Before our visit to Oxford, the only college campus I’d ever set foot on was the one I graduated from. In my home country, most people only take a tour of a particular college or university if they plan to attend there. In Oxford (and nearby Cambridge), that is definitely not the case. People often visit both of these cities just to see the colleges within them, even if they have no intention of ever studying there. And it’s not hard to see why. Centuries of history, beautiful architecture, and a lengthy list of famous and highly revered alumni – I mean, who wouldn’t want to see where Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hugh Grant studied? (Yes, I also find it questionable that I place Hugh Grant at the same level as Albert Einstein.)
The University of Oxford is made up of 38 different colleges and 6 private halls. Unlike in the US where we use the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ interchangeably, at Oxford, they mean two different things. Students of the University of Oxford are also students of a particular college within the university. These separate colleges (you can think of them as academic communities) each have their own identity and are where students live, eat, study, and socialize. And they are all beautiful. Think: landscaped gardens and quads, crumbling medieval cloisters, grand dining halls, and ancient libraries with private reading nooks – certainly nothing like the dorms we’re used to back home!
Each college and hall within the University of Oxford has its own history, famous past residents, and other reasons for visiting, but unless you’ve got unlimited time in Oxford, you’ll have to choose just a few to tour. For a weekend stay in Oxford that also includes seeing some of the city’s other sights (hint: the guide below has everything you need to know), I’d recommend limiting yourself to just 5-6 colleges. Most are within walking distance of each other, but it can take some time to tour a few of the larger ones. Picking which colleges to visit in Oxford is no easy task, but if you’re looking for pretty colleges steeped in history with more literary and film connections than you can shake a wand at (obligatory Harry Potter reference), then you can’t go wrong with the ones below!
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One of the most popular colleges to visit in Oxford, Christ Church is also one of the largest with 175 acres of public parkland, private gardens, and academic buildings. The college is home to Christ Church Cathedral which is not only the college chapel, but also the cathedral of the diocese of Oxford. Christ Church counts 13 British Prime Ministers, Albert Einstein, and Lewis Carroll among its alumni, but perhaps the thing that brings more visitors to the college than anything else is the opportunity to see several Harry Potter filming locations in person. Both the grand staircase in Bodley Tower and the cloisters were used during filming of the Harry Potter series. The college’s dining hall also served as inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall. (FYI: A formal dinner is held every evening in the Christ Church dining hall where all students are required to wear their robes. I’m pretty sure that’s as close to a real-life Hogwarts experience as it gets!)
Entrance into Christ Church costs between £8-10 depending on which time of year you visit. Included in the ticket price is access to the quads, the cloisters, the grand staircase, the dining hall, and the cathedral. Christ Church has a quirky visitors schedule – not everything is open at the same time, so you have to plan it just right if you want to see everything included with your ticket. Opening hours and closures are posted on the website two weeks in advance, so I recommend checking a week or so before you plan to visit.
Check opening hours for Christ Church and purchase tickets online here.
Located on Broad Street near the center of Oxford, Trinity College was built on the grounds of a former home for Benedictine monks and once required all of its fellows to take Holy Orders and remain unmarried. Trinity’s enormous quads, beautiful gardens, and amazing architecture have been used in the filming of several movies and British TV shows. The college also has a highly regarded Chapel Choir, one of the largest in the university, consisting of several choral scholars and voluntary singers from within Trinity College. The choir performs a Choral Evensong in the college chapel every Sunday at 6pm which all visitors are invited to attend. (Unrelated: Naming a college Trinity College is like the equivalent of naming your kid Mary or John. There are a ridiculous number of them in the world!)
Entrance into Trinity College is only £3 and includes access to the chapel, the gardens, and the dining hall. Some of the gardens, including the Fellows’ Garden, are not open to visitors, but you can still have a peek through the gates.
Check opening hours for Trinity College here.
The Bodleian Library is the main research library within the University of Oxford. While it’s not an actual college itself, its stunning architecture and historic rooms and libraries aren’t to be missed. Duke Humphrey’s Library is the oldest reading room within the Bodleian. Its dark interior and floor to ceiling shelves packed full of old books are a bookworm’s dream come true. (Not surprisingly, this library was used as the Hogwarts library in the HP films.) Just downstairs from Duke Humphrey’s Library is the Divinity School where lectures and oral exams used to take place. With its soaring ceiling and oodles of natural light, it is quite possibly the most photogenic room within the entire university. The Bodleian Library is also where you’ll find Convocation House, the room where British Parliament met during the English Civil War and the Great Plague.
Entrance into Weston Library, Blackwell Hall, and the Old Schools Quadrangle at the Bodleian Library is free. To see the best parts of the Bodleian Library, however, you’ll need to join one of the daily guided tours. The tours range in price from £6-14 depending on how many areas you wish to see. I recommend choosing either the Standard Tour or the Extended Tour which also includes entrance to the Radcliffe Camera.
Check opening hours for the Bodleian Library and purchase tickets online here.
Part of the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera is located in Radcliffe Square just across from the Bodleian. This circular library with its striking facade and neoclassical dome is one of the most iconic sights in Oxford, and you can get a unique view of it by climbing the tower within the University Church that sits opposite it. Inside, the Radcliffe Camera consists of two levels of reading rooms, an upper gallery, and an underground library housing over half a million books and manuscripts. (P.S. Camera means ‘room’ in Latin.)
Unless you are a student of Oxford, the only way to gain entrance into the Radcliffe Camera is via one of two Extended Tours offered by the Bodleian Library. The fee for either tour is £14 and both tours last around 90 minutes.
Check opening hours for the Radcliffe Camera and purchase tickets online here.
Bridge of Sighs
Like the Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College is somewhat of an icon in Oxford. Officially called the Hertford Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs gets its nickname due to its resemblance to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. To see the bridge, you don’t actually need to enter Hertford College at all. The bridge is located off of Catte Street, connecting two of Hertford College’s buildings over New College Lane. The best view of the bridge is looking towards Catte Street from the far end of New College Lane. (You’ll get the Sheldonian Theatre in your shots that way, too!)
Unfortunately, since Hertford College is a small college, you won’t actually be able to enter and walk across the bridge, but the best views are from the street anyway!
Exeter College is one of the oldest colleges within the University of Oxford. Smaller in size than some of the others, Exeter is still a gem well worth visiting. The college features a chapel modeled after Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, gardens with a view of the Radcliffe Camera, and gorgeous medieval architecture. Fans of the ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman won’t want to miss this one either – Exeter College formed the basis for Jordan College in the series and many scenes from The Golden Compass were shot here. Besides Philip Pullman, both William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien spent their college years at Exeter.
Entrance into Exeter College is free. Visitors are allowed access to the quads, the gardens, the dining hall, and the college chapel.
Check opening hours for Exeter College here.
All Souls College
With its many towers and spires stretching towards the sky, I think it’s highly likely All Souls College was exactly what poet Matthew Arnold was thinking about when he called Oxford “that sweet city with her dreaming spires” in his poem ‘Thyrsis’. This cathedral-like college is for graduate and post-graduate students only and boasts several famous fellows including Sir Christopher Wren (aka the architect behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London). While you can enter All Souls College for free and have a look around, the best way to take in the beauty of the college is to climb to the top of the University Church tower and look down.
Entrance into All Souls College is free, however, visitors are restricted to the quads and chapel only.
Check opening hours for All Souls College here.
Turns out, New College isn’t actually all that new at all. At over 600 years old, it’s one of the oldest colleges within the university. Both Hugh Grant and Kate Beckinsale are former students of New College, as is Sophie Kinsella whose name you’ll probably only recognize if you’re a fan of chick lit. Guiltily raises hand. As for reasons to visit, New College pretty much has it all – castle-like cloisters, an impressive chapel, the oldest dining hall in the English-speaking world, the prettiest gardens out of all the colleges we visited, and the chance to check out several more Harry Potter filming locations. (The cloisters and a gnarled, old tree beside them were used in the filming of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) You definitely don’t want to skip this one!
Entrance into New College is £5 and included with your entrance ticket is access to the quads, cloisters, the chapel, the dining hall, the gardens, and the city wall. If they have them, grab one of the leaflet guides from the ticket area. They provide a lot of useful info on the areas you’ll have access to.
Check opening hours for New College here.
A Note on Closures
Unexpected closures are common at all colleges within the University of Oxford. Usually, just a single area will be off-limits, but occasionally the entire college will be closed to visitors. If there’s something specific you’re hoping to see at a particular college, I recommend checking the college’s website at least a couple days before your visit to see if any closures have been listed. Many of the colleges that see a lot of tourists will list closures, but some of the smaller ones you will have to call to check on.
Have you been to any of these colleges? What are your favorite colleges to visit in Oxford?
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