The old cliché about Oxford’s spires is, like all the best clichés, completely true. This is a city of stunning architecture. From the medieval quadrangles of Brasenose and St John’s to the clean Elizabethan lines of Wadham or the Baroque towers and cupolas of All Souls and Queen’s, all English architecture is here. There are some fine examples of High Victoriana too and University buildings from the Art Deco 30s and the Utilitarian 50s. The greatest pleasure that Oxford has to offer lies in simply walking or cycling around with your eyes wide open.
Tales of the riverbank
Oxford’s two rivers, the Cherwell and Thames (known locally as the Isis) are great places to walk, cycle or hire a boat. You can even try your hand at punting (not as difficult as it looks, take a look at my review Punting on the River Cherwell). In the summer take a picnic and a bottle of wine and moor on a riverbank for the afternoon but beware of Parson’s Pleasure, a stretch of water on the Cherwell where the Victorian tradition of nude bathing for men continues.
For a relatively small city Oxford has some remarkable museums. The Ashmolean Museum and Pitt Rivers have unique collections of art and artefacts that justify a trip to Oxford all on their own. At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History you can see a genuine Victorian dodo. Add in the museums of the The Bodleian Library and Oxford University Press and you have remarkable literary collections too. There is also a gallery of modern art and many smaller exhibition venues scattered throughout the city.
Eating - a series of unique experiences
Oxford has an unusually high proportion of individual restaurants offering levels of food and service above the usual reliable chains. Gee's, the Kazbar, SoJo, The Bombay Restaurant, The Summertown Wine Café, Branca, Shanghai 30's, The Cherwell Boathouse, At Thai and The Randolph Dining Room make eating in Oxford a series of unique experiences.
Among the great free experiences in Oxford, attending choral evensong is one of the best. The older colleges have first rate choirs, stunning architecture and time-honoured rituals that make the evening service enjoyable for both believers and non-believers. Enquire at any porter’s lodge in advance to find out what time evensong commences and whether the service is open to visitors.
One-off shops and boutiques
Oxford remains the home of the gentleman’s outfitter, the bookbinder and stationer, the cobbler and modelmaker. As with the restaurant scene there are a lot of excellent one-off shops and boutiques. You’ll have to know where to look (the Covered Market is a good place to start) but it’s very rewarding to seek out these unique enterprises and get the chance to buy something that can’t be found anywhere else. The original Blackwell Books still stands on Broad Street where it was founded in 1879, although it has expanded itself into a chain in recent years. Read more in my guide Shopping in Oxford: breaking the chain.
A life in film
It’s difficult not to trip over film crews in Oxford. If you’ve enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, An Education, Shadowlands, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Inspector Morse then you’ll recognise and enjoy various shots around the city. There have also been plenty of American films shot here too, though few as bad as Rob Lowe’s Oxford Blues (which is in a category of its own). Film buffs will also love the Ultimate Picture Palace in Jeune Street which is an unpretentious – and genuine - 1950s cinema that programmes its own films.
So many great writers of the English language have either studied or lived in Oxford that a literary pilgrimage is inevitable if you’re at all interested in Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, T. E. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Kenneth Grahame, Iris Murdoch, P.D.James or Philip Pullman.
Oxford has a regular programme of concerts, operas and plays during term time. There are concerts at the town hall and Sheldonian Theatre, plays at the Burton Taylor Studio and Oxford Playhouse and visiting opera companies at the Apollo. The oldest public music venue in Britain is to be found at the Holywell Music Room. Recitals are regularly given in this venue where Handel performed in 1733. And this is not to mention the very high standard of student music-making and the jazz scene. You need never be without music in this city, even in high summer!
Go to the pub
The authentic English pub is alive and well in Oxford. From the The Eagle and Child (where Tolkien outlined Lord of the Rings to C.S. Lewis) to the Turf Tavern (hidden away where you’ll never find it) the Bookbinders (frequented by employees of Oxford University Press) and the subterranean The White Horse, this is a city that has preserved its pubs from the uniformity and enormity of British pub chains. And that’s just inside the city limits. There are country pubs too within easy walking distance. Read more on my Oxford nightlife page.