Inside Oxford: what to do, see, eat & drink

Affectionately called ‘The City of Dreaming Spires’, there’s undeniably something truly special about Oxford.

Maybe it’s the palpable sense of history you feel on every street? Perhaps it’s the age-old Headington-stone architecture that houses the world’s brightest sparks? Or consider that Oxford’s magic lies in the fact it’s a city of ‘firsts’ and ‘oldest’, remaining unapologetically ancient and traditional, while also championing everything that’s cutting edge and new. 

It’s a place that’s definitely a city but never feels truly urban – possibly because of the idyllic Oxfordshire countryside waiting just outside, which occasionally creeps in, as well. You can easily walk – or, as the cycling capital of England, ride – around Oxford in no time at all, but for somewhere so small, it packs a mighty punch. It makes for the most wonderful city stay, be this for a weekend or a week, and you can guarantee fascination, intrigue and sublime scenes at every turn. Here are our top tips for making the most of Oxford. 

What to do

The Rad Cam. Image: Getty/Bloodua/iStock

Helped in no small way by the fact it’s home to the top-ranked and the second oldest university in the world, Oxford is a treasure trove that’s benefited from the magnetic-like pull it has on many of the most internationally coveted artefacts, art collections and libraries

Indeed, you’re so spoiled for choice it’s hard to know where to begin, so why not make the Ashmolean Museum your starting point? Springing up in 1683, it’s widely thought to be the first ‘modern’ museum, and its depths contain a wealth of ancient and modern art and antiquities that cover a spectrum of the world’s civilizations. 

The city’s other great collection is that of the Bodleian Libraries, a city-wide group of 27 libraries home to more than 13 million printed items. These libraries opened to scholars in 1602, which makes it one of the oldest in Europe, and while it’s true that much of this spellbinding facility is devoted to academic prowess and research, there’s also an abundance of historical interest to be found too. Indulge your curiosity with a guided tour around The Weston Library, Bodleian Old Library and Radcliffe Camera, or check out the permanent programme of excellent exhibitions and events there.

When in Oxford, don’t make the mistake of only burying yourself in the airs of ages gone, not when the city holds a lot of natural beauty as well. A classic pastime is punting on the River Cherwell; the best place to embark on this aquatic adventure is from Magdalen Bridge, at the east end of the High Street. Take a punt out yourself (and spend most of your time apologising to everyone you’ve just crashed into – punting’s harder than it looks), or have an experienced water-person navigate you along as you sit back and relax.

Upon docking back on terra firma, you can seamlessly stroll from Magdalen Bridge to Magdalen College, which is one of the university’s more impressive, boasting its own deer park, water meadow and pristine-beyond-belief lawns. If you time it right, you can catch the exquisite voices of The College Choir during a candle-lit evensong (every weekday except Monday at 6 pm during term time), or on Sunday mornings at 11 am. 

A scenic stroll around Christ Church Meadows or picking up trinkets from The Covered Market (which itself dates back to 1770) are other must-dos when in town, and if you’re looking for something the kids can lose themselves in (metaphorically), The Story Museum proudly proclaims to be ‘a most unusual museum in the heart of Oxford’. 

What to see 

Turl Street, Oxford. Images: Getty/Joe Daniel Price, Moment

When rounding up Oxford’s best bits, it can be hard not to make it sound like a university prospectus. You’d be right to say there’s so much more to the city than the uni, and while this is true, Oxford’s most impressive sites really do lie in this ancient institution. All beautifully built and brimming with enthralling secrets, most of the 44 colleges are open and free of charge to the public, but if you prefer a little more structure to your tours, there are plenty of organised ones you can go on as well. 

Places like The Bridge of Sighs and Oxford’s Botanic Gardens & Arboretum (the oldest botanic garden in the country, and home to over 5,000 species of plants) are popular city staples too. Meanwhile, any fan of JRR Tolkien can have fun retracing his steps and visiting the legendary author’s old haunts, like Exeter College, Tolkien’s Table at Merton College and The Eagle and Child pub – a favourite of his, where the literary group The Inklings would meet and share their stories, with other notable members including CS Lewis and Owen Barfield.

If, at the age of 11, you were sadly disappointed not to receive an owl inviting you to attend Hogwarts, you can rectify this slight by visiting some of the filming locations from the internationally acclaimed Harry Potter films. Indeed, Christ Church’s staircase and cloisters will seem very familiar to admirers of the Wizarding World, as will the cloisters and courtyards of New College, not to mention the Bodleian Library and Divinity School. 

Staying on the theme of motion pictures, if you’re seeking shelter on a rainy afternoon, are fanatical about film, or maybe just kicking your heels for things to do (which seems unlikely), take a trip to see a flick at the Ultimate Picture Palace. This fashionable hangout in Jericho is the city’s last independent cinema, and shows all the latest blockbusters, along with other arty and independent pictures.

Where to eat and drink 

Oxford is full of fantastic spots to eat and drink. Image: Getty/Guido Mieth, DigitalVision

From crazy cool cocktail clubs to elegant eating establishments, when it comes to wining and dining, Oxford has you covered. Widely regarded as the jewel in Oxford’s culinary crown, Quod Restaurant & Bar blends a fine dining experience with a casual vibe, making it perfect for long lunches, social dinners, or a glass of rosé in the Italian garden terrace. Afterwards, pop two minutes down the High Street to Queen’s Lane Coffee House, or QL (which is the oldest coffee house in Europe), for an espresso to perk you up and quash any post-food fatigue. 

Meanwhile, The Perch, particularly well-known for its classic pub food, sits in a serene spot on the banks of The Thames on the southwest border of Port Meadow. It’s just outside the city, but it’s made all the better for this because it paves the way for a scenic stroll back into town after dining there.

In the evening nowhere can be more highly recommended than The Varsity Bar, on the High Street. This chic cocktail bar stands out from the rest because of its enviable rooftop terrace, where bespoke concoctions can be enjoyed while watching the sun go down and the city’s spires light up. Definitely book well in advance, because tables here are like gold dust, and it’s virtually impossible to nab one if you just walk in. 

No round-up of Oxford would be complete without mentioning some of the city’s treasured pubs. Particularly popular with the city’s army of students is the Turf Tavern, which has been serving foaming ales to England’s literary elite, politicians, presidents and movie stars since 1831. Its tucked-away location down an unassuming alley just off Holywell Street adds to the allure – unless you know it’s there, you’d be forgiven for walking straight past it; for those in the know, however, it’s a classic haunt in the centre of the city. 

If an 1831 drinking den is too modish for you, then perhaps The Bear Inn on Alfred Street will be more to your tastes. As Oxford’s oldest pub, this watering hole dates all the way back to 1242, and its most famed quirk is the collection of 4,500 schools, university, club, college and team ties that adorn its walls. The King’s Arms is also good and gives you amazing views of the iconic Rad Cam. 

One of the best things about Oxford is how compact it is, so if you want to spontaneously stumble on your own find, walking around the city will reveal something for everyone. If you have your heart set on this, let us point you in the direction of Jericho – a fashionable suburb in the north of Oxford that’s world-famous for its bohemian feel and antics. Its streets are scattered with trendy eateries and bars, so embrace the vibe and see where it takes you. 

Further afield

The River Glyme running through the Blenheim Park Estate. Image: Getty/Martyn Ferry, Moment

With Oxfordshire and some of England’s most captivating countryside on your doorstep, it’s worth leaving the city’s borders for a day or so to see it for yourself. You can find a full guide to Oxfordshire on The Escapist here, so for now we’ll suffice to recommend two great tourist pulls that are only a 30-minute drive from Oxford: Blenheim Palace and Bicester Village.

The first is an elegant tourist experience at Winston Churchill’s ancestral home, which is widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest palaces and home to beautiful gardens, as well as frequent exhibitions and fairs that seldom fail to delight. 

As for Bicester Village, it’s a designer outlet shopping centre, boasting some of the best-known boutiques in the world. At 160 world-class brands, there are far too many to name-drop, but if it’s luxury fashion, you can probably find it here. The best part? As an outlet shopping centre, you can fill your wardrobes with internationally acclaimed fashion for a fraction of the retail price.