Secret City: Oxford

View over Oxford spires from the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

By Lauren Turnbull, Oxford International Study Centre

From Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter, discover the facts and fiction behind Oxford – the original student town (Oxford University is said to be the oldest in the English-speaking world)! Lauren Turnbull, Summer Programmes Manager at Oxford International Study Centre, gives us a tour...

Oxford: Key facts

Location: Oxfordshire, south England
Population: 151,900 (2011 Census)
Famous for: Academics, museums and architecture
Oxford sports: Rowing is one of the most popular sports in Oxford, particularly for the annual Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race. Or try punting – propelling a flat-bottomed boat using a long pole – and hire a punt from one of the two main boathouses along the River Cherwell
Oxford in literature: The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis; Inspector Morse by Colin Dexter; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Famous people from Oxford: Actors Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Emma Watson and Miriam Margolyes, scientist Stephen Hawking, writers Lewis Carroll and Colin Dexter, entrepreneur Richard Branson, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron
Did you know… During the Second World War, Oxford was never bombed – this was because Hitler intended to use Oxford as the capital of England once he had conquered it (luckily, of course, this never happened). This is why much of Oxford’s historic architecture is still standing today.
Nearest airports:  Oxford Airport (non-commercial flights), London Heathrow, London Gatwick
Train to London takes: 58 minutes

Students hanging out in the Memorial Gardens, Oxford ©VisitBritain / Britain on View

Fairytale Oxford

Oxford is often called ‘the city of dreaming spires’ (a line by the poet Matthew Arnold – and the picture above shows why!), and whether you’re a student or not, Oxford University is very much at its heart. From the top of St Mary's Church tower, you can gaze out across the world-famous colleges – many of which date back over 800 years – and their mediaeval architecture is breathtaking.

One of the most famous is Christ Church, Oxford's largest college, which provided inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. You could easily think you’ve stepped into the world of Harry Potter here – and that’s not a coincidence, as Hogwarts’ Great Hall is a replica of this college’s dining hall!

Look familiar? Many 'Harry Potter' scenes were filmed in Christ Church college ©VisitBritain/ K.Sakasai

Walk across to New College and you'll also recognise the tree under which Malfoy was turned into a ferret by ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody. And if you’ve read His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, go to the Botanic Gardens and find the bench where Lyra and Will sit at noon on midsummer’s day every year – the only thing connecting them between parallel universes.

Cultural Oxford

The magical atmosphere extends beyond Harry Potter's film set. Oxford is an important cultural centre – the Ashmolean Museum is the world’s first university museum, while the Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum boast a weird and wonderful collection of dinosaur bones and ancient relics.

Art and antiquities: The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford ©VisitBritain / Britain on View

Almost all museums in Oxford are free, making them a great place to visit on a student budget, and they cater for a wide variety of interests – from international art and jewellery to early scientific instruments. Just remember, museums in Oxford are all closed on Mondays.

The university’s Botanic Gardens are also the oldest in Britain, and a visit here is a must. From here you can watch the boats on the river, or join in, for a uniquely Oxford experience. Punting is popular among people of all ages, but especially students! You can hire a punt either from Magdalen Bridge in the city centre, or the Cherwell Boathouse north of the centre.

Summer school students punting on the River Cherwell ©Lake School of English Oxford

Fun and friendly Oxford

As a student in Oxford, there’s a lot more to do besides the cultural sights! There are frequent student nights in bars and pubs, which are a great chance to meet people, including lots of other international students. Oxford is a safe city, and the centre is not big, which means you can save money on travel costs – you can walk or cycle almost everywhere.

Cycling past the Radcliffe Camera, an iconic Oxford building ©VisitBritain / Daniel Bosworth

The suburb of Jericho is popular among students, particularly for its cocktail bars and restaurants. Though it’s a bit more expensive than other areas, you’re guaranteed to meet lots of other students and enjoy high-quality food and drinks. For a cheaper night out, Cowley Road is also full of students, with an eclectic mix of places to eat and drink. In the centre of the city, you can visit Oxford’s oldest pub – The Bear was established in 1242!

Continue the conversation at the Oxford Union, a society that some visiting students can also access through their college. A weekly debate is hosted in the famous debating chamber, and guest speakers have ranged from Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama to Clint Eastwood.

Oxford is a wonderful place to meet other people and share experiences. Carolyn Llewelyn, Director of Oxford International Study Centre, has been in Oxford for many years and seen students from all over the world come and go. She says: ‘Oxford offers a very valuable experience for students academically, socially and culturally. We see a lot of people fall in love with this city.’

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