To really get under the skin of Oxford, hire a bike and pedal away, immersing yourself in the museums and restaurants of this fascinating and beautiful university city
Bookish and beautiful, Oxford has the air of a distinguished country gentleman. Its buildings are living museums, its streets handsome and its history spellbinding. Peel back the pages of time and explore the grounds of the city’s grand university, scurry down the cobbled backstreets and follow in the footsteps of literary giants. Despite its old-world charm Oxford is bursting with chic shops, trendy bars, cosy pubs, art galleries and green spaces galore. It also has a varied and vibrant food scene.
What to do
With Oxford’s rich architectural heritage hogging the skyline, you’ll need a roof with a view. Clamber up the 99 steps of the Carfax Tower on Queen Street for a good look at the city below. A hop, skip and jump from here are the 39 colleges that make up Oxford University. It is not possible to visit them all, but make for Christ Church (www.chch.ox.ac.uk), the largest and grandest. Walk through the main entrance designed by former student Sir Christopher Wren; the chapel doubles as Oxford’s cathedral and the grounds run down to the River Cherwell. Magdalen College (www.magd.ox.ac.uk) is another must-see; its glorious Gothic chapel dates back to the 15th century. The strange gargoyles and carved figures are said to have inspired CS Lewis’s stone statues in The Chronicles of Narnia.
Opposite, the Botanic Garden (www.botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk) is the oldest in Britain. Roll out a rug and picnic in the pretty surroundings. Afterwards, head to the Sheldonian Theatre (www.sheldon.ox.ac.uk), where the striking ceiling panels have recently undergone conservation; the artwork represents the triumph of truth over ignorance.
Bookworms should head to the awe-inspiring Bodleian Library on Broad Street; it holds seven million items and has space for 2,500 readers at a time. Just south of the library is the circular Radcliffe Camera, an Oxford landmark. Don’t leave without checking out the art and antiquities on display at the Ashmolean Museum (www.ashmolean.org).
Where to stay
The charming Old Parsonage is a wisteria-clad boutique hotel; its heavy oak door and walled garden exude a quintessentially Oxford style. Use of the hotel’s bikes and punt all add to the fun. Friendly and unpretentious, Tilbury Lodge is a modern B&B, with comfy beds and pillows as fluffy as clouds.
Where to eat and drink
Fill your basket until it overflows at Oxford’s covered market (www.oxford-covered-market.co.uk), where local producers sell their finest. Pick up a chunk of Oxford Blue, a creamy cows’ milk cheese, or sink your teeth into a slice of sultana-soaked Oxford ‘lardy cake’.
Start your evening with a cocktail at Raoul’s (01865 553732; www.raoulsbar.co.uk): this award-winning bar has a tempting 24-page drinks menu. For modern British and European cooking, Gees Restaurant (01865 553540; www.gees-restaurant.co.uk) has its own farm where they rear Aberdeen Angus cattle, Dorset lamb and quail, all of which feature on their innovative menu. Tuck into tasty bangers and mash at The Big Bang Restaurant (01865 511441; www.thebigbangrestaurants.co.uk). Choose from wild venison, Welsh pork or lamb and mint sausages; they use local butchers and serve great ales to match. The Grand Café is an Oxford institution serving French bistro dishes within opulent 1920s surroundings (01865 204463).
Time running out?
Kick off your shoes, hop on a punt and drift down the river. Cherwell Boathouse rents boats by the hour (www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk); they also do a good bite to eat.
Duck inside The Eagle and Child pub (01865 302925). Known to the locals as the Bird and Baby, this is where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien met to talk tales of Middle Earth and Narnia.
Where to cycle
Pick up a Cycle into Oxford map from the tourist office (15-16 Broad Street), whiz through the streets and ring your bell at passers-by. Head for the open road on the Thames Valley Cycle Route and pedal through picture-perfect villages. Or run your wheels along the designated Oxfordshire Cycle Way and hit the old railway tracks of the Phoenix Trail.
Oxford is a one-hour train ride or a one-hour 40-minute drive from London.
National Rail (08457 484 950; www.nationalrail.co.uk) runs direct train services to Oxford from London and a number of UK cities.
National Express (08717 818 181; www.nationalexpress.com) has regular coach services to Oxford from destinations across the UK.
Visit Oxford: 15-16 Broad Street (01865 252200; www.visitoxford.org). Open Monday-Saturday 9:30am-5pm, Sunday 10am-4pm.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.