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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.

Christ Church College, University of Oxford, England

Christ Church College

Saturday morning

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.

 Bridge of Sighs, University of Oxford, England

The Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College

Saturday afternoon

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.

View from the Carfax Tower across Oxford, England

The view across Oxford from the top of Carfax Tower

Sunday morning

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.

Carfax Tower and Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, England

Oxford’s Carfax Tower and the Radcliffe Camera

Sunday afternoon

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.

Punting on the River Thames or Isis in Oxford, England

Punting on the Isis near the Botanic Gardens

The details

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.

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32 Comments Post a comment
  1. I lived there for a year and loved it. But you can’t beat Cambridge…

    September 9, 2013
    • Ooh controversial! I have to admit I haven’t spent much time in Cambridge ever so I will have to go and spent a few days there to test that out.

      September 9, 2013
  2. A lovely, informative post. It’s been a long time since I was last there. Need to put that right.

    September 9, 2013
    • Thanks Rachael, I hadn’t been back for years either – and being as Cheltenham is only about an hour away I’ve no excuse!

      September 10, 2013
  3. Great blog Lucy, I will definitely be keeping this in mind for the future as I’d love to pay Oxford a visit! F x

    September 9, 2013
    • Thanks Fay, hope you get to give Oxford a visit sometime soon – and best of luck with your new blog!

      September 10, 2013
  4. Ben #

    Reading your posts about the UK makes me want to go back! I’ve visited Oxford a few times but only ever for its premier music venue – the o2 academy (although back when I was frequenting it was called the Zodiac). Unfortunately I didn’t take the opportunity to explore much. I will be sure to next time I’m in the area!

    September 9, 2013
    • I lived on Cowley Road not far from the Zodiac for a while! Think I must have seen as much in a weekend in Oxford as I did in two years living there, always the way!

      September 10, 2013
    • Ben #

      Haha, small world – I recognise the road name! Yeah that’s true, I lived in Bath for years but would love to go back some day and be a tourist for a bit instead of a student.

      September 10, 2013
  5. arbohl #

    Gorgeous photos. Very informative writing!

    http://www.thejoyisthejourney.wordpress.com

    September 10, 2013
    • Thanks – I lived in Oxford for almost two years and hardly took a single photo so I thought it was time I got back there and made up for it!

      September 10, 2013
  6. Nice post. Very well crafted. Enjoyed reading this.

    September 10, 2013
  7. Terrific guide, Lucy. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it’s full of great information. Oxford Rooms sounds like me and I might push the boat out and eat at the Ashmolean (the punting looks hectic- great tip about the Pimms upstream) 🙂
    You should slap this on SS.

    September 10, 2013
    • Thanks, highly recommend Oxford Rooms – I went with a group of friends and we had a whole College wing to ourselves! I did Oxford on SS a while back but must get something new up soon.

      September 10, 2013
    • Just go back and see if it needs updating or reviewing? It’ll still make the Prize Draw that way. (I know time is an issue with the wedding so near :))

      September 10, 2013
    • Good tip – I shall get onto it!

      September 10, 2013
  8. I went to Oxford on a university trip a while ago and I loved it! We stayed in college dorms as well, which got me into the right atmosphere for the town and all it stands for. And for some reason it made me feel smarter just being there!

    September 10, 2013
    • I loved staying in the college, it gave so much more of a feel of the place. That intellectual atmosphere does seem to soak out doesn’t it!

      September 12, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on Just Go Places.

    September 10, 2013
  10. xoxosanaz90210 #

    Oxford is now my dream visiting place. Hopefully, after I graduate. Again, I live these experiences vicariously through you.

    September 10, 2013
    • Thanks – and hope you do get to make the trip to Oxford after graduation!

      September 12, 2013
  11. It’s been a while since I’ve visited Oxford – might have to put that right soon. Love the new look 🙂

    September 11, 2013
    • Thanks Suzanne, thought it was time for a new design!

      September 12, 2013
    • I’m working on a new look for mine too at the moment 🙂

      September 12, 2013
    • Look forward to seeing it. I think it’s that ‘new school year’ feeling you get in September that always inspires me to spruce up the site!

      September 17, 2013
  12. Next time we go to England we’ll definitely want to see Oxford and check out these sights. On our recent trip we spent several days in Cambridge, and I highly recommend it. When you go, don’t miss the Fitzwilliam Museum (http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/) and another museum we stumbled across, which turned out to be one of my favorites, the Scott Polar Research Institute and Museum (http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/). Of course don’t miss King’s chapel with its Rubens altarpiece, and the entrance to Trinity with its amusing statue of Henry VIII.

    September 12, 2013
    • Thanks for the tips, I must make the trip to Cambridge soon, it’ll be interesting to compare how similar the two are.

      September 17, 2013
  13. Oxford is definitely on my to do list. The beauty & antiquity of Europe’s architecture continually amazes me after having spent my entire life until now in the “New World”. I just took my first outings to Amsterdam and Utrecht as part of my au pair year here in the Netherlands, and can definitely recommend at least a day for each as well!
    Follow my adventures @ http://www.thenetherlandsnanny.com

    September 22, 2013
    • Oxford is well worth a visit if you are interested in European history. I’ve not been to Utrecht yet but have spent a couple of weekends in Amsterdam – good luck with your explorations!

      September 24, 2013
  14. I absolutely love the architecture and the beauty of this place. Haven’t been there yet, but it’s surely on my list in the future.

    September 25, 2013
  15. Elaine #

    Thank you so much Lucy for the contact on Brighton and info on Oxford:)

    August 8, 2014

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