It can sometimes be overwhelming when planning an itinerary for Britain. So many great places beckon you to explore, but if you want to experience quaint ye olde England, then be sure to squeeze in a quick summer’s day in Oxford.
Known for its stellar university which is one of the oldest universities in the world, Oxford is awash with adorable cobbled lanes, grand buildings of varying architecture, steepled rooftops and history at every turn. Not forgetting the peaceful rivers that meander through plush botanical gardens and past snoozing riverbank students; calm waters perfect for a punting session. Taking command of a punt boat on the river is a must-do in Oxford – add a splash of Prosecco, a handful of strawberries and some curious ducks, and this is about as British as cities come!
I’ve picked out some top things to do in Oxford so be sure to take note and add this little city onto your trip.
A perfect British summer’s day in Oxford
Begin with a big feed:
With Oxford only being 1.5 hours out of London, definitely hire a car and make a road-trip out of it. It’s super fast to get there on a train, but with train prices in the UK soaring, it can actually work out a whole lot cheaper if you hire a car with a bunch of friends. It will also make it easier for you to reach places on the outskirts of Oxford, such as the delicious pub, The Perch.
Wooden beams hang low inside making it a typically cosy British pub. But as soon as you emerge into the garden, you feel like you have all the space in the world. Willow trees drape romantically beside an array of picnic benches dotted about the long, green garden, hobbled trees are the perfect playground for adventurous kids hyped up on juice, and an overgrown path lit by fairy lights leads a mysterious way at the bottom of the garden.
Fill your belly on succulent roast lunches with generous Yorkshire puddings before taking a walk along the garden path to the beyond. You emerge at the river Thames with flitting sail boats, fields of buttercups and distant horses galloping across meadows – this spot of the river is where Lewis Carroll rowed his muse, Alice, before penning a tale known today as ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. With a good feed and a dose of the heady countryside, venture into Oxford for a bit of city life.
Explore dark prisons:
Kick-off your visit to Oxford by wandering through the historical quarter. The castle in Oxford dates back to the Norman era and large parts still stand today – sections remain protected, but other parts have formed an area of restaurants and bars. Snake your way up the Castle Mound for a view over the rooftops of Oxford and the castle.
Once at the top, creep through a narrow doorway and down the long staircase into the damp darkness to where a well provided water during sieges in the 13th century. Take an Oxford Unlocked tour and be guided through underground crypts, prisons and up the Saxon St George’s Tower for a 360? view over Oxford.
Punt like you’ve never punted before!
Follow this up with a brilliant punt along the River Cherwell, which joins the River Thames within Oxford city. A tradition that has been going on for years and is championed by the students who call Oxford home, punting is a favourite pastime when the summer finally arrives.
Head to Magdalen Bridge Boathouse to hire a punt – these narrow wooden boats are reminiscent of Venice’s gondolas (albeit a tad more shabby and rickety) and need someone either experienced or savvy at balancing to stand at the rear and push the boat with the long pole. We had our surfer friend steer ours – glad he came to use or we may have had to hire a punt-driver to help us. Jam the punt pole into the riverbed, push to go and steer. Watch out for oncoming punts and definitely take a bottle of bubbly to toast to the slow scenery around you – a perfectly quaint outing.
Getting lost is a good thing:
Exploring and traipsing the streets is a key thing to do in Oxford – wander through the covered market for some lunch on-the-go, walk along cobbled streets past hordes of bicycles trustingly locked only by their back wheels (not even to lampposts or fencing!), and crane your neck up at the impressive structures topped with spires that inspired poet Matthew Arnold to proclaim Oxford as the “city of dreaming spires”.
Discounts for dreadlocks:
Wander into The Albion Beatnik Bookstore for the UK’s most eclectic collection of books – get 10% off if you have dreadlocks, but be thrown out of the store if you ask, “Do you have WIFI?” – then head over to the Ashmolean Museum for more culture. It’s the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology and it’s stock full of exciting exhibitions. Even if you only get to see the outside of the museum it’s enough of a visual treat.
An architect’s fantasy:
Oxford is a university city through and through – students rule the streets, cycling along carefree to class, and they are truly lucky to have the brilliant buildings to call their lecture theatres. Not only do the buildings date back to the 11th century, but they also have modern additions that are pretty impressive.
If you’re an architecture boffin, head to St Anthony’s College and wander into the quiet courtyard. Opposite the 1960’s/70’s buildings squatted on one side, you’ll see the slick and shiny curves of the new building for the Middle East Centre. This was designed by the world renowned female architect, Zaha Hadid – the first woman who received the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004).
Snozzcumber drinks are real:
When your legs tire and your feet cry out for a pause (Note: wear comfy shoes when exploring Oxford. I did not. Please heed my warning!), fuel your fire down in Jericho – an area of Oxford that is full of quirky shops, cafes and bars. Raoul’s is a fantastic place for a quality tipple or three – try a few cocktails to get a wide taste of the mixologist’s skills and be sure to definitely get out your comfort zone! Snozzcumber Buck, anyone?
Rock the Kazbar:
A brilliant place to eat in Oxford is Kazbar – this Moroccan-themed restaurant is decorated to perfection with mosaic tabletops and pretty hanging lanterns. Try to nab a table outside under the fairy lights on a balmy summer’s eve.
The menu revolves around a Moroccan and Spanish fusion; dig into tapas by candlelight and order a variety of dishes for your table to share. From homemade baba ganoush and garlicky hummus to spicy stuffed peppers, all flavours are on-point so watch out you don’t inhale too many dishes and have your waistband straining painfully!
Exploring cobbled streets, eating delicious foods, drinking gin cocktails and punting along rivers all equate to a perfect British summer’s day in Oxford – soak up the culture and history that steeps the city, and pretend you’re an Oxford student or a world famous writer gathering inspiration for your next book. Don’t miss Oxford on your next road-trip through Britain… and try not to fall off your punt!
Images 5 & 11 by Alex Saint, all other photographs by Sophie Saint