Oxford has prestige written all over it. This city is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and over the course of nearly 1,000 years, it has educated some of the most influential players in Western civilization. Students around the globe aspire to join the ranks of Adam Smith, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Clinton—not to mention 26 British prime ministers and 12 saints.
But if you can’t join them, you might as well visit them. The city has plenty to entertain travelers of all persuasions: stunning college courtyards, centuries-old pubs, leafy river paths, occasionally rowdy clubs, and shops aplenty. During term time, rub shoulders with Oxford’s thousands of students; in the summer, the colleges empty, and the city fills with photo-hungry tourists and eager summer-school imports. Either way, you can expect to be in the comradely company of students and budget travelers—don’t panic if one or two of them actually refer to you as “comrade.”
Unlike Cambridge, though, Oxford does not hold its time-resistant bubble for long. Once you get outside of the center’s ancient streets and medieval architecture, the city comes (surprisingly) close to a modern metropolis. Don’t limit yourself to the sights you’ve seen on postcards—the town rewards those willing to take the short trek to the outlying neighborhoods or venture down its tiny, twisting side streets.
Carfax, at the crossroads of Oxford’s main shopping district, is the pulsing heart of the city. High Street, St. Aldate’s, Cornmarket Street, and Queen Street all converge by the Town Hall to create a tourist-mobbed area—beware of the stampede of gaping cameras and more-than-over-eager parents who will callously trample you as potential competition. Most of the university’s best-known colleges are located along High St. and the parallel roads to the north and south, with Christ Church around the corner on St. Aldate’s. The bus station is in the eastern corner of Carfax, following the direction of Queen Street, while the train station is a bit farther in the same direction, across the river.
If you walk north up Saint Giles (Cornmarket St. becomes Magdalen St., which then turns into St. Giles), then make a left onto Little Clarendon Street, you’ll reach Jericho. Home to the Oxford Canal, the Oxford University Press, and vibrant nightlife, this is Oxford’s up-and-coming bohemian neighborhood. The main Jericho drag, Walton Street, runs off of Little Clarendon.
On the other side of the city center, down the hill and across Magdalen Bridge, is the Cowley Road neighborhood, centered around the eponymous street and home to numerous ethnic eateries and local pubs, which offer a nice change of pace from blue-blooded, tourist-jammed Oxford.
Most people come to admire Oxford’s dozen or so aesthetically pleasing colleges, and we advise you to look at the university’s free info booklet, which details all of the colleges’ opening hours and admission fees. However, due to conferences, graduations, and general eccentricity, the hours open to tourists might change without further notice, like your favorite bureaucratic Kafka novel. If you’re traveling by yourself, you shouldn’t have a problem getting admitted, but as a tour group size increases, you might have to book a Blue Badge tour through the Tourist Information Centre (TIC). One of the best ways to get into the colleges for free—especially during term-time—is to attend a church service in the college chapels. Show up 15min. before a service starts and tell the people at the gate that you’d like to attend; they’ll usually let you in for free.
Oxford is filled with incredible opportunities to see and explore. Click the links to explore and book tours and local guides.
Here’s one major perk of visiting a student town: kebab trucks. These student favorites line High St., Queen St., and Broad St. (we recommend Hassan’s on Broad St.), and stay open until 3am during the week and 4 or 4:30am on weekends.
Historically, England has been derided for its horrific cuisine. But do not fear the gravy-laden, boiled, fried, and bland traditional nosh! Britain’s cuisine is in the midst of a gourmet revolution. Popular television chef Jamie Oliver led a well-publicized and successful campaign to increase the British government’s spending on school lunches. Thanks to its colonial legacy, ethnic food is ubiquitous, and Britain offers some of the best tandoori and curry outside India.
British “tea” refers to both a drink and a social custom. The ritual refreshment, accompanying almost every meal, is served strong with milk. The standard tea, colloquially known as a cuppa, is PG Tips or Tetley. More refined cups specify particular blends such as Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Afternoon high tea includes cooked meats, salad, sandwiches, and pastries. Cream tea, a specialty of Cornwall and Devon, includes toast, shortbread, crumpets, scones, and jam, accompanied by clotted cream (a cross between whipped cream and butter).
Sir William Harcourt believed that English history was made in pubs as much as in the Houses of Parliament. Brits rapidly develop loyalty for neighborhood establishments, which in turn tend to cater to their regulars and develop a particular character. Pubs are everywhere in London.
Bitter, named for its sharp, hoppy aftertaste, is a standard pub drink. It should be hand-pumped or pulled from the tap at cellar temperature into government-stamped pint glasses (20 oz.) or the more modest half-pint glass. Real ale retains a diehard cult of connoisseurs in the shadow of giant corporate breweries. Brown, pale, and India pale ales—less common varieties—all have a heavy flavor with noticeable hop. Stout, the distinctive subspecies of ale, is rich, dark, and creamy. Try Irish Guinness, with its silky foam head. Most draft ales and stouts are served at room temperature, but if you can’t stand the heat, try a lager, a precursor of American beer typically served cold. Cider is a fermented apple juice served sweet or dry. Variations on the standard pint include black velvet, which is stout mixed with champagne; black and tan, layers of stout and ale; and snakebite, lager and cider with blackcurrant syrup or Ribena.
A bell or the phrase “Last orders!” marks the last call 10min. before closing time. When the bar officially closes, the bar staff traditionally shouts, “Time at the bar!” or (more fun), “Time gentlemen please!”
If the London clubbing scene is a nice Talisker, Oxford is a fair glass of Pinot Blanco, and Cambridge is a paper bag that once had Rubinoff and now has piss in it. Point being, nightlife here doesn’t incur the excitement of London, but it could be much, much worse. The main clubbing area in Oxford is near the train station, on Park End and Hythe Bridge Streets. Both of these split off from Botley Road (the train station’s home). The center of town has little in the way of dancing, but its many excellent pubs are perfect fora more laid-back evening.
Tips in restaurants are sometimes included in the bill (sometimes as a “service charge”). If gratuity is not included, you should tip your server about 10%. Taxi drivers should receive a 10% tip, and bellhops and chambermaids usually expect £1-3. To the great relief of many budget travelers, tipping is not expected at pubs and bars in Britain (unless you are trying to get jiggy with the bartender). Bargaining is practically unheard of in the upscale shops that overrun London. Don’t try it (unless you happen to be at a street market or feel particularly belligerent).
The Brits love to drink, so the presence of alcohol is unavoidable. In trying to keep up with the locals, remember that the Imperial pint is 20 oz., as opposed to the 16oz. US pint.
Britain uses a thoroughly confusing and unpredictable mix of standard and metric measurement units. Road distances are always measured in miles, and many Brits will be clueless if you give them distances in kilometers. For weights, don’t be surprised to see grams and ounces used side-by-side. There’s also a measurement called a “stone,” equal to 14 pounds, that is regularly used for giving body weights. Paradoxically, meters and centimeters are the most common way to give body heights.