Oxford is a bustling place. While known primarily for the University, it is a city like any other and features all the amenities and activities one would expect from a contemporary cosmopolitan centre.
Attend a debate at the Oxford Union
The Oxford union is perhaps the world’s most famous debating society and has attracted world-class speakers and debates for nearly 200 years. Set in a grand building on Frewin Court, some of the more famous debaters include the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Buzz Aldrin, and Anna Wintour. It was the site of Richard Nixon’s first public debate after Watergate, OJ Simpson’s only public speech in Britain, and the infamous 1933 “King and Country” debate which inflamed tabloid sensibilities across the country. In 1975, just a few days before a national referendum on EEC the motion, “This House would say ‘Yes’ to Europe” passed 493 – 92, a debate considered to have influenced public opinion prior to the vote. A private institution, you may need to befriend a member of the Union for guest access!
Visitors to Oxford often find themselves craning their necks to catch a peek of the Dreaming Spires, but if you find yourself craving to crane your neck even higher, Stargazing Oxford may be the event for you. Held in the Physics Department for talks and hands-on demonstrations before heading to University Parks for observing the night, Stargazing Oxford is an inclusive event for all amateur astronomers.
There are few more idyllic ways to spend a summers afternoon than lounging in a punt. Many colleges operate punts for their own students, and they are also available for the public to hire by the hour from Magdalen Bridge and the Cherwell Boathouse. From Magdalen Bridge, there is a lovely circuit around the Magdalen College School Sports Field which would take an experienced punter around 45 minutes and will make use of the full hour for an enthusiastic novice. If you decide to hire a punt from the Cherwell Boathouse, it’s worth heading north to where you will eventually reach the Victoria Arms. This is a pub which, if you are in Oxford, is only accessible by punt (or a committed swim, or a record-breaking long jump). There is something magical about arriving at a pub garden by boat; it is easy to see why so many fantasy authors took Oxford as their inspiration. Of course, if you’re a committed potamophobe, you could arrive at the Vicky Arms by road from Old Marston but given the choice, why would you?
We’re a bit spoiled for cinemas in Oxford where there is a cinema experience to suit all tastes. If you’re after the latest release and the cheapest prices, the Odeon on Magdalen Street or the Vue in the Ozone leisure park will have you covered. The latter also features an arcade, a bowling alley, and a Frankie and Benny’s – a combination which is sure to induce a heavy nostalgia for anyone who attended a birthday party in England before the age of 12. But I digress.
If you’re looking for a more premium cinema experience, the Curzon in Westgate can provide that for you. They offer tasty food and a stylish bar. Prior to watching No Time to Die (which was my long-waited post-covid return to cinema), the staff prepared me a Vesper Martini, the infamous drink from Casino Royale. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand martinis, but it really added to the Bond experience.
For film purists, Oxford has two independent cinemas who focus on film buffs. The Phoenix Picture House on Walton Street boasts two screens and a cosy upstairs bar. In addition to new releases, they regularly feature classic films, show opera and theatre, and screen 35mm and 70mm presentations. The other independent cinema is the Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road. With only one screen, the Ultimate Picture Palace shows a mixture of mainstream, independent, and non-English films. The building in which the cinema is housed has been a Grade-II listed building since 1994.
The two sports most associated with Oxford are rowing and rugby. Both are specialities of the University, and both culminate in historic showdowns with the University of Cambridge: The Boat Race and the Varsity Match, respectively. The problem with these events is that they are hosted in London! Nevertheless, Oxford also features sporting events to enjoy as a spectator and participant alike.
Oxford United F.C. play in League One (the confusingly titled third tier of English football) out of Kassam Stadium in the south of the city, where a ticket will set you back £20-£30 (or considerably less if you are a child).
If hockey, figure skating, or stumbling around the edge of the rink in terror whilst tightly gripping the guard rail is more your thing, the Oxford Ice Rink is located on Oxpens Road. They offer casual skating for children and adults and are home to the Oxford City Stars who compete nationally. Additionally, there has been an Varsity Ice Hockey Match since 1885. Although the original was played in St. Moritz, it is now played alternately in the Oxford and Cambridge ice rinks. Oxford (historically strengthened by inclusion of American Rhodes Scholars) has won two-thirds of these matches.
For runners, a half-marathon passes through the centre of town each October and there is an annual ‘Town and Gown’ 10k each February; a charity event which donates 100% of the profits from the race to Muscular Dystrophy UK.
Westgate is a shopping centre in central Oxford, so-called because it stands on the site of the western gate to the city walls of medieval Oxford. In addition to meeting all of your shopping needs (I recommend Coco Chemistry, a delightful chocolate shop on the ground floor), Westgate offers a plethora of restaurants which offer one of the best views in the city. The centre also features an escape room with regularly altered challenges and a junkyard golf, both open late, these are great ways to end (or start!) an evening.
If outdoor activities are more your thing, why not immerse (or even submerse) yourself in wild swimming? Oxford has a thriving wild-swimming community and brave swimmers can regularly be spotted by the bridge on the edge of Port Meadow, or in Hinksey Park at all times of the year. The latter does feature signs which emerged in the summer of 2021 which warn against swimming in the lake, and I have never seen a sign so uniformly ignored. I personally find it far too cold outside of the summer months, but my girlfriend swears by it and a winter swim is sure to be bracing. Swim at your own risk!
If swimming in warmth is more your style, an Hinksey Park also features a heated outdoor swimming pool and pools can also be found in the Iffley Road Sports Centre. Certainly my preferred option, but to each their own!