What do I need to do in Oxford, UK?
November 9, 2009 6:01 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to do in Oxford, UK?

I'm a 19 year old student from the Pacific Northwest who is flying to the upcoming Oxford debate tournament this weekend. I've never been to England, and I want to make sure I see everything I should. Oxford seems like a place that has a lot of hidden secrets that the hive mind could inform me of.

We'll be arriving Thursday morning, and adjusting to jet lag that day. So I'll have Thursday during the day, Friday and Saturday after rounds/dinners end, and all of Sunday. We leave Monday morning.

Also, any extra UK/Oxford specific information that might be valuable (like don't order Irish Car bombs in Irish Pubs) would be appreciated.
posted by justalisteningman to Travel & Transportation around Oxford, England (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You have *got* to see the Natural History Museum at the university. Their web site absolutely does not convey the age-of-enlightenment coolness of the interior of this thing. I've said enough. Go, maybe be a little surprised.
posted by amtho at 6:23 PM on November 9, 2009

The Ashmolean, she's had a lick of paint.
posted by Blacksun at 6:32 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you have any interest or curiosity regarding proper English ales, a trip to the Turf Tavern is definitely in order. Don't judge it by its website -- it's very quaint and pleasant, and has a large selection of real ales. The Eagle and Child is also a popular pilgrimage for fans of CS Lewis and Tolkien. The King's Arms is also pleasant, as is the Lamb and Flag across the street from the Eagle and Child.

Again, if you have any appreciation of books, go to Blackwells on Broad St. The place is enormous.

Take an hour or two to spend some time wandering some of the college chapels and quads during their visiting hours. Christ Church is beautiful but busy. Quieter (and, to my mind, nicer) are ones like Balliol, Merton, New College, and Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin). The Christ Church Meadows area is nice for a stroll, too.

The Ashmolean museum is also worth a trip.
posted by fhangler at 6:36 PM on November 9, 2009

If you visit the Natural History Museum without visiting the Pitt Rivers, you will be an enormous fool.
Go punting on the Cherwell.
Drink beer in the Turf Tavern, the King's Arms, the Bear, or better still, the Perch.
Brazen your way into one of the colleges (but make sure it isn't St Catherines).
Walk through Port Meadow as the sun is coming up.
Drink cocktails in Frevds.
Climb up St Michaels's Tower
Order a late night Kebab from Mehdi's van on High Street.
posted by Beautiful Screaming Lady at 6:48 PM on November 9, 2009

Also, if it's your first time in the UK, you'll thank yourself for going up Cowley Road to dine at Aziz, an award-winning curry house. Then go back towards town, get wasted on Red Stripe at the Hi Lo Jamaican Eating House, then pay a visit to Mehdi on High Street.
posted by Beautiful Screaming Lady at 6:52 PM on November 9, 2009

Why not hop on a train to London at some point as this is your first visit to the UK?

Oxford to London is about 1 hour on the train each way.

Timetabling here and seemingly costs from £6.65 ($10) upwards... (I think you'd more likely pay £15 = $20 or so).

If I went to London for only 1 day (I'm a Londoner for what it's worth)...
I might take one of the tour guided open top busses: they traverse all the main sights and allow you to hop on and off at any that interest you more. (very cheesy of course: but you see everything in the centre in a few hours: Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square/Nelson's Column etc.)

Among the many alternatives for a London day, you could head off to the museums of South Kensington (a named underground, "tube"/subway station): The Natural History, Victoria + Albert and Science museums are really a matter of yards apart. Each of those museums (which have free entrance) could occupy you for a day on their own and are each worth more hours than anyone can spare... if you enjoy that sort of thing.

Even if you don't choose to visit London, I'd advise getting out of Oxford (which I like very much) for at least one day to see somewhere else - to see what the another part of the country is like.

The UK is small and the trains are generally (avoid rush hour if you can) pretty good.
posted by selton at 7:06 PM on November 9, 2009

Ah, one of my favorite subjects. Definitely go to the Turf Tavern. You have to go down an alleyway to get there so even though it's one of the most famous pubs in Oxford, you'll feel like you discovered something.

The other can't-miss pub is The Bear. It's just incredibly old, and you'll be able to tell as soon as you walk in.

If you have time, you should get a meal at St. Giles Cafe. I have traveled to many places and St. Giles is the best breakfast place I've ever been to. Order a plate with eggs, sausage, beans and chips. Trust me on this.

Take a tour of the Bodleian Library. The history of the building is really fascinating and there's a room of old/rare books (the name of it escapes me right now) that you don't want to miss.

There's a portrait of Bill Clinton in University College, and a very famous portrait of Henry VIII in the Christ Church Dining Hall (also the setting of may scenes in the Harry Potter Movies).

Finally, and this would be even more optional than St. Giles, but I'm trying to give you not-for-tourist stuff here, take a walk over Magdalen Bridge down Cowley Road. That's the "more ethnic" side of town. Walking there will give you a fuller picture of the city. You'll find lots of good kebab shops and other cheap/interesting dining options. If you walk that way, you'll be near the Iffley Road Track, where Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile.
posted by thebergfather at 7:06 PM on November 9, 2009

I'll chime in for the White Horse. The Turf is the apotheosis of Oxford pubs, the K.A. exists in a weird state of being perennially overrated, the Bear is lovely but usually full to bursting. (The Rose and Crown on North Parade is also nice this time of year, though it's a mile up either Woodstock or Banbury Road.) Order at the bar.

Wander. The back-alleys to the south of the High, New College Lane from the Bridge of Sighs down to Queens. It gets dark early, and the college doors feel as if they're closed to you, but this time of year -- as long as it's not raining -- is always pretty special.

If you have Union hacks as hosts, then see if you can get a look around their colleges as guests, outside of standard visiting hours, and without the stern eyes of the porters on you. (You'll have time to explore some of the establishment stuff in the Union -- note the photos of the great and good in student days -- but resist the temptation to be dragged down to the Purple Turtle until late.)

I like the Pitt-Rivers and the Museum of the History of Science and Christ Church Picture Gallery. Less daunting than the Ashmolean. And my favourite bit of Oxford is St John Street, leading up from Gloucester Street to Wellington Square and Little Clarendon Street. In the Covered Market, you'll get to see the haggises on display for St Andrew's Day and the various game animals hanging up in readiness for Christmas.

Sunday? Perhaps lunch at the Perch or Trout -- the Perch is easier if you're not driving or biking, heading over Port Meadow from Jericho. (I'd say 'see if you can borrow a bike', though that might be a bit risky given that it's November and cycling in Oxford is something of a learned skill.) If you can get a car, perhaps visit Winston in Bladon and Winston Smith's creator in Sutton Courtney.

Do head past the Magdalen Roundabout if you can.
posted by holgate at 7:35 PM on November 9, 2009

don't order Irish Car bombs in Irish Pubs

Or indeed in any pub. They're an American invention, bar staff in the UK won't know what you mean. And it's in rather poor taste in a country that endured years of actual car bombings. Oh, and they sound revolting.

Lots of excellent beer in Oxford: sample as much of it as possible.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:55 PM on November 9, 2009

We're missing the obvious things here, folks!

Go to the Oxford tourist office and sign up for a walking tour. They're given by knowledgeable guides and aren't too expensive. Don't bother with a sight-seeing bus...the coolest stuff is walkable. Your guide will likely sneak you into places you couldn't go otherwise.

Make sure you tour the Bodleian library. Your guide will take you to the top floor and give a hushed tour of the original reading room.

Christ Church College is a must-see. Don't bother waiting for evensong--do go if you can so you can hear the choir, but shell out a few pounds to walk through the College properly.

Magdalene College was also lovely to me. You'll want to ask at the tourist office about the opening times for the Colleges. They'll give you a time sheet.

Make sure you enter St. Mary's and climb the tower. This is where all the iconic shots of the Radcliffe Camera are taken.

If you have the time, arrange to swing by Blenheim Palace. It'll kill an afternoon, so you might prefer London. But the house is pretty amazing.

Of course try the pubs, but don't be dismayed that everyone eats at Subway and McDonald's (and KFC???). Try Pret-A-Manger or the Cornish Pasty shop on the main drag to have something that locals have and Americans don't--both are good.

Here are my pictures from England--I just got back this month. I fell in love with Oxford, and I expect you will too.

MeFiMail me if I'm on the right track here.
posted by jefficator at 9:10 PM on November 9, 2009

The Botanic Garden is lovely, although admittedly it might not be the best time of year for it.

And you absolutely cannot come to Oxford without going to the Pitt Rivers, as mentioned above. Everybody loves a shrunken head.

And another vote here for a wander over Magdalen Bridge to Cowley Road: Oxford isn't all colleges and punts. Just mostly.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 11:06 PM on November 9, 2009

Natural History Museum / Pitt Rivers are a must!!! So is Covered Market. And if the wheather permits, you should try punting.

You shouldn't miss Evensong in Magdalen College Chapel (alternatively, New College or Christchurch), even if you don't usually like that kind of music. Absolutely stunning, esp. at this time of the year. It's like another world, or something out of a movie.

If I had to choose just one college to visit, it would be Magdalen.
posted by The Toad at 12:29 AM on November 10, 2009

Go and look round the castle. From the road it just looks like a mound, but if you pop in behind there's all kinds of interesting buildings of varying levels of antiquity including some surprisingly thoughtful modern additions.
posted by emilyw at 12:31 AM on November 10, 2009

The Headington Shark
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:46 AM on November 10, 2009

Personal favourites:

The Museum of the History of Science is a must see. There's a pretty cool (if small) Steampunk exhibition currently showing, plus their permanent exhibitions are really interesting if you're mathematically or geekily inclined.

As others have said, The Ashmolean has just opened after a massive redevelopment and is well worth a visit. You can get a picture of the sense from the shots in the Oxford Flickr Group (disclosure: I'm one of the group admins).

The Natural History Museum / Pitt Rivers are treasure troves. You could easily lose a couple of days in there.

And finally, the Cowley Road is a great place to grab food whilst absorbing a more alternate side of the City.
posted by garrett at 4:56 AM on November 10, 2009

Gah! That should read: "You can get a picture of the refit from the shots…".
posted by garrett at 4:58 AM on November 10, 2009

Second punting! It's simultaneously romantically idyllic and infuriatingly frustrating. Kind of like piloting a canal boat on the Venician waterways, only more slowly, and with a giant stick. And not in Venice.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:09 AM on November 10, 2009

Hmm, everything I was going to say has pretty well been covered already, but I'll chip in my £0.02 anyway.

If you're doing the pubs, I second (third? fourth?) The Turf. Forget about the KA, it's pricey and underwhelming. If you go to the Turf on a chilly evening, buy some marshmallows at the bar to toast over the coal braziers outside. The Turf also has a good beer selection (Campaign for Real Ale stuff) I also like The Bear, although it's tiny, so there's a good chance you'll end up having to stand outside in the street to drink your pint.

Definitely try to get into some of the colleges for a look-see. If you just walk around outside in the streets you will be missing a huge part of Oxford (both geographically and more abstractly) The suggestion of getting your Union hack hosts to show you around their colleges is sound; if that doesn't work, I'd still recommend you pay to see round the colleges that let outsiders in.

I have no idea what the Bod tour is like (I don't think they actually let you into the reading rooms - at least, I never saw any tour groups in there), but the Bod's well worth a visit. Ditto Pitt Rivers (excellent Victorian imperial cabinet of curiosities type stuff) and the Ashmolean.

If you go out on the lash, you really ought to hit up a kebab van on the way home for the complete Oxford experience.

If you have the time, walk up through Port Meadow (lovely riverside walk) and have lunch at the Trout.
posted by iona at 5:31 AM on November 10, 2009

We really ought to organise an Oxford pub crawl for justalisteningman..
posted by salmacis at 6:45 AM on November 10, 2009

My brother took me to a movie when I was 11 and he was at uni there. I don't know where the theatre is but it had sweet and salty popcorn. It was the greatest thing in the world. And sherbert pops. Those were pretty awesome too.
posted by spec80 at 7:27 AM on November 10, 2009

Everyone else seems to have the city pubs covered, but if you have decent weather and a couple of hours, walk North out of the town across Port Meadow up to the Trout in Wolvercote, and pop into the Perch along the way... Both have been redone since I was a student, but drip history.

If you have more time and transportation, worth checking out Bleinhem Palace as well, about 10 miles out of the town.

Second the recommendation on a late night trip to Mehdi. If he's still where he used to be, look for the Kebab van late night where Turl street meets the High Street.

And walk through Christchurch meadow as well.
posted by momentofmagnus at 7:59 AM on November 10, 2009

Bring an umbrella, it's a bit wet here at the moment. Dress for, well, the Pacific Northwest :P

First of all, Daily Info is THE place for what's on in the town, filled with customer reviews for places to eat. They have a print version that you will see on notice boards all over town.


Pitt Rivers, definitely, without a doubt. Wonderful museum. For me, the Natural History museum is the bonus :) Other museums as you see fit, see suggestions above.

Wander around Broad Street and get a take the usual touristy photos.

Go look around a college - ideally with the help of a friend otherwise just pay a tourist rate for one of the bigger ones. Christ Church, Magdalen are popular and worth a look. Keble is impressive and a bit different.

Take a walk along one of the rivers, if you can. Punting is best but it's a bit cold for that this time of year, imo :) For river walking, anywhere on is good such as the Thames Walks (you can get on near Christ Church, for instance) alternatively take a walk up to Jericho via the Canal from Hithe Bridge Street. Googling should provide a number of excellent walks around both old city and pretty landscape, which Oxford has a lot of both. If you aren't into going far, the parks are all very nice.

St Mary's Church on Radcliff square has a good view from it's tower, which is good for photos. Carfax tower is technically better on one side for images but not as fun a climb.

Food and Drink:

For breakfast, go to Pattiserie Valerie on High Street for something very delicious or go to Mick's Cafe for something greasy and british. St Giles Cafe noted above is fine for the greasy version but not nearly as memorable for surroundings as Mick's.

For food on the go, grab something from The Alpha Bar in the Covered Market. Their sandwiches and salad boxes are amazing. The Vaults cafe does a great lunch but can be crowded. Pieminister in the covered market has fine pies. The Mission do a passable burrito but nothing to write home about. Quick ready-made sandwiches you can rely on chain places like Eat and Pret-a-Manger. If you think you might like cornish pasties, there is a Cornish Pastie Company palce on Cornmarket which are fairly good for the territory.

If you go to Jericho, go to the pubs - they are often better than the oldie touristy ones in town which is not to say the ones in town arent nice. The Harcourt Arms and the Jericho Tavern are lovely pubs any my faves in that area - the former for a cosy pint by a fire, the latter for somewhere a bit more contemporary and fun. There's plenty in the area though and you can't really go wrong.

For pub meals, avoid the Trout, imo. It's recently gone very downhill and for the price is fairly inexcusable. The Perch is better at the moment, imo. If you really gungho on having a traditional british roast at a classic pub, the Sunday Roast at the Black Prince in Iffley Village is well worth the detour. It's really good. As is the massive one you can get at the Marsh Harrier.

A traditional Cream Tea can be found in a lot of places, but is fanciest and most special at The Grand Cafe. Alternatively, The Nosebag which is fairly central do a more hearty version.

Avoid The Randolph.

However, for UK cuisine, you should really try our indian food. We do it well. Oxford has a lot of curry places that are great. Any of the ones on Walton Street are good (Bombay's for example) and the ones on Cowley Road are too (Dil Dunia, Aziz).

If you are a caffeine addict you will be in trouble. Go to Costa Coffee. It's a chain with ok coffee of quantities that you are more accustomed to. They generally know how to make the drink you ask for, which is more than you can say for most local places.


Can be a problem. Not because we have none but more because a lot of it is a crowded meat market with long queues. Ponanas is often good but really you want to look at the types of club nights on offer via dailyinfo and see what takes your fancy. If that's your thing.


The covered market is where you should look for tidbits to buy, generally. There's no lack of tourist trap shops, with varying amounts of unnecessary 'e's on the end of words. Little Clarendon Street has some good window shopping for things that are pricey and eclectic.

For books, Blackwells on Broad Street is deceptively massive and worth a look. Plenty of 2nd hand stuff. Scriptum in town is the go-to place for really nice notebooks.


The Oxford you will care about is basically split into the following areas: The town centre, east oxford (cowley road, iffley, etc) and Jericho. Of the not-town-centre places, Jericho is cute and more gentrified, east oxford is more diverse and both offer very good dining of various types and shops and bars to suit.

If you know which part of town you are staying in, that might help give more specialised suggestions. A lot of these assume a very central location but that may not be right for you. Also, if you have any particulars you are interested I'm sure we can all help.
posted by AbsoluteDestiny at 8:18 AM on November 10, 2009

I spent a semester at st claires, but lived in kidlington. I fondly remember one of the local pubs there: 6 bells. I think you take the 2 or the 2a and it goes right by it. Across the street is the oldest public loo as well.
posted by TheBones at 12:01 PM on November 10, 2009

(like don't order Irish Car bombs in Irish Pubs)

Doing that in any British pub is not going to go down well.

Everyone has already insisted that you go visit the Pitt Rivers Museum so I'll just add my voice to the throng. The fact that you have to go through the cathedral to science that is the Oxford Museum of Natural History to get to it is just a bonus.

Daily Info is your go-to site for what's on in terms of clubs, music, events etc etc in Oxford

The weather forecast from Friday onwards is pretty awful which is a shame, as Oxford looks a bit drab in the rain. It's going to be too cold and wet to really enjoy punting, even if you can get hold of one, so I wouldn't bother doing that.

The Covered Market is not to be missed, even if you just wander round for a bit.
posted by pharm at 1:35 PM on November 10, 2009

I agree with everything said above, but no one has mentioned Ben's Cookies in the Covered Market yet!

Christ Church is a must, but I'm partial to Addison's Walk at Magdalen. Have a great time - Oxford is gorgeous. I can't wait until I can visit again!
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 4:15 PM on November 10, 2009

I'm in Oxford right now typing this. It's WAY too cold for punting. Instead, see the autumn colours in Magdalen College Deer Park (Addison's Walk), or the Botanic Gardens. After either of these, have tea in the Rose Tea Room at the end of the High Street.

Everyone else has covered everything else, both indoor and outdoor. The Museum of the History of Science is a favourite of mine. If you go to Blackwell's bookshop, the old/rare/ secondhand section on the top floor is worth a visit for drooling purposes.

No matter what your religious preferences, it's worth going to Choral Evensong at 6pm in one of the big choir colleges. New College, Magdalen and Christ Church all have good men-and-boys' choirs, while Queen's probably has the best mixed choir right now.

For me, Christ Church College is almost too big and impressive. I prefer the more human-scale places like Magdalen, Worcester and St John's. New College is where I did my BA, and they have wonderful gardens.

The Bodleian Library is definitely worth seeing; you can look around for free, and they also have guided tours for a few pounds.

The pub no one's mentioned yet is the Eagle and Child, on St Giles. Tolkien, CS Lewis and the "Inklings" used to meet there. Their beer list is good and it's a pleasant place (though I agree that the Turf is the most glorious.) Next door, St Giles Café does the largest, finest, greasiest huge dirty British breakfast you ever did see. The British greasy spoon, like the American diner, is an art form, and if it's cold and wet and you need a hot cheap plateful of awesomeness, you can't go wrong.

Oh-- and no matter the weather, you need ice cream from George and Davis on Little Clarendon Street, or George and Danvers on St Aldate's by Christ Church (same owners).
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:43 PM on November 10, 2009

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