The city of dreaming spires is rich in culture and history (to say nothing of tourists), but, beyond its ancient centre, there are a cornucopia of delights, ranging from beautiful river walks to thriving food, drink and theatre scenes. Whisper it, but is Oxford finally becoming…hip?
What to see and do
It is impossible, to say nothing of inadvisable, to avoid Oxford’s major attractions. The Bodleian Library and Broad Street, the Radcliffe Camera, Christ Church (enjoying a new lease of life as the ‘Harry Potter college’, much to the chagrin of those of us who would prefer to associate it with Brideshead Revisited) and the Ashmolean are all world-famous, and very much worth a visit. The Ashmolean, especially, throws up new delights with each trip, whether it’s TE Lawrence’s robes, an exemplary selection of modern art (including Bacon, Hepworth, Picasso et al) or the best collection of Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi outside the British Museum.
However, if you want something a bit more unusual, there are plenty of options. The Botanic Garden was the setting for a key scene in local author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. An hour here will teach you more about flora and fauna than any botany course. Over the road is Magdalen, perhaps the most aesthetically rewarding of all Oxford colleges, and possessed of the magnificent Addison’s Walk, a footpath by the water meadows which CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien used to stroll on, and which you’ll probably find some latter-day literati thinking up their next bestseller.
Shoppers should avoid the big, corporate Westgate Centre and head instead to the quirkier Covered Market, which dates from the 18th century and still houses a variety of local traders, including greengrocers, florists, butchers and gift shops, as well as plenty of coffee shops. Just outside is the highly regarded Objects of Use, an extremely stylish kitchen and homeware shop which specialises in all sorts of eclectic items; they boast of stocking ‘Swedish and Japanese axes, Spanish hoes and sickles, English topiary shears and flower scissors and much more’. Thereafter, the choice is yours whether to head down to Jericho to buy some artisan cheese at the Jericho Cheese Company on Little Clarendon Street, to venture to the trendy Cowley Road to visit Annie Sloan or the ethical clothing store Indigo, or simply to explore Blackwell’s on Broad Street, the city’s oldest bookshop.
Oxford is synonymous with culture, and those who adore classical concerts should head to the Christopher Wren-designed Sheldonian Theatre, where a variety of maestros ply their trade to discerning audiences. Drama aficionados are well catered for; mainstream plays come to the Oxford Playhouse, the big musical shows are showcased at the New Theatre, and more offbeat and experimental work appears at the central Old Fire Station, North Oxford’s North Walls and East Oxford’s Pegasus Theatre. And film buffs can choose from a variety of cinemas: Jericho’s Phoenix Picturehouse and the Cowley Road’s Ultimate Picture Palace offer the most variety outside of the usual blockbuster fare.
Where to eat and drink
Just a decade ago, your options for food and drink in Oxford were limited, and largely came down to expensive special-occasion restaurants and pub food at the city’s taverns. Now, there are many more places to go, especially in the east, and this is largely down to the Thurston dynasty. Rufus owns both Oli’s Thai, a to-die-for place around a mile from the city centre where reservations two months in advance are de rigueur and the hip tapas bar Arbequina, which has recently opened a cocktail bar next door, Terruno, bringing a taste of Catalonia to the Cowley Road. Those who aren’t in the market for a full-on eating and drinking experience should venture to Thurston’s brother Hugo’s Hamblin Bread, one of the best of Oxford’s many cafés; it specialises in sourdough bread and other treats including Neal’s Yard cheese.
North Oxford’s stalwarts Gee’s (in a Victorian conservatory) and the Cherwell Boathouse (by the Thames, and offering punts to hire) serve high quality, if not groundbreaking, food. However, a couple of upstarts have taken the fine dining crown of late; Pompette in Summertown, run by husband-and-wife duo Pascal and Laura Wiedemann (late of Terroirs and 6 Portland Road) specialises in robust French rural cuisine, heavy on the charcuterie and fresh fish. Down the road is Oxford proper’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, the Oxford Kitchen, in which Paul Welburn summons up a range of tasting menus and other delights, including a decent-value set-lunch menu.
There are many other places to enjoy; Jericho’s Branca is still going strong, and has expanded its next-door deli into one of the city’s best casual coffee places, and Edamame, a short walk from the Bodleian, offers excellent Japanese cuisine at low prices, although be prepared to queue, as it’s tiny.
Café culture is alive and well here, and a decent cup of coffee can be had at the Handle Bar or at the excellent Swedish spot Skogen Kitchen, which also specialises in delicious buns. (Try the cranberry and cinnamon, it’s a thing of wonder.) And of course, for the legendary foodie experience, Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin starred Le Manoir aux’Quat Saisons, a few miles outside of the city, is a sybaritic indulgence not to be missed.
But coming to Oxford and not going to one of the many pubs would be to miss the point of the city. There is a vast selection, ranging from the legendary to the hideous, so here are the best for a quick visit: try the Punter in West Oxford, five minutes from the station, for beautiful riverside views and bargain gin and tonics (£3.50 for a double), go to the Magdalen Arms in East for serious sharing dishes and the best pie you’ll have anywhere, and indulge your donnish side at the Royal Oak slightly out of the centre to the North, where seemingly every other table hosts some earnest academic group or literary circle. The main historic pubs – the Lamb and Flag, the Turf, the King’s Arms and the Eagle and Child – are all broadly fine (King’s Arms is the nicest, Turf has the best beer garden, E & C the richest Tolkien and Lewis associations and the Lamb has the most interesting drinks), but there are richer pickings for the more adventurous. Radiohead fans should visit The Jericho, in the eponymous area, as that is where the band, then known as On A Friday, played some of their earliest gigs.
Where to stay
Considering its fame and reputation, Oxford has always been oddly poorly served for hotels; perhaps this is a legacy of its only being an hour from London, and therefore perfectly suited to a day trip. Nonetheless, there are still some decent options. The Randolph is the city’s most famous and its only five-star option, and some of its best rooms offer spectacular views over St Giles, although it feels rather old-fashioned and could probably do with a new owner. The Malmason is set in the old prison – yes, you too can ‘serve time’ here – and offers all mod cons, although to be honest it, too, feels a bit out of time. Your better options for that kind of money are the Old Parsonage and the Old Bank, both of which are classy and extremely comfortable. For our money, the Parsonage – where Oscar Wilde was reputed to stay as a student – is the better of the two, complete as it is with its own library, a fine bar and excellent breakfasts.
The impecunious or simply curious are advised to book into a room in one of the colleges (outside of term time, naturally), which offer accommodation ranging from the jaw-droppingly beautiful to the more utilitarian. Be warned that the glorious 18th century room overlooking the college quad probably shares its bathroom with half a dozen others; listed buildings and 21st century plumbing seldom go together. A better bet in the centre is the Vanbrugh House Hotel, a stylish boutique hotel situated next to the city’s auction house, and we also like the Tower House, a social enterprise set above the excellent Turl Street Kitchen.
Yet my own personal favourite is the Porterhouse – and not just because I live very near it. Situated a couple of minutes from the station, it’s a clever and quirky conversion of an old boozer into the most refined of bed and breakfasts. Downstairs is the steakhouse of your dreams, serving up delectable cuts that can be ogled in a fridge designed specifically for that purpose, along with very fine cocktails and wines; upstairs are well-designed bedrooms for you to flop into after a hard day’s sightseeing, eating and drinking. A favourite destination of many of Oxford’s more bohemian locals, it confirms our hypothesis that the city really is undergoing a renaissance – and you don’t need to have intimate knowledge of Latin verse to have the best of weekends here.