Oxford, England Is the Ultimate College Town

This English university and its surroundings are every bit as magical and monumental as you’ve heard. Oxford is also full of hidden marvels, if you’re willing to wander.

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Port Meadow

Home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of Oxford (which has produced 28 Nobel Prize winners), the charming town of Oxford is nicknamed the "City of Dreaming Spires" for the world-famous Gothic towers and steeples that define its skyline. At 51 miles from London, Oxford is a worthwhile detour, full of the art and culture you might expect of a university town, but also known for its incredibly diverse population and a pedestrian-friendly city center.

North and west of the city center along the Thames, “Oxford’s oldest monument” still bears evidence of burial mounds and settlements that date back to the Iron and Bronze Ages. The city’s founders made the land available as a common pasture in the 10th century, and native ponies and cows still graze there among the human picnickers. On sunny afternoons, there’s no finer place to escape civilization and amble through the clover.

Cocktails at a Church

From 1836 until the 1960s, the stunning Greek Revival building at 119 Walton Street was known as St. Paul’s Church. After deconsecration, it served as a theatre and arts venue — and since 1986, it’s been FREVD, a gorgeously atmospheric café and bar (and an excellent spot to put your feet up after a ramble through Port Meadow).

Magdalen College Dormitories

For an authentic (and cost-effective) taste of student life, book accommodation at stately Magdalen College, where spare dormitory rooms are rented out to adult visitors. Oxford’s countless B&Bs are lovely, to be sure, but it’s tough to beat breakfast in a medieval hall.

Punting on the Cherwell

Skip the hop-on, hop-off tour bus scene and take in sights like the Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum (which happens to be the oldest in the UK), Christ Church College’s iconic buildings and meadows and Magdalen and St. Hilda’s College gardens while gliding along the tranquil River Cherwell. For a truly old-school afternoon, hire a boat for the whole afternoon and pull up for a picnic beside the water.

Rooftop Views From the Westgate

A glimpse of the city from the top of the 12th-century Carfax Tower at the center of town is spectacular, but the building has a pesky habit of closing before sundown. The Westgate — a massive shopping center a few blocks away — boasts a rooftop dining and drinking terrace which offers that same bird’s-eye view until the wee hours.

Live Music at the Jericho

Radiohead played their first proper gig at the Jericho in 1986, and the iconic venue remains a crown jewel of the Oxford music scene (and a popular stop for folk, rock and indie bands like Supergrass, Foals, Pulp and Mumford and Sons). Stop by to hear future darlings — and stay for delectable pub grub and a rotating selection of specialty beers and ales. (Want to keep the music pilgrimage going? Head across town to O2 Academy Oxford, where Thom Yorke & co. filmed the “Creep” video.)

Late-Night Kebab

Long before food trucks conquered America, Oxford’s students and dons alike queued to cure their midnight munchies at the city’s mobile eateries. Locals are fiercely loyal to their favorites, but it should be noted that Ahmed’s Bar B-Q (which has parked outside the Old Bank Hotel on High Street since 1987) took top honors at this year’s nationwide British Kebab Awards.

The Radcliffe Camera and Bodleian Library

Visitors to the Radcliffe Camera have to settle for photos of the reading room’s majestic exterior, as the interior isn’t open to the general public. Happily, other portions of the Bodleian — like Duke Humfrey’s Library, whose dazzling displays are well known to Harry Potter fans, as it appeared as the Hogwarts library in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — open their doors to bibliophiles.

A Historic Hidden Pub

The Turf Tavern is notoriously difficult to find (hint: pass beneath the Bridge of Sighs, make a quick left at almost-invisible St. Helen’s Passage and follow the winding alley to its end), but it’s well worth the effort. The labyrinthine pub has been slaking thirsts in Oxford since 1381, and following that alley feels like taking a trip back in time.

The Eagle and Child

Called “the Bird and Baby” by its most famous regulars (the Inklings, a literary discussion group that convened there in the ‘30s and ‘40s), The Eagle and Child is a mandatory stop for bookish Oxford pub crawlers. C.S. Lewis distributed the proofs for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe there in 1950 — and Inklings member Hugo Dyson is said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien when, after a marathon drinking session, he became convinced that diminutive people with hairy feet were trying to steal his pipe.

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