When it comes to a historical and literature-focused city like Oxford, it can often feel as if no stone has been left unturned and everything worth seeing has already been ‘discovered’. However, if you allow yourself to get lost in the city of dreaming spires, then you’ll soon find that a hidden and quirky side of the city is never too far away from your wandering feet. Here are the very best secret spots in Oxford!
Head out on the Alice and Wonderland Trail
While not exactly the best-kept ‘secret’ when it comes to secret spots in Oxford, there are plenty of Alice in Wonderland locations and attractions to be found throughout the city of Oxford and beyond. Many fans of Harry Potter will be delighted to find out that Christ Church College (where many of the magical wizarding films were shot) was also home to Alice in Wonderland creator, Lewis Carroll.
As such, some of the best Alice in Wonderland locations in the city include Alice’s Shop (where the real-life Alice Liddell once purchased sweets), the Museum of Natural History (a must-visit for any history fan), and a wander along the River Thames. After all, it was on a boat ride along the water where Caroll (real name Dodgson) first conjured up images of imaginary Alice.
Drink cocktails at FREUD Oxford
Located in a former neo-classical Greek Revival 19th-century church, there’s no better place to wind down and relax on a summer’s evening than on the terrace outside FREUD. This café, bar, and bistro can be found in the Jericho district of Oxford and was founded in 1998 by a former art student of the Courtauld, David Freud.
Today, step inside and you can expect to find pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows, a vintage vibe, and a whole load of innovative and imaginative cocktails on offer. A personal favourite of mine costs £5 at Happy Hour and is named the ‘Holy Freud’ (lychee liqueur, cranberry, and elderflower).
Explore the Story Museum
Of course, you’ve heard of the Ashmolean and the Bodleian! However, have you heard of the quirkier and lesser-known Story Museum? Located at Rochester House, Pembroke Street, this cultural hub is a fun space which is perfect for those travelling to Oxford with younger family members in tow.
Founded in 2003, the Story Museum is filled with interactive activities and things to do relating to literature, stories, and the written word. On-site, there’s also the Story Cafe, which serves literary-inspired food (including incredibly cute cupcakes!)
Side note: Unfortunately, the Story Museum is currently closed for renovations. However, the cafe is still open and nearby attractions include Alice’s Shop and Christ Church Cathedral.
Visit New College
While every movie buff, book lover, and British enthusiast makes a point to visit Christ Church College during their time in the city thanks to Harry Potter, there are plenty of other colleges well worth a visit. For example, the historic college of New College is free to visit between October and Easter and costs just a few pounds the rest of the year.
While there, be sure to check out Oxford’s very own Bridge of Sighs, which is known formally as Hertford Bridge. Urban myth suggests that this structure was meant to be modelled on the Venetian Bridge of Sighs. However, somehow along the way, the architectural design got a little lost in translation. Instead, Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs resembles more the Venetian Rialto Bridge.
Spot the toilet in the stained glass window, Christ Church Cathedral
When my friend Chloe first turned to me and informed myself and another friend that there was ‘a toilet depiction in one of the stained glass windows of Christ Church Cathedral,’ I couldn’t quite believe my ears. However, it’s certainly true and the image can be found by heading to the corner of the church called the Latin Chapel.
Within this section of the ecclesiastical building, there’s a replica-shrine of that which was constructed for St Frideswide (the patron saint of Oxford). Above the ornately carved stone shrine, there’s a stained glass window. A Burne-Jones, no less! And, if you look closely enough in the bottom right-hand corner, you’ll notice that Burne-Jones included all the mod-cons of the day, including a flushing toilet in one of the panes!
The Saxon Tower, North Gate
Located on the high street, in between a whole load of new eateries, fast food joints, and modern-day shops, the Saxon Tower is often thought of as one of the oldest buildings in Oxford. First constructed in the 11th-century, this stone structure is all that’s left of the church of St Michael’s, North Gate.
Today, the tower is home to a small museum, much of which is displayed on the 97-set of steps staircase which leads to the top of the Saxon Tower. The view from the top is beautiful, while the museum itself offers a brief overview of the history of England.
Take a guided tour of Duke Humphrey’s Library
While everyone knows that you can visit the Divinity School (an ornately carved stone room used in multiple film sets, including that of Harry Potter), fewer know that as part of a paid guided tour, you can also experience the magic and breathtaking reading room of Duke Humphrey’s Library.
Constructed in the 15th-century, this oak filled space is among one of the oldest libraries in Europe (for a similar feel and ambience, visit the oldest public library in Ireland, Marsh’s Library). Named for Sir Humphrey, this H-shaped space is home to a rare example of chained books, as well as several titles which exist nowhere else
Alden’s Oxford guide: with key-plan of the University and city, and numerous engravings (1903)
See the largest single room selling books in the world
If books are your thing, then a trip to the bibliophile’s dream city of Oxford is an absolute must. Just a short train away from London, once there, there are plenty of independent bookstores and shops to explore. One of the most unusual of the booksellers in Oxford is that of Blackwell Books, Broad Street.
Head inside the rather unassuming interior, and there are shelves and shelves of books to explore, as well as the cavernous underground Norrington Room, which holds a world breaking title as being the largest single room selling books in the world. It’s also worth noting that Blackwell’s often holds literary events, including book signings by best-selling and lesser-known authors.
Climb the tower of University Church of St Mary the Virgin
For the very best view of the RadCam (Radcliffe Camera- i.e. the part of the Bodleian Library which is strictly off-limits to members of the public), head up the tiny and spiralling staircase of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Reach the narrow ledge at the top, and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking 360-degree bird’s eye views of Oxford and its many spires.
Explore the wider Oxfordshire region
Of course, this guide to the best of secret spots in Oxford only begins to scratch the surface of what’s out there to discover. Indeed, from the model of a shark sticking out of a house to the final resting place of one of the most famous writers to ever have lived, the county of Oxfordshire has no dearth of hidden gems and more unique things to do worth discovering. For a full break down, be sure to check out this guide to the best-kept secrets of Oxfordshire.