I’ve said a few times that I wanted to explore more places that are closer to home. Firstly, because as a part time traveller it can be hard to fit in even the briefest trips to Europe when you factor in travel time, but also because there happens to be a lot of very wonderful places to see in the UK. And not only that, but there are some wonderful places just a hop, skip and a jump from my front door.
And I don’t mean London either (although I am endlessly grateful for having so much variety to explore there), but take a train in any direction for an hour or so from the capital and you’ll end up somewhere beautiful, somewhere exciting and somewhere that is perfect to explore for just a day.
That is how I found myself in Oxford. It’s shameful how close this historic city is to where I have always lived, and yet I have barely visited and know very little about the city except for the university and of course seeing the iconic pictures of people punting down the river. To celebrate the launch of their brand new guide to Oxford, Marco Polo arranged a casual walking tour around this stunning city – and this is how I spent the day!
How to get to Oxford
Oxford is a really easy city to visit by train – it has a large and centrally located train station with frequent arrivals from both London and the North. It takes just an hour direct from Paddington, and booking my tickets only a couple of weeks before I paid £20 return (at the time of writing).
You can also grab a coach, either the Oxford Tube or the x90 which costs £15 and runs every 15 minutes from London. Fun fact, they both stop at my local tube station of Hillingdon, which shows you just how criminal it was for me not to have visited properly sooner!
Of course, you can arrive by car, but it isn’t something I’d recommend. Although Oxford is really well linked by the M40, M4 and A34, you can’t really park in central Oxford. You have to make use of the Park + Ride facilities, which although work really well are not quite as convenient as as the train or coach!Looking for a quaint English city with plenty of history, architecture and gorgeous foodie spots? Here's the perfect place - get ready for a relaxing Oxford day trip! Click To Tweet
Historic spots to see in Oxford
You’ll be spoilt for choice in Oxford, and it certainly isn’t a place you can see everything in during one day – in fact you’ll want to make room on your itinerary for plenty of food and drink stops along the way (see below), so Oxford is perfect for a more casual approach to sightseeing!
The Covered Market
Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a sucker for a good market, and The Covered Market in Oxford was as quaint as you would imagine it. Dating back from 1774, the market building is historically beautiful in and of itself, but it also includes many stalls and shops that are fantastic for tourists and locals alike. Around half are food stalls, including traditional butchers and greengrocers alongside sandwich shops and bakeries.
Mixed in you’ll find florists, and clothing boutiques and gift shops, meaning that not only is it a great place for people watching (it is very busy on a Saturday), but also to pick up any items you usually would when shopping!
The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs is an iconic landmark in Oxford, and is actually named the Hertford Bridge. It’s nicknamed so because of its similarity to the famous Bridge of Sighs in Venice, and it links two parts of Hertford College together. Fun fact thought – it was never supposed to be a replica of that bride in Venice, and it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge there instead – I’ll let you make your own mind up!
The bridge itself was built in 1914, and is located in an area with lots of other beautiful architecture in the city, over New College Lane.
University Church of St Mary The Virgin
This is a church which is right in the centre of where the University of Oxford grew from, and its parish is actually almost entirely made up of university buildings and colleges. It dates back to the 1200’s, although it is believed that there was church here from Anglo-Saxon times.
It’s a really pretty church, and many church historians believe its spire is the most beautiful in England – the tower dates back from 1270, even though many parts of the church have been rebuilt over the centuries since.
Although I haven’t explored every street in Oxford, I’d hazard a guess that this is the most pretty street in the city! Packed with both historic buildings and a run of gorgeous pastel coloured houses it is a photographers dream and absolutely worth a visit to get those stereotypical “quaint English” shots!
There are many stories of who lived in some of these houses, but perhaps my favourite is that JRR Tolkien lived at 99 Holywell Street between 1950 and 1953.
As we rounded the corner, my breath was taken away by how stunning the architecture of the Radcliffe Camera was. It was built between 1737–49 in neo-Classical style to house the Radcliffe Science Library, part of the University of Oxford.
It’s now part of the Bodleian Library, and the Radcliffe Camera is connected by an underground space called the Gladstone Link, which is also a reading room. It’s things like this that make me appreciate old English University locations so much – gorgeous architecture and hidden passageways!
Queen’s College Oxford
You can’t visit Oxford without getting a peek at at least one impressive university college building, and in Oxford you’ll find plenty. The grand university architecture is one of the biggest attractions to tourists from across the world. Queens College is located right on the High Street and was founded in 1341. You can take a couple of steps off of the main road to glimpse some of the buildings and it really is a treat for the eyes.
Watch punting from Magdalen Bridge
Another thing about those English university towns is punting! Punts are flat bottomed boats which are propelled through shallow water by pushing against the river bed with a pole. The Magdalen Bridge is the perfect spot to watch this typical English summer activity, but if you want to try it yourself you can head down to the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse to hire a punt and give it a go. I’ve never tried it, but really want to!
Where to eat and drink in Oxford
Oxford is full of incredible eateries – from every chain restaurant you can imagine to a gorgeous collection of indies and bars that cater for the student wallet and beyond. We punctuated most of our day in Oxford with a good sit down and a drink – here’s where we stopped off along the way.
The Handle Bar Cafe and Kitchen
It’s practically written in stone that you can’t start a day exploring a new city without a good brunch, and The Handle Bar and Kitchen is the most perfectly located cafe to begin with. Just a 10 minute walk from the train station, it’s a cycling themed cafe with bike paraphernalia scattered everywhere (including from the ceiling), with big rustic wooden tables to perch down on whilst you choose your meal.
The Handle Bar cater for everyone – we had vegetarians, vegans and those needing gluten free options within our party and requests were met with no fuss. The brunch options were plentiful, and although I went for the extremely predictable avocado on toast it was served with paprika, almonds, seeds and beetroot hummus and looked so beautiful I didn’t want to eat it! It’s ok, I did though – and along with my flat white it was delicious.
The Varsity Club
I’m a huge fan of rooftop views, and in a place like Oxford with so many historical buildings I was keen to see if I could find the perfect spot. Luckily fellow travel blogger Jess knows the area pretty well and led us through the covered market to The Varsity Club – a four level nightclub and cocktail lounge that has unrivalled views across the city from it’s rooftop bar. Whilst we had a bit of a wait to get up there – it being one of the first nice days of the year – we didn’t even have time to order drinks from the lounge bar below before being ushered upstairs.
And the views are worth the wait. With it’s own dedicated bar and in the warmer months full restaurant service, it’s a really special spot. I immediately ordered an Aperol Spritz and settled in for a gossip with my new-found travel blogging friends with the dreamy spires of Oxford before me. I can see this being a great place to enjoy golden hour, and the summer sunsets would be absolutely beautiful.
Although you can’t book unless you are a party of 7+ people, the short wait to get up there is definitely worth it!
The Turf Tavern
This popular (but pretty well hidden pub) is a historical gem in the heart of Oxford. It’s use as a drinking house date all the way back to 1381, making it one of the oldest, if not oldest pub in Oxford! Although largely frequented by Oxford’s huge student population, it as a lively and welcoming place with plenty of outdoor seating and a winding set of low beamed roomed inside. It was the perfect place to stop for a mid-afternoon G+T, and I can see myself coming back with Mr S to try some of their real ales on tap.
If you are in to celeb spotting, the Turf Tavern have had a few through their doors over the years. It is strongly rumoured that Bill Clinton has been hear, alongside Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Blair, CS Lewis, Stephen Hawking and the cast and crew of Harry Potter. It’s also reportedly haunted by the ghost of Old Rosie, a woman who drowned herself in a nearby moat after her lover did not return from the English Civil War.
When we visited, we saw no ghosts or celebrities (although we did see an entire party of Spidermen dressed up for a stag party!), but it had such a lovely atmosphere of those sort of lost afternoons you can often have in an English pub garden that we didn’t mind too much!
Vaults and Garden Cafe
You can’t come to a quintessentially British city without partaking in a spot of afternoon tea. You absolutely can’t. So it’s lucky then that we finished our day in Oxford with a traditional cream tea at the Vaults and Garden Cafe located just along from the world famous Bridge of Sighs in a building from the 1320’s. It’s famous for its beautiful vaulted ceiling and gorgeous gardens, and is a really wonderful spot for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.
We had the full works – a three tier cake stand piled high with sandwiches and freshly baked shoes with a choice of jams and sumptuous clotted cream. What was fantastic is that they had baked vegan and gluten free-scones for those in our party with dietary requirements, so if you are worried about that I’d call ahead in advance and see what they can do – they were super flexible.
The food kept coming, and I certainly think you’d get your money’s worth (and need a nap after – I had a very long sleep on the train home!) with an afternoon tea here. It was all topped off with a glass of bubbles, and if I hadn’t had to catch a train home, I would have been keen to take my drink outside and soak up the last rays of the spring sunshine.
I can absolutely see myself visiting Oxford a lot over the summer – it’s easy to get to, its completely beautiful and it has so many wonderful places to eat and drink that I’m not sure I’d exhaust all of them in my lifetime. It’s exactly the type of place I want to wander with no set agenda – but it’s also the perfect spot for more in depth exploration. Armed with the Discovery Tours in the Oxford Guide from Marco Polo I’ve now got a few day trips planned this year!
*My trip to Oxford was sponsored by the guys at Marco Polo who have just released their brand new Oxford guide – but the dreamy wanderings and the copious eating was all mine!
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