The city of dreaming spires has world-beating museums and art galleries, and some annual events that range from the party-pumping to the downright absurd.
Culture in Oxford
Oxford has some of the best museums in the world, let alone the country, thanks to its university. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in particular, are dripping with history, but it doesn’t end there by any means.
There are independent museums, such as the Story Museum, that will delight adults and children alike. Read more about the many museums in Oxford to find the right one for you – no trip here is complete without it.
Modern Art Oxford
Natural History Museum
Oxford art galleries come in many different shapes and sizes, but all of them are top notch. The variety and quality on show is exceptional, and many are free to visit.
Oxford isn’t just fancy gowns and old stone, you know. Modern Art Oxford on Pembroke Street is one of the UK’s leading contemporary art spaces. Their exhibitions, from the likes of Tracey Emin, Stella Vine and Jake and Dinos Chapman, are internationally renowned for being innovative. Entry is free, so why not pop in and see what’s going on.
Christ Church college has one of the most important private collections of artwork in the UK, housed within an impressive purpose-built gallery. The Christ Church Picture Gallery has over 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings, mainly from Italian artists, including Old Masters Michelangelo, Albrecht Dürer, Raphael and a certain Leonardo. Adults get in for just under £5, but if you plan to visit the rest of the college you can get half off.
In the northern, leafy Summertown district, the Sarah Wiseman Gallery provides the largest independent gallery space in Oxford. Named after the director who opened the gallery in 1998, they showcase the best emerging contemporary artists in the country.
Aidan Meller Gallery on Turl Street is another independent gallery punching above its weight. Including original works from Constable, Matisse, Picasso, Warhol and more, the mix is eclectic and you can visit for free.
If you’re lucky to be in town at the right time, many of Oxford’s annual events will give you an experience you can’t get anywhere else. If any of these events are on during your visit, don’t miss them!
Foodies unite! For cakes, bakes and general festive fun, enjoy the Foodies Festival in South Park on August bank holiday weekend. You can meet celebrity chefs or take classes in cookery, cocktails and chocolate making – adults and kids welcome. Or you can sample dozens of street food stalls and take part in a glut of foodie competitions, all while enjoying the live music from various household names. Tickets are just shy of £50 for the whole weekend, but kids get in free.
Oxford Literary Festival is one of the premier literary events in the country, with over 100 events, involving more than 350 authors, spread out over 10 days in March. Most events are based around the Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian Library, with talks by literary luminaries from across the globe.
If you’re around on the May spring bank holiday, Common People music festival will show you a good time, also in South Park. Run by the makers of Bestival since 2015, the festival has already attracted big-name artists to the stage, including Maximo Park, Primal Scream, The Jacksons, Soul II Soul, Fatboy Slim, James, Public Enemy and Oxford’s very own Ride.
The weekend after, usually at the beginning of July, is Cowley Road Carnival weekend. Notting Hill aside, Cowley Road Carnival is surely one of the largest street festivals in the country, with 50,000 attendees in recent years. The procession through Oxford’s most multicultural district is followed by street food, loud music and riotous fun late into the night. This annual gathering has become an integral part of modern life in Oxford.
But the event you simply cannot miss if you’re around is the May Morning tradition. On 1 May every year, for more than 500 years, the city streets are filled with springtime festivities including folk troupes, morris dancers and pagan revelry. The celebration traditionally begins at the crack of dawn, when crowds gather on Magdalen Bridge to watch the choir and bells ring out from Magdalen Tower. Nowadays the hardcore start the night before, either at the bars open all night or the odd bonfire and Gaelic ritual at Port Meadow. Tens of thousands gather in the morning to wander the streets and join the party. By 9am, everyone has enjoyed their breakfast in the many cafés open early and either gone to work or to their bed. To see Oxford for what it truly is, don’t miss it.