Honey-coloured college quads, bicycling students in gowns and punts on the river – explore the stereotypes and more in Oxford, a great weekend break or a must-see on a trip around England
The city of Oxford has something for everyone. On the gown side you have one of England’s most famous universities, with its colleges and their stunning architecture of ‘dreaming spires’. And on the town side there are some great museums to discover, as well as plenty of fantastic bars and restaurants.
What to see
Arguably the world’s oldest university and definitely one of the most well-known, Oxford does things differently. It’s based around a college system with 38 different colleges, each with their own character, history and architectural style. You apply to one of the colleges rather than the university, and its students are known as ‘members’ and the academics as ‘dons’. The college buildings are dotted throughout the centre of Oxford and you can wander down the city’s side streets and catch a glimpse into some of the hidden quads. But if you want to take a closer look then several of the colleges are open to visitors.
One of the largest and most spectacular is Christ Church (Saint Aldates, Oxford OX1 1DP; 01865 276150; www.chch.ox.ac.uk). Its former students include Albert Einstein, WH Auden, Lewis Carroll and 13 prime ministers. Not to mention its starring role as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. Oxford’s cathedral is the College’s chapel, and visitors can take a look around this as well as exploring the quads, grand staircase, dining hall and College picture gallery, which has paintings by da Vinci and Michelangelo. Entry costs £6 and the picture gallery an extra £2. Other good colleges to visit include Merton, Magdalen (pronounced ‘mawd-lin’), Corpus Christi, All Souls and Oriel. Its best to check opening hours before visiting as they vary, especially during exam time.
If you want to learn more about the university, then the guides from Oxford Walking Tours (07790 734387; www.oxfordwalkingtours.com) are full of local knowledge. Their tours visit some of the oldest Colleges and, as their guides are all former students, they can give you an insider’s view of the university’s history and rituals. Tours run from outside Trinity College Gates and cost £7.50.
For a view of the city from above, climb to the top of Carfax Tower (Carfax, Oxford, OX1 1ET; www.citysightseeingoxford.com/carfax_tower). This tower is all that's left of St Mary’s Church, which was demolished in the late 19th century to make room for the road to be widened. Today its 99 steps lead up to a viewing platform from where you can look over the colleges and out across the city. Adult tickets £2.10.
Situated around two rivers, the Cherwell and the Thames (which is confusingly known as the Isis within Oxford), one of the essential Oxford experiences is getting out onto the water in a punt. These shallow boats are propelled by a long pole, and you'll need a good sense of balance and strong arms! If you want to give it a try then you can hire a punt at Oxford Punting (Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, The Old Horse Ford, High Street, Oxford OX1 4AX; 01865 202643; www.oxfordpunting.co.uk). Located underneath Magdalen Bridge, punt hire costs £14 an hour, or if you're feeling less energetic you can hire a chauffeur to do the work for you (£25 for 30 minutes).
During summer, you can also hire punts further up the river at the Cherwell Boathouse (50 Bardwell Road, Oxford OX2 6ST; 01865 552746; www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk). Set a bit further out of town, it’s a good place to go in the busy summer season if you don’t want to be dodging other punts. The boathouse has a restaurant serving tasty modern English food and its river bar does jugs of Pimms that you can either drink by the river or take out in your punt with you. Punt hire £12 an hour.
As you'd imagine from such a well-educated city, Oxford has plenty of museums. These cover subjects from modern art to the history of science, but one of the best-loved is the Pitt Rivers Museum (South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PP; 01865 270927; www.prm.ox.ac.uk). This anthropology museum is home to a diverse and sometimes bizarre range of exhibits collected by explorers from around the world. Where else can you see collections including a stuffed dodo, shrunken head and gruesome surgical implements? Entry is free.
Another look at the darker side of Oxford is in the Oxford Castle Unlocked exhibit (44-46 Oxford Castle, Oxford OX1 1AY; 01865 260666; www.oxfordcastleunlocked.co.uk). Taking you through the 1000-year history of the castle and prison, character guides in costume to show you around the cells and crypt and share stories of escape attempts, executions and curses. Adult tickets £7.50.
Where to eat
For a quick bite to eat or to stock up on picnic supplies, head to the city’s covered market (The Market, Oxford OX1 3DZ; 01865 250133; www.oxford-covered-market.co.uk). It's home to a range of local producers and speciality food stores as well as cafés and sandwich bars. Try Ben’s Cookies for freshly-baked cookies straight from the oven, or Brown’s Café, an old-style English ‘caff’ where you can get a bargain full English breakfast at any time of day.
Just outside Oxford is The Trout (195 Godstow Road; Wolvercote, Oxford OX2 8PN; 01865 302071; www.thetroutoxford.co.uk). This pretty 17th-century pub's riverside terrace is perfect for a summer lunch. It featured in the Inspector Morse books as well as being a haunt of writers CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll. Food is gastropub style, with dishes like baked camembert and rack of lamb with chorizo. And you can burn it all off on the picturesque walk across Port Meadow back to Oxford (around 45 minutes).
Gees (61 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PE; 01865 553540; www.gees-restaurant.co.uk) is a good choice for a special occasion. Set in a Victorian conservatory on the outskirts of town, they serve modern British cuisine using seasonal produce and have an extensive wine list. They also hold Sunday night jazz suppers where you can get a three-course meal for £25 while listening to live music.
Where to drink
Tucked away down a cobbled passageway is the Turf Tavern (4-5 Bath Place, Oxford OX1 3SU; 01865 243235; www.gkpubs.co.uk). This 13th-century ale house is where former Australian Prime minister Bob Hawke set a world record for drinking a yard of ale, and allegedly where President Clinton ‘didn’t inhale’. Its courtyard garden has barbecues in summer and marshmallows cooked over the fire in winter. They have a wide range of real ales and cider and a great – if pretty tough – pub quiz.
Another traditional Oxford pub is the Eagle and Child (49 Saint Giles, Oxford OX1 3LU; 01865 302925). Nicknamed the ‘Bird and Baby’, it was the base for the ‘Inklings’ in the 1930s – a group of writers which included CS Lewis and JR Tolkien. The interior doesn’t look to have changed much since then and you can soak up the atmosphere in one of the snugs over a pint of bitter.
Back in the 21st century, Raouls (32 Walton Street, Jericho, Oxford, OX2 6AA; 01865 553732; www.raoulsbar.co.uk) is justifiably famous for its huge cocktail list, with a mix of classics and new creations, mixed by their expert bar staff. Try their refreshing English Spring Punch (made with gin, elderflower cordial, apple juice, prosecco and blackberry liqueur).
Where to stay
Get a taste of life as an Oxford student with Oxford Rooms (www.oxfordrooms.co.uk), who rent out College rooms to visitors. You can stay in some of the historic College buildings, eat in their dining halls and wander around their quadrangles. Availability is greatest during the summer, Christmas and Easter vacations, but there are some rooms available all year. Bed and breakfast starts from a bargain £30 a night.
Another unique place to stay is the Malmaison Oxford (3 New Road, Oxford, OX1 1AY). Located in the city's former Victorian prison, you can stay in the cells with their original heavy metal doors, or a suite in C Wing, the governor’s former residence with its private cinema. Photos in the corridors show what prison life was like, but today’s residents get boutique hotel features like flat-screen TVs and roll-top baths. Rooms from around £120 per night.