In August I spent a couple of days pet sitting in Oxford. I’d always liked the city and it was a great way of becoming a temporary local while spending time with a cute dog. So here is a roundup of my favourite things to do in the ‘city of dreaming spires’ that include some more well-known attractions as well as off the beaten path suggestions.
Amazing anthropology museum which is attached to the natural history museum and offers free tours every Wednesday and a couple of other times a month. You could easily spend a whole afternoon here, but can also get a good overview in less than an hour. Free entry and staff are knowledgeable and friendly.
The major punting hub in Oxford is right by the Madgalen bridge in the centre. If you feel like a quieter experience (depending on the season and weather) with less of a chance of other inexperienced hobby punters bumping into you while giving this fun activity a go, try the Cherwell Boathouse in North Oxford, about a 20 minute walk from the station or a short ride on a local bus up Banbury Road. There is also a restaurant/cafe attached to the boathouse, which makes for lovely riverside dining or a celebratory pint after you’ve successfully mastered your first punting lesson.
This is one of my favourite areas in the city. Walton Street boasts a long list of fabulous pubs, cafes and shops to keep you busy for an afternoon or evening out. Favourites are the Jericho Tavern (regular live gigs upstairs,) and the Albion Beatnik bookshop and cafe, a cosy independent bookshop, where I attended a fantastic poetry night. Another cafe I really liked for it’s excellent coffee and relaxed atmosphere is Zappi’s Bike Cafe, above a bike shop on St Michael’s Street, a short walk from Jericho in the centre of Oxford.
Churches, glass engraving, open gardens and folk dancing with the locals
On Sunday I visited the local Unitarian church in a beautiful historic building and got talking to a lovely woman, who took me along to one of the National Garden Scheme’s Open Gardens for Charity. We had tea and scones on the lawn with her friends and I got invited to another event, a private folk dance evening in someone’s garden, the following night. I also attended a fascinating talk by well-known glass engraver (to the Queen, no less) Philip Lawson Johnston.
A great way of combining seeing one of the colleges for free with a lovely musical experience is to attend an evensong session in one of the famous university churches. We went to Christchurch on a beautiful summer evening and after enjoying an hour of music in the cathedral got some great sunset shots of the buildings and courtyard. It’s free, but do turn up early as seats tend to fill up quickly.
Live music in Oxford
I was excited to see that apart from a few larger music venues, such as the O2 Academy, Oxford also boasts quite a few lively music sessions in various parts of the city centre and beyond. While I was there I visited the James Street Tavern off Cowley Road for their Tuesday night session, which was lively and fun, and the Halfmoon Irish pub on a Thursday night. This area also has a couple of other venues with live music, e.g. The Bullingdon, the Cape of Good Hope and Cafe Tarifa. Also watch out for the fantastic Folk Weekend Oxford in April and the Elder Stubbs allotment festival in August (both accept volunteers).
Charity shop tour and Oxford’s most unusual attraction
On my one rainy day during my stay I did a bit of internet research after breakfast and found out that Headington seems to be the place to be for a good charity shop browse. It not only has a cluster of half a dozen shops in close vicinity (see list here), but also offers a very unique visitor attraction: the Headington Shark.
Where to find events online and offline
With Oxford being such a vibrant university city, events abound and the best way to find out what’s going on at any one time is to check out Daily Info (which also lists arts, theatre, workshops and family events), Nightshift (also available in paper form in many pubs and bars around town), Music in Oxford, Folk in Oxford, Young Women’s Music Project, Evenbrite or Meetup.
P.S. My very favourite thing of my time spent in Oxford was coming across baby newts in the garden pond of the house I was staying in. They are fascinating animals who live part of the year in the water and part of the year on land and seeing them upclose was quite a special treat.