It might be an ancient city, but Oxford’s ever-changing contemporary scene means it’s never the same place twice. We’ve collected our favourite highlights, based on suggestions from our owners in the area as well as our own visits, and compiled them into a pocket guide to the best of the walking, eating, shopping and gentle charm of one of the UK’s most beautiful cities. From riverside walks and textured Old Masters, to vintage clothes and treasure-trove delis, follow us on a tour of Oxford.
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The Oxford University Museum of Natural History,Modern Art Oxford,La Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons ,Arbequina ,Quod ,The Old Bookbinders ,Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum,The Oxford Cycling Club
If you’ve got the time, The Jubilee Walk, a ten-mile route that starts and ends within the city limits, taking you out past rivers and locks along the Thames Path, gives you a little of everything Oxford has to offer. It winds out of the city, into the Oxfordshire countryside, through patchwork fields and kissing gates, before diving back into the honey-coloured town on the other side. If ten miles feels a little much, try The Hinksey and the Electric Road, which is a four-mile circular, not a 70s funk band. At four miles, it’s the perfect pre-lunch aperitif, which sees you ambling from central Oxford, over the Hinksey lake to the south. It’s a scenic stroll rather than a hike, crossing The Old Gasworks Railway Bridge and passing through The Grandpont Nature Park before looping back to where you began. If you’d rather make it up as you along, use the rather archaic map from The Ramblers Association, or follow the Oxford canal to take on a distance of your own choosing.
For such a small city, Oxford manages to boast one of the most impressive collections of museums outside of London. The question will not be which, but how many, you have time for. The Pitt Rivers Museum has to be near the top of the list. Containing half a million objects, this is the museum other museums want to be when they grow up. Alongside regular and contemporary exhibitions, you’ll find artefacts from almost every country around the world, from Papua New Guinean wooden carvings to Cypriot glass beads, Japanese masks, Pakistani pottery and Roman shoes.
Oxford is also home to a world-famous collection at The Ashmolean, the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. Founded in 1683, you’ll find it proudly standing in golden stone, a fine example of neoclassical architecture. This is a book you do judge by its cover. Inside, the residents include Egyptian mummies, ceremonial Samurai armour, jewels for kings, and even Guy Fawkes’ lantern. Stroll the halls amongst the marble statues and watch the human story unfold.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History should be your next stop. Much like most of Oxford, it’s housed in a phenomenal building. Touring its many incredible exhibits will be an exercise in trying to conserve the health of your neck, as you peer at gigantic dinosaur skeletons and petrified remains between glances towards the neo-gothic glass ceilings.
Top tip: Park & ride
Stay outside the city and use the Park & Rides – Peartree (N), Thornhill (E), Redbridge (S), Seacourt (W) – to get to town. It’ll save you getting stuck in the nightmarish one-way system and driving through a quad in a panic. The Oxontime site will help you track buses and get around, while the Oxford Tube is a great coach service from London.
If the museum choice is tough, the gallery choice is almost impossible. You’ll find them everywhere, with different styles and specialisms, but there are some standouts that can’t be missed. If you’re a fan of the Old Masters, then Christchurch Gallery is a must see. With works from Carracci, Lippi and Tintoretto, as well as 2000 drawings from Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and many others, it’s the opportunity to see the sort of pieces you’d expect from a collection in a major city. It is also, of course, an incredible opportunity to see the college up close, as the building itself is a work of art.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Modern Art Oxford, a title that doesn’t need much explanation. With an ever-changing series of exhibitions, Modern Art Oxford showcases the best of modern artists, as well as hosting projects, talks, music and workshops. There’s something for all ages, and their ‘creative space’ offers the opportunity to play with materials inspired by their exhibitions. There’s also a café to pop into, where food is made fresh onsite every day.
Oxford’s food scene has flourished in the last few years, with everything from specialist Tibetan restaurants to gallery-styled bistros adding to the menu. There are simply too many to list here, so we’ve picked out three. The best way to find more, is to ask the host of the place you’re staying what’s new and nourishing.
If you’re going to spend the day punting, then why not carry on pushing the boat out and book a table, well in advance, at Raymond Blanc’s grand country restaurant. The setting is sublime (as is the ceviche) and while the tasting menu certainly isn’t cheap, it will most certainly be memorable.
Many places get tapas right when it comes to food but miss something when it comes to the feel of the original Spanish drop-in bars. Arbequina nails them both, with a long zinc counter and an open kitchen that give the place a lively buzz. The food is superb and very reasonably priced for the creativity and explosions of flavour. Recent expansion to next door has given them more space to welcome hungry visitors alongside their local following.
A good set lunch menu, beautiful burgers and wafer-thin pizzas make this a great place for an impromptu stop while sightseeing. The food is superb, but it’s the setting that will linger in the memory, with the whole place decked out like an art gallery. If you can’t get in for lunch, then drop by at night and witness the transformation into moody, pulsing cocktail bar.
We couldn’t resist throwing in a beautiful oddity. Nothing about the exterior or the décor of this place makes you think it’s anything but a good old-fashioned pub, but the menu is some fine French bistro cooking. Pint of real ale and onion soup? You never know, it might work.
Top tip: The right river
If you’re new to punting, opt for the Cherwell Boathouse and the river of the same name, rather than the Isis (what the locals call their section of the Thames). The Cherwell is smaller and easier to navigate, generally with calmer water. The boathouse is dog friendly too!
Not only is this a stunning place to visit, it’s also an education and research centre that is striving to develop methods of preservation for native species and communicate the importance of plants at all levels. A visit supports that work, while giving you the chance to wander in the glasshouse and the natural beauty around you. You can sign up to one of many classes and courses if you fancy taking a little of their massive store of knowledge away with you.
Vintage shops & markets
If you’re the sort of person that prefers a more subtle souvenir than a hat with I HEART OXFORD written on it, try exploring the many vintage shops around the city. The Ballroom Emporium is the place to pick up a fabulous (non-academic) gown, while old favourite Unicorn is worth a patient rummage through the densely packed rails and shelves.
If you’re lucky enough to be around for the monthly Magdalen flea market, you take your treasure hunting outside, but there’s the famous covered market just off the high street and a host of weekend events where you can pick up anything from cucumbers to curios.
Biking and boating
This isn’t a tip on what to see so much as how. A quick punt along the river is a must and not only gives a wonderful view of the city sliding by but can also be a genuinely useful method of transport. Even a novice punter will still travel faster round town than a car at rush hour. You can choose from several boathouses to launch from and many now operate a pre-pay scheme, rather than charging by the hour, so you pay for the time you end up using.
Bike hire is the other great option, with Oxfords level riverside paths allowing you to zip along at your leisure. There are many places to rent from and The Oxford Cycling Club is a great place to look for routes.
A few miles of the city, this is another incredible member of the small Artist Residence stable. The rooms are as unique and colourful as ever, the care taken over every detail is spectacular. Spend a couple of days in Oxford and the rest of your time rambling through the Cotswolds, for the perfect balance of town and country. Blenheim Palace, the Cotswold Wildlife Park and the Hook Norton Brewery are all nearby for great day trips.
Live like a true local, or at least a historic one, with a stay in the shepherd’s hut in the lovely garden of The Red Lion. The orchard and kitchen garden stock a superb menu with local produce, there’s a beautiful church next door and buckets of village charm, but you’re only eight miles from Oxford city centre. If you’re there on Saturday and you don’t feel like heading into town, then join the gardening club and potter about among the veg instead.
Sir Winston Churchill used to prop up the bar at ‘The Killy’ when he resided at Blenheim Palace round the corner. His gastronomic enthusiasm has been retained but refined (not a high bar to clear, admittedly) by a team who have won consistent Michelin recommendations and rosettes over the past years. Sourcing is impeccable, the rooms are beautiful and even if you don’t stay you can drop in for a fine pint on the way to town. Two dog-friendly rooms (3&4). All bedrooms are in the adjoining stable block so best of both worlds – the buzz of the pub then peace next door in your bedroom.
Ruth loves a good story. Following a decade living in London and working in publishing, her ears are always pricked for a spicy plot twist or unforgettable character. She delights in meeting hosts and discovering the history that brought saffron to her spaghetti, the hiking detours that will lead to temple ruins, and why someone cares so passionately about their special corner of the world. She loves that as a marketer for Sawday’s she can share these stories with others too.