I want to tell you about a significant moment in my life that happened not too long ago. I’d moved to Scotland and made this very good friend called Steph. But then Steph informed me that she’d taken a new job and was moving to Oxford. It was devastating! As someone relatively new to Scotland, I needed every friend I could get and the selfish part of me was so sad that she was moving away.
That was until I realised I now had a friend who lived in Oxford. And since I’d never been to Oxford, I saw an opportunity.
Now, over a year later, I’ve visited Oxford three times and seen quite a lot of this beautiful city. It takes a lot to win me over when it comes to the idea of living in a city – Edinburgh being the only city I’ve ever truly loved enough to want to live in long-term. But Oxford ain't too bad and would make for a nice alternative to Edinburgh if need be. I can see what lured Steph in, that’s what I’ll say.
When I visit, I can’t help but look at Oxford from a Rabbie’s perspective. We visit this city on many of our tours, so I was curious to see what was so appealing about it. To see why Oxford is so famous. Now I know. So, I thought it only prudent to run you through a few of the places I’ve been to on my trips to Oxford – some widely visited, others a little more off the beaten track.
Dubbed the best place to ‘take off your tie’, this is a little hidden spot you may not be lucky enough to simply stumble across, so I’m here to help you out. Having opened its doors in 1242, The Bear Inn is Oxford’s oldest pub. As I passed through the doorway, I was met with a classic English pub scene: one or two quiet folks savouring a lunchtime drink, a crackling hearth, and the cheerful greeting of the staff member waiting behind a row of beer taps.
I grabbed a menu and a small table at the back of the establishment, only to be immediately distracted by the decor. All around me – on every wall, and even the ceiling – were ties. Men’s ties. Hundreds of them, framed and on display, most clearly very old. I didn’t even think to ask someone why... I was just happy that this place was as quirky as I am.
After a delectable meal of bangers and mash (and a delicious apple cider since it was winter), I headed back out on my adventures glad to have discovered this little trove.
Now here’s one the locals love and might hate me for sharing but when Steph told me about this little hole-in-the-wall noodle joint called Tse Noodle, I was eager to go. She warned me that it was quite popular with the local students and often you ended up queueing outside for a table, since the establishment is so small. However, we were lucky since it was the middle of the week during winter, and only had to wait inside for about ten minutes for a table. By the time we left though, the queue was out the door. So, I’d recommend either getting there early or going on a night when you have a little more time.
Even if we had waited longer, it would have been worth it. #Drool
This one’s a bit outside of the main hub, and when we walked there, I felt as if I’d walked outside of Oxford. But that was because of the freezing wind making the walk seem a little like Hobbits heading to Mordor. However, on the other end, I was tucked up at the bar of the Old Bookbinders Ale House with a soft drink – Steph with a rich cup of hot chocolate served in a delicate teacup – gearing up for a night of quiz fun.
Every Tuesday evening, they host a pub quiz and while we did not win, we had fun trying! In terms of food, the French bistro-style menu makes for a fun dining experience, and you simply must try the chilli garlic fries. And rumour has it that the very next week, Emma Watson was there on a date... so it really is the place to be!
Anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t really do dairy drinks, partly because too much dairy makes my stomach feel gross and partly because I don’t really like the taste. However, after visiting the chocolate cafe Knoops with Steph, I am far more open to the idea of a nice hot chocolate on a cold Oxford night.
They welcome you to ‘discover the art of Knoopology’, a chance to craft your perfect chocolate drink. The range was a little overwhelming, so I simply told the man at the counter what I did and didn’t like (noting that I don’t really like dairy, so good luck to them) and he managed to craft... the perfect chocolate drink, even for me!
This has become my local Oxford pub because it’s right around the corner from where Steph lives. Not only that, but the Head of the River is the ideal outdoor setting during the warmer months. It sits snuggly along the River Thames and has a range of delicious food, snacks, and drinks.
On my last visit, Steph and I went for a quick afternoon visit and shared hot chips and onion rings between us... and I kind of want to go back now for the onion rings alone (they are more ring than onion, you see).
This is a no-brainer. I don’t feel like I even need to convince you about this, but Christ Church College and Cathedral should definitely be on your to-visit list. That is, assuming you love one (or all) of the following things: stunning architecture, Harry Potter, epic cathedrals, hilarious stained-glass windows, getting amazing photos.
You’ll absolutely need to pre-book your tickets (mine went to spam, so make sure you check there), but I can highly recommend the self-guided audio tour. I don’t normally like audio tours, but this one gave me the time to go at my own pace and I did learn some cool things about spectacular collection of buildings.
What’s more, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll be able to see the famous stairs where Neville yells “TREVOR” and where Harry rejects Draco’s handshake, thus beginning one of the literary world’s most famous rivalries. You can also visit the hall where Hogwarts’ Great Hall is filmed... alas, I was unlucky and the hall was closed on the day I visited, so make sure you’re prepared for that.
Still, I think my favourite part was the cathedral and that well made up for not being able to see the hall. I adore a good cathedral, even though I’m a heathen and should not be allowed inside. The majesty and elegance of the cathedral made for incredible photos, and I had a fun time trying to find the odd stained-glass window that depicts... a toilet.
Hint: it’s at the back of the cathedral on the left-hand side.
I sadly missed out on this experience since the tower was closed – however, it’s on my list of things to do next time and if you’re wanting a great view of Oxford and one of its most famous buildings, I suggest you carve out some time for it too.
The great thing about Oxford is that it’s small and most things are within a very quick walk of each other, so it’s not hard to tack on something like this climb.
If you’ve been researching ‘things to do in Oxford’, you’ve likely already heard that you must visit Blackwell’s Bookshop. Since it’s the largest academic and specialist bookseller in the UK, it’s no wonder it’s as famous as it is.
But what I loved most about my visit was winding my way into the underground ‘chamber’ known as the Norrington Room. Opened some fifty years ago, it was once dubbed the single largest room in the world selling books by the Guinness Book of Records. There’s just something about a large, cavernous room filled with books that I love... can’t explain it, nor should I have to.
Speaking of bookshops that you need to visit; St Philip’s Books is right next to Alice’s Shop (more on that below) and it’s everything that Blackwell’s is not. It’s tiny and crammed with ancient treasures. It’s filled with rare and unique second-hand books, from theology to literature, art, philosophy, history... you name it.
It’s the kind of place you want to set time aside to explore, like a hobbit rummaging around the forest, hunting for those delicious, perfect mushrooms. It’s the kind of place you enter not knowing what it is you’re looking for. In fact, this place has such a personality, it might just be the one to tell you what you need.
The literary theme continues! I admit, I’m a little obsessed with books and there is no shame in it. Not in Oxford. Not anywhere, as far as I’m aware. So, embrace it the way I did and book yourself a guided tour of the Bodleian Library.
Also a great spot for Harry Potter fans, this library is so perfectly historic that it looks more like a set for a film than a real place. We had a wonderful guide called Emily who was full of zest and passion for her job. You can’t film in the library, and that secrecy added a level of intrigue to the whole place. It made the space intimate and rare, just like the books around us.
Luckily, photos were allowed.
As I entered the lovely St Michael at the North Gate church, I was greeted with an overzealous violinist and energetic pianist. Practicing for an upcoming concert, I enjoyed their music as I purchased my tower ticket and made my way up. It’s a short climb to the top of the Saxon Tower, not to worry, but gives you beautiful views out over Oxford.
I must start with this: what the actual... well, you know the rest. This place is absolute madness, and I adored every weird minute of it. Just a short walk out of the centre of town, you’ll find the Natural History Museum. It’s free entry (donations are always welcome) and, as you head inside, go towards the back because there you will find the entrance to the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Imagine every weird and wonderful and wild knickknack from every culture you can think of crammed into one enormous room... and that’s the Pitt Rivers Museum.
There was simply too much to look at. I could have spent the entire week in that room and not run out of things to look at and learn about. I was mostly obsessed with the cultural masks, the weaponised jewelry, and the firearm collection.
And that’s just the beginning.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found Alice in Wonderland a little creepy. And yet the tale has endured since its creation back in the 1800s. And on a quiet street in Oxford you can find Alice’s Shop, a trove of mad collectables perfect for any fan of the book.
The history of this shop is rather cute too, being that it’s located just opposite the real Alice’s childhood home and was once a sweet shop she frequented. The shop then appeared in Through the Looking-Glass, as a place filled with magical objects.
I am obsessed with this shop. So much so that I don’t really allow myself to go inside anymore because I know I’ll buy something. I saw an online review once that dubbed Scriptum: "An Aladdin's cave of fine, beautiful writing implements, books, journals, diaries and so, so much more."
The stacks of paper are like a man writer’s office. The colours glistening out at you are like the bedroom of Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s like a candy shop for anyone addicted to writing, drawing, or anything remotely creative.
I discovered this little Oxford-inspired souk on my way to the Bodleian and I’m grateful that I had a timed ticket which meant I didn’t have time to stop and shop. Danger, Will Robinson.
As I whizzed through the Covered Market, there was food, art, flowers, clothes, jewellery... everything that puts a dent in my wallet. And, hey, if that’s your thing, have at it.
Here’s the most important one, in my opinion. Any true insight into a place is going to come from simply wandering the streets. Grab your camera (if that’s your thing) and just explore Oxford. Take an alleyway because it looks pretty. Go into a shop because you have no self-control and need yet another diary. Included in the ‘wander’ list would also be my recommendation to grab some food and have yourself a picnic in Christ Church Meadow (preferably during the warmer months) where you can sit and watch the boats and dogs go by.
But be warned: sometimes the ducks try to steal your food.