Often referred to as the “city of dreaming spires,” Oxford, England, is home to one of the world’s oldest and most venerable academic institutions—the University of Oxford. With buildings dating back nearly 1,000 years, including a church tower from the year 1040, the city, located about an hour west of London, is rich in history and steeped in tradition, but it is also full of wonderful, hidden surprises: lovely riverside walks, progressive artwork, a culinary scene that rivals those of bigger, surrounding cities, and a beautiful countryside waiting to be admired.
Morning: Christ Church college
Begin your day with a flat white and slice of carrot cake from The Missing Bean before taking a quick jaunt to Christ Church, one of the largest and most beautiful colleges at the University of Oxford. The Hall, where students and faculty dine, may look familiar: a replica was created to film scenes at Hogwarts, the fictional school in the Harry Potter films.
Afternoon: Punting and the Ashmolean Museum
From Christ Church Meadow, stroll north along the picturesque Christ Church Meadow Walk and Rose Lane to Magdalen Bridge Boathouse. Rent a punt—a square boat with a flat bottom—and test your punting skills on the tranquil River Cherwell. Or, if it’s raining, head to the Ashmolean Museum instead to browse its collection of archaeological artifacts and contemporary art.
Evening: Pints at The Eagle and Child then The Bear Inn
Enjoy a pint and a hearty meat pie at The Eagle and Child, a favourite spot of literary greats such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. For something off the beaten track, head to The Bear Inn, one of Oxford’s oldest and most charming pubs.
Morning: Blenheim Palace
Eat a hearty Full Oxford breakfast at The Vaults Café: organic bacon and sausage, eggs, tomatoes, chestnut mushrooms, asparagus, beans and toast, all enjoyed under the vaulted ceilings of the University of Oxford’s Old Congregation House of 1320. From there, take a bus 30 minutes north to Woodstock, home to Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s birthplace and ancestral home. Explore 2,000 acres of parkland designed by English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Afternoon: High tea at Grand Cafe
Head back into town and treat yourself to afternoon tea at the elegant Grand Cafe, the site of the first coffee house in England and a beloved Oxford institution. Splurge on the Grand High Tea, featuring smoked-salmon finger sandwiches and a glass of champagne, or opt for the simpler Cream Tea—two warm scones with jam and clotted cream, plus a pot of tea.
Evening: Cowley Road
Ditch the studious college buildings in favour of the informal and quirky vibe of Cowley Road. Check out the impressive street art at the intersection of Cowley Road and Stockmore Street before flipping through vinyl records at Truck Store, Oxford’s independent music hub. Then, graze on Spanish and Moroccan tapas at Kazbar, with its low, cushioned seats and hanging lamps. Be sure to order the gambas al pil pil (succulent prawn tails cooked in a chili, garlic and herb butter) and a jug of sangria to share.
Morning: Shopping at Covered Market and Bicester Village
Grab a bacon sandwich from Browns Cafe in Oxford’s famous Covered Market before browsing the market shops for souvenirs. Pause for a triple chocolate chunk cookie at Ben’s Cookies. In need of more retail therapy? Take a 14-minute train ride to Bicester Village, a designer outlet mall filled to the brim with British brands—including Alexander McQueen and Mulberry—at a fraction of the retail price.
Afternoon: St. Martin’s Tower and Gee’s Restaurant
Take in panoramic views of the city from the top of St. Martin’s Tower (known to locals as Carfax Tower), located in the centre of town. Meander straight north toward Gee’s Restaurant and enjoy a lunch of fettuccine with wild boar and rosemary or braised rabbit leg in the restaurant’s beautiful, light-filled conservatory.
Evening: Architecture and Turf Tavern
As the sun sets, take a final tour of Oxford’s most notable buildings and attractions, which are all within a minute’s walk of each other: the Bridge of Sighs, the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre and Radcliffe Camera. Settle in for one last hurrah at the nearby Turf Tavern, a pub dating back to the 12th century that has hosted notable public figures such as Bill Clinton and Stephen Hawking. Dig into a BBQ burnt ends beef melt burger smothered in rarebit sauce, and buy a round of ale for the table.
Where to stay in Oxford
City: Malmaison Oxford
“Luxury” and “prison” aren’t two words typically paired together, but Malmaison Oxford is just that: a prison-turned-boutique hotel with sumptuous beds, roll-top tubs, split-level suites—and bars over the windows. This is one swanky spot you truly won’t mind being locked up in.
Countryside: Artist Residence Oxfordshire
For a grown-up, countryside getaway, head for the plush Artist Residence, about a 20-minute drive outside of town. With only five stylishly decorated bedrooms tucked away in the eaves of this country pub and restaurant, it’s the perfect place for some well-deserved R&R.
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Three Places to Go if You Really Love Books
In honour of National Novel Writing Month this November, an annual event where participants attempt to write a manuscript in 30 days, consider taking a literary-inspired vacation to Jamaica, England or Cuba to learn about Ian Fleming, Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway.