Overview

Home to the U.K.'s oldest university, Oxford is eccentric, engaging and personable—epitomizing the spirit of Old England in many ways. The "city of dreaming spires" claims the world's densest concentration of Gothic architecture. Towers, battlements and domes crown the compact center, which is fringed by watery parklands. Many streets and cobbled alleys are pedestrian, making this a pleasant place to stroll.

The university, which is documented as far back as the end of the 12th century and may be older, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It has 39 colleges, each with its own traditions, history and grand edifices. The "ivory towers" are sprinkled throughout the city. Among their highlights are Christ Church's quadrangle and cathedral; the Bodleian Library and its rotund Radcliffe Camera; Hertford College's Bridge of Sighs and Magdalen (pronounced MAUD-lin) College. During spring exams, students still wear mortarboards and trailing dark robes over semiformal clothes.

However, the city also has a modern edge. Runner Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in May 1954 in East Oxford, and indie bands Supergrass and Radiohead later launched there. The Said Business School rises sleek above the train station.

"A city built on books," was how author Jan Morris described Oxford. Publishing continues to thrive in the city that inspired Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings, The Wind in the Willows and, more recently, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.

Many former Oxford students have become literary lions: Dr. Samuel Johnson, John Donne, Percy Shelley, T.S. Eliot, John Galsworthy, John Buchan, W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Graves, A.E. Houseman and Evelyn Waugh, among others. Iris Murdoch taught philosophy at St. Anne's College in addition to her writing.

Visitors frequently underestimate this destination, merely day-tripping between London and Stratford-upon-Avon. Yet Oxford merits leisurely exploration of everything from the ancient colleges to the world-class Ashmolean Museum, countryside rambles and picnic boat-excursions on the River Thames.

With its central position and excellent transport options, Oxford makes a more peaceful alternative to London as a sightseeing base, with day access to such places as London, Bath, Stonehenge and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Geography

Just 55 mi/90 km northwest of London, Oxford lies on the wide plain of the River Thames. The Thames and its tributary the Cherwell (pronounced Charwell) flow through the city. The Thames between Iffley Lock and Folly Bridge, where rowing events take place, is referred to as the Isis, a shortened version of the Latin for Thames, Tamesis. The Oxford Canal cuts a straighter course through the length of the city.

The historic center is compact and covers a diameter of just over 1 mi/1 km. The industrial zone, known as Cowley, is about 3 mi/5 km southeast of downtown. Jericho, immediately northwest of the town's center, was once a working-class, redbrick residential area fringing factories and warehouses. Today it's gentrified into a popular neighborhood for dining and entertainment. Wolvercote and Iffley, 4 mi/6.5 km to the north and south, respectively, are historic villages that were long ago engulfed by the expanding city.

Oxford's east and west sides are fringed with parks and gardens. Stretching to the northeast along the banks of the Thames, Port Meadow is believed to be England's largest expanse of common land; livestock have grazed there since the Bronze Age. It is prone to flooding in winter and spring.

History

The Saxons first settled this strategic location in the heart of southern England. The Normans later consolidated the town's position by slightly adjusting the street plan and building a castle (the mound remains) with a strong wall around it.

Little survives of the Normans except the 12th-century Christ Church Cathedral, standing on the possible site of the Saxon-era convent of St. Frideswide. Among the oldest monuments are the 11th-century Tower of St. Michael-at-the-Northgate and part of the town wall, dating from 1226, around the garden of New College.

England's first university was founded there after Oxford had established itself as a center for learning in the 12th century. The town's churches and colleges, built of honey-colored stone and mellowed by time, are its crowning glory. Today, the city remains a center of learning as it continues to attract technology companies to its fringe communities.

Sightseeing

Many of Oxford University's 39 colleges open their quadrangles and chapels to visitors in the afternoon. Some even offer tours, and a number host concerts. To get a good feel for the university, wander around the old buildings of the Bodleian Library, guarded by the startling, massive stone busts known as the "philosophers' heads."

For a snapshot of the city, consider touring it on one of the double-decker, open-topped tourist buses. They make multiple stops at key points and allow passengers to hop on and off as many times as they want on an all-day ticket.

For a bird's-eye view of Oxford's spires, climb one of the city's oldest buildings, Carfax Tower of the 14th-century Church of St. Martin's, the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre or the tower of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the High Street.

Of Oxford's museums, the Ashmolean is undoubtedly the grandest. Don't miss the breathtaking Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum (archaeological and ethnographic artifacts).

Christ Church, Tom Quad and its Great Hall are must-sees. If you have more time, visit the Norman church and canal lock gates at Iffley.

Nightlife

Oxford's club scene is heavily geared toward students, giving young and lively travelers plenty to do after dark. Nevertheless, there is a wide variety of nightlife for people of all ages. George Street is full of chain pubs and restaurants, but it's crowded and noisy. For a more rewarding Oxford experience, trawl around the lanes, alleyways and back streets sampling the quirky and unusual places.

As in many other UK cities, nightlife in Oxford can be fairly fluid, particularly concerning nightclubs which open and close regularly. It's always best to call ahead.

Dining

Oxford's dining options have increased enormously. International and eclectic, the city caters to foodies with notable Indian, Lebanese, Italian, French, Chinese and Thai fare—not to mention the recent renaissance in British cuisine. Try to avoid the chains in the city center and experience authentic Oxford. Little Clarendon Street has a wide array of choices, as does Walton Street, just around the corner in Jericho. The Cowley Road area is full of ethnic restaurants.

Mediterranean-fusion cafes abound for the budget conscious. Delis, falafel stands, fish-and-chip shops and late-night kebab wagons also cater to crowds of penny-pinching students and visitors.

"Pub grub" is both inexpensive and atmospheric, offering a sample of local culture. Real ales with regional flavor include Morrells, Hook Norton, Morland's Old Speckled Hen, Wychwood's Hobgoblin and Wychwood's Dog's Bollocks.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, including tax but not tip or drinks: $ = less than £15; $$ = £16-£25; $$$ = £26-£35; $$$$ = more than £35.

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