places to wander – whether aimlessly or otherwise – and listen to the trickle of its fountains, the only noise punctuating the quiet, despite being in the heart of the city. Along one edge runs the Thames, along which in the summer months you can spot punters bobbing by. Book your tickets here.

The Sheldonian Theatre

Scene of many of Oxford University’s ceremonial events, including matriculation and graduation, this Christopher Wren-designed building is the major home in the centre of the city for classical concerts and leading literary events, regularly hosting major orchestras and soloists. It might be notoriously uncomfortable inside, but at least some of the glorious aesthetics – not least the painted ceiling, showing Truth banishing Ignorance – make up for it. Plan your visit here.

By Nancy Alsop
July 2021

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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.