Oxford; The City of Dreaming Spires. It is home to one of the most famous universities, the University of Oxford, alongside the more modern Oxford Brookes University. It’s historical buildings, churches, and of course, the university itself ensures the city is a tourist hotspot, especially during the summer months when the Oxford University colleges open their doors more frequently to visitors. The traditional tourist attractions are well known and are often bustling, but those who live in Oxford tend to stay off the beaten track and relish the lesser-known highlights. So, here is our list of the 10 best hidden gems in Oxford!
Address: 43 Iffley Road, OX4 1EA
This speakeasy cocktail bar is located away from the crowds of the city centre in the area of Iffley. The Mad Hatter has decadent interiors and regards itself as a ‘show’ experience, with live music and cocktail masterclasses. The real beauty of this bar is that from the outside it looks like an average building and would go unnoticed by passers-by. In order to enter, visitors must knock on the door and answer a riddle. The main offering is the extensive cocktail list which fulfils the Alice in Wonderland theme with drinks such as ‘The March Hare’s Unbirthday Milkshake’, containing brandy and gingerbread syrup, and the ‘boozy’ afternoon tea. Just remember, Saturday nights is over 21’s only!
Address: Magdalen Tower, High Street, OX1 4AU
Magdalen College is one of the more well-known spots in Oxford, it is one of the University of Oxford’s many colleges and is home to 27 of the university’s courses. On a normal day, this college will be full of tourists, however on the 1st May at dawn, thousands of locals gather around the tower for one of Oxford’s most historical traditions. The May Day celebrations begin at 6am, with the Magdalen College choir singing hymns from the tower followed by the crowd’s procession up the High Street to Radcliffe Square, where more celebrations such as Morris Dancing and the Hurly Burly Whirly by God it’s Early Band continue throughout the morning. The May Day celebration is one of the more unique events held in Oxford, it has continued for 1000 years and is thought to have derived from an ancient Roman Spring Festival called ‘Floralia’. It is popular for the students of Oxford to go out the evening before May Day and continue the party throughout the night to see the celebrations start in the morning.
Address: 104 Cowley Road, OX4 1JE
Ask any Oxford local about ‘G&D’s’, and you will hear about this café’s delicious homemade ice cream and bagels. There are three G&D’s across Oxford, including George & Danver and George & Davis within the town centre. However, it is George & Delilah which is located in one of Oxford’s most independent areas; Cowley. The Cowley Road is an area that is primarily visited by locals, it is full of stand-alone shops, restaurants and nightlife. G&D’s makes its ice cream fresh in Oxford every day and often has unique flavours on the special’s menu. Unlike many cafes, G&D’s is open until midnight and is a live music venue as well as being popular for a late-night snack or dessert, not just for lunch. It often gets passed over by tourists for one of Oxford’s many chain restaurants, but G&D’s will always be loved by residents of Oxford.
Address: 2 New High Street, OX3 7AQ
The Headington Shark started life on the roof of 2 New High Street in 1986 and was lowered into the roof via crane. Located in East Oxford, the shark was sculpted by John Buckley for homeowner Bill Heine, whose intentions were to make a statement about people’s vulnerability during barbaric war, alongside showing Heine’s love of sharks. A 6-year legal battle with the council to tear the shark down began. Luckily, the shark is now safe and legal, and the house is now owned by Heine’s son to ensure the sculptures future. Headington is a student/residential area of Oxford, therefore tourists often miss out on the sight of the shark crashing through this otherwise ordinary looking house roof.
Address: Cowley Road, OX4 1BN
The city centre is full of chain cinemas, but on the Cowley Road sits Oxford’s small, independent cinema. As well as international blockbusters, this cinema is known for showing independent films, foreign language films and repeats of popular films from the past. The Ultimate Picture Palace was built in 1911 and the Grade II listed building still retains its historical charm. The cinema underwent an upgrade in 2011 to ensure the quality of the screens and sound system. It is now a community-owned business and is a source of pride for the Cowley locals. Student, adult and senior citizen memberships to the cinema are available, these include discounts to nearby bars and restaurants.
Address: South Parks Road, OX1 3PP
Oxford has no shortage of museums, the most popular being the Ashmolean. However, next door to the Museum of Natural History lies Pitt Rivers Museum. It was founded in 1884 from the collection of General Pitt-Rivers, and its displays are unique and sometimes rather creepy. Walking through the entrance, you are greeted with colossal dinosaur skeletons, and upstairs is full of archaeological objects. Another notable display is the Ecuador and South American shrunken heads (yes, they are real!), so it is not surprising that this museum is favoured by locals and it is also free to enter.
7. Oli’s Thai
Address: 38 Magdalen Road, OX4 1RB
This intimate restaurant is another off the beaten track favourite and is a half an hour walk from the city centre. Booking is essential unless you get lucky with an occasional walk-in space, and this restaurant’s small seating area is filled every day with customers wanting this authentic Thai cuisine. The menu changes daily but includes the aubergine curry and roasted belly pork is always popular. With some of the mains coming in at under £10, it is not surprising that this is a popular place with students.
Address: All Souls College, OX1 4AL
The most popular library for tourists in Oxford is, of course, the Bodleian and it is packed with visitors all year round. However, the Codrington Library not very heard of. It is Grade I listed with a beautiful interior and exterior. This library began from its namesake, Christopher Codrington, and was completed in 1751 and holds 185,000 items. As it is a working library, it is not as easy to visit as the tourist trap Bodleian. The only way to get in (apart from if you’re an Oxford University student/external scholar) is to make use of their visitor days which are held every alternate year by the Oxford Preservation Trust, so if you are a library nerd then this is something to watch out for!
9. The Bear Inn
Address: 6 Alfred Street, OX1 4EH
This small pub’s history dates to 1242, and it looks like a typical chain from the outside, but the inside (well known by the locals) never fails to amaze. The patron of the pub began taking neck ties from customers in 1950 in exchange for half a pint of beer, the condition being that the tie had to come from a school, club or military/police branch to qualify. This has, unsurprisingly, built up to an extensive collection of ties covering the four walls of the pub. With a wide selection of pub grub and drinks, visitors can eat their lunch whilst perusing the hundreds of ties around them.
Address: 97-98 Gloucester Green, OX1 2DF
This is Oxford’s one and only board game café! This friendly setting has shelves covered in over 2,500 modern and vintage board games. Visitors pay a fee to play as many games as they choose for three hours and the menu includes hot and cold snack-style foods, a variety of tea and coffee, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. This café is open from mid-morning until midnight, so it makes for a fun, relaxed night out as well as a cosy lunch. Knowledgeable staff are on hand to help with any game queries to ensure even beginners make the most of the experience.