A City of History
Oxford, England is everything that you might imagine; a little bubble containing some of the world’s greatest minds all living and working together in the same picturesque brownstones, stunningly ancient libraries, and dark, charming pubs. However, Oxford’s present is just the tip of the iceberg because that rich sense of mystery and charm emanating from each shopfront and street corner comes from the deep and complex history that has built the Oxford we see today. If they were to put up those little “History Happened Here” plaques for every historical spot in Oxford, you wouldn’t be able to move. No, Oxford’s history and culture are subtler, they’re in the back corner of that pub you just had a pint in, underneath that street lamp you just cycled under, they are everywhere at once, unassuming and just begging to be discovered if you’ll make the effort to do so.
If ever you get the chance to spend a day in Oxford, do! Not only is it a highly esteemed and historical city, but it also plays host to some of the most popular literary settings in England (as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman were long-time residents of the city, writing their greatest works in its pubs and libraries), a slew of references from Inspector Morse, and of course the settings for many of the scenes from the Harry Potter films (Oxford University is essentially Hogwarts!). There’s something for everyone in Oxford, however if you have only a day to explore, here’s my recommendations.
What to do with One Day in Oxford
Breakfast and Boating
A typical Oxford day is one spent partly in the pursuit of knowledge and partly in the pursuit of society. Try starting your day with a full English breakfast from one of the many breakfast spots out on the eclectic Cowley Road including the adorably vintage Tick Tock Café (3-5 Cowley Road) where meals are served in quaint leather booths surrounded by a smattering of mid-20th century memorabilia on the walls. Or jump down a few doors to the upscale Café Coco for quite possibly some of the most casually delicious creations you’ll ever taste. They offer the traditional full English breakfast options along with some creatively healthy original creations including homemade porridges and breakfast sandwiches, all for very reasonable prices. Their vegetarian options are also worth going back for for lunch and again for dinner as well!
After breakfast, why not take a morning boat ride around the River Cherwell in one of the traditional punting boats, available for rent for only £20/hour just under the Magdalen bridge! They even offer champagne and strawberries for only £20 more if you really want to do it right. Few things are more peaceful than gliding down the quiet river in the morning through the endless college fields and sporting grounds. Say hello to the swans if you run into them, and try not to hit them with your pole!
A City of Discovery
With your belly full and your boat ride complete, continue heading in towards the city centre along Queen’s Road into the heart of Oxford. Even just allowing yourself to wander through the little alleyways and stumble upon the quiet courtyards that make up Oxford city Centre is enough of an excursion as the millions of tiny details carved onto the building of the 38 colleges follow you wherever you go. If you wander well, you might stumble upon the oldest pub in Oxford: The Bear Inn. Several pubs in Oxford claim to be the oldest (a common theme in this city!), but the Bear Inn officially holds the title, first opening its doors in 1242. Not only is this a quaint, hidden pub, but rumor has it that if you cut off the bottom of your necktie you can trade it for a free pint of beer! The hundreds of neckties covering the walls of the pub would suggest that there’s some merit to the rumor.
After bargaining away your outfit, head over to South Parks road to the north of the city to spend some time in the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Even if you’re not a natural history lover, it’s worth the short walk just to see the building itself. The glass ceiling and magnificent archways watching over the endless cases of fur, bones, and life-size dinosaur skeletons make you feel more like you’ve just stepped into the grandest prehistoric train station ever, rather than a museum! It’s really quite a sight to see. If you are a museum lover, then Oxford is the place for you as this tiny city is home to 12 museums, all with free admission! From the unique (the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments Museum or the Story Museum), to the traditional (Museum of the History of Science, Modern Art Oxford, or the Museum of Oxford) to the downright breath-taking (Pitt Rivers Museum or the world-renowned Ashmolean), you could easily spend a week just seeing everything that Oxford’s museums have to offer.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite again, make your way over to the legendary Turf Tavern for lunch. Hidden at the end of a long and narrow alley underneath the famous Bridge of Sighs, the Turf Tavern is a must-do in Oxford. At the end of the alleyway, you stumble upon what looks like a misplaced set from Hobbiton itself. The low thatched roof and hodgepodge of rooms and courtyards make up what is one of Oxford residents’ favorite hangouts. Sip on a pint or enjoy one of their delicious full meals outside next to part of the original city walls from 800 AD. Or turn the corner and enjoy your mulled wine (seasonal of course) in the same corner where former Prime Minister of Australia Bob Hawke broke the Guinness world record for consuming a yard glass of beer in only 11 seconds and years later Bill Clinton “didn’t inhale” from that infamous cigarette.
For those interested in learning more about the countless secrets that Oxford has to offer, there is nothing better than joining one of the daily free walking tours offered by Footprints tours. They leave every day of the week at 11 am and 2 pm from their colourful bicycle sign on Broad street. Let the enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides open your eyes to the incredibly fascinating history of Oxford! The tours last 2 hours, take you to all the major areas of Oxford and are completely free (tips to the guide are optional of course).
As the sun sets over the dreaming spires of the city, head back over to 9 High Street and grab a drink at the stunning Varsity Club which offers three interior themed floors of bars as well as the most beautiful rooftop bar in all of Oxford. With free blankets and heaters for the cold weather and breath-taking views of the Oxford skyline, the Varsity Club is the perfect way to take in the sunset after a long day of learning.
For dinner after drinks the number of quality restaurants in Oxford is absolutely endless. For a romantic night out head over to Little Clarendon Street (a small pedestrian street replete with fairy lights and boutique shops also known by locals as “Little France”) and take in a meal at the famous Pierre Victoire. Don’t forget to try their authentic French mussels bathed in a decadent lemon butter sauce and paired with their house Chardonnay. For a more traditional meal, continue through Little Clarendon street and enter the up and coming, artsy, student neighbourhood of Jericho where you’ll find the Old Bookbinders Ale House. Bookbinders offers a wide selection of traditional and contemporary British and European fare in a charming pub setting. Highlights include their large selection of craft ales as well as their dreamy cheeses and baked brie.
If you’re still feeling up for some excitement, then the nightlife in Oxford has a lot to offer! Cowley road hosts a large selection of Mediterranean bars and tapas restaurants including Bar Aroma (with great 2 for 1 Happy Hour deals until 9 pm), Café Baba (excellent tapas and wine in a Moroccan setting), and the Kazbar (and upscale Moroccan themed bar and restaurant that will literally transport you to Casablanca circa 1930!).
One day simply isn’t enough to experience all that Oxford is, but if that’s all you have to give, then it’s not a bad start. Oxford is one of those cities whose very existence seems to defy logic. As if it were a little gem frozen in time with a history so rich that every stone and corner has a story to tell, if only you’re ready to listen.