City of Dreaming Spires

The “City of dreaming spires”, a term coined by poet Matthew Arnold, describes largely the footprint and physical ascent of Oxford’s University colleges, the oldest and most famous university in the English-speaking world. Founded in the 13th-century, it is richly historic and of inexhaustible interest to the architectural spectator, the most remarkable buildings open to the public and exhibits notable examples of every English architectural period since the late Saxon epoch. Within her hallowed halls, every building and monument has a story.

Article picture: Radcliffe Camera Oxford

Oxford enjoys a characteristic that may come as a surprise to any expectant visitor. The university is made up of 38 colleges, with no main campus, each of which is self-governing, varying in both size and wealth. An admiring traveller can spend a rewarding couple of days losing themselves, but if you’ve only got time to visit a small selection of colleges and buildings, these are a must for your itinerary.

Bodleian Library

One of the oldest libraries in Europe, the Bodleian was founded in 1598 and received a copy of every book published in Britain now with more than 12 million prints. It incorporates the 1444 Duke Humphreys library which originally hosted 281 rare manuscripts give them by the Duke, the youngest son of Henry IV.

Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library

Radcliffe Camera

To the North of St Mary the Virgin stands the iconic palladian style Radcliffe Camera (Latin for room), it’s an impressive circular building, now library, completed in 1749. It was England’s first round library displaying tall Corinthian columns supporting a parapet, topped by a dome and Lantern. Tours are available of this and the Bodleian library daily.

St John’s College

Stroll along St Giles, the city’s busiest main road and home to the historic Martyrs’ Memorial, commemorating the deaths of the heretic
Protestants Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer. Nearby St John’s College was founded in 1555 by the wealthy London tailor merchant Sir Thomas White who took the premises over from the Cistercian monks of 15th century St Bernard’s College. It is the university’s wealthiest college following substantial investment in the 19th century, giving rise to the legend that you can walk from St John’s, Oxford to St John’s, Cambridge entirely on land owned by one or other of the colleges. Indeed, behind the college stretches 5 acres of gardens designed by Capability Brown.

The main historic interest of the college lies in the oldest 16th-century parts of the building – the limestone front quadrangle, the hall and the striking Italian Renaissance-styled Canterbury Quad, which contains the college ’s library and an impressive selection of literature by some of its distinguished alumni. These include the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves and the novelist Kingsley Amis.

Merton College

For a quiet retreat from the hubbub of the city centre, take a walk through Christ Church Meadow and then head back along the peaceful Merton Street, where the eponymous college is located, partly enclosed by the old city wall some of which still survives. Originally founded for twenty fellows, this was the first residential college, with a fearsome academic reputation for only admitting the very brightest students. It habitually ranks at the top of the Norrington Table, the university-wide ranking system of colleges.

Merton College Oxford
Merton College Oxford

Dating from 1264, it has a range of interesting buildings, including a chapel whose quire goes back to the 13th century, and a notable stained glass window from this period, the 17th century Fellows’ Quadrangle and St Alban’s Quad. For a reasonable cost, visitors can wander these buildings most afternoons in the week, or from 10 am at weekends.

The college is proud of its distinguished alumni, a register that includes JRR Tolkien, author of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an English professor there for 14 years, and TS Eliot, British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and one of the twentieth century’s major poets, who studied philosophy from 1914 to 1915. Although the latter apparently came to execrate his time there, he has been celebrated with the recent opening of the TS Eliot lecture theatre, as well as with a collection of rare first- editions and memorabilia, including a bust of him by the sculptor Jacob Epstein.

Christ Church

Cornmarket, the main shopping thoroughfare will bring you in sight of the iconic Sir Christopher Wren designed Tom Tower, which sits at the front of Oxford’s most famous college, Christ Church.   The seven-tonne bell in the tower chimes 101 times each night at 9:05 pm. The time the result of a mathematical timezone calculation, Oxford being five minutes ahead of GMT, calling the original 101 students back for curfew.

Great Hall, Christ Church
Great Hall, Christ Church

Founded by Cardinal Wolsley in 1525, Christ Church was re-founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII himself. The college has Oxford’s largest quadrangle and medieval hall. The chapel, formerly the church of a 12th-century priory demolished during the building of the college, now serves as Oxford’s cathedral. It was to be an immense foundation to follow and communicate the new humanist teachings that had already been adopted by other colleges. Throughout the years, Christchurch has changed and been altered, rebuilt and remodelled, so there is now a collection of buildings dating from the 11th century right the way through to the 20th even being remodelled into the 21st century.

The college is synonymous with many great works of literature, including Alice In Wonderland, where the character Alice was based on the daughter of the Dean.  The writer Lewis Carroll, was a lecturer at the college, known to his students as Charles Dodgson.

Christ Church is where Lord Sebastian Flyte studied as an undergraduate from the book Brideshead Revisited and, more recently, Harry Potter; although the books were not set there, the Great Hall was used as a Hogwarts filming location and is featured on a walking tour that asks for a nominal fee.

Tom Quad Christ Church College
Tom Quad Christ Church College

This regale of historic and architectural significance includes the smallest cathedral in the country, the beautiful 18th-century Peckwater Quad, a world-class art gallery and the main quadrangle, “Tom Quad”, which features the famous statue of Mercury in a pond in its centre. Students were traditionally thrown into the pond in times past.

Balliol College

Heading back to St Giles, you’ll come to Oxford’s most famous thoroughfare, Broad Street, where the Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian library are located. Further up the road from its rival Trinity college and opposite the Oxford visitor information centre is one of the university’s oldest and wealthiest colleges, 750 year old Balliol. Doors in one corner of the front quad were charred by the fire which put Bishops Latimer and Ridley to their deaths.

It was founded in 1263 as penance by the aristocrat John de Balliol after he had insulted the Archbishop of Durham by name calling, and revels in its reputation for intellectual superiority which gave rise to the saying: “You can always tell a Balliol man, but you can’t tell him much!” The college has produced three British Prime Ministers: Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and Herbert H Asquith, Nobel laureates,  Archbishops, writers and more recently Christopher Hitchens, and the London mayor, Boris Johnson. 

Open to the visitor, places of special interest include William Butterfield’s 19th-century chapel,  and the old library, dating as far back as the early 15th century, making it one of the most historically interesting libraries in the world. The Buttery in the Garden Quad serves light refreshments and is open to the public when the College is open to visitors. 

Ashmolean Museum

Britain’s oldest public museum, the outstanding Ashmolean museum nearby was founded in 1683 and now, after a substantial renovation,  it’s firmly established in the top level of world-class collections. It began as a gallery of portraits and curiosities with a catalogue written by the janitor. It soon became the model of the modern Museum it was the first purpose-built museum anywhere in the world and now it is the oldest Museum in the world. The collection includes gold jewellery believed to have belonged to King Alfred, the lantern carried by Guy Fawkes and riches from Egypt and the Aegean. When it opened in 1683 there was no entry charge there was an exit charge instead, so the longer you said inside the more you paid on exit. Today admission is free.

The guided tours of the Sheldonian Theatre and the Bodleian are well worth seeing and the renowned Blackwell’s bookshop, also on Broad Street contains a number of publications written by the university’s famous and well-published alumni.

Magdalen College

If you walk down the High Street, past the imposing Exam Schools, you can’t miss the majestic square tower of Magdalen college. Pronounced “Maudleyn”,it has a deceptively tranquil feel. William Waynflete founded Magdalen College in 1458 and little has changed since the buildings were erected in the late 15th-century with some of the city’s finest gargoyles on display. The tower contains a fine peal of 10 bells and adjacent is the sequestered Addison’s Walk alongside the River Cherwell with deer park, which former Magdalen fellow CS Lewis would frequent with his friend JRR Tolkien.

Magdalen College Oxford
Magdalen College Oxford

Alumni that include Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Oscar Wilde, John Betjeman and George Osborne, testifies to its intellectual prowess over the centuries and competes with Merton to top the Norrington Table;  an annual ranking of the colleges of the University of Oxford based on a score computed from the fraction of undergraduate students earning each of the various degree classifications based on that year’s final examinations.

A moderate entrance fee grants entry to enjoy the medieval chapel and the grand 18th century New Building. The Hall and Old Kitchen Bar are also open to the public. Note the pictures of the cast of the 1993 film ‘Shadowlands’ including Anthony Hopkins and Director Richard Attenborough. The famous Magdalen College Choir whose home is the college chapel, famously sing every year at 6 am on 1 May from the top of the tower to a crowd of early risers and late partygoers.

Be sure to walk along the tiny St Mary’s passage at the West front of St Mary’s church further up the High St where CS Lewis attended services. Note the inspiration for his book ‘The Narnia Chronicles’ in the form of a doorway lion’s head knocker, flanked by two golden fawns.


Oxford has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to historic pubs. Particularly notable are the Eagle and Child pub on St Giles, established in 1650. This provides a look into the creative space of some of the world’s greatest authors it was in this very room that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and a group of their friends who were known as the ‘Inklings’ used to meet to talk about the books they were writing.

The Turf,  a favourite student haunt is a medieval tavern located off Broad Street, located at the end of an ancient narrow winding alley, St Helens Passage (originally Hell’s passage), between Holywell Street and New College Lane, near Hertford college’s Bridge of Sighs. 

Hertford College Bridge of Sighs
Hertford College Bridge of Sighs

For a highly acclaimed luxurious experience and haute cuisine, Raymond Blanc’s celebrated two Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is a must for the discerning connoisseur.

Not far from the castle in the town’s centre, is Malmaison, a hotel presenting an ingenious conversion of the city’s former prison which operated until 1996. It was originally built as a Norman fortress in 1071 during the reign of William the Conqueror and later extended.  You can stay at one of the 95 luxurious rooms and suites,  converted from the one time cells. 

A luxurious alternative is the historic 17th-century Old Parsonage, which was once, albeit briefly, home to Oscar Wilde. 


The timeless beauty, echoing quads and cloistered lawns of Oxford, contained within the peaceful courses of the Rivers Thames and Cherwell makes a stay here unmissable.  Be sure to book your stay here through us at over 240 competitively priced places.

3 Replies to “City of Dreaming Spires”

Please leave a comment or contribution below - Leaving your details is optional