Weekend in Oxford

February 10-12, 2023

Although it’s tempting to head to continental Europe at every opportunity, we are also trying to sprinkle in trips within the United Kingdom as much as we can. There are truly so many wonderful places to explore in England alone and traveling by train is definitely our favorite mode of transportation – especially because it makes it so easy for us to bring our dog, Lily. Oxford had been very high on our list from the outset and our weekend trip to this historic town and its renowned university was even more eagerly anticipated after a full month at home in London.

Although the exact date of its foundation is uncertain, there has been evidence of teaching at what eventually became the University of Oxford since at least 1066, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world (and one of the oldest continually operating schools in the world). Its history and traditions are fascinating, and its operational details are just as unique. For example, the University of Oxford doesn’t have a campus; instead, its colleges, academic departments, and other facilities are scattered throughout the city center. Furthermore, the university itself is comprised of 39 semi-autonomous colleges and five permanent private halls (PPHs) that each control their own membership and admissions, and operate with their own internal structure, policies, and activities. Perhaps most confusingly, academic departments operate centrally within the university and although colleges are not necessarily affiliated with particular academic disciplines and typically offer a broad range of subjects for their students, not all colleges offer all courses. Confusing, right?

Oxford is only about an hour away from London by train and so we arrived in town relatively early on Friday evening. We stayed at a traditional country pub, The Head of the River, on the banks of the River Thames and conveniently located near one of the entrances to Christ Church Meadow, which was perfect for Lily. We had a casual dinner and a few pints at The Turf Tavern, one of Oxford’s most notable pubs, before turning in relatively early so that we were fully rested for the day ahead.

One of my coworkers was adamant that we should take the official University of Oxford walking tour and although we normally try to avoid guided tours, I do have a soft spot for collegiate tours after my time at The University of Alabama. My coworker’s recommendation was validated the instant we met our tour guide, Jamie, a charming and delightful (and quintessentially English) older man who looked every bit the part of an Oxford scholar in his tweed jacket. We learned so much about the shared history of the university and the town during our two-hour walking tour and had such a wonderful weekend in this beautiful little city that I am now planning to send my mother and sisters to Oxford on a day trip when they visit in a few months.

If you’re planning a trip to Oxford, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations in England and Wales.

Food & Drink

  • Wilding Oxford: The dinner we enjoyed at Wilding Oxford on Saturday night was honestly one of the best dining experiences we’ve ever had. The waitstaff was incredibly friendly and attentive, and the food and wine menus were equally fantastic. I noticed that the restaurant had labeled itself as ‘dog-friendly’ on Google Maps and so we decided to bring Lily with us (something we don’t typically even think about doing at dinner), and I’m pretty sure that she enjoyed it even more than we did – especially after our waiter unexpectedly brought her a veal bone to occupy herself as we ate.
  • Lamb and Flag: Its description on Google Maps perfectly sums up this delightful and historic pub on St Giles’ Street: ‘500-year-old college pub with plenty of tweed and Oxbridge characters, plus a cosy open fire.’ We had a wonderful time people-watching as we enjoyed several pints of local ales on Saturday afternoon with Lily curled up under our table.
  • The Turf Tavern: The historic pub located at the end of a narrow, winding alleyway was just outside the Oxford city walls when it originally opened as a malthouse and tavern in the 14th century. We sat in the large beer garden area for a late dinner on Friday night and were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food, given its popularity as a ‘drinking pub’ for both tourists and students.
  • The Angel & Greyhound: We stopped by this dog-friendly pub on Saturday afternoon for a drink and to warm up after walking through Christ Church Meadow and across the River Cherwell. It was a bit more upscale than the other pubs we visited, but it was just as cozy and charming.
  • Jericho Coffee Traders: The family-run espresso bar and roastery on Oxford’s High Street was ideal for grabbing coffee and pastries before our walking tour on Saturday morning. The tiny shop was the perfect mix of quirky and welcoming, and it also seemed like a good place for enjoying a good book or catching up on work.
  • Taylors: There are a few locations of this charming gourmet deli and sandwich shop sprinkled throughout the city, and it was the perfect place to grab a takeaway lunch of (absolutely outstanding) sandwiches after our walking tour.

Activities & Attractions

  • City of Oxford Walking Tour: The only official University of Oxford walking tour is managed by the Bodleian Libraries in partnership with the Oxford Guild of Tour Guides, and it was an absolutely fantastic experience. Our tour guide, Jamie, was delightful and looked every bit the part of a quintessentially British scholar. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the university and the town of Oxford, and our two-hour walk around some of the main buildings and sights was jam-packed with interesting information about the storied history of one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Highlights from the tour included:
    • Bodleian Library: The ‘Bodleian Libraries’ refers to a group of 28 libraries affiliated with the University of Oxford’s various colleges, departments, and institutions, including the historic research library that serves as its namesake. The Bodleian Library is Oxford’s primary research library and has been one of the largest and most prestigious libraries in Europe since it was founded in 1602. Somewhat confusingly, the library is actually a group of five buildings in the heart of the University, including the 17th-century Schools Quadrangle whose Tower of the Five Orders forms the main entrance to the library and the iconic Radcliffe Camera.
    • Divinity School: The university’s oldest purpose-built building was constructed between 1427 and 1483 as a large hall for lectures, oral examinations, and discussions on theology. Its incredibly ornate vaulted ceiling is adorned with the crests and initials of donors who contributed to its construction, and a beautiful set of doors was added by Christopher Wren in the 17th century to provide easier access to the Sheldonian Theatre where students matriculate and graduate. Duke Humfrey’s Library, the university’s oldest reading room, was added as a second story in the late 15th century and today, the Divinity School is an essential stop on any tour of the Bodleian Library.
    • Sheldonian Theatre: The ornately adorned Sheldonian Theatre with its striking octagonal cupola is primarily used for the university’s graduation and degree ceremonies. It was the second building completed by the legendary architect Christopher Wren, who based its design on the D-shaped Theatre of Marcellus erected in Rome in the first century BC. He adapted the design to add a roof that avoided placing load-bearing columns in the central space, which was considered a marvel of architectural engineering at the time and greatly contributed to his reputation as a fashionable architect of great talent.
    • University Church of St. Mary the Virgin: With its 13th-century spire looming over the city center on Radcliffe Square and High Street, St. Mary’s is an iconic part of the Oxford skyline as well as the university’s history. It was home to the university’s original library and also hosted its graduation ceremonies until the Sheldonian Theatre was built. We toured the inside of the building, but we didn’t take the time to climb up its tower, which is supposed to have one of the loveliest views in the city.
  • Christ Church Meadow: Lily’s favorite part of Oxford was definitely the sprawling meadow situated in the area between the River Thames, the River Cherwell, and Christ Church. Our hotel was conveniently located right beside one of the entrances, so we spent quite a bit of time walking around the beautiful park and enjoying the clear weather and up-close views of Christ Church Cathedral.
  • Blackwell’s of Oxford: The tiny bookstore that Benjamin Blackwell opened in 1879 is now an Oxford institution and I honestly could have spent all day browsing the selection at the flagship store on Broad Street. Despite being absolutely gigantic (it’s allegedly the largest bookstore in Europe), it was really charmingly curated and had so many personalized touches that it somehow still felt like a neighborhood bookshop.

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