Oxford beyond the dreaming spires

Oxford, like any city known as a major tourist attraction, has many faces. SheldonianVisit it in the peak summer holiday season and you could be mistaken for thinking you were in the middle of a (sophisticated) theme park. Masses of tourists and language students sweep the streets of the historic city centre like giant waves, following a flag or an umbrella held high by their tour leaders. For many of them the city is first and foremost about the prestigious university and the stunning architecture of its buildings. It’s about quaint punting on the river, and visiting TV and film locations for Lewis or Harry Potter.

However, there is a calmer side, too. Early mornings are blissful! Walk through the quiet streets and spot quirky gargoyles decorating college walls. Find a cafe, visit an open air market, and watch the city slowly wake up and become alive. Later in the evening, wander down the cobbled side streets with their old-style street lamps and soak in the timeless atmosphere. There might now be room at pubs where the (fictional) Inspector Morse enjoyed a beer or the (non-fictional) Bill Clinton famously didn’t inhale.

Covered Market near Christmas (2)Pop in to the Covered Market and wander around its independent shops to discover something unique the chain stores can’t offer. You can visit a saddler or buy a hat for a wedding, you can have a key cut or a painting framed, or you can sample the goods of the many cafes, eateries, and food bars that fuel the lunch time crowds and visitor tummies alike. In December, Christmas trees fill the centre of the market and the butchers hang deer and turkeys outside their shops as if to remind us what real meat looks like before it becomes merely a cellophane wrapped packet on a supermarket shelf.

Jericho (2)Or you could venture down the canal where numerous narrow boats are moored, often laden with plants, bikes, and BBQs. See the horses and cattle on Port Meadow, an ancient area of grazing land, before walking through Jericho past the grand entrance to the Oxford University Press. How about some lunch at the lovely Lebanese restaurant down a side street with no signs indicating its location? Ask any local and they can give you directions.

Across the river in East Oxford is the vibrant, multicultural Cowley Road. CR carnival 2Whenever I walk there I can’t help falling in love with its quirkiness, energy, and ‘anything goes’ attitude! Pick a nationality, pick a language, pick a cuisine – most of them can be found there. Despite a few chains that have crept in, Cowley Road is still a haven of independent businesses. Every summer the normally busy road is closed from traffic for a carnival that celebrates the culture and ethnic diversity of the area with music, dance, food, and workshops. Cowley Road deserves a post of its own later on so watch this space!

What are your tips to make the most of city breaks in the peak season? What have been your best finds off the beaten track? I’d love to hear your experiences!

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