As a part-time traveller, I’m a big fan of the weekend escape, so in a new series I’ll be sharing my tips on how to spend 48 hours in my favourite cities. And the first is a place I called home for two years – Oxford. This city of dreaming spires, punts on the river and gowned academics on bikes is perfect for a weekend break. It’s small enough to walk across in half an hour but has plenty to keep you busy. There are hundreds of years of academic and literary history, with museums and colleges passed through by many famous scientists, philosophers, authors and politicians. But there is also the modern city, with great bars and restaurants to explore. So here’s my guide to how to spend 48 hours in Oxford.
More weekend guides: Cardiff, Bath, Cheltenham, Canterbury, Rye, Chester, York, Glasgow
Check in to Oxford’s castle-turned-prison-turned-hotel, the Malmaison. It’s full of character, with rooms around original wrought-iron stairs and walkways. You can spend the night one of the cells – or rather three, with two knocked through to make the bedroom and one for the bathroom. It’s a bit more luxurious now with roll-top baths, comfy beds and flatscreen TVs. Rooms start from £125 night.
Or if you’re on a budget you can get a taste of Oxford student life with Oxford Rooms, who rent out rooms in historic college buildings during vacations, giving you an insiders’ glimpse into their hidden corners. Prices start from a bargain £35 a night B&B, and with lots of single rooms it’s great for solo travellers. There’s most availability during summer, Christmas and Easter holidays, but some rooms are available all year.
Either way pop into the Malmaison for a cocktail in the old prison’s visitors room then take the a short walk around the corner for French bistro-style food at Côte Brasserie.
The University of Oxford has 38 different colleges dotted around the city. Many are open to visitors, though check opening hours, especially around exam time. Probably the best-known is Christ Church – as much for its role as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films as for its famous alumni, who include Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein and 13 prime ministers. You take a tour (£7 per person) around the quads, grand staircase, dining hall and college chapel, which doubles up as Oxford’s cathedral. Other good colleges to visit include Merton, Magdalen (pronounced ‘mawd-lin’), Corpus Christi, Hertford, All Souls and Oriel.
To get an insight into the weird and wonderful world of Oxford academia, take a guided tour by a former student with Oxford Walking Tours. Their 90-minute tours take you around some of the oldest colleges with insider information about the university’s history and rituals (tours run hourly from 11am–3pm in winter or 4pm in summer, and cost £9.95 for adults or £4.95 for children under 16).
As you’d expect from a university city, Oxford is full of museums. The city’s biggest is the Ashmolean – Oxford’s answer to the British Museum, with a mix of art and archaeological exhibits including from Greek and Roman statues to paintings by Turner and Canaletto. The glass-walled dining room on the rooftop has panoramic views over the city and is a good spot for lunch before tackling the exhibits.
When you’re all cultured out, walk just up the road to one of the city’s historic pubs. You can sink a pint in a snug where writers like CS Lewis and JR Tolkien used to meet in the 1930s at the Eagle and Child (nicknamed ‘Bird and Baby’). Or if your tastes are a bit more modern, head to nearby Jericho for cocktails at Raouls or the Duke of Cambridge before dinner at Gees, with modern British food in a vintage glasshouse.
For something a bit unusual, check out the quirky Pitt Rivers Museum. This anthropological museum was founded 125 years ago with 20,000 items donated by archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers. It’s grown since then to encompass the weird and wonderful from across the world, with voodoo dolls, shrunken heads and even a witch in a bottle. It’s open from 10am–4.30pm on Sundays (free entry).
When you get hungry, stop off at the Covered Market, with a range of stalls from local producers as well as cafés and sandwich bars (open 10am–4.30pm on Sundays) where you can eat in or grab a picnic to eat by the river at the Botanical Gardens. Or take a 45-minute walk across Port Meadow to The Trout, a 17th-century riverside pub that featured in the Inspector Morse books and does great gastropub-style food by the fire in winter or on the sunny terrace in summer.
Punting is one of the classic Oxford experiences, so you can’t miss giving it a try. There are two rivers in the city, the Cherwell and the Thames (which is called the Isis when it’s in Oxford) and a couple of places you can test your punting skills – and balance. Underneath Magdalen Bridge by the Botanic Gardens is where you’ll find the most punts. You can hire one that fits up to five people for £20 an hour if you want to try it out, or get a boatman to do the work for you for £25 per 30 minutes.
Or in summer there’s a good punting spot further upriver near the Cherwell Boathouse. You’re a bit further out of town here so it’s not quite as busy, and you can get a jug of Pimms from their River Bar to take out on the water with you. Head upriver for about 30 minutes and you’ll get to the Victoria Arms pub, which has a big beer garden and plenty of spots to park your punt. Then paddle back to the Boathouse for an early dinner before leaving Oxford and heading home.
Have you visited Oxford? Do you have any tips to add on what to see, do and eat?