Think of OXFORD and inevitably you think of its university, revered as one of the world's great academic institutions, inhabiting honeystone buildings set around ivy-clad quadrangles. The university, which dominates the town centre, has long operated a collegiate system whereby many students and tutors live, work and take their meals together in the same complex of buildings – usually a couple of quadrangles ("quads") with a chapel, library and dining hall. The colleges form a dense maze of historic buildings in the heart of the city and feature some of England's finest architecture. Together with some excellent museums and a good range of bars and restaurants, this all makes Oxford a highly rewarding destination.
Although the university dominates central Oxford both physically and mentally, the wider city has an entirely different character, its economy built on the carplants of Cowley to the south of the centre. It was here that Britain's first mass-produced cars were produced in the 1920s and, although there have been more downs than ups in recent years, the plants are still vitally important to the area.
Oxford started late, in Anglo-Saxon times, and blossomed even later, under the Normans, when the cathedral was constructed and Oxford was chosen as a royal residence. The origins of the university are obscure, but it seems that the reputation of Henry I, the so-called "Scholar King", helped attract students in the early twelfth century. The first colleges, founded mostly by rich bishops, were essentially ecclesiastical institutions and this was reflected in collegiate rules and regulations – until 1877 lecturers were not allowed to marry and women were not granted degrees until 1920. Though they share a similar history, each of the university's 39 colleges has its own character and often a particular label, whether it's the richest (St John's), most left-wing (Wadham) or most public-school-dominated (Christ Church). Collegiate rivalries are long established, usually revolving around sports, and tension between the university and the city – "Town" and Gown" – has existed as long as the university itself.
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 University College , Balliol College , Trinity College , and All Souls College Other architectural splendours abound along these two central streets, including two of Oxford's most famous sights: the domes of the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre , built by Sir Christopher Wren. It is not just these specific buildings which are worth looking at however; make sure you don't miss the general architecture in central Oxford, where little seems to have been built more recently than a few hundred years ago. Even the shops, restaurants and offices would seem totally out of place in any modern city. Make sure you take the odd glance skyward: Oxford is famous for its Gothic gargoyles and spires.
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 Covered Market especially suitable for all those in search of quintessentially Oxford gifts. But fanatical vegetarians be warned: there are several butchers in the Covered Market, so if you don't look where you're going, you may soon find yourself bumping into something which used to look like a cow before it was shaved and beheaded.
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 Oxford Brookes University in North East Oxford. West of St Giles we find the area of Jericho. As far as central Oxford goes, this is possibly the most chic residential area.
St. Aldates has a few more shops, but exists primarily as the route South out of Oxford, though the Town Hall and Christ Church , among others, can also be found down here. Head a little way down this road and you'll come to the Isis River - actually the Thames, though it's not called that locally. All year round you can see students training on the river, and may even catch a glimpse of Oxford's world famous (though usually beaten in recent years!) Blues rowing crew, who slog it out against Cambridge in the annual Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race .
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.
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 Cafe , although small, are not normally so crowded. The Grand Cafe , 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.
Tour 1: The Heart of the University
This walk is only half a mile long but you should allow at least 30 minutes as it takes in some of the most stunning and well known buildings in Oxford. Traffic restrictions over much of the route happily ensure the walk is pleasant, safe and relaxed - ideal conditions for appreciating the buildings and soaking up the atmosphere they generate. If you only do one walk in Oxford this is the one you should do. And remember to take a camera!
From Carfax, with your back to Carfax Tower , walk away from the tower along the High Street, passing 3 entrances to the Covered Market , until you reach The Mitre .
Turn left into Turl Street, which gets its name from a twirling gate in the city wall situated, until its demolition in 1722, at the far end of the street. Lincoln College Library is on your right as you turn and the street also contains three colleges. Walk down Turl Street passing first Lincoln College on the right. This college, founded in 1427 by Robert Fleming Bishop of Lincoln remains, despite many alterations over the centuries, one of the most unspoilt legacies of medieval Oxford. On the left, beyond Market Street, is Jesus College , the only college founded during the reign of Elizabeth I, and opposite on the right is Exeter College whose founder, Walter de Stapleton, has the dubious distinction of being the only founder of an Oxford College to have been murdered.
As you approach the end of Turl Street the front quad of Trinity College with its gate tower in the background is visible across Broad Street through the 1737 wrought iron gates. To the left of Trinity is Balliol College .
At the end of Turl Street turn right into Broad Street where, after 100 yards, you will find on your right the Museum of the History of Science , which occupies the building of the original Ashmolean Museum , the first public museum in England.
On Saturday afternoons and Sundays some buildings are closed. Alternatives are given and the routes rejoin as indicated: Weekday Route
Just beyond the Museum go right through a small archway and keep right with the Sheldonian Theatre designed by Christopher Wren on your left to arrive in a courtyard with the Sheldonian on your left and the 15th century Divinity School on your right.
Continue to an open graveled courtyard with, on your left, the Clarendon Building with its rooftop statues representing the 9 muses, and visible ahead across the road, the Bridge of Sighs linking the 2 buildings of Hertford College .
Turn right opposite the Clarendon through an opening which leads to School's Quad , now part of the Bodleian Library but originally built in the early 17th century as lecture rooms and libraries.
Through the door behind the statue of the Earl of Pembroke, who was the university's Vice Chancellor when School's Quad was built, enter the Divinity School via the gift shop.
On leaving the Divinity School exit Schools Quad on the right between two 17th century lecture rooms the 'Schola Musicae' and the 'Schola Naturalis Philosophiae' to the stunning Radcliffe Square. Directly ahead dominating the square is the Radcliffe Camera with its original ground floor arcade now enclosed to form part of the building, to the right is Brasenose College and to the left All Souls College .
Saturday pm and Sunday Route
Continue along Broad Street to the traffic lights passing on your right first the Radcliffe Camera designed by Christopher Wren, and then the Clarendon Building and its rooftop statues representing the nine muses. On your left is the Bodleian Library .
At the traffic lights turn right into Catte Street and after a few yards reach on the left the Bridge of Sighs , linking the two parts of Hertford College. On the right the Sheldonian and the Clarendon can be seen from a different perspective.
A few yards further opposite the main entrance to Hertford College is the entrance to Schools Quad, now part of the Bodleian Library but originally built as lecture rooms and libraries. The crests on the entrance doors are of the 20 colleges in existence in 1620 when the Quad was built.
Continue down Catte Street to reach the stunning Radcliffe Square. Directly ahead dominating the square is the Radcliffe Camera with its original ground floor arcade now enclosed to form part of the building, to the right is Brasenose College and to the left All Souls College .
The 2 walk descriptions now join
Walk to the left, keeping the Radcliffe Camera on your right and take a moment to look through the gates at the Great Quad of All Souls designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built in the first quarter of the 18th century. On the north side is a sundial designed by Christopher Wren when he was the college bursar.
Ahead is the university Church of St Mary the Virgin . For a small charge it is possible to climb the 127 steps of the tower and to be rewarded with probably the most breathtaking views anywhere in Oxford.
Enter St Mary the Virgin through the tower door and walk through the gift shop into the church. Read the notes on the pillars concerning the trial of Thomas Cranmer and sermons by Wesley and Newman before exiting through the back of the church into the High Street facing the north side of Oriel College, with a statue of Cecil Rhodes towards the top of the tower. This is the only statue in Oxford of a man dressed in civilian as opposed to clerical or military clothes.
Turn right and walk along The High, past Brasenose College on the right, to the finishing point at Carfax.
Tour 2: Christ Church Meadow
This delightful two mile walk through meadows and along river banks is within very easy reach of the city center. There are many picturesque spots along the route ideal for picnics or just for sitting and relaxing. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, or to see a very different Oxford, try this walk. It is easy walking and, apart from six steps, completely flat.
From Carfax, walk south down the left hand side of St Aldates passing, after a few yards, the Town Hall and the Museum of Oxford , with Tom Tower , the imposing bell tower of Christ Church clearly visible ahead. A little further, as you pass Christ Church, notice the cardinals' hats carved on the towers - a reminder of the college's founder, Cardinal Wolsey. Also look through the main gate of Christ Church at Tom Quad, the largest quad in Oxford, with a lead copy of Giovanni ad Bologna's Mercury in the center. Across the road on the right is Pembroke College with its entrance tucked away beyond St Aldate's church.
Continue past a garage entrance and about 100 yards after Christ Church turn left through imposing wrought iron gates into the War Memorial Garden . Notice the sword inlaid into the paving at the entrance with an inscription from John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress: "My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage."
Walk five or six paces into the Garden and pause to look at some of the buildings. On the left is Christ Church, with Tom Tower and the Hall in full view, on the right is the north wing of the Faculty of Music containing the Bate Collection of English and European woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. Behind, across the road, is Alice's Shop where Alice of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass bought her sweets. Alice in real life was Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.
Walk through the Garden, up two sets of three steps each, into Christ Church meadow . After a few yards, opposite the visitors entrance to Christ Church, turn right along Poplar Walk which was planted in 1872 by Alice's father Dean Liddell. Continue between the trees, along this very pleasant stretch of meadow which often has contented cattle grazing on your left, and after a quarter of a mile reach the River Thames or Isis as it is known here.
Turn left and walk along the side of the river stopping if you wish to sit and refresh mind, body or both, at one of the many convenient benches along the way.
After 300 yards ignore the bridge on your right and continue straight ahead keeping to the pathway. The walk now follows a delightful, slow running link between the two rivers of Oxford, the Isis and the Cherwell - a little known but idyllic stretch of water for punting.
A further half mile brings you to a fork in the river and the pathway follows the left fork. Clearly visible over to the right, behind the trees, is Magdalen College Tower where from the top at dawn every May morning the choir sings an invocation to summer whilst several thousand people dance and make merry in the street below.
Keep to the path and after another 200 yards ignore the major path, Broad Walk, on your left and keep right, reaching after a further 100 yards the railings of the Botanic Garden on your right.
After a few yards you will reach a fork with the exit gates from the Meadow straight ahead and some cottages on the left. Do not go through the gates but turn left keeping Meadow Cottages on your right. Notice the plaque set into the wall commemorating the feat of James Sadler, the first English aeronaut, who made a successful ascent in a balloon close to here in 1784 landing six miles away near the small village of Woodeaton.
Soon after the cottages and other buildings the path follows alongside the ancient city wall, behind which is Merton College Fellows Garden. Further ahead is Merton College , one of three colleges which claim to be the oldest in Oxford.
At the end of Merton College the path turns sharp left. Turn left with the path keeping the sports field of Christ Church Choir School on your left and after 30 yards look through the gate on the right for a superb view of Oxford Cathedral, one of the smallest cathedrals in England.
Continue for another 50 yards to reach Broad Walk and turn right with the south side of Christ Church on your right. After a few yards reach and walk through the Memorial Garden and arrive once again in St Aldates.
Turn right to retrace your steps to Carfax to complete your walk.
Tour 3: 13th Century Oxford
University and Merton colleges, two of the three colleges claiming to be the oldest in Oxford, are on the route of this walk, as is the Church of St Mary the Virgin which, in the days before there were specialized university buildings, was used for examinations and major university ceremonies including conferment of degrees. Six other colleges, a building which in medieval times was an academic hall, and a pub with its origins in the 14th century are also on the walk. Altogether this short, flat walk of less than a mile is a step back into the early days of Oxford and the university.
From Carfax Tower carefully cross to the St Aldates side of High Street, or 'the High' as it is commonly called, and walk along the right hand pavement.
After 100 yards, just before the traffic lights and opposite market entrance three, turn right into a little alleyway called 'Wheatsheaf Yard'. This interesting alleyway is not only the home of one of the oldest firms of ironmongers in the country, Gill & Son, but, as almost the entire right hand side is made up of pubs and brasseries, is also a good spot for eating and drinking.
At the bottom of Wheatsheaf Yard turn left along Blue Boar passing on your left The Bear which has been in business in one form or another since 1247. Continue along Bear Lane to arrive in Oriel Square.
Turn right into Oriel Square passing several 18th century houses owned by Oriel College and used for accommodation. On your right is the eastern part of Christ Church and on your left Oriel College founded by Edward II in 1326, the fifth oldest college, but the first to be founded by a monarch.
Walk to the bottom of Oriel Square and turn left into Merton Street passing Corpus Christi College on your right. If the entrance is open take a peek at the Front Quad, where the elaborate sundial was erected by Charles Turnbull in 1581. After a further 50 yards the wrought iron gates on the right lead to Christ Church Meadow but continue straight on beyond Magpie Lane. The building on the left immediately after Magpie Lane is accommodation for Corpus Christi students.
On the right is Merton College chapel and beyond is Merton College itself with its imposing gatehouse tower and statues of the founder, Walter de Merton, the king at the time, Henry III, St John the Baptist and various animals.
Across the road from Merton is Beam Hall, now owned by Merton and used for seminar and computing rooms. Continue along Merton Street and after a few yards on the left is a gateway which leads to a Real Tennis court. Real Tennis has been played in Oxford for more than 500 years and this court is the second oldest still in play in England (the oldest is at Hampton Court).
After another few yards turn left up University College bridleway and through the wrought iron gates. The modern building on the right after the dogleg is accommodation for first year Univ students.
Emerging onto the High Street immediately opposite is Queen's College with its distinctive cupola and statue of Queen Caroline, the wife of George II. Turn left along the High Street with University College on the left. The main entrance to the college is reached after 50 yards and a few yards further on notice the wall plaque referring to Robert Boyle and Robert Hooker.
Just beyond and across the road is All Souls College with, on the entrance tower, a relief of the Resurrection of the Dead above statues of the founder, Henry Chichele Archbishop of Canterbury and of Henry VI. Immediately after Catte Street is St Mary the Virgin the parish church of the university.
On the left just after Magpie Lane is the northern wing of Oriel College . Named the 'Rhodes Building' after Cecil Rhodes, an Oriel graduate, benefactor and founder of Rhodes Scholarships. His statue at the top of the entrance tower is the only one in Oxford of a man in civilian as opposed to clerical or military dress.
A few yards further but across the road is the High Street frontage of Brasenose College with its eight oriel windows. Despite appearances the main entrance to Brasenose is not on the High but in Radcliffe Square. Carfax Tower and the end of the walk are now in sight just a little way along the High.
Tour 4: Outside the Medieval City
In the early days Oxford was a small city with the rivers Thames and Cherwell providing natural defenses on the south, west and east of the city. The first artificial defenses date from Alfred the Great (853-901) and although the construction date of Oxford's first wall is unknown it was certainly in existence by 919 and was probably built eight years earlier. Numerous improvements and extensions were undertaken over the centuries and the wall was virtually rebuilt between 1226 and 1240.
This one and a half mile walk, although fully within the modern city is almost entirely outside the old city boundaries. Many of the buildings seen are associated with major historical events including the Black Death, the religious upheavals of the 16th century and the Civil War; others, including 17th century pubs and a concert hall, reflect the social evolution of the city.
Start at the Martyrs' Memorial , with the Randolph Hotel on your immediate left. Across Beaumont Street is the Taylor Institute with its prominent Ionic pillars and, just behind, the Ashmolean Museum .
Carefully cross the road and walk up the right hand pavement of St Giles, opposite the Taylor Institute, and after 100 yards reach the entrance tower of St John's College with its statue of St Bernard dating from, and a reminder of, the original Cistercian foundation. Continue for a further 150 yards to reach the 17th century Lamb and Flag pub. Directly opposite is the Eagle and Child favored by the 17th century diarist Anthony Wood as well as by the 20th century Inklings.
Turn right down Lamb and Flag Passage, signposted to the University Museum, keeping the pub on your left hand side. Walk under the magnificent horse chestnut tree and then through 2 sets of bollards to reach the main road ahead. The University Museum fronted by a large lawn is across the road slightly to the left. Cross the road to the museum and notice carvings have been completed around only one of the windows. The carvings on this 'cat window', second on the right from the entrance tower, were originally of monkeys but opposition to the theory of evolution forced a change.
Turn round for a wonderful view through the trees of Keble College with its polychromatic brickwork arousing strong feelings amongst supporters and opponents alike. It is said that John Ruskin, the founder of the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, would take a 30 minute detour to avoid catching sight of the building.
Walk back to the road and turn left. After a few yards cross over South Parks Road, making sure to look left to see the domed roof of Rhodes House . Continue for 200 yards arriving opposite the blue wrought iron gates of Trinity College which give superb views of the perfectly manicured lawns. A few yards further, on the left, is Christopher Wren's alma mater Wadham College . Dorothy Wadham instructed that only men were to be employed by the college, with the single exception of the laundress - and she had to be 'of such age, condition, and reputation as to be above suspicion'. A few steps bring us to the King's Arms on the left, and opposite the stark New Bodleian Library , formally opened by King George VI in an embarrassing 1940 ceremony when the silver key broke in the lock.
Turn left at the traffic lights and walk down Holywell Street passing on the left Holywell Music Room , probably the oldest still functioning concert hall in the world. Continue along this street of charming, mainly 16th and 17th century houses, beyond Mansfield Road, to New College entrance on the right. Look inside to see part of the substantial and well preserved section of the old city wall actually located in the college grounds.
A little further on swing right with the road into Longwall Street, named after the city wall and not the 1467 Magdalen College wall on the left. Soon after entering Longwall Street, on the right, is the original Longwall Garage where in 1912 William Morris built his first car, the prototype of the bull nosed Morris Oxford. Take a moment, a few yards further on, to look through the gate on the right where behind the trees is another section of the old city wall complete with a bastion.
Continue to the traffic lights and pause on the corner to look left to Magdalen College tower. From the top of this tower the college choir sings at 6a every May Day morning whilst several thousand people make merry in the street below.
Turn right along High Street with the tower of St Mary the Virgin clearly visible on the bend in the road ahead. Across on the left after the Eastgate Hotel are the Examination Schools with two sculptured panels over the main entrance showing a viva voce examination and the award, by touching the successful candidate's forehead with a bible, of an MA degree.
Turn right into the first opening on the right, Queen's Lane, keeping Queen's College on your left. After 30 yards on the right is St Edmund Hall the only survivor of the medieval Halls which preceded colleges and in which students were provided with accommodation and tuition. The college library, formerly the church of St Peter-in-the-East is directly ahead. Continue along Queen's Lane described by John Betjeman as 'a little lane like Oxford used to be before the petrol age' with the towers of All Souls College and the dome of the Radcliffe Camera clearly visible. Look up to your right to see the gargoyles on the southern wall of New College .
As the road turns right and then quickly left look behind to see the entrance tower of New College whose Holywell Street entrance, with a view of the old city wall, was passed earlier on this walk. Continue along the twists and turns of the lane and notice, on the right about 30 yards before the Bridge of Sighs, the house with an observatory on the roof - this is where Edmund Halley of comet fame lived. He was an undergraduate at Queen's College and later, 1703-43, Savilian Professor of Geometry.
Just before reaching the Bridge of Sighs , turn right down a narrow alleyway, St Helen's Passage, which leads to the 17th century Turf Tavern where reputedly the last cockfight in England took place.
Turn left in front of the pub and you'll see a section of the old city wall on the right and a very good view of New College tower ahead; pass a small hotel and some guest houses seemingly huddled for safety outside of but close to the city wall, and emerge into Holywell Street opposite the Holywell Music Room seen earlier on the walk.
Turn left and cross the road at the traffic lights to walk along the right hand pavement of Broad Street past Blackwell's . The main buildings on both sides of this section of the walk - the Clarendon Building , the Sheldonian Theatre and the Museum of the History of Science on the left, and Trinity and Balliol Colleges on the right - are described in walk 1 ("The Heart of the University").
Forty yards beyond the entrance to Balliol College notice both the plaque on the wall referring to the execution of the three martyrs and the cross in the center of the road marking the approximate spot where they perished.
Continue along Broad Street, crossing the small road coming from the right to reach the main road where a right turn is made before reaching in another 150 yards the Martyrs' Memorial and the end of the walk.