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The perpetual Oxford tourist: what to see and do in the city of dreaming spires

This week, the International Association of Law Libraries is holding its 35th Annual Course in Oxford, United Kingdom. Oxford University Press is delighted to host the conference’s opening reception in our own offices on Great Clarendon Street. I hope that delegates will be sure to speak to my UK colleagues about fabulous restaurants, shops, and sites that they enjoy in the City of Oxford.

In my 17 years as an Oxford University Press employee, based in our US offices, I have my own fairly unique relationship with this wonderful city. Unlike my UK colleagues who know the city intimately as their home, I am someone who finds themselves both a perpetual and enthusiastic Oxford tourist.

While I heartily endorse visiting the world class Ashmolean Museum or inspecting Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower at Christ Church College, below are just a few of my favorite sites which may be more easily missed in a first trip to Oxford.

  1. Museum of the History of Science

Museum of the History of Science – This free museum is in the original home of The Ashmolean and is tucked next to Christopher Wren’s majestic Sheldonian Theatre. The permanent collection at the museum is a delight for enthusiasts of both history and science. From ancient ornate astrolabes to Marconi’s radio equipment, to the actual chalkboard (behind glass) that captured Albert Einstein’s handwritten equations, there are ample opportunities to enjoy a close encounter with great moments in science. My favorite visits to the museum, however, have involved their fascinating temporary exhibits which they also curate virtually. From the oddity of Nostradamus’s astrolabe to the heartbreaking note in a mother’s journal of the death of Henry Moseley, these exhibits are ones I remember long after my visit.

  1. The Bodleian Library

The history of the Bodleian Library is as rich as the history of Oxford, and a tour of the library is a must.  While admittance into the Radcliffe Camera alone would be worth the price of admission, knowledgeable tour guides will also point out gargoyles in the shape of beloved children’s book characters, and sites featured in the Harry Potter films. Even if one does not have time for a tour, the new Bodleian Treasures should not be missed! Among the many treasures are copy of the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, drafts by Kafka, Milton, and Mary Shelley, and even a hand drawn map of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

  1. New College Lane

After a visit to the Bodleian or Blackwell’s Bookshop, I love to take a stroll around New College Lane. Every good tourist should take a moment for a photo with Oxford’s own Bridge of Sighs, just a few steps from both the Bodleian and the Sheldonian theatre. Walking under the bridge, one may duck down the St. Helen’s Passage as it winds its way to the medieval Turf Tavern. After a pint or a meal, you can return to continue down the lane. On the left a small marker notes the home of Edmund Halley. As the road passes the entrance to New College itself, the greatest treat is to look up and enjoy some of Oxford’s famous gargoyles and grotesques, particularly those that appear to be inspired by exotic Australian wildlife. If one signs up for the excellent ghost tour offered nearby, they may also point out what is rumored to be the most haunted spot in all of Oxford on this winding road.

  1. Magdalen College

Magdalen College—Oxford University is not made up of one large campus but instead 38 separate colleges, all with their own histories and distinguished alumni.  While a visit to Merton College is a delight for lovers of Tolkien, and Lincoln College is a happy pilgrimage for my fellow Wesleyans, I have a great fondness for Magdalen College. Walk in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, and Lawrence of Arabia while taking in the views of the college’s stunning Deer Park and the River Cherwell.

  1. Oxford University Press Museum

OUP’s own museum has fantastic displays charting our own 500 year history. With historic printing equipment, a first edition of Alice in Wonderland, and displays on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, a visit is a must for any book lover. The best way to enjoy the museum is to have tour from OUP’s own archivist, Martin Maw. His enthusiasm for OUP’s history is only exceeded by his knowledge of hundred- year-old office intrigue.

Featured image: “Oxford Street” by Abdulhakeem Samae, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Andrew

    As any fule kno, Magdalen College in Oxford does not have a final “e” to its name.

  2. Lesley

    The Magna Carter! I’d love to see that.

  3. Andy Neilson

    It’s spelled Tolkien.

  4. elizabeth berris

    Nobody should miss the Pitt-Rivers Museum – quite unique in its arrangement of objects – like with like across the centuries and across the globe, with tiny handwritten original labels. And does the magical Oxford Playhouse still exist ?

  5. Nadia

    Also don’t miss Port Meadow (and the Perch pub nearby), Christ Church Meadow (and the Head of the River pub nearby), Holywell Music Room, the Wednesday and Thursday markets in Gloucester Green, the Pitt Rivers and Natural History Museum, and the Covered Market on Market Street.

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