My school, College of Charleston, was founded in 1770 and was one of the first in America. While it doesn’t predate Harvard, Yale or Princeton, all of these schools were adapted from the models of those in Europe, including Oxford University. So you could say that Oxford, England is the original college town. Many of the features of the historic towns reminded me of my years in Charleston, except much older, settled in 1542. The porter’s lodge, the traditions and the history all reminded me of my own years in school.
My sister, mom and I visited Oxford to see my youngest sister, who is doing a summer program with her school in the town. In fact, it reminded me of the British version of the town where she goes to school, Athens. The budget-friendly restaurants and bars, the sound of young people speaking dozens of languages and bookstores on every corner. The seemingly small town has a youthful energy to it, especially in the hip neighborhoods that skirt the city centre.
As soon as we landed at Heathrow, we jumped aboard the Heathrow Express to Paddington, where we transferred to another train to Oxford. We watched outside the windows as we wiped the sleep from our eyes and were there within the hour. My sister was out of town for the first day of our trip, so this was our chance to explore the touristy sights before she came back. But she left us a list of her favorite places to eat, shop and hang out around town, which we followed closely.
I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed Oxford, as I’m a self-confessed city girl with a special affinity for London. The manager of our guesthouse had lived in London, but moved to the university town for the slower pace and friendly people. Outside the city centre, with its big box shops and restaurants, you’ll find fields with wildflowers and oxen (thus the “ox” in Oxford). I could even get used to the quiet.
For those of you planning your own trip to Oxford, here are a few places I recommend. I found three days to be the ideal amount of time for seeing the campus and other attractions.
The Rickety Press– This hip Jericho joint is a bit of a walk from where we were staying, but has fantastic, American-style burgers and a decent draft list. It may look like a standard English pub on the outside, but the interior is more modern.
Shanghai 30’s– The Australian owner of our hotel recommended this place on our first night in town and we weren’t disappointed. I hardly eat Chinese food, but this was the real deal, where actual Chinese people eat. Everything I had was fantastic.
Turl Street Kitchen– We had a late lunch here on our second day in town. The staff was slow, but the meals were fantastic. They have a set menu that changes daily, so you get what’s made fresh. I recommend the meatballs.
Jericho Coffee Traders– Grab your morning fix from this Kiwi couple in the minimalist shop off Abingdon Road. Your coffee even comes with a Jelly Baby! They have a small menu of food items, specifically breakfast.
(TVC) The Varsity Club– Every city needs a rooftop bar and TVC is Oxford’s. If you survive the four flights of stairs, you’re greeted with a 360-degree view of Oxford, pictured above, complete with the many spires.
The Head of the River– I first noticed this pub, literally at the head of the river, on our walk to the hotel. It’s right across from where the boats come in and is, therefore, an ideal place for an afternoon beverage. They’re a Fullers pub, but also have Pimm’s on tap (!).
Angel & Greyhound– If you’ve never had a real, English gin and tonic, this is the place to do it. I’d only ever had them made with well liquors and tonic from a postmix gun. The real, craft distilled gin with legit tonic is amazing. Ask the staff for recommendations! I had the one that pairs with grapefruit, while my mom went for the lemon.
Sports View Guest House– There aren’t tons of options for places to stay in Oxford, especially during high season, but I was pleasantly surprised with this bed and breakfast. It’s only a 20-minute walk from the train station and even less to town. They have full breakfasts and WiFi included in the price. Rooms start at around £50 for a single room and go up from there.
YHA Oxford– While I didn’t stay here since it was fully booked, I’ve had fairly good luck with YHA hostels all over the world. It’s right next to the train station, which is a perk for those arriving early or late, and a short walk into town. WiFi is free with your stay and there’s a cafe onsite that serves meals all day for a fee. Beds start at £15 for dorms, but family and private rooms are also available.
Ashmolean Museum– Because of its connection to the University, this museum is completely free to visit. Here you’ll find exhibits on everything from the ancient Egyptians to the modern day. There’s art and archaeology and the museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, which is perfect for that occasional rainy day. Special exhibits cost extra.
The Covered Market– Another must-visit spot is the Covered Market, which holds over 50 unique shops, vendors and restaurants, including Ben’s Cookies, a shop that makes its own pasta and flower shops. It’s a great spot to tuck in for a quick bite or coffee.
Blackwell’s Bookshop– There are a few bookshops in town, but Blackwell’s is legendary. Spend an hour or so wandering the aisles here and at their sister stores, which carry rare books and artwork, respectively.
While we did neither, there’s also a free walking tour and boats you can rent (called punting) to go down the river. Just don’t flip over!