Having spawned the legendary , Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and the , Oxford is not only England's oldest centre for learning, but the home and inspiration of such famous authors as Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis, and JRR Tolkien. In recent years, the city added to its literary resume by acting as the location for several parts of Hogwarts School in the blockbuster Harry Potter films.
The 'dreaming spires' of Oxford University house the famous Ashmolean Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; other excellent museums in Oxford include the Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, the Christ Church Picture Gallery, and the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Whether lazing on one of the college quadrangles, punting down the river, pub crawling, or exploring the city's ancient heritage, Oxford promises something for visitors of all ages.
Outside of the university, the city of Oxford has a number of its own attractions, including active theatre and art communities, and many unique and interesting shops and restaurants. The Covered Market in High Street is one of the oldest in England and worth a browse, and you'll find many shops that sell Oxford University memorabilia, whether authentic or not.
It should come as no surprise that a town this dedicated to its university would have a busy nightlife, and many bars, pubs and nightclubs open their doors nightly to students and anyone else who wanders in.
The quaint and picturesque country town of Stratford-Upon-Avon (which, as its name suggests, rests on the banks of the River Avon) is the historic birthplace of William Shakespeare. Visitors can explore Shakespeare's birthplace, Mary Arden's House (where his mother lived before marrying his father), his wife Anne Hathaway's cottage, as well as the school Shakespeare attended. Stratford-Upon-Avon is within easy access of the Cotswolds, set in the beautiful, rural Warwickshire countryside. A vintage train service, the 'Shakespeare Express', offers a fun way to access Stratford-Upon-Avon from Birmingham or Henley. Even those who are not much interested in the biographical details of the Bard will find Stratford-Upon-Avon charming.
Chief among Oxford's many academic and architectural attractions is the unique Bodleian Library, which is spread throughout several buildings across the city. The central core of this collection of buildings is set in Radcliffe Square, and includes the historic Duke Humfrey's Library, dating from the 15th century, and the Divinity School with its magnificent Gothic vaulted ceiling, which is open to the public. Only members can use the reading rooms of this library, which contain a copy of every book printed in Britain since 1610, and no books are ever loaned out. Guided tours are available to view the main buildings. The library hosts many fantastic exhibitions and events and it is worth checking what's on during your visit to Oxford.
The Ashmolean Museum houses a fascinating and extensive collection of art and archaeology covering four thousand years of history, ranging from the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece and Rome to the 20th century. Exhibitions include sculpture, ceramics, musical instruments and paintings, all housed in a striking old building. Founded in 1683, it is the United Kingdom's oldest public museum, and one of the oldest museums in the world. The collection is extensive and impressively varied so there is something to interest all visitors. There is a restaurant and a gift shop at the Ashmolean.
Christchurch, one of Oxford's most renowned university colleges, possesses an important collection of about 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings, mainly by the Italian masters. Works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Rubens are to be seen here, along with examples from Van Dyck, Frans Hals and Hugo van der Goes. The entire collection cannot be displayed at one time because of space constraints, but the exhibition changes every few months. There are also displays of 18th-century glass and Russian icons. Budget at least an hour to soak up the lovely sights.
The photo opportunity afforded from the top makes it completely worth climbing the 99 stairs of the Carfax Tower in the centre of Oxford's shopping district. The tower-top is the best place from which to view the 'dreaming spires' of this architecturally beautiful city. The tower is the only remnant of the 14th-century St Martin's Church, demolished in 1896 to improve the traffic flow at the junction of Cornmarket and Queen Streets. On the first floor a display depicts the history of the church, while information boards in the tower-top identify the landmarks and spires in the panoramic view. On the eastern side of the tower is a clock with two figures (known as the 'Quarter Boys') that strike the quarter hours.
The oldest botanical garden in the country, Oxford's enormous collection of more than 7,000 species of plants has been growing for four centuries. It was founded as a 'physic garden' by the Earl of Danby in 1621, but today the Oxford Botanic Garden's biodiversity is renowned for being even greater than that of a tropical rainforest. One does not, however, have to be a horticulturalist to enjoy the beautifully planted walled garden, exotic greenhouses, herbaceous borders, and rock and water gardens that make up this botanic feast - the plants are wonderfully arranged, and provide a memorable and calming aesthetic experience. An ideal site for a picnic, take the whole family along for an unforgettable day spent in immaculate natural surroundings.
In common with most of southern England, the weather in Oxford is generally a bit dull and wet. Records have been kept in the town since 1815 and a month has never gone by without some rain, although Oxford is comparably one of the driest cities in the country. The wettest month statistically is October, and the driest March. Summers are usually mild to warm, although there have been occasional heat waves. Winters are mild, with temperatures seldom approaching freezing, the coldest month being January with an average temperature of around 38°F (4°C). Nights bring frost, and snow falls in late winter and early spring.
Regular buses operated by different companies link all parts of Oxford to surrounding towns and villages. The city centre is largely pedestrian-friendly and most streets are open to one-way traffic; therefore a vehicle is more a hindrance than a help. Parking can be difficult as well. There are several park-and-ride car parks in the surrounding area, which are the best option for those arriving by car. Sightseeing is best accomplished on foot or by making use of a 'round the city' hop-on, hop-off bus tour. Wide-ranging cycling tracks run through Oxford, offering a more active, scenic alternative for seeing the city.
Visiting Oxford, the city that most represents England's prestigious academic establishment (although Cambridge might argue this point), is like entering a living museum, but those who travel to Oxford discover that there is a vibrant and modern side to this city of students too, and the serious revelry in the local pubs and clubs matches the ardent academia.
Just strolling around Oxford, or floating down the river, is a treat. The university is the natural place to begin your explorations, with highlights including Christchurch College, the University Museum of Natural History, the Bodleian Library, Magdalen College, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Trinity College and Exeter College. The university doesn't offer official guided tours, but many of the buildings and colleges are open to visitors most of the year, general walking tours of the city include parts of the university, and there are sometimes tours available from enterprising students. The Oxford Guild of Guides offers general daily tours departing from the Tourist Information Centre on Broad Street and tailor-made tours can be arranged with them as well.
Climbing up Carfax Tower for views over Oxford is obligatory for tourists, and the Ashmolean Museum is also an absolute must-see. If the weather is good, enjoy a picnic in the beautiful Oxford Botanic Gardens. Those visiting Oxford on an excursion from London may also want to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon while in the area.
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