As far as nicknames go, one can’t get much better than “the city of dreaming spires,” coined by an esteemed poet no less. And for Oxford—that famed, luminous gem of the UK—the phrase also perfectly captures the awe and affection the city inspires in residents, students, and visitors alike.
Where London is immense, Oxford is lovely. Many people take a day trip from London to Oxford but I propose the opposite: stay in Oxford, travel to London. A departure from the norm is fitting as well, since Oxford’s beauty is of the contradictory kind. Here you’ll find city and greenery, history and novelty. A sense of permanence permitting self-evolution. In Oxford, dreaming and living intersect, perhaps where Magpie Lane meets Merton Street, or Parks adjoins Holywell…
While we’re meandering, I should mention that this mode of moving through space and time is exactly how Oxford is best experienced: wandering slowly, collecting little moments and discoveries along the way. Like any place teeming with magic, the Oxford of the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien demands to be noticed. Admired even, with deliberate awareness and wonder. And with that, you’ll find yourself swept up into the bright and brilliant world of Oxford.
There are many simple and straightforward buses from London and its airports to Oxford. If you love walking like me, exit your coach at Headington Shops and make your way toward the city centre on foot (a 1.5 mile jaunt with the option to hop on a city bus at any time). Be sure to walk by way of South Park, earning yourself a low-key yet special view of the city and its skyline.
Entering the city of Oxford you’ll walk the colorful St. Clement’s Street, past the laid-back Angel & Greyhound tavern (return here later on in your trip for banter and board games in a good-natured atmosphere). For now, bop into Ballroom Emporium to browse lovely vintage finds because, well, Oxford. Hang for a bit at a student favorite, The Cape of Good Hope, with a cider or wine and all-around good vibes. Nearby is Kazbar, a timeless, cool tapas bar on the student-oriented Cowley Road.
Enter the city centre from here. Pause to admire the view of Magdalen Bridge, which doubles as the city’s main punting hub. Note that punting—a quintessentially Oxford activity—is best paired with a picnic sourced from the famed Covered Market (and a bottle of bubbly of course!). Across the street, explore the Oxford Botanic Garden. This beauty is the oldest botanic garden in the UK and one of the oldest in the world. Turn onto Rose Lane to walk the beautiful Christ Church meadow before taking St. Aldate’s back up to High Street; or, continue exploring High Street and end your walking welcome to Oxford at the essential Christ Church Cathedral and garden.
When it comes to lodging in Oxford, anything central is perfect, whether it’s the luxurious Macdonald Randolph or a rental (Airbnbs are a plentiful and affordable option in the city). You can even book Oxford College accommodation for the authentic student experience! Should you choose to stay at the Macdonald Randolph hotel, turn into the tiny Friars Entry nearby to fuel your morning in the upstairs of the Organic Deli Cafe. For your morning walk or run be sure to explore University Parks, a green and relaxing counterpoint to the city.
All this before starting your day, as one does in Oxford, with a book and a hot drink. Don’t miss the Norrington Room in Blackwell’s Bookshop, the world’s largest room dedicated specifically to selling books. Then head across the street for breakfast or a cup of coffee or tea at the picture-perfect Turl Street Kitchen, a social enterprise, or the Missing Bean for artisan coffee.
If you’re in Oxford on a Sunday morning, I highly recommend the 9.45 am Matins and Sermon at Christ Church Cathedral. It’s nothing touristy; in fact, there are often few visitors at this service (most attend the Choral Evensong, which is also gorgeous). If music is what you’re looking for, plan to attend the Oxford Coffee Concerts, held weekly in the Holywell Music Room, the oldest concert venue in Europe. And bonus! Your ticket entitles you to a complimentary coffee in a cafe nearby.
Afternoons in Oxford offer endless charm to be discovered. Climb the tower at the University Church of St. Mary for 360 degree views of the city, then head next door to the iconic Radcliffe Camera. As far as museums go, the Ashmolean was Britain’s first and earns its award-winning status daily with its grand architecture and captivating exhibits. If afternoon tea is on your list, visit the Rose Oxford, the Grand Cafe, or Cafe Loco. A bookshop and/or pub crawl also offers a city tour in itself! End with a bottle of wine at Thirsty Meeples, a tiny cafe packed with thousands of board games, or The Perch, a picturesque riverside pub and garden just outside the city centre.
For evening dinner or drinks, enter the popular Kings Arms, the oldest pub in Oxford and a main student haunt. Wander a bit; Oxford is stunning at night. Duck into a tiny passageway nearby to discover Turf Tavern, a historic indoor/outdoor pub. End your night at The Varsity Club (though an entire afternoon spent on this rooftop bar, with its expansive views of Oxford, is also time well spent).
Anything we missed? Comment below to help any future Oxford travelers among us make the most of their trips!
Bre Arends aims to be a catalyst: of deep and authentic connections, new and prismatic perspectives, and, always, drawing out beauty and light.
BY Bre Arends - July 19, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.