I’ve heard stories of tourists arriving in Oxford and asking the seemingly innocent question of where the university is. The answer: everywhere! However, if the world-famous city were only a centre of academic excellence, I doubt that I would’ve survived three years there as an undergraduate. For the prepared visitor, there is way more than just the chance to look at old buildings and walk the same paths as notable alumni. Here are ten of the best things to do in the so-called “City of Dreaming Spires”:
1. Explore The Covered Market
Avenue 3, Oxford Covered Market
Generally, I don’t like shopping one bit, but even I was charmed by this collection of largely independent traders. The market has entrances on three streets and is by no means small, but its placement away from the open air means that one could still miss it. Doing so would be a tragedy of the highest order — for as well as supporting mostly local businesses instead of huge chains, you may leave with some quirky new clothes, homeware or whatever else takes your fancy. Street food has an increasingly strong presence too, with a new souvlaki shop joining Ben’s Cookies and Moo-Moo’s milkshake bar.
2. Look Inside The Blackwell’s Flagship Store
The Norrington Room, Blackwell’s Oxford
This is the kind of shopping that does get me excited! The main floor at street level is impressive enough, but descending the stairs brings you into the paradisal Norrington Room. This space holds the Guinness World Record for the largest single room selling books, with over 160,000 items on more than 3 miles of shelving. As an added extra, part of the shop is just for music, with themed T-shirts and mugs accompanying CDs and instruments.
3. Sit At The Tolkien Table
Tolkien Table, Merton College
If you visit Merton College, head to the gardens. Here, a string of benches half-surrounds a raised, hexagonal stone slab. This is the Tolkien Table, named after the famous author who was also Merton’s Professor of English between 1945 and 1959. It is rumoured that much of his work was written at this table, and may even have inspired the setting for the Fellowship’s formation in The Lord of The Rings!
4. Go Punting
Punting On The River Cherwell
The university’s students can go punting for free because their college should have a fleet available for use, but don’t let them have all the fun! Commercial boathouses on the River Cherwell hire out punts, each of which can sit up to six people, making it a great group activity. Unfortunately for me, I only happened to do it once, but I’ll always remember the completely different perspective and beautiful view of the world from cruising slowly along the Cherwell’s surface.
5. Admire The Botanic Garden
Water Lilies, Oxford Botanic Garden
The Oxford Botanic Garden is the third oldest in the world still to be on its original site, just after those in Padua and Leiden. Founded in 1621, it’s currently home to almost 6,000 species of plant, including cannabis (the non-narcotic variety, sorry). The peace within is remarkable, despite the complex’s placement just off the High Street. Lovers of literature will be pleased to know that the garden also contains the focal bench from the very last section of The Amber Spyglass!
6. Visit The Museum of Natural History
Main Gallery, Oxford University Museum of Natural History
In case you needed reminding that London’s Natural History Museum isn’t the only one in existence, Oxford has its own! In private sections lie the world’s oldest pinned insect and the only soft-tissue remains of a dodo, but easier to view are publicly displayed specimens such as the first dinosaur ever to receive a scientific description. Perhaps best of all for the thrifty tourist, entry is free!
7. Party Hard In A Club
“Cheese Floor”, ATIK Oxford
Perhaps a slightly strange suggestion if you’re not an Oxford student, but it might be worth the risk if you go in the near rather than distant future (nobody likes to be the eldest in such situations). A personal favourite was Atik on Park End Street, whose big night falls on a Wednesday during term time. If you like classic bangers from decades past, you’ll want the “Cheese Floor”.
8. Stroll Through Port Meadow
Port Meadow, Spring 2017
Want to see some greenery but not abandon the city completely? Port Meadow can help you there. Whenever I went, I loved seeing the nationally uncommon red kites soaring almost effortlessly across the sky, but the site is even more important for creeping marshwort, being one of only two places in Britain to host this very rare species of plant.
9. Eat Ice Cream From G & D’s
G & D’s, Little Clarendon Street
G & D’s is a trio of ice cream shops unique to Oxford, founded in 1992. If you’re feeling extremely naughty and thinking about eating from all of them on the same day, I can say from personal experience that it can be done and that it is glorious. Even eating from one of their shops won’t come cheap, but you certainly get what you pay for.
10. Dine Out In Jericho
Walton Street, Jericho
This part of Oxford lies away from the city centre, and is therefore pleasantly quiet by comparison. I’ll never forget going to the Mamma Mia Pizzeria on my last evening as an undergraduate, only to eat a tasty pasta dish instead. Restaurants exist in the city centre too, of course, but they don’t have the same sense of escapism.
Being old, distinguished and surrounded by countryside means that Oxford has something for everyone. If you’re thinking about where to go for your next urban getaway, I hope I’ve thrown another strong candidate into the mix!