Weekending: Old and new in Oxford
City of dreaming spires, punts on the river and gowned academics on bikes, Oxford was also my home for two years. It’s a great city for a weekend break, small enough that you can walk across it in half an hour but with enough to do to keep you busy. It’s got hundreds of years of academic and literary history, with museums and colleges that have been passed through by centuries worth of famous scientists, philosophers, authors and politicians. But there is also the modern city, with great shopping, bars and restaurants to explore. Here’s my guide on how to spend a weekend in Oxford, mixing up the city’s highlights and hidden gems.
The University of Oxford has 38 different colleges colleges, dotted around the centre of the city. For an insight into the weird and wonderful world of Oxford academia, take a tour by a former student with Oxford Walking Tours. Their 90-minute tours take you around some of the oldest colleges with insider information about the university’s history and rituals (tours run hourly from 11am to 4pm and cost £9.50 per person).
Many colleges are open to visitors, though check opening hours, especially around exam time. Probably the best-known is Christ Church – as much for its role as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films as for its famous alumni, who include Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein and 13 prime ministers. You can tour the quads, grand staircase, dining hall and college chapel, which doubles up as Oxford’s cathedral (£7 per person).
Other good colleges to visit include Merton, Magdalen (pronounced ‘mawd-lin’), Corpus Christi, Hertford, All Souls and Oriel. You can also look around other academic buildings like the Bodleian Library – one of Europe’s oldest libraries and another filming location for Harry Potter and Brideshead Revisited.
As you’d expect from a university city, Oxford is full of museums. The city’s biggest is the Ashmolean – Oxford’s answer to the British Museum, with a mix of art and archaeological exhibits including ancient Minoan pottery, Greek and Roman statues and paintings by Turner and Canaletto. The glass-walled rooftop dining room is a great spot for lunch before you tackle the exhibits, with a panoramic city views.
When you’re all cultured out, head just up the road to one of the city’s historic pubs. You can sink a pint in a snug where writers like CS Lewis and JR Tolkien used to meet in the 1930s at the Eagle and Child (nicknamed ‘Bird and Baby’). Or if your tastes are a bit more modern, head to Jericho for a cocktail at Raouls or the Duke of Cambridge before dinner in Gees, for modern British food in a vintage glasshouse.
For something a bit unusual, check out the quirky Pitt Rivers Museum. This anthropological museum was founded 125 years ago with 20,000 items donated by archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers. It’s grown since then to encompass the weird and wonderful from across the world, with voodoo dolls, shrunken heads and even a witch in a bottle. It’s open from 10am–4.30pm on Sundays (free entry).
When you get hungry, stop off at the Covered Market, which has a range of stalls from local producers as well as cafés and sandwich bars (open 10am–4.30pm on Sundays). Or take a 45-minute walk across Port Meadow to The Trout, a 17th-century riverside pub that featured in the Inspector Morse books and does great gastropub-style food by the fire in winter or on the sunny terrace in summer.
Punting is one of the classic Oxford experiences. There are two rivers in the city, the Cherwell and the Thames (which is called the Isis when it’s in Oxford) and a couple of places you can test your punting skills – and balance. Underneath Magdalen Bridge by the pretty Botanic Gardens is where you’ll find the most punts. You can hire one for £14 an hour if you want to try it out, or get a boatman to do the work for you.
Or in summer there’s a good punting spot further upriver near the Cherwell Boathouse. You’re a bit further out of town here so it’s not quite as busy, and you can get a jug of Pimms from their River Bar to take out on the water with you. Head upriver for about 30 minutes and you’ll get to the Victoria Arms pub which has a big beer garden and plenty of spots to park your punt.
Getting there… In central England, Oxford is easy to get to by train – it’s just over an hour from London, with advance tickets from £7.20 each way. There are also frequent coaches like the Oxford Tube which runs between London and Oxford 24 hours a day (£18 return, with a discount if you’re under 26 or over 60) or the Airline buses which connect Oxford to the nearest airports, Gatwick and Heathrow. Once you get to Oxford, the city centre is fairly small and easy to get around on foot – or bike.
Sleeping… A unique place to stay is Oxford’s castle-turned-prison-turned-hotel, the Malmaison. It’s full of character, with rooms around original wrought-iron stairs and walkways. You can spend the night in a cell – or rather three, with two knocked through to make the bedroom and one for the bathroom. It’s a bit more luxurious now with roll-top baths, comfy beds and flatscreen TVs. Double rooms start from £120 a night. Or you can get a taste of Oxford student life with Oxford Rooms, who rent out rooms in historic college buildings during vacations, giving you an insiders’ glimpse into their hidden corners. Prices start from a bargain £35 a night B&B, and with lots of single rooms it’s great for solo travellers. There’s most availability during summer, Christmas and Easter holidays, but some rooms are available all year.