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Visiting Oxford with a local
When you think of visiting Oxford, UK, what’s the first image that springs to mind? The university, no doubt. Although the exact date of its foundation remains shrouded in mystery, Oxford is thought to be the world’s oldest university, with evidence of teaching as far back as the eleventh century (just don’t mention this in its rival university town, Cambridge). Unlike most UK universities, Oxford is divided into over 30 colleges, where professors are based and students live. Dotted all over the city, each has its own identity and attraction (‘beauty’ may be a step too far in the case of 1960s-style St Catherine’s College), making Oxford an interesting and rewarding city to explore.
Around almost every corner in the city lurks an ancient surprise: a grand old library, a college door open to reveal a perfect rectangle of manicured lawn, the Oxford Bridge of Sighs. If you visit in term-time, Oxford will be thronged with eclectically dressed students, weaving through the streets on rickety bicycles or hurrying to their next lecture. However, the city is much more than just the university, as winter or summer visitors in particular will appreciate. Although the ‘town and gown’ divide between Oxford’s residents and its student population is nowhere as deep as is often suggested, the city does have two distinct personalities; the traditional, academic one, and another more modern side.
I first arrived in Oxford as a wide-eyed 18 year old student. The beautiful, perfectly-proportioned city was a thing of wonder to me, so different to the modern residential landscape in the north of England where I grew up. I loved wandering the central Covered Market, with its food stalls, chic shops and cute cafés; picnicking in the botanic garden or the university parks; exploring its expanding restaurant and bar scene. However, I obviously had to study too, and the workload at Oxford isn’t exactly light, limiting my time for leisure. I still hadn’t had enough of Oxford’s charm by the time I graduated, so working there was a natural decision. Over the years, I had my fair share of weekend visitors, and I came to relish the chance to act as a tour guide, combining sightseeing fun with my local knowledge. Now that I’ve moved on from Oxford, I thought I’d find a new way to share the scoop on my favourite city.
Luxury-seeking visitors can bed down at the sleek Malmaison hotel, a former prison converted into a stylish place to stay. It’s located in the Oxford Castle complex, a perfect example of old-meets-new: the castle area and the prison have been converted for new purposes, and a selection of restaurants and bars have sprung up around them. For a less expensive (but still chic) experience, go local in the Summertown neighbourhood in north Oxford: easily reached by Buses number 2 and 7 from the centre, it has a number of stylish B & Bs (such as the Remont and the Galaxie), restaurants and shops.
The best way to get a feel for Oxford and its beauty is to explore on foot; the city is compact and traffic-free areas make it pedestrian friendly (watch out for crazed cyclists, though!). The most beautiful colleges are in the city centre: Start with the grand Christ Church, which boasts its own cathedral, art gallery and meadow. Harry Potter fans are in for a treat – its dining hall is the one where the boy wizard and his friends eat in the films. Other colleges worth visiting include Magdalen, with its impressive cloisters, large gardens and even its own deer park, Balliol and Merton, but it’s worth at least peeping round the door of any college you come across.
Some colleges allow visitors to enter for free, while many of the most popular charge a small fee. Visitors can also explore Oxford University’s most famous central library, the Bodleain, and a number of other buildings and museums, including the recently renovated Ashmolean Museum, a treasure trove of art and artefacts (and even better, entry is free).
I’m the kind of girl who likes to regularly punctuate her sightseeing with refueling stops (aka excuses to indulge). The Covered Market is a great spot for a rainy day, with plenty of sandwich shops (try Ricardo’s) and cafés to linger in. My favourite reason for visiting is for dessert: Drop by Ben’s Cookies and ask what has just come out of the oven for a gooey, chocolatey treat. For the English high tea experience, try the elegant Grand Café on High Street, a glamorous oasis of mirrored walls, marble pillars and gold leaf.
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-track lunch stop or coffee break, the relaxed Jericho area in North Oxford (a ten minute walk from the centre) is an ever-so-slightly bohemian neighbourhood packed with small cafés (try Manos or The Jericho Café), pubs and some excellent restaurants. In summer, however, nothing beats a picnic.
Pick up a sandwich or salad and head to the vast University Parks, where you’re bound to find a secluded spot by the river to watch over-excited students careering past in punts. Those inspired by their Pimms-fuelled antics can rent their own punt next to Magdalen Bridge, but be warned – steering one is harder than it looks!
My favourite places to spend an evening are the Jericho and Cowley Road areas. For me, a perfect Jericho evening begins with a cocktail at the Duke of Cambridge on Little Clarendon Street, a haven of bars and restaurants. The Duke is a minimalist, classy affair with wooden floors, cream walls and leather banquettes. The decor and drinks may be sophisticated, but the atmosphere is unpretentious, making the Duke a great place to start your night in style. The best bit is that until 8pm (7 on Friday and Saturday), cocktails are half price. If you’re in search of a candle-lit supper, French bistro Pierre Victoire is two doors further down the street. A romantic restaurant with a menu of delicious meat, fish and vegetarian dishes at a reasonable price, Pierre Victoire is deservedly popular. I’m a particular fan of their mussels, served with chili, lime and coriander – the best I’ve had since a holiday to Normandy.
I’ll let you in on one of Oxford’s best kept secrets if you’re looking for an intimate dinner: On Cowley Road. Small and eclectically decorated with knick-knacks from around the world, it’s the ideal place for a date or dinner with friends. I like the food so much I chose it as the venue for my goodbye dinner before leaving Oxford. My friends and I dined on modern British and European dishes including tiger prawn and rocket bruschetta, lemon sole and a divine chocolate semi-freddo. Post-indulgence, the Moroccan-style Kazbar is only a few steps away if you fancy another glass of wine or after-dinner cocktail.
The experience of visiting Oxford has enough sights, shops and restaurants to keep visitors entertained for at least a few days. After all, I didn’t tire of it in seven years. If I ever felt jaded walking down the same streets every day, all I had to do was look up at the ancient buildings around me to find a gargoyle grinning down at me, and I knew there was nowhere else I would rather be.
You may also be interested in reading about a visit to Bath, UK by Kate Turner.
Photo of Magdelen Bridge courtesy of flickr and Pete Reed
Photo of bicyclist on High Street courtesy of flickr and kamshots
Photo of Christ Church courtesy of flickr and Sacred Destinations/Holly Hayes
Photo of Girls Punt Too courtesy of flickr and Gill Wildman
Photo of Bridge of Sighs and Christ Church Meadow courtesy of Kate Turner