My son and I recently took a mother-son trip to London to celebrate his 15th birthday. While planning, I decided to use the opportunity for a quick college visit to Oxford University Living in Europe, my kids are hearing about options for colleges outside the U.S., equally outstanding schools, at a fraction of the cost. In theory, graduating from an international school may give them a leg up on applying to international universities. During the past year, my son may have slightly expressed some interest in Oxford University, and my friend’s daughter is a current student. Voila–a perfect excuse for a visit with a personal tour guide.
Only after I started researching did I realize how Oxford might be my son’s dream day trip—Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings in one location! He’s a lover of fantasy novels and lo and behold many Harry Potter movie scenes were filmed here. Bonus: J.R.R Tolkien both attended and later taught here. Mix in his love of everything medieval (the university is almost 1,000 years old) and I have a winning trip!
Getting to Oxford
With only a little time in London, I needed to expedite our trip and spend the least amount of time on public transportation. The train, about an hour ride, was the quickest way to go. The GWR (Great Western Railway) has direct journeys leaving from Paddington Station. I bought round-trip tickets a week in advance for the two of us for only £18, which seemed super inexpensive. His ticket was half price since he was under 16. There is a bus that runs directly from Heathrow airport, but it takes a little longer.
Once arriving into town, what to do? We were lucky enough to have our own personal tour guide so I’ll pass along her wisdom. My son did some research before we came into the colleges he really wanted to see based on two things: Harry Potter and LOTR.
Visit Several Colleges
Oxford University is made up of 38 colleges–a bit different from how we use “university” and “college” interchangeably in the U.S.. Students apply and are selected to specific colleges within the University. To me, it seemed like these colleges were more like clubs or houses.
We totally lucked out as Oxford students can take in up to two guests in most of the colleges for free. So we just walked in on my friend’s daughter’s ID. If you are on your own, there is a small fee to pay at most of these colleges unless you say you’re a prospective applicant. Also, very important to note, these colleges have limited visiting times. Many close between noon and 2 p.m. and a few only open at 2 p.m.
However, I think it’s completely worth it to get a tour of the town. Without a guide, Oxford is just a bunch of pretty buildings. Each college has its own list of famous grads, history, and traditions. Wow, there are some fun Oxford traditions! We happen to be there the week of finals so we saw a few students walking past the exam buildings with their carnations.
This college is expansive and has a giant dining hall (you’ll recognize it immediately), large staircases, beautiful courtyards, rolling meadows, and its very own church. Ironically, it has relatively few students. It’s a beautiful place to be and it’s fun to imagine all the brains that passed through there like Lewis Carroll, John Locke, and William Penn.
Besides famous alumni like Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Grant, this college makes a cameo in both the Harry Potter and Mamma Mia (2) movies. Our friend’s ID only allowed one other person into the college without the fee so I waited outside to visit with the porter, who displayed photos of himself and all the famous people who have come through the gates. Each college has a porter, in this case an older man, who looks after the entrance, manages their mail (who still gets mail?), and is a friendly face to students who live there.
Unclear if this one was even open, we managed to squeeze past the porter to quickly walk through. This was Tolkien’s home for a while, and my son wanted to at least peek around.
Oxford Covered Market
I could have spent an hour in this marketplace. Filled with vendors selling food, cake, candy, flowers, and gifts, we really just flew through briefly stopping for Ben’s Cookies and to watch them decorate Harry Potter cakes at The Cake Shop. I totally recommend spending some time browsing through here although I imagine it’s pretty packed at lunchtime.
Tackle All the Bookstores
One of the things we miss living in Germany is English bookstores. Oxford is filled with them. Waterstones was the first we spotted. Like a Barnes and Nobel, this isn’t anything special, but fun nonetheless for us. Then we stumbled upon Blackwell’s, an Oxford institution and the most famous bookstore in the UK. Holy book lover’s dream! I could have spent all day in there. After asking the clerk for help finding a book, he told me they had 150,000 titles in stock. Not books, titles. We found new, rare, old, and used books in the four floors, and we didn’t even get to the graphic novels across the street.
Because of our schedule, we ended up running out of time for a few other used bookstores on the list, but we’ll save that for the next trip. Also recommended were Oxford Castle, Pitt Rivers Museum, Botanical Gardens, and possibly renting a boat for “punting.” However, we had a limited amount of time in Oxford so we missed some of these other attractions that are now on our must-do-next-time list.