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Exploring Oxford with City Sightseeing's open top bus tour

All aboard! We just spent a weekend exploring the beautiful city of Oxford - our first city break as a family of three! In order to get the most out of our two days in Oxford and learn some fascinating facts about the city, we teamed up again with City Sightseeing on their Oxford tour bus route.

If you've read our Seville, Edinburgh and Saigon blogs you'll know that we love using City Sightseeing's hop on hop off buses while exploring a city - we'll typically get on for a complete lap as soon as we set out in order to get a sense of where all the city's attractions and highlights are in relation to each other and to listen to the tour commentary to learn about its history, before using the stops to efficiently cover as much as possible.

Oxford, the City of Dreaming Spires, is not just the home of one of the world's most prestigious (and Britain's oldest) universities. It's an architectural wonderland, and one of England's top places to visit - full of historic honey-toned colleges made with stone from the nearby Cotswolds, a skyline of whimsical church steeples and some really quirky gems like the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian Theatre and the Bridge of Sighs, it's no wonder that writers like Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis found inspiration there. Oxford was also used for several filming locations in the Harry Potter franchise and of course, the TV series Inspector Morse, Lewis and Endeavour!

Oxford's Radcliffe Camera

While Oxford's academic rival Cambridge has a much closer together, walkable historic district, Oxford's colleges and other tourist attractions are spread out across the city centre, and so you're more likely to want to use some public transport at some point in order to pack lots into your city break. Conveniently starting from outside Oxford's train station, City Sightseeing's bus tour covers 20 stops taking in the city's top attractions such as:

  • The Ashmolean Museum

  • Christ Church College

  • The Bodleian Library

  • The Covered Market

  • The Bridge of Sighs

  • The Natural History Museum

  • The Botanic Gardens

  • The Pitt Rivers Museum

  • The Radcliffe Camera

  • Oxford Castle and Prison

Here's our guide to exploring Oxford on the City Sightseeing tour bus:

a grand clock tower over the entrance to Christ CHurch College, Oxford University. Seen from the top deck of a red tour bus.
Christ Church College's Tom Tower from the City Sightseeing bus

Starting your tour from the station, learn about the history of Oxford and how its theological colleges led to the creation of one of the most famous universities in the world. If you're visiting Oxford's Castle and Prison (City Sightseeing offer a combined entry ticket), hop off at stop 4, otherwise we'd recommend staying on until stop 8, Christ Church College and Cathedral.

Hop off the bus and spend some time exploring Oxford's magnificent Christ Church College. Entering beneath stately Tom Tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, you can explore the quads and corridors of the college founded by King Henry VIII, several of which were used as filming locations in the Harry Potter film franchise, along with The Golden Compass, X-Men First Class and the John Thaw's, Inspector Morse. While it was never used to film in, the grand dining hall clearly served as inspiration for the Hogwarts set (If you'd like to see some other Harry Potter locations in Oxford, pay a visit to New College and the Bodleian Library - both stop 15).The 12th century chapel belonging to Christ Church college is also Oxford's cathedral and your £19 ticket (£17 online) covers entry to both sites!

The most famous Christ Church professor has to be mathematician Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland . If you're a fan of the book, once you've finished exploring the college and cathedral, walk 130m to Alice's Shop, a whimsical former Victorian grocer where the real Alice, 10 year old Alice Liddell, would have bought her sweets. After the 1865 publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Dodgson, a family friend, it became known as Alice's shop (it even features in the sequel, Through the Looking Glass), a name it has kept for nearly 150 years. Today it is a magical treasure trove of Alice in Wonderland themed gifts and memorabilia.

Next, take a short walk up to the top of St Aldate's to visit Carfax Tower, all that remains of the 12th century St Martin’s Church. Entry to climb the 99 winding steps is £4 (you can save £1 by booking the £21 Essential bus ticket which includes entry to the tower), and the view from the top is well worth the effort. Carfax Tower is the tallest building in central Oxford and the panoramic 360 degree view across the city will show you precisely why Oxford is known as the City of Dreaming Spires.

The view of Oxford's skyline from Carfax Tower
The view from Carfax Tower

Cross the road onto High Street and pop into Oxford's charming 18th century Covered Market for lunch, then head back outside to hop back onto the City Sightseeing bus at stop 9. You can either get off at stop 13 to explore the Natural History Museum (fossils galore) and Oxford's famous Pitt Rivers Museum (both are part of the same building and both are free to visit!), or stay on round to stop 15. On the way, you'll get beautiful views into the grounds of some of Oxford's colleges from the bus' top deck, including Brazenose (where Michael Palin studied), Queen's and Magdalen.

If you're visiting in Britain's sunnier months, you might like to request to get off at stop 11 to visit Oxford's Botanical Gardens and the Magdalen Bridge boathouse for the ultimate Oxford summer activity - punting!

Related Content - Exploring more of England? Check out some of our other top blogs!

From stop 15 you can tick off some of Oxford's quirkiest and most iconic buildings, from the stunning Bodleian Library (pre book your ticket for the Divinity School, another Harry Potter filming location) and Radcliffe Camera to Sir Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre, flanked by a curious row of giant heads and Oxford's very own Bridge of Sighs.

Time to wet your whistle - from stop 15 you're within a minute's walk from two fantastic historic pubs: choose from (or visit both!) the Turf Tavern or the Kings Arms, both with beautiful cosy wooden bars.

The Turf Tavern, where you'll be drinking in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Stephen Hawking and the Harry Potter cast while they were in town filming, also has a restaurant and attractive outside patio. The Kings Arms is the oldest pub in Oxford, dating from 1607. Chock full of cosy side rooms, a great selection of ales and even two resident ghosts! If you're in town on a Sunday, we'd so recommend booking a table at either pub for their fab Sunday roast.

Back on the bus, stay on board all the way to stop 20 to visit Oxford's celebrated Ashmolean Museum. From Egyptian mummies to Samurai armour, a substantial art collection and Guy Fawkes' lantern (which he was allegedly using on the night he was caught beneath Parliament on November 5th 1605), the Ashmolean is a treasure trove topped by a lovely rooftop restaurant with a view over the city. Plus it's another freebie!

Red  City Sightseeing open top tour bus next to Oxford's Martyrs Memorial

Once you get off at Stop 20, take a moment to look at the pointed stone monument on the central pavement. Deliberately styled to look like an Eleanor Cross, the Martyrs Memorial, designed by George Gilbert Scott and erected in 1843 to commemorate Bishops Latimer and Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: 3 Tudor Protestant clergymen who were burned at the stake for heresy in the reign of Queen Mary I.

If you're planning a trip to Oxford, book your City Sightseeing bus tour tickets using our code: TT15TRAVOX to save a 15% discount off the ICONIC route - and if you need another reason to book an open top bus tour with City Sightseeing, from Friday - Sunday, your ticket also includes a 45 minute walking tour with a professional guide: Stepping Through Oxford - worth £8. You can join the tour from the Visitor Information Point at stop 10, leaving at 11am, 12pm, 1pm and 2pm.

Disclosure: we were gifted two 24 hour tickets for the Oxford City Sightseeing Bus Tour in return for this blog and Instagram content, but we were not paid to post and as always, all opinions are our own!

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