Central Oxford is, not surprisingly, compact, but many neighborhoods on the outskirts of the town, away from the university, are worth visiting. The most central point of Oxford is the Carfax, at the crossroads of the High Street, Cornmarket Street, St. Aldate's, and Queen Street. The first of these, along with Broad Street which runs parallel to it, are perhaps the two most typically 'Oxford' streets in the City. Both of them are lined with Oxford Colleges, among them
Towards the west end of the High Street a few shops can be found, but the principle shopping area is around Cornmarket Street and Queen Street, with the
Continue up the pedestrianized Cormarket and you will come to St. Giles, which then forks into Woodstock Road and Banbury Road, both of which take you up to North Oxford and the wealthy suburbs. By taking a right off Banbury Road and down Keble Road, you can find the University Parks, where College or university sports teams can often be seen in action. In the summer, countless undergraduates may be found, lazing around and procrastinating. Continue through the Parks and you'll end up fairly near Headington, home of
St. Aldates has a few more shops, but exists primarily as the route South out of Oxford, though the
The bulk of students who don't live in their Colleges tend to live on or just off the Cowley Road, reached by heading East along the High Street, and over Magdalen Bridge. The Cowley Road epitomizes the bohemian side of Oxford, home as it is to a hodgepodge of bars, restaurants, clubs and shops. From trendy cocktail bars to gloomy, empty pubs; from classy restaurants to filthy-looking greasy spoons; from bizarre shops that sell nothing in particular (and yet miraculously stay in business), to high street supermarkets, the Cowley Road has it all. Well worth a visit.
Instead of going down the Cowley Road off the Magdalen roundabout, take the next turn and head down the Iffley Road. You'll soon come to the Oxford University Sports Centre, where Roger Bannister first ran his record breaking four minute mile. On a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon between October and April, you may also see Oxford's other internationally-recognized sports team: the Blues rugby team.
Effectively a working medieval city, Oxford is now, along with London, Stratford and Cambridge, one of the essential stops on most tourist visits to Britain. As a result, the city has an enormous number and variety of places to stay, although at peak holiday times, and especially in the summer months, things can get very busy, so be sure to book early. With its years of experience welcoming guests, however, Oxford is guaranteed to offer a comfortable and rewarding stay.
Obviously, the best place to for the shoe-string traveler to inquire is with a friend. But perhaps the next best option is to stay in a student friend's college. Most Oxford colleges have guest rooms that are not only clean, pleasant and cheap, at about £15 or £20 a night, but which afford the guest the experience of staying in the sort of collegiate room familiar from books such as Brideshead Revisited. The majority of colleges are also conveniently near the center of town, making access to shops, pubs and restaurants easy.
Another cheap accommodation option is the Backpacker's Hostel on Hythe Bridge Street. A little expensive perhaps for the humble, communal flophouse that it is, the backpacker can expect clean sheets, functional facilities and breakfast. There is also a bar - a good place to meet fellow travelers - and a kitchen in which to cook, should you so choose. It is also on the lively and developing west side of town and is very near the railway station. This has to be the best place for budget travelers as it is relatively cheap, and the social potential of a few nights there cannot be underestimated.
Bed and Breakfast
B&B accommodation is what Oxford really excels at. There are plenty of comfortable and clean places to choose from. Iffley Road in East Oxford, for example, boasts almost more bed and breakfast hotels than it does residential houses. These can range in price. The Bravalla Guest House on Iffley Road, for example, is a highly recommended mid-price bed and breakfast hotel. Breakfasts tend to be served early, and range from a light continental repast to hearty English bacon and eggs.
The standard of bed and breakfast hotels is generally very high in Oxford, with the occasional exception. The most important consideration is price and location. Iffley Road is a very pleasant part of town, and gives you access to the nightlife of Cowley Road and the city center, which is only a fifteen minute walk away. However, Woodstock Road and Banbury Road in North Oxford are good for city access. In this part of town, though, you can expect to pay a little bit more. Botley Road, in West Oxford, has a lot of accommodation and is excellent for the train station. The city central Bath Place Hotel is a hard-to-find gem, but find it and the reconverted 17th century cottage is sure to charm.
Oxford boasts many hotels for those who want something a little more luxurious than just bed and breakfast. The charming Old Parsonage Hotel is, as the name suggests, a beautiful and quite rustic converted parsonage. A popular spot among Oxford people for enjoying cream tea on a sunny afternoon, The Old Parsonage is also an excellent hotel with delightfully furnished and decorated rooms and helpful staff. It has a superb restaurant, but its central location means it is also close to the city's other eateries.
The most famous and distinguished hotel in Oxford, however, is The Randolph Hotel on Beaumont Street. Built in 1864, this hotel is one of the places to eat and stay in the city. Situated in the center of town, opposite the historic Ashmolean Museum, the hotel has a commanding presence. Its vast dining and function rooms are often the first choice for wedding receptions, business conventions and balls.
The relatively new, centrally located Old Bank Hotel is luxurious and contemporary - perfect for either the leisure or the business traveler.
Oxford has a fair range of places to stay, but such a popular city does get overcrowded. The importance of planning ahead cannot be stressed enough.
Thanks largely to the huge number of undergraduates in the city with wealthy parents, Oxford has plenty of places to eat, drink, and be merry. Somehow though, particularly at weekends, most of these venues are full, so it is almost always advisable to book. For those in search of a quick bite to eat, the numerous sandwich shops, particularly in the Covered Market, offer a pleasant alternative to the monopoly that certain global chains might elsewhere have on fast food.
People in no immediate rush to find a specific restaurant would be well advised to have a stroll down the Cowley Road, which, although predominantly lined by Indian restaurants, including the renowned Aziz, has many other interesting eateries, such as the Jamaican Hi-Lo. Those who want a slightly more lively and less civilized dinner could check out the Kashmir Halal Indian restaurant, which, as it's fairly cheap and allows you to bring your own alcohol, usually has a student sports team washing down its vindaloos with several beers.
Just next to the Cowley Road, St Clement's also has some highly recommended restaurants: Oxford's finest seafood restaurant, Fishers, and Genies, which specializes in Mediterranean food, as well as the Chinese Pink Giraffe are all very good.
While East Oxford has its fair share of Indian, Chinese and other casual restaurants, North Oxford is the place to go for a more expensive restaurant. Le Petit Blanc, Gee's, and The Lemon Tree respectively serving French, Mediterranean, and modern British food, are three such restaurants, though none of them is extortionate.
Oxford is bursting with pubs: there is probably no point within two miles of the city center that is more than a hundred yards from the nearest watering hole. A decent meal can also be found at many of these pubs. While The Mitre on the High Street has a dining section as large as the drinking section, The Oxford Pub on Magdalen roundabout serves up a good burger and chips. Of all the pubs in central Oxford, perhaps The Turf which claims to be the oldest, has the most traditional feel. Thanks to its beer garden in the summer and its outdoor fires in the winter - over which marshmallows, bought at the bar, can be toasted - The Turf is extremely popular with students and tourists alike and is guaranteed always to be full, particularly in the evenings. As well as a large selection of ales, it also offers good standard of pub meals. The King's Arms is often fairly full during the day, located as it is next to the School of Geography, thus ensuring that hordes of idle geographers come here in their extended breaks, which generally seem to last for most of the day.
Anyone who comes to Oxford in the summer and has a full day on their hands should definitely visit The Trout in Godstow. Although literally jam-packed on a sunny day, often with a half-hour queue to order food, this pub is in the most idyllic setting, with the river Isis cascading past.
As well as having many pubs, Oxford also has numerous cocktail bars, many of which have a happy hour from about 6pm. Though the cocktails don't differ much between bars, Maxwell's is usually full, and has a good American food menu, while The Duke of York and The Beat Café, although small, are not normally so crowded. The Grand Café, which serves tapas, oysters, and champagne cocktails, as well as the more usual drinks, is certainly aimed at a more refined clientele than the average watering hole.
The first written reference to Oxford, or Oxenford as it was then called, is a 912 entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle stating that 'King Edward (the elder son of Alfred the Great) took possession of London and Oxford and all the lands which owed obedience to them'. However, the town was certainly in existence at least 200 years before when the patron saint of Oxford, St Frideswide, founded a priory on the site of what is now Christ Church cathedral.
From those early beginnings the town's fortunes fluctuated over the centuries and it is now a city of 130,000 inhabitants known for its academic, medical and scientific research, its 2 universities, and its thriving industrial and publishing base. However, it is almost certainly true that without Oxford University and its wonderful buildings the city would be just another pleasant but undistinguished English market town.
At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 Oxford was the 6th largest town in the country and was a well-established commercial center. The building of the castle 5 years later consolidated it as the administrative hub of the surrounding area but by 1086 (Domesday) the town was in decay. However, it slowly recovered and by the end of the 11th century a market had been established. The town's revenues were further improved by the introduction of an annual fair and the seal was set on its rising importance when, at the beginning of the 12th century, Henry I built Beaumont Palace just outside the north gate and close to where Worcester College now stands. It was in Oxford that the agreement to end the struggle for the crown between Henry's daughter, Matilda, and her cousin Stephen, both grandchildren of William the Conqueror, was settled.
The growing importance of the town, its proximity to and its good communications with London, together with its fertile soil and temperate climate, led to the establishment of many religious houses and churches in the town and surrounding area. At that time religion and learning went hand-in-hand and, as a result, a culture of learning was established. This itself attracted teachers from Europe who set up in business by renting or buying houses and rooms and providing basic accommodation, food and tuition to students - in this way the first academic halls in the town came to be formed. As there were no universities in England, Englishmen went to Europe, usually Paris, for a university education. But this tradition came to an abrupt halt in 1167 when English students were expelled from Paris University. Many saw Oxford, with its established culture of teaching and learning, as the natural place to continue their studies and the church of St Mary the Virgin became the focal point of the emerging university. Teaching expanded rapidly and at one stage there were 120 academic halls in the town center alone.
This rapid rise in the student population caused difficulties for the townspeople and the town/gown relationships became fraught. There were many riots over the years (including one in 1209 which resulted in a group of students fleeing Oxford and creating Cambridge University), but the most serious was in 1355 when a 3 day riot left 63 students, and probably half that number of townspeople, dead in the streets. As a result the university was granted significantly increased power by Edward III and virtually controlled the city for the next 500 years.
During the 13th century graduate colleges, with endowments of land and property to provide an income covering running costs, were established by wealthy benefactors. This enabled students to be taught without charge and when this practice was extended to undergraduate colleges with the foundation of New College in 1379, the future of academic halls was bleak; by the mid 15th century only 8 remained.
When civil war broke out in 1641 the university supported the royalists. The following year Charles I made Oxford his military headquarters and took up residence in Christ Church until he was forced to escape in 1646 disguised as a servant. Oxford was fortunate to escape the consequences of supporting the wrong side when Cromwell preferred to make himself Chancellor of the university rather than to destroy it but there was no new building in the city until the restoration in 1669.
The next 60 years, however, were the golden age of Oxford architecture with the building of the Sheldonian Theatre, Tom Tower, the Clarendon Building, the Radcliffe Camera and the great quad of All Souls College.
However, this golden age was followed by a period of decline and stagnation. Teaching and study became almost non-existent and university life became little more than an excuse for debauched living. It was not until the 19th century that the great revival began and future leaders in political, business and religious fields chose Oxford as their alma mater. Written examinations were introduced in 1800; the restriction on dons being allowed to marry was lifted in 1870; the next year non-Anglicans were welcomed as students, and at the same time the first women's colleges were founded.
By the early 20th century Oxford was transformed. The introduction of car manufacturing led to an explosion in the population. 'Town' became economically much stronger and the old town/gown rivalries were consigned to history when the Mayor was given an honorary degree and the Vice-Chancellor became a freeman of the city.
Today Town and Gown co-exist happily. Car production, although on a smaller scale, is still an important employer. But other industries, notably light engineering, publishing, scientific and bio-chemical research, as well as tourism provide employment opportunities for local people. A second university, Oxford Brookes, now has more students than its illustrious neighbor, and education at all levels is an important contributor to the local economy.
All of these changes have contributed to making 21st century Oxford a city of wonderful contrasts. It is easy to turn off a busy shopping area and within seconds be transported into a calm and quiet environment, evocative of centuries past. Oxford is a 'city of dreaming spires' but also a thoroughly modern commercial and prosperous town.