10 things to do in Oxford (that aren’t a university!)
There's more to explore in Oxford than the university which dominates its skyline (Picture ©VisitEngland)
We all know Oxford is famed for its universities’ beautiful, awe-inspiring, award-winning buildings and architecture – both ancient and modern. (Find out more in the student insider’s guide to Oxford!)
But what if you want to experience another side of Oxford? There’s a whole world of diverse food and drink, arts, sports and cultural activities to explore here, whether you’re visiting for the weekend or killing a couple of hours between classes.
Here, Matthew Leake from Oxford Brookes University reveals his 10 favourite things to do in Oxford – without setting foot in a university quad, library, tower or garden!
1. Visit Oxford Castle
Oxford Castle was originally built in 1071 as a base for William the Conqueror to control the area. It also served as a Royalist fortress during the English Civil War, and later a court and county hall. It was a prison as recently as 1996.
But since then, things have changed – the whole area has been redeveloped as the Oxford Castle Quarter, a buzzing place full of restaurants and bars, a gallery and a luxury hotel with former prison cells for rooms. There’s a man-made beach during the summer, complete with palm trees and beach volleyball. You can tour the castle and scale the historic mound for fantastic views of the city and surrounding countryside.
2. Taste dishes from around the world on Cowley Road
If you miss your country’s cuisine, chances are that you can find it on Cowley Road (pictured right).
Stretching the length of one of Oxford’s most multicultural neighbourhoods, here you can discover Bangladeshi curry houses, Japanese sushi restaurants, Turkish kebab shops, Brazilian, Jamaican and Chinese eateries. You can listen to live flamenco while nibbling on Spanish tapas, or sample a shisha with your Lebanese mezze. Or if you want to eat at home, you’ll find plenty of unique ingredients at the Greek, Baltic and Italian delicatessens, African grocers and Asian supermarkets. Of course, you can still find England’s favourite supper – fish and chips!
3. Shop for anything in the Covered Market
Nestled in the heart of Oxford, the Covered Market (right) is a hive of butchers, florists, cafes, gift shops, clothing and shoe shops, jewellers, barbers and much more. It originated in the 1770s as a way of moving the city’s burgeoning market stalls off its main streets, and it's now a wonderful place to explore (and get lost) – you could browse here for
Oxford also has many independent stores where you can
buy unique objects for your bedroom, accessories or gifts – from feather quill sets to tailor-made leather brogues. Try Scriptum Fine Stationery on
Turl Street or Arcadia on St Michael’s Street.
4. See a Shakespeare play in a curious setting
Oxford is full of theatres, but many production companies use the sights of the city as a creative backdrop to their plays. Companies like Creation Theatre have staged Shakespeare plays in the grounds of Oxford Castle, the BMW Mini factory, Blackwell’s bookshop and Headington Hill Park.
5. Stroll across Port Meadow
A short walk from the city centre and you can breathe in the fresh air of Port Meadow, a beautiful natural stretch of land, bordered by the River Thames. Due to historic grazing rights and its archaeological value, the area is completely unspoilt and is home to ponies, migrating birds and wildflowers. Visiting Port Meadow is a brilliant way of experiencing the great British countryside without even driving out of Oxford.
Sailing on Port Meadow (and admiring local wildlife!) ©VisitEngland Images
6. Take afternoon tea at the Randolph Hotel
Afternoon tea is the most British of British traditions (pictured right, at Quod Brasserie in Oxford).
You might feel like royalty, but anyone can book afternoon tea in the Drawing Room of the five-star Randolph Hotel. Served on a three-tier platter are scones with Devon clotted cream and jam, afternoon pastries, fruit cake, sandwiches and a range of teas. Take a seat by the window and watch the world go by.
7. Glide along the river on a punt
Your time in Oxford is incomplete without taking to the water on a long, flat boat, called a punt. You propel the boat forward using a long metal pole which you push into the river bed – or alternatively, pay a chauffeur to put in the effort. Punts can be rented for an hour or more, on both the Thames and Cherwell rivers. As a passenger, relax as you drift along the banks and under bridges, while the ducks swim up to you asking for some lunch.
8. Marvel at Blenheim Palace
One of the UK’s 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites, Blenheim Palace is a magnificent stately home. It was built as a tribute to the Duke of Marlborough in the early 1700s, and in 1874 it was the birthplace of Winston Churchill. You can tour the interior of the palace to see its outstanding architecture and exquisite collections of portraits, tapestries and furniture, or explore its landscaped parkland, lake and gardens.
9. See an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford
Oxford’s leading modern art gallery hosts the latest visual contemporary art exhibitions. Modern Art Oxford (right) has worked with some of the biggest names in modern art, who have used the gallery space to display their
innovative paintings, sculptures and films, and to create immersive installations.
10. Go to the pub
World-famous authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet in Oxford’s pubs to discuss their latest novels. Why not have a refreshing drink with a
friend at one of the city’s centuries-old pubs, and tell them about everything you’ve seen in Oxford?
The Trout Inn, a pub by the River Thames in Oxford ©VisitBritain/Tourism South East
If you’re feeling adventurous, try to find the famous Turf Tavern which is hidden down a tiny passageway joining Holywell Street and New College Lane. You will have to squeeze in, but once you’re inside it will feel like you’ve been transported straight into a Charles Dickens novel!
And that’s it! Your tour of Oxford is complete, and you haven’t entered a single university building. (You could always do that next week…)
• Explore the UK: More city guides for students
• Country houses on film: Find the locations of Downton Abbey, Batman and Notting Hill
• Choosing a university or college in the UK
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