Six Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do in Oxford

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The Vanished Reality, Modern Art Oxford. Photo Credit: Ben Westoby.

Just reading the word ‘Oxford’ brings to mind a whole host of classic images: the sandy bricks of the beautiful colleges, gowned students scampering down historic backstreets, punting on sunny canals. The city is larger than it first seems, however, and for the curious visitor Oxford has plenty of hidden depths that make it much more than just a university town. Here are six lesser-known activities to try in the city of dreaming spires.

Culture Calling's guide on what to do during a visit to Oxford

Hear Great Jazz

While there are no permanent jazz clubs, the city is home to a thriving jazz scene. Regular gigs take place at various venues across the city. Every Tuesday the Bullingdon on Cowley Road holds a jazz night, and on the neighbouring Iffley Road the Mad Hatter hosts London’s new jazz talent. There is also the SPIN jazz club which runs out of the Wheatsheaf pub every Thursday, and for more adventurous ears, the Bossaphoniks collective showcase bands playing a mix of Afrobeat, Latin and Jazz in select venues across the city.

See Classic Cinema on the Big Screen

The two main ports of call for great cinema in Oxford are the Ultimate Picture Palace on the Cowley Road, and the Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho. Both sit on historic sites, and show the best in major new releases accompanied by the latest art house cinema. The Phoenix also shows a classic every Sunday, and other special screenings - for instance a recent season of classic horror films. The UPP offers more esoteric fare, often in seasons curated by Modern Art Oxford. Recently the venue screened the full 5 and a half hour cut of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon. Both venues are certainly worth a try.

The front of The Ultimate Picture Palace at night

Ultimate Picture Palace

Witness Cutting Edge Contemporary Art

Modern Art Oxford has been a major centre for contemporary art since 1965, in which time it has hosted everything from giants like Jackson Pollock and Robert Doisneau to Britart stalwarts Jake and Dinos Chapman. Currently they are running a series of exhibitions looking back at the history of the gallery, including returning works by Richard Long and Yoko Ono. All of the exhibitions at MAO are free. Elsewhere there is the OVADA gallery, an installation space inside a warehouse often housing locally produced work; and for the keen eyed, Antony Gormley has placed a sculpture on the rooftop of Blackwell’s Art and Poster Shop on Broad Street.

Explore a Diverse Nightlife

Beyond the usual gamut of well-known nightclubs there is a wide variety of interesting nocturnal activity in Oxford to enjoy. Historic mainstays like the Turf Tavern offer the opportunity to sit in a venue that has existed since 1381 and housed VIPs such as Bill Clinton and Stephen Hawking. Elsewhere there are trendier cocktail bars like the Varsity Club based on the rooftop of the covered market, and Freud’s on Walton Street, which is housed inside a 19th century Greek revival church. Across town on the Cowley Road there are a plethora of interesting nightspots, including several Middle Eastern themed bars and the open all-night Hi-Lo.

The Turf Tavern, Oxford

Photo Credit: Jim Linwood

Wander the Suburbs

Away from the historic centre there is beautiful scenery just a short walk or bus ride away. To the west is Jericho, a historically working class area turned leafy paradise with great walks by the canal and quick access to Port Meadow. Further North, Summertown boasts historic churches, beautiful houses and a great Sunday market. Out east is the Cowley Road, a vibrant multicultural area with great independent shops and street art. Adjacent is Headington, home of the new Oxford Brookes library and three beautiful parks, including the famous South Parks, from which the best view of the dreaming spires can be seen.

Visit the Thriving Second University

Something of a hip kid brother to Oxford University, Oxford Polytechnic was reborn in 1992 as Oxford Brookes University. The new library building at the top of Headington Hill is a refreshing change from the historic architecture of the city centre below. See also the John Henry Brookes building, built in 2014, a striking glass and steel construction open to the public, and a convenient place for anyone to work in with seating, a huge library collection and a café on hand. Also on the campus is the Glass Tank exhibition space, which has an upcoming exhibition of work by the surrealist photographer Claude Cahun.