Wandering the streets of Oxford, dodging students on bicycles and taking in the architecture, you can almost feel centuries of learning vibrating in the honey-coloured stone, the quads and dreaming spires. If you’re planning a trip to Oxford, you’ll find no shortage of fun things to do and places to visit in this ancient university city.
It’s not all dusty old institutions however. With an ambitious modern art museum, talent-launching live music venues and a host of quirky independent shops, the city has a more cosmopolitan, hipster side too. The trendy bars and restaurants of Jericho and the student hangouts, boho health-food stores and unpretentious gastropubs of edgy Cowley add a youthful vibe to a traditional city.
Only have time for a short trip? Here’s how I’d enjoy 2-days in Oxford.
Check in for a warm welcome at Sandfield Guest House, Paul’s family-home turned guest house in Headington. Settle yourselves in and ask for easy directions for the short trip onto The High and into Oxford’s medieval city centre.
For an instant hit of times-gone-by turn off The High at St Mary’s University Church and wander over the cobbles through the Radcliffe Square past All Soul’s College to Hertford Bridge (better known as The Bridge of Sighs though it’s actually modelled on the Rialto Bridge in Venice).
Look out for a tiny laneway, Saint Helen’s Passage, on your left which leads around blind bends to The Turf Tavern: a 14th-century pub hidden behind the original city wall with low beams, flagstone floor and real ales. Whet your whistle before supper, soak up the history and recall all the famous names who’ve nursed a pint here before you.
Leave the Turf and walk back under Hertford Bridge for an atmospheric stroll along Broad Street before “dog-legging” onto St Michael’s Street just off Cornmarket.
At the end of St Michael’s is truly wonderful The Handlebar Café and Kitchen. Priding themselves on only using sustainably sourced ingredients they work tirelessly to serve the best tasting food and drinks that you can enjoy totally guilt-free.
City locals make a bee-line for this unique eatery whether they’re looking for an organic vegan breakfast, a locally sourced dinner, fancy grabbing a quick coffee, or want to try one of the finest cocktails in Oxford. As well as being the perfect spot to launch your 48 hours in Oxford, it’s one to remember for when you’re out and about: right in the heart of Oxford yet just off the beaten track its space lends itself to lazy brunches, romantic dates and even young families.
The University of Oxford has 38 colleges dotted around the city. Many are open to visitors, so start the day with a sneak peek inside (though check opening hours, especially around exam time).
The best-known college is Christ Church – as much for its role as Hogwarts in Harry Potter as for its famous alumni like Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein and 13 British prime ministers.
You can take a multimedia tour or just amble around Christ Church’s quads, cloisters, grand staircase, dining hall and college chapel (which also doubles as Oxford’s cathedral!). Other colleges of note include Merton, Magdalen (which is pronounced ‘mawd-lin’), Corpus Christi, Hertford, All Souls and Oriel.
TOP TIP: If there is no sign at any of the College’s main entrances that says, “Closed to Visitors” just knock on the Porter’s Lodge and ask if you can go in. Nine times out of ten you’ll be free to wander around the chapels & quods (and areas not marked Private) free of charge. Just remember that as well as being places of learning the colleges are also people’s homes!
To get an insight into the weird and wonderful world of Oxford academia, take a free guided tour led by an Oxford University student. Footprints Tours run 2-hour tours which take you around some of the oldest colleges. Along the way you get insider information about the university’s history, rituals and life in Oxford – all peppered with bizarre traditions and funny stories of old.
As you’d expect from a university city, Oxford is full of museums, and the city’s biggest is the Ashmolean Museum (free entry). Oxford’s answer to the British Museum is Britain’s first public museum and has a mix of art and archaeology exhibits, with everything from Greek statues to paintings by Turner and Canaletto.
Before tackling the exhibits, have lunch in the Ashmolean’s glass-walled rooftop dining room for panoramic city views. There’s a good-value lunchtime set menu always designed to match the current visiting exhibition.
Once you’re all cultured out, take a walk just up the treelines St Giles’ avenue to Little Clarendon Street on the outskirts of Jericho.
En route you could stop for refreshment at one of Oxford’s most historic pubs: the Eagle and Child (aka the ‘Bird and Baby’) where writers like CS Lewis, JR Tolkien and the Inklings met in the 1930s.
On Little Clarendon itself are Raouls or the Duke of Cambridge if cocktails and sophistication are more tempting!
Once in Jericho stroll the backstreets of Jericho made famous by Phillip Pullman in the His Dark Materials trilogy. If you don’t fancy a short walk to build up your appetite: on Little Clarendon Street are Al Andalus for tapas and the independent, family-run institution that is Pierre Victoire for authentic French cuisine.
Personally, I’d head to The Old Bookbinders, a gem of a pub hidden down a backstreet, for a dinner of surprisingly good French cuisine. Spend your evening here or wander back up through Jericho for some live music at The Jericho Tavern where Radiohead and Supergrass launched their careers.
I could quite happily spend an entire evening here indulging myself so please do ask for recommendations… especially if there is a particular vibe or atmosphere you’re after!
Start your day with a little exercise and climb the often missed, hidden gem of the tower at St Mary the Virgin, the University Church on the High Street. For just a few pounds you can climb the 127 stairs to the top and be rewarded with a panoramic 360 view over Oxford’s Dreaming Spires.
The tower offers sweeping views of the city to help you get your bearings and an unparalleled vantage point for photos of Oxford’s most recognisable landmark: the Radcliffe Camera. This circular Palladian library is part of the 15th-century Bodleian Library: the nerve-centre of Oxford student life.
Most of ‘the Bod’ is off limits to the public so it’s well worth taking the extended tour for an insight into student life past and present and access to Duke Humphrey’s medieval library and the Radcliffe Camera, as well as its modern, subterranean, reading rooms.
Once you emerge, pop into Blackwell’s on Broad Street to browse their enormous collection of books and see the Norrington Room, which has a world-record-breaking three miles of shelving hidden beneath Trinity College. Beside Blackwells is the Weston Library, which hosts remarkable temporary exhibitions on the university’s collections.
Stop for lunch at the nearby Turl Street Kitchen, a trendy, charity-run café with a changing collection of work by local artists and a short, seasonal menu with tempting veggie options. Alternatively, right next to the Turl Street Kitchen is the Covered Market with 50 stalls selling local crafts, food and drink. Either eat in at one of the market’s cafés or grab a picnic to eat by the river in the Botanic Gardens.
This is when the weather will very much make the decision on how to spend your Second Afternoon. I’ve split the best options – Dry and Wet…
If the weather is clement it would be a real shame to come to Oxford without trying punting – it’s one of the city’s classic experiences.
There are two rivers in the city, the Cherwell and the Thames (confusingly known as the Isis when it’s in Oxford) and a couple of places where you can test your punting skills and balance. Underneath Magdalen Bridge by the Botanic Gardens you can hire a punt for up to five people or get a ‘chauffeur’ to do the hard work for you.
Or, especially during the summer, there’s a good punting spot set a bit further upriver at the Cherwell Boathouse where the water isn’t quite as busy. You can even get a jug of Pimms from the Boathouse’s Teahut Bar to take out on the water with you. Punts can seat up to six.
Make your way upriver for about 30 minutes and you’ll reach the Victoria Arms pub, which has a large beer garden and plenty of morning space where you can park your punt. Then paddle back to the Boathouse and think about replenishing all that spent energy with some dinner.
Oxford is full of museums and the top two picks for your final afternoon are the quirky Pitt Rivers Museum or the Museum of Modern Art.
The Pitt Rivers is an anthropological museum founded 125 years ago by archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, who donated over 20,000 items he’d collected. Since then the museum has grown to encompass over 600,000 weird and wonderful exhibits from around the world.
It’s a treasure trove of the bizarre with totem poles, nose flutes, voodoo dolls and a witch in a bottle among its half a million exhibits, each with a story to tell.
Entry’s free and the museum’s open from 10am–4.30pm on Sundays. If you’re visiting with children ask for a wind-up torch and treasure trail to seek out the toy mice hidden among the displays.
Modern Art Oxford (f.k.a. the Museum of Modern Art) is the city’s only public space dedicated to contemporary art and culture… and it’s free. The gallery was founded in 1965 and is internationally recognised as one of the UK’s leading contemporary art organisations. Renowned for their bold and progressive artistic programme they promotes diversity and internationalism and aim to be accessible to the widest possible audience.
For a world of cuisine, live music & general nightlife the Cowley Road isn’t to be missed.
From Magdalen Bridge heading up the lively Cowley Road is to embrace diversity, culture and music. For food there is high end tapas and Thai (Arbequina and Oli’s Thai), student favourites Mario’s Italian and Atomic Burger, and for the taste-traveller everything from Syrian to Caribbean, Sri Lankan to Slovakian.
Late night watering holes and live music venues add to the mix for a night of fun, food and entertainment.
I could write a whole piece on what Cowley has to offer (note to self: do so!) so please take advantage of Paul’s wealth of experience and craft your perfect night out!
WHEN TO GO
There is no best time to visit Oxford, as every season has its charms. In early spring the trees of North Oxford drip with blossom, though May is when Oxford perhaps looks her loveliest. The trees are in full leaf, the students are in celebratory mood and the famous ‘Bumps’ (boat race) takes place along the river.
In summer the student throngs melt away, leaving the city to residents and tourists, and you can punt and picnic on the rivers Isis and Cherwell.
There’s an air of lazy romance about the city, although it’s also the time when crowds of boisterous foreign students clog the shopping streets. The students return in Autumn and the trees are burnished bronze, is mournfully beautiful and Christmas, when the streets are eerily quiet and the medieval buildings frosted in snow, can be magical.
WHERE TO STAY
Be sure to book direct at Sandfield Guest House for a personalised service, best rates and flexible cancellation policy!