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25 things to do with your family in Oxford

Oxford, my local city, attracts around 9 million tourists every year. Whilst many are language students or couples there’s a fair smattering of families amongst them. The usual Oxford tourist itinerary focuses on the historic University buildings but my children would be first in line to declare how BORING these are.

Christ Church College, Oxford
Christ Church College, Oxford

With this in mind I’ve chosen 25 (hopefully less boring) suggestions for things to do with your family in Oxford. Whilst this list contains some obvious tourist attractions it also includes those which are likely to be more interesting to families. Read on for my locals’ guide to places to visit in Oxford with kids.

1. Pitt Rivers Museum

My favourite museum in Oxford, the Pitt Rivers, shares a building with the Natural History museum and is full of ethnographic objects from around the world. There are so many items squeezed into the darkened display cases that it’s worth focussing on just a few areas. Most kids will want to see the shrunken heads but there’s so much more, ranging from masks to carvings and a witch in a bottle! Free entry.

2. The Covered Market

The Covered Market is a great place to wander and check out some food stalls. Head along to The Cake Shop to watch the staff decorating cakes through the windows and then join the queue at Ben’s Cookies. I can recommend whatever has just come out of the oven.

The Covered Market, Oxford
The Covered Market, Oxford

Visit at Christmas to see deer and pheasant hanging outside the butchers and to pick up some Oxford Blue from the cheese shop

3. Eat out along the Cowley Road

You’ll find the main chain restaurants along Park End Street and dotted around the city centre but there’s more interesting dining along the Cowley Road. Atomic Burger, Pizzeria Trattoria Mario and the Tick Tock Cafe are good family options but there are loads to choose from covering all tastes.

4. The Story Museum

This is a relatively new addition to Oxford and offers a variety of exhibitions plus book related events for all ages. The Story Museum is work in progress and is gradually developing into a centre which will celebrate all forms of storytelling.

The Story Museum, Oxford
The Story Museum, Oxford

The museum also has a cafe and children’s cookery classes run by chef Sophie Grigson and her team. Admission charge applies.

5. Headington shark

Once hugely controversial but nowadays just part of the landscape it’s worth a quick trip out to Headington to see a huge shark sticking out the roof of 2 New High Street. The house is sometimes up for rent so if you don’t mind a steady stream of tourists and can afford £2000+ per month you can live beneath the shark sculpture!

6. Oxford Castle Unlocked

The area around Oxford Castle has been revamped in recent years with part of the old prison converted into a luxury Malmaison hotel. At Oxford Castle Unlocked you can take a guided tour and discover the story of the prison and castle area. Visitors can experience a Norman crypt, see prison cells, climb 101 steps to the top of a Saxon tower for views across the city (5+ only) and scale the mound of the 11th century motte and bailey castle. Admission charge applies.

7. Walk along the Thames to Iffley Lock

A popular Sunday stroll for both visitors and locals.  From the Head of the River pub it’s a 30 minute riverside walk to Iffley village. At busy times you’ll be forever moving out of the way of cyclists and runners but if you manage to combine your walk with the opening of the Isis Farmhouse pub you’ll be rewarded with a huge slice of cake. It’s generally open Friday to Sunday but check opening hours before you visit as they’re variable.

Watching the rowers on the River Thames, Oxford
Watching the rowers on the River Thames, Oxford

8. Ashmolean museum

The Ashmolean is the world’s first university museum. They have some great events for children but the museum is probably best visited in short bursts.

Ashmoleum museum, Oxford
Ashmoleum museum, Oxford

Some of the collections will have limited appeal to children but the Ancient Egyptian galleries are always popular with kids. There’s also a top 10 trail and dog detective spotter sheet to keep the children entertained. Free entry.

9. Spot the Antony Gormley statue

I have a soft spot for Antony Gormley sculptures. A 7ft iron man (similar to those we saw on Crosby Beach) sits atop Exeter College watching over Broad Street. Can you find him?

Antony Gormley sculpture, Oxford
Antony Gormley sculpture, Oxford

10. Bill Spectre’s Oxford ghost tour

Rated as one of the top 10 ghost tours in the world our children loved Bill Spectre’s Oxford ghost tour. Theatrically dressed, he regaled us with spooky tales, burning books and magic on our walk around the city. It’s suitable for all ages; highly recommended!

11. Explore the city with a Treasure Trail

We’ve found Treasure Trails are a great way for locals and visitors to discover new areas, even if you think you know the place well. There are several trails available in Oxford; read our reviews of the Spy Trail around University Parks and the Oxford Canal and Jericho treasure trail.

Oxford canal
Exploring Oxford canal on a treasure trail

12. Blackwell’s bookshop

The front of Blackwell’s bookshop gives no clue to the huge numbers of books the shop stocks. I always make a beeline for the travel section, leaving the kids to browse in the varied children’s department. It’s not exactly a tourist destination but you can easily while away a couple of hours browsing the bookshelves.

13. Botanic Garden

Oxford’s traffic can sometimes detract from its beauty so it’s great to be able to step away from the manic High Street into the peaceful calm of the Botanic Garden.

In the glasshouse at Oxford Botanic Garden
In the glasshouse at Oxford Botanic Garden

The oldest botanic garden in Great Britain is relatively small but perfectly formed. I particularly enjoy warming up in the heated glasshouses on a cold winter day. Featuring plants from tropical jungles, desserts and alpine environments, you can read more about one of our visits here.

It’s also famous as a literary hangout. J.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll were frequent visitors, whilst Phillip Pullman features the bench at the back of the garden in His Dark Materials books. Admission charge applies.

14. Look out over the dreaming spires

View from the Sheldonian cupola
View from the Sheldonian cupola

I have two favourite views. Firstly from the tower of St Mary the Virgin church on High Street which provides a fantastic panorama over the Radcliffe Camera. Secondly from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre, the magnificent Christopher Wren designed building which is open when not in use by the University. Admission charges apply to both but it’s money well spent.

15. MINI plant tour

The MINI plant is located just outside of the city and is Oxfordshire’s largest private sector employer. My children aren’t old enough to visit yet but if yours are 14+ they can tour the MINI plant. The tours last 2.5 hours and visit the assembly area where you can watch MINIs being made. Admission charge applies.

16. Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In my view the best museum in Oxford for young children. The family friendly Museum of Natural History contains dinosaur skeletons, rocks and minerals, a bee hive, fossils and so much more. There are plenty of hands on exhibits and lots of family activities and events at the weekends and during school holidays. Free entry.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Oxford University Museum of Natural History

17. Go for a walk in Port Meadow

The largest area of common land in Oxford. Running alongside the River Thames it is easy to access from the city centre and is a popular area for walking. See if you can spot the ponies and cattle that freely graze the meadow.

View over to Port Meadow, Oxford
View over to Port Meadow, Oxford

It’s best visited on a summer day. If you visit in winter you may well find it flooded!

18. Go punting

An Oxford tradition. I know it’s touristy and expensive but it is fun too. Choose a warm summer day, glide along in your flat bottomed boat and enjoy the sights and sounds of the river. If you have small children you might want to hire a chauffeur to do the hard work (about £25 for 30 minutes) whilst you keep an eye on your brood.

Alternatively just watch the tourists from Magdalen Bridge as they tentatively leave the safety of the boathouse. Always fun watching to see if anyone falls in!

19. Cutteslowe Park

As you would expect there are lots of parks in Oxford. The one with the most varied family attractions is Cutteslowe, located in north of the city. As well as the usual play equipment and sports facilities there’s a miniature railway, paddling pool, mini golf, orienteering course and kiosk. Some of these are summer only attractions so check before you travel.

20. Check out a college

Whilst you won’t want to drag your kids around every college it would be a shame to miss out on visiting at least one. Even if it’s just so you can tell them that if they study hard this may be where they can end up!

Tom Tower, Christ Church
Tom Tower, Christ Church

There are 38 colleges to choose from. Christchurch is one of the most popular and has links to Harry Potter but it’s expensive too (up to £22 for a family). Magdalen College is probably my favourite, primarily for its deer park and gardens. New College and Merton College are good options too but always check opening hours  before you visit. Admission charges apply.

21. Museum of Modern Art

This attraction can be a little bit or miss, depending on the exhibition but it’s free so certainly worth popping in to see what’s on. We’ve been to a couple of good ones and some strange ones. The most notable one was an exhibit made entirely from oranges. Visitors were encouraged to take away an orange to eat.

22. Celeb spotting at the Randolph Hotel

Admittedly this is more for the adults than the children. The city centre Randolph Hotel (which strictly speaking, is now the Macdonald Randolph Hotel but no local ever calls it this) has hosted many famous visitors over the years. I once saw Bill Clinton, returning from a jog around the streets of Oxford surrounded by his entourage. If you’re a fan of Inspector Morse or Lewis the hotel will look familiar as it has starred in several of the programmes. (You might also like to pop down to the police station in St Aldates where a sign in one of the windows proclaims it is Inspector Morse’s office).

23. Run around the Radcliffe Camera

This is my favourite building in Oxford. Sadly I’ve never been inside as it’s the main reading room for the Bodleian Library and is accessible to registered students only. It’s particularly beautiful at sunset when the stone turns a lovely orange colour; best views are from the church mentioned above. Alternatively tire the kids out by getting them to run around the perimeter (but watch out for bicycles and tourists).

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

24. Visit a board games cafe

Playing board games at Thirsty Meeples cafe, near Gloucester Green bus station, is a great way to while away a wet afternoon. Pay a cover charge and play as many games as you wish for 3 hours. There are hundreds available for all ages; the staff will recommend games and explain rules if necessary. Book a table in advance if visiting at the weekend.

25. CS Lewis Nature Reserve

This small reserve consists of a wooded area and large pond and is located in Risinghurst, a couple of miles from the city centre. The land was once owned by CS Lewis and provided the inspiration for the Chronicles of Narnia.

CS Lewis Nature Reserve, Oxford
CS Lewis Nature Reserve, Oxford

The pond is a flooded Victorian clay pit, alive with dragonflies, toads and birds. Towards the back, up a steep woodland bank, is a tree swing which is a popular attraction for children. The former home of CS Lewis backs onto the reserve and is sometimes open for booked tours but I’m pretty sure the kids will enjoy the reserve more!

I hope you’ve found this list useful. Please do leave a comment if I’ve missed out your favourite place to visit with children in Oxford.

28 thoughts on “25 things to do with your family in Oxford”

  1. A fantastic list! We love Port Meadows & the Natural History Museum but so many of your suggestions are new to me. I had better get going on spending some time getting to know our apparently very family friendly northern neighbour!

    1. Whereas I only visited Port Meadow for the first time this year! It was one of those places I’d heard a lot about (usually when it flooded) but had never been to.

  2. I love this! Being born and bred in Cambridge I’ve always had quite a fascination with Oxford. Would love to visit and check out the opposition. 😉
    Looking at your list and photos the similarity between the two cities is really rather striking.

    1. I think I was more of a tourist in Cambridge than I’ve ever been in Oxford. The architecture and feel of the cities are very similar. Although I think Oxford has more of a traffic problem!

    1. We’ve enjoyed quite a few Treasure Trails around the county. I think they’re great for discovering new things in places you think you know well.

  3. A very comprehensive list Christine! I’ve not properly explored Oxford so this has made me realise that I really must! The natural history museum and botanical garden sound fab and you’re captured the beauty of the university and river wonderfully. I need to plan a visit! Thanks for linking to #citytripping xx

  4. I went to university in Oxford so in many ways the city will always be home for me – lots of very happy memories coming back from your great tips. I’ve already taken my daughter to the Pitt Rivers and the Museum of Natural History, which she adored, as well as the covered market and the river. The botanic gardens are definitely on the list too, along with punting as soon as I’m convinced she won’t fall in! Thanks for linking up to #citytripping

    1. I’ve only been punting with the kids once and I was paranoid that my youngest would head overboard at the first opportunity – hence I can highly recommend paying a student to do the punting!

  5. This is such a comprehensive list and it’s fantastic that you’ve included loads of free activities. I haven’t been to Oxford for such a long time and certainly not with my kids so something like this is really handy. I love the sound of the ghost walks – freaking myself out is one of my favourite pass times 🙂 #citytripping

  6. Hi Christine, I’ve never visited Oxford before, but it looks like an interesting place to visit for more than a day. I could quite happily spend hours in a museum (and book shops), I find them peaceful and therapeutic. I definitely book up for the Bill Spectre’s Oxford ghost tour too, I love a good ghost story!

    xx

    1. I remember talking to some tourists a few years back who had visited Oxford on a coach tour. They’d had 2 hours to see the city before travelling on somewhere else!

  7. We ‘ve gone a few times and have to say that we did the usual touristy things like visit a college (my niece was studying there the last time we went, so it made sense!). But we did really enjoy the Pitt Rivers Museum and would like to try out the Storytelling one. It’s a beautiful place but I can’t imagine living there (such a London thing to say, sorry!).

    1. I’m a big Antony Gormley fan. We visited the Another Place sculptures on Crosby beach, lots of sculptures to keep me happy 🙂

  8. I thought I knew all about Oxford, nodding sagely as you mentioned each new site to visit … and then I got to “board games cafe”. Wow, I have never heard of them and what a fabulous idea. We are a family who loves as good board game and would LOVE to visit there. I’ve bookmarked their page to give me inspiration for new games. Thank you! #MondayEscapes

    1. Glad you’ve found somewhere new to visit! I think it’s a great concept and my kids loved it even though most of their entertainment at home revolves around technology.

  9. I’ve visited the UK so many times (even did my masters degree there) but Oxford has escaped me!! To be honest I’d love to walk around and marvel at the buildings taking countless of photos! I travel since a young age and I have to say that I never found walking and marvel at buildings boring…then again it might just be me!

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