Looking to take a day trip or two during your upcoming London vacation? Consider Oxford.
You can easily escape the hustle and bustle of London here in the charming “City of Dreaming Spires.” With a population of just 155,000, Oxford has been a center of learning and discovery since 1096. It’s easily accessible via coach or train, and most of its main sights are in the town’s center. Here, you can retrace the steps of scholars, grab a pint at the pub where C.S. Lewis first dreamt up Narnia, and marvel at some of the most amazing architecture Europe has to offer.
Here are some of the top reasons why you should visit Oxford:
The Campus Is Incredible
The University of Oxford is one of most prestigious and picturesque universities in the entire world. Nearly 24,000 students call this storied campus home. Individual colleges are walled off, and each one has its own green, dormitory, and dining hall; most look like they came straight from a Harry Potter movie set. Some colleges are available to tour, but you’ll usually need to book your tour in advance. Check out the university’s listings for more information. If you can schedule a tour, do it!
As you stroll down the cobblestone streets, you’ll marvel at the sight of the venerable old academic buildings. The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and contains 12 million items. Nearby, the Radcliffe Camera serves as a reading room for faculty and students. Check out the Sheldonian Theatre’s Emperor Heads, which stand guard outside the venue that is still used for concerts and productions. And, of course, there’s the Bridge of Sighs, a corridor joining two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane. The bridge was allegedly named for the sounds students made on their way to exams.
You Can’t Escape The History
You can’t help but be impressed by the incredible amount of history here. Take a tour of St. Mary the Virgin Church to see the center from which the campus grew. A church has been located on the site since Anglo-Saxon times, and the oldest part of the current building is the tower, which dates to 1280. For an amazing view of the city, pay £4 and climb to the top. The church is open to visitors Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A dark chapter in Oxford’s history is memorialized with a single Gothic spire where Broad Street meets St. Giles’ Street. This is the spot where three Reformation bishops were killed in the mid-1500s for their Protestant beliefs. It’s a reminder of the religious struggle that gripped much of England for centuries.
A happier and more modern historical marker can be spotted just outside the campus corridor at the Iffley Road track. That’s where, on May 6, 1954, Sir Roger Bannister ran the first-ever sub-4-minute mile.
The Pubs Are Terrific
Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Oxford has its fair share of pubs. Many are within walking distance of or even on campus. In any of them, you can grab a pint or two along with a quick bite to eat. In addition to traditional fish and chips, many of the pubs in Oxford serve terrific international food. Check out The Old Tom, known for its Thai cuisine.
If you are at all a literature lover, you will want to belly up to The Eagle and Child (also referred to as “The Bird and the Baby”). Located on St. Giles’ Street, this cozy spot is where an informal literary group, the Inklings, met in the 1930s and 1940s. Among them were C. S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia series, and J. R. R. Tolkien, who authored the Lord of the Rings books.
Outdoor Activities Abound
Oxford is situated on the lovely River Cherwell. Depending on the time of year you visit, consider a punting adventure. You’ll see these long, flat-bottomed boats on the river during the early spring through the late fall. The boats resemble gondolas but are propelled with poles instead of oars. There are a number of places where you can rent a punt and try your hand at steering it through the shallow water. Prices start at £16 per hour.
The university’s colleges are linked by a series of lush English gardens and meadows. Take your time as you stroll through. And Oxford Park, located on the banks of River Cherwell, is the perfect spot for an on-campus picnic. Follow either the Oak Walk or the Thorn Walk for the perfect promenade.
You Can Explore World-Class Museums
For a not-to-be-missed collection that spans centuries, spend an afternoon at the Ashmolean Museum. It first opened in 1677 to house a “collection of curiosities” donated to the university. Pieces from that collection can still be viewed today, along with a well-curated, varied collection of art and artifacts from all over the world. Antiquities and modern art mix beautifully here. The Ashmolean is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Modern Art Oxford, with its interesting mix of well-rotated modern exhibits, is also worth a visit. Located in an old brewery building in the center of town, this little gem is also free of charge, but it is closed on Mondays.
The Shopping Can’t Be Beat
You won’t want to miss the Oxford Covered Market. It’s been around since the 1770s, is jam-packed with all sorts of handmade items — from soaps and shoes to candles and cakes — and is open seven days a week.
There are also many charming shops tucked away along Oxford’s old streets. One of my favorites is Kina Ceramics Studio. This basement space is full of beautiful handcrafted mugs, cups, and vases. Be sure to check out the intimidating Game of Thrones-style mug!
There Are A Variety Of Accommodations
Oxford is home to a variety of places to stay, from independent bed and breakfasts that serve up traditional English fry ups to luxe options like the Randolph Hotel. For a comfortable, basic room with a perfect location on Broad Street, check out The Buttery. Keep in mind, however, that there’s no lift and that the best rooms are on the third and fourth floors.