Planning a visit to Oxford, England

The City of Dreaming Spires, robed dons, budding intellectuals, and punting on the Cherwell is today surrounded by sprawling suburbs and clogged with the bustle of both a university town and a small industrial city.

But don’t let that keep you from making a pilgrimage to the collection of gloriously medieval colleges that matriculated the likes of John Donne, Samuel Johnson, Christopher Wren, William Penn, Charles Dodgson (otherwise known as Lewis Carroll), Graham Greene, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Actually, Shelley never graduated; he was kicked out for helping write a pamphlet on atheism. (Now he has a memorial on Magpie Lane—go figure.)

Oxford sights

Oxford University’s “campus” is the city itself (+44-(0)1865-270-000; www.ox.ac.uk), spread over the town in a series of 36 colleges, each with its own long history and arcane traditions -- such as Christ Church College, whose Great Tom bell rings every evening at 9:05 p.m. to signal the closing of the school gates, pealing 101 times in honor of the college’s original 101 students. Many of the colleges incorporate architectural tidbits from their foundings in the 13th to 16th centuries.

Because the primary business here is education, not tourism, fairly strict rules keep visits limited to certain areas at certain times and in small groups (six people maximum). Most colleges, when they are open, allow visitors to poke around discreetly (check the notice boards outside each college for specifics).

To detail all of Oxford’s colleges is impossible, but the top ones include Christ Church (+44-(0)1865-276-492; www.visitchristchurch.net), dating from 1525 with the largest quadrangle in town and that big ol’ bell (the top half of the bell tower was designed by Christopher Wren). The college chapel also happens to be the local cathedral, one of the tiniest in England.

Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Dodgson) once studied here and later became a mathematics don, but perhaps its most famous “students” are fictional—it plays a major role, of course, in the first part of The Golden Compass, and many scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed here, including the grand 16th cenury staircase (where Professor McGonagall welcomes the new students and Harry has his first run-in with Draco), the cloisters, and the Great Hall where the young wizards and witches dine (though that one was actually replicated on a sound stage). Fiction and reality blur in the hall: "Lewis Carroll" had his own "rabbit hole"—a door hidden in a wooden panel behind the teacher's table leading to a sprial staircase, which he would use to slip out during long meals. (The magical effect is somewhat spoiled in these days of fire safety codes, since the hidden door now has an illuminated green "EXIT" sign over it.) During the Cromwellian Civil War, the hall also served Charles I as his court in exile from 1642 to 1646. The college is open to visitors Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5:30 p.m.; admission is £4 ($7).

Try also to fit in Merton College (+44-(0)1865-276-310; www.merton.ox.ac.uk), the oldest (1264) with a library whose odd collections include Chaucer’s astrolabe. Merton is open weekdays 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is free, but tours of the Old Library run £1 ($1.80).

Perhaps the prettiest overall, Magdalen College (+44-(0)1865-276-000; www.magd.ox.ac.uk) is a 15th-century gem surrounded by a park and overlooking the Cherwell River. It’s open from 1 p.m. (from noon July through Sept) to 6 p.m. or dusk, whichever comes first; admission is £3 ($5).

You can also finally pay a visit to the famed Bodleian Library (+44-(0)1865-277-224; www.bodley.ox.ac.uk), long closed to visitors. It is one of the oldest libraries in Europe—operating continuously since 1602, but begun long before that—and the second largest in England (after the British Library), containing copies of every book copyrighted in the U.K. It also has some terribly scenic rooms and architectures—so much so that it stood in for Hogwart’s Library in the Harry Potter films. It’s open for hour-long guided tours Monday to Friday at 10:30 a.m. 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. (no morning tours November to February), and year-round Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. 11:30 a.m. Admission is £3.50 ($6).

Of course the campus isn’t all that Oxford has to offer. Perhaps your first order of business in town can be to climb the academically unaffiliated Carfax Tower (+44-(0)1865-792-653) in the center of town with an aerial city map in tow. The maps are handed out at the bottom to get a bird’s-eye handle on the city layout. The tower is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is £1.40 ($2.50) adults, 60p ($1.10) children aged 5 to 15.

If you only visit one museum in town, make it the recently expanded Ashmolean Museum (+44-(0)1865-278-000; www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk), founded in 1683 and one of Britain’s best. Beyond the musical instruments, antiquities, and international curios, the painting collection is most impressive, featuring works by Bellini, Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Picasso. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is free.

Punting on the Cherwell

In most of England a “punter” simply means someone who goes to pubs. In Oxford, however, being a punter involves actual punting: balancing precariously at the back end of a 24-foot-long skiff, gripping a sixteen-foot pole, and attempting to shove a flat-bottomed boat in something resembling a straight line down a narrow twisting stream overhung with tree branches, picturesque low bridges, and other maritime hazards... Full Story

Where to stay in Oxford

When school is out of session, you can score a student dorm room at one of the colleges for £40–£75 for a single or £70–£110 for a double at oxfordrooms.co.uk Full Story

If you want a proper inn, here are the best hotels and B&Bs within the historic center of Oxford, walking distance from the colleges, pubs, and Ashmolean Museum.

The cheapest Oxford hotels

A room at the Eurobar Cafe & Hotel, Oxford, England Eurobar Cafe & Hotel [££] - Despite the name, this is a 13-room B&B, not a hotel, above a pub-like cafe near the bus station and several theaters on the western edge of Oxford's historic center. It's a bit knocked about and certainly simple, with a laid-back staff (remember: they also run a pub; 'nuff said), but it's also dirt cheap. Doubles start at just £60. Free WiFi. 48 George Street, Oxford. tel. +44-(0)1865-980-546. www.eurobarhoteloxford.com. Reserve it

A room at Victoria House Hotel, Oxford, EnglandVictoria House Hotel [££] - Fourteen blandly modern B&B rooms from £80 on a shopping street near the western edge of the historic center. 29-30 George St, Oxford. tel. +44-(0)1865-727-400, www.victoriahouse-hotel.co.uk. Reserve it


The coolest Oxford hotels

Hotel Malmaison Oxford, England
A room at the Hotel Malmaison Oxford, England

★★★ Malmaison Oxford [£££] - How cool is this: a luxury boutique hotel converted from a Victorian-era prison? These aren't ye olde prison cells, though. They're stylishly modern rooms from £145 behind an imposing, castle-like gatehouse at the western end of Oxford's historic center. Free internet. 3 Oxford Castle, New Road, Oxford. tel. +44-(0)1865-268-400. www.malmaison.com. Reserve it

A room at the Old Bank Hotel, Oxford★★★ The Old Bank [££££] - You cannot really get more central in Oxford than this 42-room luxury hotel in a Georgian-era building across from the Bodelian Library and surrounded by the colleges of Merton, Christ Church, All Souls, and University. The rooms, from £170, are modern, but with a country-comfy sensibility; public spaces are lined by a fine collection of contemporary art. Free WiFi. 91-94 High Street, Oxford. tel. +44-(0)1865-799-599. www.oldbank-hotel.co.uk. Reserve it

Other central Oxford hotels

A room at the Hotel MacDonald Randolph Oxford, England★★★ Macdonald Randolph Hotel [££££] - The top five-star hotel of Oxford, with the location (on the main road into town from the west, across from Balliol and St. John colleges), the decor (wood-panelled lounges, a look of traditonal luxury in the guest rooms), and the prices to prove it, with doubles from £173. Beaumont St, Oxford. tel. +44-(0)1865-256-400. www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk. Reserve it
A room at the Hotel Bocardo, Oxford, England★★★ The Bocardo [£££] - A 10-room boutique hotel of bold patterns and doubles from £105 above Jaime Oliver's restaurant on Oxford's main shopping boulevard near the western edge of the historic center. Free WiFi. 24-26 George Street, Oxford. tel. +44-(0)1865-591-234. www.thebocardo.co.uk. Reserve it
The Fuller's Inn Head of the River, Oxford, England★★ Inn Head of the River [£££] - A bit of a stroll (about five minutes) south of the action, this hotel's 12 comfy rooms (from £120) have a fabulous location overlooking the quiet water of the Thames River. Good pub meals are served in fine wetaher at the picnic tables of the patio beer garden by the river—accompanied, as always, by London Pride ale (this hotel is part of a small, South of England chain owned by the brewer Fuller's). Folly Bridge, St. Aldates, Oxford. Tel +44-01865-721-600. tel. +44-(0)1865-721-600. www.fullershotels.com. Reserve it
A room at the Tower House B&B, Oxford, England The Tower House [££] - This tiny 17th-century guesthouse (just 7 rooms) bang in the center of town is an old-fashioned sort of B&B (only with absentee owerns; there's no proper front desk, so you have to let them know when you'll be arriving so they can be there to meet you). There are, however, doubles from £80 with shared bath, from £110 with private bath. Free WiFi. 15 Ship Street, Oxford. tel +44-(0)8444-146-592. www.oxfordhotelsandinns.com. Reserve it
A room at the Oxford Eastgate Hotel, OxfordMercure Oxford Eastgate Hotel [£££] - This hotel is near the river, with modern doubles from £120. 73 High Street, Oxford. tel. +44-(0)870-400-8201; www.eastgate-hotel.com. Reserve it

Where to eat in Oxford

Oxford’s classic eatery is the Cherwell Boathouse Restaurant, Bardwell Road (tel. +44-(0)1865-552-746; www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk), right on the river with a French cuisine of fresh ingredients and half-priced kids’ meals.

For pub grub, head to The Turf Tavern, 4 Bath Place off Holywell St. (tel. +44-(0)1865-243-235; www.theturftavern.co.uk), a venerable 13th-century watering hole where lunch specials start at £6.95 and mains go for £6 to £12. You'll be following in the footsteps of old regulars like Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Bill Clinton (who studied at Oxford; this is where he famously "didn't inhale").


Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in June 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.