Begin your tour with a visit to the covered market, situated appropriately on Market Street, where most local bus connections will drop you off. There’s a delightful selection of craft shops, coffee houses and a butchers with an interesting selection of meat hanging in the window (whole deer anyone?). We stopped off at the Sofie de France Café for hot pork paninis, smothered in tangy barbecue sauce and melted cheese. Should we return, we’d definitely consider Pieminister or the Colombia Coffee Roasters as alternative pit stops.
If you’re after a dash of curated culture, your next stop must be the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, about 500m north of the covered market. Wipe the sandwich grease from your fingers and put away your wallet because admission is free (although a donation is encouraged and some temporary exhibitions are ticketed). The museum collection is overseen by the city’s renowned university, and it’s clear the boffins know how to do history. With exhibitions of original artefacts spanning eras and continents, there’s something here to interest everyone. Our highlights were a carved Viking rune stone and an exhibition of Utagawa Hiroshige II’s study of Mount Fuji through the seasons – playful yet thoughtful illustrations of Japan’s most famous mountain. We recommend leaving before you get museum fatigue. Don’t try and cover it all. Just pick the bits that interest you, otherwise you could get lost in there all day.
The same can be said for Blackwells, Oxford University’s original swatting-up shop. It’s perhaps our favourite bookshop in the country, although it’s a tough call between this place and Foyle’s in London. Head here for a huge choice of books and while away a good hour with your head between pages. Make sure you explore the higgledy-piggledy building from top to bottom, and don’t miss the spectacular Norrington Room, a great colosseum of literature, or the selection of rare books on display. During our visit we saw a first edition set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, retailing at £14,000 – a little out of our budget.
We understand that many tourists visit Oxford expecting to find the university as a single building. This is not the case, as the university is split into 38 colleges and 6 additional Permanent Private Halls. This is great for visitors to the city, as there’s plenty of grand university buildings to explore for free, each with their own character. We wandered around Wadham College, with its stunning garden and secretive staircases, and took a look at the brilliant Bodleian Library courtyard. Standing among these sandstone schools, we wished we tried a little harder in school…
You can find a handy list of the colleges online to help you plan your visit. They may be closed to the public at certain times, but there will usually be a sign at the entrance if this is the case.
Some may say that visiting three museums in one day is crazy, but it seems fitting to go intellectually wild in a city like Oxford. So, once you’ve had a peek at those fancy colleges, make your way to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is helpfully attached to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Apparently 19th Century scholars wanted the two collections to be housed together, but it was very important that things that they thought were created by God, like the humble weasel, were displayed separately to those created by humans, like the samurai sword.
We suggest entering through the Museum of Natural History, immersing yourself in a world of stuffed animals from every continent, under the beautiful gothic revival ceiling. Once you’ve had your fill of taxidermy, head next door to the Pitt Rivers collection, choc full of stuff from all over the world. We started on the second floor, and made our way down from there. Each cabinet is full to the brim with artefacts, be they terrifying Tanzanian knuckle dusters with sharp steel spikes, Fijian children’s toys or, our favourite, keys and locks through the ages.
When you’ve finally had enough of looking through glass at old objects, clear your mind with a walk towards Magdalen Bridge for a punt, via the picturesque Hertford Bridge on New College Lane. This gently arching skyway joins two parts of Hertford College, presumably to stop the brainiacs’ gowns getting wet between lectures when it’s raining. The bridge is widely referred to as the Bridge of Sighs due to it’s similarities to the Venice landmark of the same name, but its designer Sir Thomas Jackson never intended this, and would presumably be rather irritated that people keep drawing this comparison.
Once you’ve waited long enough to take a photo of the bridge without other people in your picture taking a photo for the bridge, stroll on to the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse where you can hire a punt for a trip around Oxford’s waterways. The punts can take up to 5 people and cost £22 per hour. Unfortunately the weather was a little bleak when we arrived, so we gave it a miss. But on a summer’s day, we can imagine no better way to see Oxford. There are several suggested routes, with some staying inside the city and others heading out to the surrounding countryside.
With waterways explored, the last stop on your tour should be Cowley Road, the multicultural heart of Oxford. Here, Mediterranean delis, hipster micro pubs, Polish skleps and Indian spice stores all hustle for business. There’s a big student population here too, so this vibrant artery out of the city is the place to go if you fancy something more reasonably priced, and probably tastier, than the rest of the city’s posh nosh.
For a real treat, we strongly suggest you visit Oli’s Thai on Magdalen Road, just off of Cowley Road. We were told about this place by a trustworthy local bloke, so we thought we ought to check it out. We were told that the restaurant is usually booked up 3 months in advance, but if you arrive just as they open, you may be able to get a seat at the bar. We made our way there for 4:30pm, and were waiting outside with a few other people who had the same idea. If you turn up later and the seats have been taken, fear not. The staff will take your number, point you in the direction of the nearest pub and give you a call when your seats are available.
We have been known to seek out other establishments when the only seats going are at the bar, but we put our prejudices back on the shelf here. We were pleased to see that we were given the same menu as customers that had made reservations, and the friendly bar staff were a cheerful addition to our meal. We could just make out the Thai chef in the kitchen frying up pad thai, so we felt as though we had the best seats in the house. What’s more, for all its exclusivity, we left feeling full and a bit tipsy for just over £20 each.
Having spent 60 days in Thailand just a couple of months ago, we were missing Thai food a lot. Food in the UK is comforting, filling and flavoursome but it lacks the freshness, delicacy and sheer heat of Thai cooking. Yet we found all of these qualities in every dish, from the fresh apple and cashew salad that was the closest thing to som tam you’re likely to find on English soil, to the delicate Padang duck curry with a creamy coconut sauce bursting with spicy flavours. This was accompanied with a big plate of pad thai, cooked just how we like it with tofu, egg and crunchy vegetables. For dessert, we splashed out on a custard tart each, the soft, comforting centre and flakey pastry taking us back to breakfasts of dim sum in Penang (which is in Malaysia, but who cares?). As we sipped our bottles of properly regulated Chang, we could have been back on the beach in Koh Lanta, watching the sun go down across the Andaman Sea. Yet we were grateful to be in Oxford, as good a place as any when the food’s so good, the people so friendly and the museums so… museum-y. But enough gushing, it’s time to take the bus home.