Want to make the most of Oxford but don’t know where to start? It’s a city that on the surface is just dreaming spires and tourist coffee shops, but it’s way more groovy than that if you know where to head (and yep, we do!). Here’s the Muddy Insider Guide to the coolest, quirkiest, unmissable bits of the city, whether you’re a local or heading here on a special break.
(Tip: think in areas. Central Oxford for the spires; Jericho for student and boho cool; Cowley Road for grimy/trendy; and Summertown for a gentrified suburb.)
Breakfast with a view at Vaults & Garden café
For breakfast, The Breakfast Club on Westgate Oxford’s rooftop is an obvious option (clue’s in the name) with fry-ups and American pancakes, plus you’re only an escalator ride down to catch the shops as they open. Vaults & Garden café is a tourist crowd-pleaser in a lovely spot next to University Church and Radcliffe Camera in Oxford University’s Old Congregation House of 1320, or get your bike fixed alongside your grub at Handlebar Café on St Michael’s St, serving breakfast through to evening tapas at the weekend. For quirky interiors (and the best garlic mushrooms in Oxford) try Cafe Coco, a staple on Cowely Road since 1992, or hop over the the parallel Iffley Road for beautiful cakes and a seasonal, locally sourced menu at SILVIE.
Lunch? Our tip is the café and restaurant on the top floor of the Ashmolean Museum; it’s light, bright and has a lovely rooftop terrace with tantilising glimpses of the Oxford skyline. If you’re looking for a pub, try the Magdalen Arms (a short bus ride or 15 minute walk across Magdalen Bridge), The Perch (by lovely local walking spot Port Meadow) or The Cherwell Boat house for a more starchy restaurant experience and views of the Thames.
For dinner, try Victorian greenhouse Gee’s for sheer prettiness with its fairy lights, foliage and buzzy vibe that suits both romantics or groups, the equally atmospheric independent French restaurant Pierre Victoire on Little Clarendon Street, restaurant/gallery space The Jam Factory, or for cool NYC-inspired hangout Dirty Bones. For world cuisine, there’s also The Coconut Tree on St Clement’s offering Sri Lankan small plates and buzzy vibe, or Taste Tibet on Magdalen Road which serves Himalayan soul food.
Rebranded over lockdown, Two One Five Kitchen & Drinks in Summertown (formerly The Oxford Kitchen, the city’s only Michelin-starred restaurant) is an excellent option for fine-dining without the pomp, fuss and killer price tag. Or, over on grimily trendy Cowley Road, head for Arbequina for tapas, or it’s Bib Gourmand-rated sister restaurant Oli’s Thai up Iffley Road (top tip: book ahead, the restaurant is tiny and tables are like gold dust).
Vanbrugh House Hotel
The Randolph, directly opposite the Ashmolean museum will probably come up first on most Google searches and will be re-opening late summer 2021 with revamped interiors and new wellness centre with a steam, sauna, ice room and jaccuzi following in autumn. There’s also the popular Old Bank Hotel with its decent Quod restaurant and bar, or the more boutique-style Vanbrugh House Hotel – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh (the architect of Blenheim Palace) it has lovely rooms, some with private courtyards, and enormous bathrooms but be warned, no restaurant dinner service.
The Old Parsonage
Perhaps the most stylish of the central Oxford hotels is The Old Parsonage with 35 individually designed rooms mixing modern interiors with eclectic country house charm and heritage – plus there’s an excellent fine dining restaurant serving modern British dishes that’s worth a visit even if you’re not staying over.
For the quirky factor stay in the iconic ‘Shark House’ in Headington (see it to believe it!), or for an inexpensive, authentic way to explore Oxford, stay in a college room. They’re not flash by any means but the likes of Christchurch, Magdalen, Trinity and Jesus colleges all take part, and you can feel part of the brainy gang for a while.
Pack a picnic and perch on the riverbank
The city is surprisingly compact and you can walk around the centre in a morning. Get your bearings on Broad Street for the Christopher Wren-designed Sheldonian Theatre, peer left for the Bodleian Library, walk past it for the stunning Radcliffe Camera and stop off at beautiful colleges at every turn.
If the buildings get to much, you’d be surprised how easy it is to find bucolic scenes in the city. Christchurch Meadow behind the Christchurch College is a stunning area that takes you down to the river – take a picnic on a sunny day. But for an even better walk only the locals know, head to Port Meadow, 300 acres of grazing land bang in the city (and mentioned back in the Doomsday Book) where you can stop off for lunch at The Perch or a little further on The Trout or Jacobs Inn – all excellent pubs.
Raise your cocktail game at Victors
Oxford has an extraordinary number of pubs, and if you’re looking for an authentic Morse-type experience, head to The Turf Tavern, accessible only down a narrow passageway underneath the Bridge of Sighs and hidden by imposing medieval walls. For something more chichi head to the roof terrace of Westgate Oxford to Insta-catnip Victors with it’s floral and foliage interiors, or for totally bonkers concoctions (fairy liquid in your martini, anyone?) there’s The Alchemist. The Varsity Club is also a dead cert for traditional cocktails and views of the spires that rival Westgate. If you prefer your feet planted firmly on the ground then Raoul’s in Jericho is a dead cert with moody lighting and an extensive menu.
The wine wall at Wilding
For vino you’ll want to head to the Oxford Wine Café in Jericho (peer through the glass floor windows to peek at the bottles in the cellar), or find the brand new Wilding just round the corner on Little Clarendon Street with 50 wines by the glass and 400 available to buy (that’s not a challenge, ladies…). The Plough at 38, sitting plum in the city centre, also has an extensive wine list along with a new alfresco seating area.
There’s also a string of pubs and bars along Cowley Road (where the cool barometer rises as the air quality count decreases), namely Spanish/Moroccan-inspired Kazbar (think twinkly lights and brilliant cocktails) and Café Tarifa.
And finally, if you’re after coffee you’re spoilt for choice with indie shops peppered through the city. Our top picks are Jericho Coffee Traders, which both have outposts in the centre of Oxford; Columbia Coffee Roasters in Summertown which has a range of speciality coffees; small, friendly, cycling-inspired Peloton Espresso in East Oxford which offers an excellent selection of sweet teats alongside specialty coffee.
The Westgate Centre’s £440 million transformation in late 2017 dramatically changed Oxford’s shopping scene with a much improved women’s fashion offering (no more commuting to London or Reading!), including & Other Stories, COS, Reiss and Oliver Bonas. For men head to Burrows & Hare, or for all living creatures, the impressive John Lewis with its personal styling service. The best indie shops are dotted randomly – mostly in Jericho or up the Cowley Road – and must-visits include Vanilla boutique in Summertown and interiors store Central Living on Little Clarendon Street. The Covered Market in central Oxford has a large number of indoor indie sellers.
Cherwell Boathouse punts
Where to start?! If we’re talking ‘tick off lists’ then we’d better start with punting. The easiest place to start is next to Magdalen Bridge and you can hire a punter if you’re worried about crashing – it’s not cheap but we’re not talking Venice prices here. From here you’re across the way from the Botanical Gardens, which is well worth a visit. Every self-respecting tourist should also take a tour of the Bodliean Library – choose the one where you get to see Sir Humphry’s library, it’s incredible. Pick off a couple of colleges to see – the most beautiful is Magdalen College, but St John’s, Christchurch, Trinity, Worcester and Balliol all give it a run for its money. It’s also worth a look in at tiny St Edmund ‘Teddy’ Hall with its bijou front quad. And you wouldn’t be a real tourist without a bus tour, right? The open-topped bus is your best option on a sunny day – just hop on and off as you please.
The Pitt Rivers Museum
There are some particularly child-friendly museums in Oxford, including the newly re-opened and revitalised Story Museum – a playground for kids (and adults) with its Enchanted Library, Whispering Wood and interactive elements. Pitt Rivers is also a goodie to keep them gawping all afternoon at the African masks and totems, along with the dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum next door. For eats you can’t go wrong with pizza – try Pizza Pilgrims on Westgate Rooftop, or the award-winning Mamma Mia which has two outposts in Summertown and Jericho.
Stay in a prison (er, don’t forget your key)
You’ll think the Bates Museum of Musical Instruments odd yet strangely compelling! It houses Handel’s harpsichord amongst scores of historical instruments and is a fun drop-in (it’s just next to the entrance to Christchurch Meadows). The Museum of the History of Science (next to The Sheldonian Theatre). is also ‘niche’ but exciting – go check out Einstein’s blackboard and Lewis Carrol’s photographic equipment. The Story Museum has recently undergone a £6m renovation and has quirk mainlining through its veins. And finally, if you want to stay in a prison, be my guest – Malmaison rooms are to found at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in the former penitentiary.
Christchurch Picture Gallery
Aside from the big beasts of The Ashmolean, Natural History Museum and The Sheldonian Theatre there are also plenty of lesser known treasures – the lovely Christchurch Picture Gallery next to Christchurch Meadows with its collection of old masters drawings CHECK IF THIS IS OPEN YET; a trip to the top of St Michael in the North Gate on Cornmarket St (the tower is from Saxon times); walking to the top of The Sheldonian Theatre for a look out across the spires – it’s an amazing and rarely seen view. There’s also the brilliant Modern Art Oxford which always hosts interesting exhibitions from both up-and-coming and established contemporary artists and photographers, all for FREE.
Arts-wise, the North Wall theatre in Summertown is highly impressive with a fast turnover of comedians and award-winning shows; Oxford Playhouse and New Theatre are your go-tos for the big-hitter shows; Creation Theatre puts on productions in quirky locations across the city (Blackwell’s bookshop, the escalators at Westgate Oxford et al.).
You’re best to head up Cowley Road if you’re feeling trendy. It’s five minutes in a cab or 15 minutes walk from the centre of town, over the Magdalen Bridge. You’ll find Truck Store here, Oxford’s only independent music shop selling CDs, vinyl and books as well as The Ultimate Picture Palace indie cinema. Head to the other side of Oxford, to Botley, and there’s the equally hip indie brewery and tap room Tap Social Movement tucked away on an industrial estate – the venue often hosts street food stalls as well as live music nights.
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