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City guides

Oxford travel guide: Best things to do and where to stay for a 2023 city break

Louise Long reveals how to spend the ultimate break in the UK’s city of dreaming spires

Friday 31 March 2023 17:43 BST
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The historic spot boasts quintessential English charm
The historic spot boasts quintessential English charm (Getty/iStock)

Home to the Mini car, Britain’s first concert hall, and a 25ft sculpture of a shark cascading through a roof, there is more to Oxford than “dreaming spires” and honey-hued quads. Its cobbles may pave the oldest university in the English-speaking world, but there is nothing staid about these streets, whose cultural roll-call extends from JRR Tolkien to Russell T Davies to Radiohead. This is the city where college dons dine with tech gurus, where morris dancers jive with students, and where evensong is followed up by a plate of authentic sushi.

Chart a route through its artisan coffee roasters and contemporary galleries, or opt for the classic itinerary of punt, pub and Playhouse. Whichever way you choose to wend past quad and over meadow, Oxford has never looked sharper in its esteemed history.

Magdalen College was founded in 1458 (Louise Long)

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What to do

The Ashmolean

The crown jewel in the city’s cultural menu is the Ashmolean – Britain’s first public museum, and an even more joyous visit since its 2009 major revamp. Take your pick of its three light-filled floors of art and objects, spanning Japanese netsuke to English Pre-Raphaelite paintings; and don’t miss contemporary temporary exhibitions on the top floor. Recent shows include surveys of Jeff Koons, “Young Rembrandt”, and “Tokyo Art & Photography”, a colourful voyage through Tokyo’s cultural history. Open daily 10am-5pm.

No trip to Oxford is complete without a spot of punting (Louise Long)

Modern Art Oxford

For contemporary culture hunters, Modern Art Oxford is the city’s hub, with temporary exhibitions showcasing emerging and established international artists, from the likes of Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramovic and Ruth Asawa. The bookshop is worth a visit for art titles and locally-made design pieces. Keep an eye on the events programme, including “MAO Lates”, with performances, drinks and live music. Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-5pm, closed on Monday.

The Oxford Botanic Garden

The oldest of its kind in the UK, the Oxford Botanic Garden houses floral borders, wild meadows and soaring greenhouses. An hour among the apple orchards, “pie-tin” waterlilies or soaring cacti will restore your senses for the rest of the afternoon on the cobblestones. Further afield, the Botanic Garden’s sister Harcourt Arboretum does a riotous autumn display – pick-up a handmade willow hamper at nearby Fallow & Fields for an afternoon under its auburn canopies. Open daily 10am-4pm.

Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest of its kind (Louise Long)

Punting on the Cherwell

On a fine summer’s day you’ve barely an excuse not to picnic your way down the Cherwell in a punt. Sure, there’s a knack to navigating this meandering, tree-lined riverway with all but shallow vessel and unwieldy pole. But it won’t take long to find your way – and if you point in the right direction, your boatload will be cheering as you pull up on the bank beneath The Perch pub. Pack ample strawberry and Pimms, and a Brideshead adventure is yours for the taking. Open daily mid-March to mid-October from 10am; closing times vary – check the website for details.

Blenheim Palace and Woodstock

A brief flirtation with the Cotswolds is in order, if you’ve already made it as far as Oxford. Picturesque Woodstock, a 20-minute drive from the city, provides the perfect entry point – with its tea rooms and antique shops, Saturday farmer’s market and, of course, Blenheim Palace. Walks from the town centre fling you straight into Capability Brown parkland, with the option to amble further along the Great Lake. Alternatively, head straight into the palace itself for an immersion in European Baroque extravagance, alongside contemporary temporary art interventions from the likes of Ai Wei Wei and Cecily Brown. Refuel back in town at Alfonso’s gelateria, also a serious spot for hot chocolate in winter. Open daily 10am-5pm.

European Baroque extravagance can be found at Blenheim Palace (Louise Long)

Where to stay

The Old Bank Hotel

Within Oxford’s college-sprinkled centre, no lodging is more refined than The Old Bank, flanked by the Radcliffe Camera on one side and the expanse of Christchurch meadows on the other. Among its 43 rooms and suites are Georgian alcoves, carrara marble bathrooms and artwork from the late British sculptor Geoffrey Clarke. Downstairs, Quod restaurant is a suave affair, adjoined by a residents’ library and garden. Pick up your complimentary bicycle and head out onto The High from here.

The Porterhouse

You’d be forgiven for assuming The Porterhouse only had eyes for its prize steaks menu, which happen to be dry-aged in-house and cooked over charcoal: the best in the city. In fact, this Edwardian townhouse is replete with seven modern hotel rooms, whose period charm nudges-up against swish brass light fittings, velvet headboards and stripped wooden floors. Simply but tastefully appointed (including Tassimo coffee machines and mini-fridges), the Porterhouse is both convenient for the station and within reach of the Castle (shopping) Quarter, while free of street noise.

The Randolph Hotel (The Randolph)

The Randolph Hotel

A city institution since 1886, The Randolph did well from a makeover by Chicago-based Graduate Hotels, on their takeover in 2021. Sloshing the Victorian building with English maximalism – read floral wallpapers, chintz curtains and tartan cushions – the refurb nevertheless pays heed to the hotel’s original character, including the stained-glass Gothic-arched lobby, and wood-panelled Morse bar (the very spot where author Colin Dexter sat down to write). The brand-new Alice Bar – with its Instagram-pink banquettes and chandeliers – is a startle to the senses, but there’s no reason not to enjoy chef Chris Emery’s menu, including a breakfast spread of applewood-smoked salmon and English muffins. The Randolph’s location is bang-on, too: facing the Ashmolean and neighbour to the Oxford Playhouse.

Read our reviews of the best Oxford hotels

Where to eat

Breakfast: Hamblin Bread

Hamblin Bread is a miracle of a neighbourhood bakery, conjured up in East Oxford by ex-East-Londoners Kate Hamblin and Hugo Thurston in 2018. Customers are known by name and orders go in from across the city for their bakes using organic, stoneground flour, cultivated within 50 miles of the bakery. Bring a roomy bag and an appetite for pillowy, caramelised cardamom buns, sausage rolls with the perfect corner char, or fragrant saffron and candied Seville orange buns (now served buttered!). Get down early, these bakes don’t hang about. Open Thursday to Sunday 8am-1pm.

Breakfast or lunch: Green Routes Cafe

Proof-in-point that collaborations exceed the sum of their parts, Green Routes is a dual celebration of coffee and plants, aka: locally roasted Routes Coffee beans and vegan cooking. With weekly “one-pots” (such as slow-roasted marinara and pesto orzo), three-course Sunday “Jazz Roasts” and £5 bap and coffees, Green Routes packs a punch from its laidback East Oxford outpost. The real boon is that brunch is served seven days a week – so you can start the day right with a cup of the house blend and the house (vegan) New York salt-“beef” bagel. For those after a sweet hit, the chocolate orange and salted pretzel pancakes rarely disappoint. Weekdays 8am-4pm; Weekends 9am-4pm (Kitchen 9am-3pm daily). Walk-ins only.

Green Routes is a laidback East Oxford outpost (Louise Long)

Lunch: The Vaults and Garden Cafe

The ideal time to grab a table at The Vaults is on May Day morning, just after you’ve joined the throng of locals tuning into madrigals sung from atop Magdalen Tower, and then paraded past the Morris Dancers in all their jangly glory. Still, on any other day of the year, this local favourite is no less a full-proof stop for a filling lunch or comforting tea. Make your way into the 14th-century vaults of St Mary the Virgin, and load up your tray with sweet potato curry, Tuscan beef stew, or a generous salad, all sourced from Oxfordshire allotments and cooperatives. When the sun shines, swap the stone-clad interior for cream tea in the garden, overlooking the majestic rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera, as students trundle past on their bikes. Daily, 9am-4.30pm.

Lunch or dinner: Edamame

Edamame is a legendary Holywell Street eatery announced by a queue of eager diners most days; so stop by early for lunchtime walk-ins. Homely and no-fuss Japanese cooking, including punchy chicken katsu, salmon teriyaki, and plenty of fresh vegan options are served with soul (and a gentle price tag). Sushi appears only on Thursday evenings, but takeaways are available throughout: we recommend you skip down with your takoyaki pancakes to University Parks, the city’s most charming green space. Lunch: Wednesday to Saturday 11.30am-2.30pm; dinner: Thursday to Saturday 5pm-8.30pm.

For a picturesque dining spot, look no further than Gee’s (Louise Long)

Lunch or Dinner: Gee’s

For all the newcomers taking root across the city, don’t overlook the beloved classics. With its famous greenhouse – an oasis of souring glass, vintage tiles and olive trees – Gee’s is the city’s most picturesque dining spot at any time of day or season. Plus, thanks to its recent extension into the next-door florist, there’s even more reason to bring a crowd. Start with a house daiquiri and sharing pizzettas, then settle into the best of North Oxford-meets-Mediterranean – a parade of buttery Orkney scallops, duck ragu fettuccine and burrata with beets. Open daily, 12pm-10.30pm.

Dinner: Arbequina

Retaining its original “Pharmacy” shop-front signage and “tapas” menu, Arbequina is unsuspecting to the average passer-by. But on learning the team comprises Ben Whyles and Rufus Thurston of Oli’s Thai (now sadly closed), this spot is bound to exceed any expectations. Plates are both classic (patatas bravas) and punchy (pork belly with crackling and mojo verde), with thoughtful sourcing of ingredients – from the table olive oil to spices from nearby Maroc Deli. Whether from banquette or bay window, Arbequina delivers refined and relaxed in perfect measure, with even a sherry menu to write home about. And best of all, in all its oozy, golden glory, rustled up behind the steel counter: the best tortilla this side of San Sebastian. Thursday and Friday 5pm-10 pm; Saturday 12pm-10 pm.

Where to drink

Turf Tavern

Staking its claim as the city’s oldest pub, dating back to the 13th century, the Turf is squirrelled away at the end of a cobbled passage, past a set of Dutch cottages. Inside the warren of low-beamed rooms – eventually leading out onto a furnished garden – there are plenty of corners to tuck yourself away with a pint of ale and a hearty pie. You’ll be in good company, too – regulars are made up of students and dons, while former pub-goers include Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, CS Lewis, Stephen Hawking and Margaret Thatcher.

The Star, Cowley

Following its takeover in 2020 by young local couple Gus Rogers and partner Anna Thompson-Rowlands, The Star quickly became a hit among a hip local crowd – with pub quizzes, live music, and their famous Star Haus Lager – an exclusive brew from The Cotswold Brew Co. All the while, it remains a “proper pub” – with scarcely a menu beyond a handful of bar snacks (and we never say no to scampi). If the revamped garden wasn’t draw enough, The Star’s reverse-BYOB scheme encourages punters to bring their own food, with exciting weekend pop-up kitchens. Look out for residencies from the likes of Tippan Tippan Nepalese, Cranston Pickles and Lorenchini arancini.

The Star is popular among Oxford’s hip local pub-goers (The Star Cowley)

Jericho Coffee Traders

Since its days as a turquoise tuk-tuk serving the farmers’ markets of Oxford, Jericho Coffee Traders has come a long way – now serving matchless coffees from its High Street Espresso Bar (and Cafe) as well as from its Roastery site in Osney Mead. Time it right, and you can leave with beans straight out of the roaster. Aromatic small batches aside, be sure not to miss “​​doughnut day”, baked fresh by local Tap Social chef Frideswide O’Neill. With flavours including blackcurrant jam and malted chocolate custard, you don’t even need to be a coffee drinker to make a beeline for JCT. Espresso Bar: Monday to Saturday 8.30am-5.30pm; Sunday 10am-5.30pm.

Knoops Hot Chocolate

Turl Street was hardly short of a hot-drinks outlet (see notable neighbours Turl Street Kitchen and Missing Bean), but still, it hadn’t got as far as a hot chocolate specialist. Until the arrival of Knoops – with its literal catalogue of options, numbering 20 chocolate varieties alone, not omitting a choice of milks, marshmallow and cream, and even add-ons of herbs and spices. You could spend the afternoon decoding clipboard descriptions of origin, percentage and flavour (such as Congo 70 per cent with “notes of cherries and black tea with a subtle earthiness), or you could take our word for the 75 per cent Tanzanian, marvel at its “intense fruitiness with a subtle spiciness”, and promise to come again. Monday to Saturday 7.30am-8pm and 10am-7pm on Sunday.

Where to shop

Artisan food a plenty at 2 North Parade (Louise Long)

2 North Parade

Among all of Oxford’s artisan food stores, 2 North Parade occupies prime position on the city’s most charming market street, a hop from the centre of town. And the store’s offering is unbeatable, too: meticulously sourced fresh and seasonal provisions spanning British and Irish farmhouse cheeses and charcuterie, Gatineau quiche slices and Hamblin sausage rolls, Oxfordshire apple juice delivered by bicycle, and ​​organic milk from a micro dairy 15 miles north of the city (where Josh, the farmer, knows all his cows by name). Coffee is from locally roasted Missing Bean, and Friday is bagel day – you’ve been warned! Wednesday to Friday: 8.30am-5.30pm; Saturday 8.30am-3pm; Sunday 10am-2pm.

Objects of Use

OoU’s impeccable displays are reason alone to visit the city; a haven of a modern-day homeware store, founded on the concept of “voluntary simplicity”. Products for home, garden, kitchen and “Camp” are each conscientiously sourced examples of their kind – from Ukrainian enamel bowls to Portuguese notebooks. We’re especially taken by their hand-dipped beeswax candles, made in Cumbria – the perfect gift-to-self. Monday to Saturday 8.30am-5pm.

Objects of Use, founded on the concept of ‘voluntary simplicity’ (Louise Long)

The Covered Market

As with many features of central Oxford, the Covered Market is one of the oldest in the country – having been in continual operation since the 1770s. Today its labyrinth of 50-odd vendors range from artisan brewers to independent jewellery designers, alongside traditional grocers, haberdasheries, pie-makers, and student-favourite cafes (look no further than Georgina’s). Take a perch at Columbia Coffee Roasters for award-winning, homegrown brews, or feast your eyes on the display cabinets at Wicked Chocolate, the one that dreams are made of. Monday to Saturday 8.30am-5.30pm; Sunday 10am-4pm.

Architectural highlight

From medieval to modernist, architectural prizes are ten-a-penny in Oxford, scattered among its churches, colleges, libraries, theatres, and museums. And for more than 800 years, visitors have been making their first stop to the city Christ Church Cathedral, set on the shrine of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford. The Cathedral – with its unique, dual role as regional and college place of worship – retains much of its 12th-century foundations, soared by a breathtaking 15th-century vaulted nave, and above again by Christopher Wren’s famous Tom Tower: an unmistakable motif on the city’s skyline, the first of the city’s “dreaming spires”.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do they use?

British Pounds

What language do they speak?

English

Should I tip?

Most bills will guide you; commonly 12.5 per cent included.

How should I get around?

Most central sights are walkable, but if driving from outside the city, the Park and Ride is a convenient option – city centre parking is limited and not cheap.

What’s the best view?

From the tower at the top of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, with a panorama over the Radcliffe Camera and back across the High Street. At 127 steps, it is the highest aspect in the city.

Insider tip?

If you can avoid becoming too starry-eyed over Oxford’s historic centre, take a moment to sample its other, more diverse neighbourhoods. Hit up Raoul’s Bar in Jericho on the way back from sunset on Port Meadow, or catch the bus to Cowley to sample the foodie hub around Magdalen Rd.

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