I recently visited Oxford for the day from London to catch up with some friends. Two of the friends now live there and had met at Merton college as students many years ago. We had such fun wandering around the city after lunch that I thought I would write a post with 10 favourite things to do in the city that I’ve accumulated during many visits.
First getting there – if you are starting from London you can do what we did and take the Oxford tube. Confusingly this is an Express Bus (not a subway). It is cheap, frequent and quick so I totally recommend it.
1. Broad street (“The Broad”) and Blackwell book shop
This is one of the loveliest wide roads in Oxford. Oxford university is of course a college system with colleges spread out across the whole city. But if you want the sense of the centre of it , Broad street is it.
Balliol is one of the most famous colleges on Broad Street and well worth a visit if you can get in. You’ll find this wonderful view behind the college gates!
Don’t miss Blackwells bookshop – the original site of the 1879 store. It is a joy to wander round if you like reading and there is something for everyone on its many floors with books lovingly and enticingly laid out by shop assistants who read and love books themselves. There is a cafe too if you want to pause for a coffee.
I love looking up as I walk around Oxford as there are so many details. One such detail, just above Broad Street, is this wonderful Anthony Gormley sculpture (Gormley was born 1950 in the North East of England and awarded an OBE). The figure stands nonchalantly on a roof top totally at ease with the surrounding spires. The sculpture is based on a cast of the artist’s own body.
2. The Bodleian library including the Radcliffe camera
The Bodlian library (which is entitled to a copy of every book every published in the UK or Ireland) is split into different buildings with the most famous being the Radcliffe camera which houses English, History and Theology books and is one of the most lovely and iconic buildings of the city. Sudents or academics (at any university) can visit it to work there. The Radcliffe camera is Palladian style and was built by James Gibbs. Tourists can’t visit the Radcliffe camera but can visit the rest of the Bodleian (or Bod as it is often known) with its vast underground network of passages containing books on a walking tour of the city that sounds really fun when I’ve heard snippets wafting through the air as I passed a group or two.
3. The Holywell music rooms
If you like classical music book ahead for a sunday coffee concert at the oldest original public classical music venue in Europe – the lovely Holywell Music rooms.
4. Visit at least one college – we visited Merton College (dates back to 1260)
There is nothing like taking the time to visit a college to get a sense of the history and architecture of the place and how lovely it would have been to live in-hall. Many of the colleges date back hundreds of years and have fabulous gardens and a refectory and a chapel. Merton is one of the wealthiest colleges in Oxford with an endowment of nearly $300m and back in my student days, it was known to have the best student dining in the university. It was a treat to be invited there for dinner – totally gourmet at at time most of the college food was pretty bad! I reminded my friend at Merton that she’d made me crumpets and she said she’d rigged up something over her wood fire in her rooms! The chapel ran out of money while it was being built and became the template for all the Oxford college chapel layouts. When you visit look up as there are many lovely architectural details.
4. Wander round the back streets
As we walked to Merton you can’t fail to love the higgledy piggledy back streets with bicycles everywhere
5. Go Punting on the Cherwell
You can rent punts from the famous Cherwell Boathouse . The secret is to put the pole in and turn it as you do so and then as you pull it out use it as a rudder at the same time. If you can’t face it you can pay for a gondola like experience of being punted – or get your guy to step up to chivalry!
6. The sheldonian theatre
This is where the university degree ceremonies are held. You can see parents standing an extra 6 inches tall as they walk around the city with their robed offspring !
I’ve always felt the loveliest way to see it is by booking to go to a concert here one evening. They have some world class musicians perform here.
8. Tea at the vaults and gardens or else go to Browns
The famous café is in a 1320 building with vaulted ceiling and garden and offers breakfast lunches and teas with divine looking scones!
The alternative place to go for student atmosphere is Browns at 5-11 Woodstocke Road. For a more upmarket experience try a cream tea at the Randolph hotel. When my father was president of the Liberal association as a student at Trinity College where he read PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) he used to entertain the often famous speakers there over dinner (on the liberal association’s budget as it was beyond the means of most students!). My parents always stayed there when they went back to visit Oxford.
If you want a really really splash out meal while then Raymond Blanc’s Le manner aux quat’ Saisons is not far from Oxford but I’ll save a post on that for another day. His other much cheaper but still very good Brasserie Blanc in Oxford on 71-72 Walton Street is another favourite haunt of mine.
9. The bridge of Sighs
This lovely bridge joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane.
10. Christchurch College
This is one of the loveliest colleges in Oxford and also has a fabulous old masters and Renaissance art collection open to the public. If you are there early evening go to the evensong or another service sung by the world famous choir.
11. The Ashmolean
I feel like I should include it as it is Oxford’s big museum but I’ve left it till last as I’ve never really been that gripped by it. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the British Library in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. If you have a wet day it is nice to wander around otherwise I’d recommend saving your museum fire power for London.