48 hours in Oxford

Britain's oldest university is at its best in the early summer. Francis Kane takes in the quads, colleges and dreaming spires of the Dark Blue city
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Because the nation's oldest university city is at its best in early summer, with the college quadrangles garlanded in wisteria and enough students and dons in evidence to remind us what it's there for. During the long summer vacation, it can too easily resemble an up-market theme park. But even at its busiest, Oxford has so many wide open spaces and dark, hidden corners that it's never hard to escape the bustle and wallow in its understated beauty.

BEAM DOWN

Oxford is well connected to the rest of Britain, with two trains an hour from London Paddington, hourly links with Birmingham and direct services from many other places (08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk). Buses from London are very cheap. Megabus (01738 639095; www.megabus.com) has six trips a day from Gloucester Place in London, with return fares as low as £2.50 if you book early on the internet. Both the Oxford Bus Company (01865 785 400; www.oxfordbus.co.uk) and the Oxford Tube (01865 772250; www.stagecoach-oxford.co.uk) run round-the-clock services from London Victoria (£9 single/£11 return). National Express (08705 808080; www.national-express.com) has daily services from many UK towns and cities.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city centre is a 10-minute walk from the railway station and a few minutes from the bus station at Gloucester Green. A good starting point is Carfax Tower, at the crossroads of the four principal streets. This 74ft-high landmark has overlooked the low-rise city for eight centuries. Every 15 minutes, colourful mechanical figures hammer out the bell chimes on the eastern wall. The Tourist Information Centre at 15-16 Broad Street (01865 726871; www.visitoxford.org) opens 9.30am-5pm from Monday to Saturday; 10am-3.30pm on Sundays, providing free street maps and useful guides.

CHECK IN

The Old Bank Hotel at 92-94 High Street (01865 799599; www.oxford-hotels-restaurants.co.uk) is unashamedly luxurious, with great views of the dreaming spires. Double rooms start at £160 per night; continental breakfast is £9 extra per person. A former 17th-century coaching inn, the Eastgate at The High, Merton Street (0870 400 8201; www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk) has generous weekend discounts, with double rooms, including breakfast, from £105.

The cosy Bath Place Hotel is tucked away down an alley off Holywell Street (01865 791812; www.bathplace.co.uk), and charges £100 including breakfast for its smaller rooms. During the summer vacation, St Edmund Hall opens the Isis Guest House at 45-53 Iffley Road (01865 248894), where guests can expect to pay £60 for a double.

TAKE A VIEW

Carfax (open 9.30am-5pm, admission £1.50) is one of a number of towers that offers magnificent views over the network of quads, squares and ancient lanes that have survived the planners' attempts to modernise Oxford. The oldest is the Saxon Tower at St Michael's Church (open 10am-5pm, £1.50 ) which was built around 1040, and contains some fine church silver in its first floor treasury.

TAKE A RIDE

... on the waterways that encircle the city centre. They are ideal for punting, although keeping the flat-bottomed craft afloat can be harder than it looks. Weather permitting, hire a five-person punt for £10 an hour (£12 at weekends) from Magdalen Bridge Boathouse (01865.202643; www.oxfordpunting.com; open 10am-8pm in the summer), under Magdalen Bridge. Salter's (01865 243421; www.salterssteamers.co.uk) offers a range of cruises up and down the Thames (known locally as the Isis) from Folly Bridge.

TAKE A HIKE

A cross-section of Oxford's 35 colleges, and much else besides, can be viewed on a circular walk that starts and finishes in the cobbled Radcliffe Square, which is framed by Brasenose and All Souls colleges and the massive, circular Radcliffe Camera. Leave the square along Catte Street; turn right down New College Lane under the Bridge of Sighs - a copy of the Venetian original - and look back to Sir Christopher Wren's first major building, the Sheldonian Theatre (1669), used as the university's ceremonial hall. A narrow alley to the left leads you to the (in)famous Turf Tavern - "an education in intoxication". Back on the zig-zagging Lane you pass the entrances to New College and St Edmund Hall. Turn left on to the High Street, left again on to Longwall Street, and you reach one of the city's loveliest thoroughfares, Holywell Street, with New College now on your left. One final left turn, back into Catte Street, leads you to Radcliffe Square.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Copa at 9-13 George Street (01865 246906) has platters designed for sharing, such as a bruschetta with corn chips, salsa wedges, olive dips and salad for £6.95.

The stylish Quod Bar and Grill at 92-94 High Street (01865 202505; www.quod.co.uk) has a wholesome two-course lunch for £8.75. In the Covered Market, grab a baguette from Brother's and call in at Ben's Cookies, nearby.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Unsurprisingly, Oxford is crammed with museums and galleries, but none compares with the oldest, the Ashmolean on Beaumont Street (01865 278000; www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk). It opened in 1683 as the nation's first purpose-built museum and moved to its current Neo-Classical premises in 1845. The highlight is the first-floor European Art collection, which includes a stunning collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, and works by Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, Turner and Picasso. It opens Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm; Sundays 2-5pm; admission free.

The Museum of Modern Art at 30 Pembroke Street (01865 722733; www.modernartoxford.org.uk) displays a challenging range of cutting-edge works. Current exhibitions highlight the Second World War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm; Sundays noon-5pm; admission free.

WINDOW SHOPPING

If you want a book, you'll probably find it in Oxford. Blackwell's at 48-51 Broad Street is a tourist attraction in its own right, with a 10,000 sq ft main room excavated below neighbouring Exeter College. The main shop holds 250,000 volumes; other branches nearby specialise in art, music, travel, medicine, children's and textbooks. The Covered Market has stalls selling organic meat and veg, as well as shoes, hats, toys and leather goods. And it contain no Starbucks, Gap or mobile phone shop.

AN APERITIF

Inspector Morse fans should have an enjoyable start to the evening in the wood-panelled Morse Bar at the Randolph Hotel (Beaumont Street), which is lined with pictures of the Oxford-based detective and other mementoes from Colin Dexter's books and TV series. The Oxford Blue is worth acquiring: amaretto, blue curaçao, white rum, fresh lime juice and pineapple juice. In Jericho, half a mile north of the centre, the atmospheric Freud (Walton Street, 01865 311171) is a restored church with lovely stained glass, frequent live music and prices that reflect its student clientele.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Take a bus or taxi to residential north Oxford for dinner at the Lemon Tree, 268 Woodstock Road (01865 311936). It's nothing special from the outside, but the interior is stylish, the food beautifully prepared and served, and there's a cool courtyard at the back. Nearer the centre, Browns at 5-11 Woodstock Road (01865 511 995; www.browns-restaurants.com) is something of an Oxford institution, with its renowned hamburgers (£8.65) and choice of fresh fish. In the studenty, bohemian Jericho district, Branca at 111 Walton Street (01865 556111) is a smart brasserie with an Italian flavour. Edamame at 15 Holywell Street (01865 246916, www.edamame.co.uk) serves superb and inexpensive Japanese food, but only from Tuesday to Saturday, and last orders need to be in by 9pm. Book ahead; space is limited.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

St Mary the Virgin, better known as the University Church (01865 279111; www.university-church.ox.ac.uk), forms one side of the magnificent Radcliffe Square, and has been at the centre of collegiate life since the 13th century. This is where the Protestant martyrs Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were tried for heresy in 1555, and the Eucharist is celebrated every Sunday at 11am (10am July-September), when the Bishop of Oxford often preaches. Ascending the stairs to the tower (9am-6pm; admission £2) gives you a close-up of some of Oxford's most grotesque gargoyles.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The Vaults and Garden, part of the University Church, does a range of organic food, including bruschetta and omelettes in lovely surroundings. It opens 10am-5pm daily.

South-east of the centre, the vibrant Café Coco at 23 Cowley Road (01865 200232) opens at 10am every day, and does a traditional English breakfast in pizza form for £7.25. The rather plush Grand Café at 84 High Street (01865 204463) opens at 9am for traditional brunch with a modern twist: try beans on toast with parmesan shavings (£4.50).

A WALK IN THE PARK

Considering how congested the city seems, you're never far from green relief. Christ Church Meadow is a vast expanse of untamed pasture and manicured lawns, including grass tennis courts and the college cricket field. The perimeter path takes you alongside the River Isis, where college rowing races are held, and past Christ Church. The most opulent of Oxford's colleges (open 9.30am-5.30pm; from 1pm on Sundays) charges visitors £4 to see the location for one of the Harry Potter films, as well as the interior of England's smallest cathedral.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Find a bench under the ancient riverside trees and watch the bright young things taking a break from the library, playing ball games, rowing down the river, or just idling about on the grass while skipping their lectures.

ICING ON THE CAKE

All 35 university colleges are open to visitors - at varying times - and conducted tours are available for a nominal fee. They have distinctive characters and a surprise or two behind their forbidding walls. Worcester College has a lake and 28 acres of beautiful gardens, New College has the most beautiful chapel and cloisters; Balliol the most illustrious alumni, and Magdalen the fiercest gargoyles. Wander in, talk to the porters, and for a while transport yourself to the world of Brideshead Revisited.

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