With so many illustrious writers and scholars, Oxford has always been blessed with a wealth of places for them to drink, debate and gossip. From historic pubs that once counted literary greats among their patrons, to chic clubs and bars that offer cocktails and a place to dance, the city has something for everyone.
Those looking for somewhere cosy to hole-up for a session or a good springboard for their night out have a variety of venues to choose from. But no first-time visitor should leave without popping into the Eagle and Child in St Giles, which has hosted some of Oxford’s most famous authors. Better known to locals as ‘The Bird & Baby’, it was a regular haunt of writers’ group the Inklings, whose members included The Chronicles of Narnia author CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who penned The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Just across from the Eagle and Child, you’ll spot the Lamb and Flag where Thomas Hardy spent hours writing Jude the Obscure. The Lamb is owned by Oxford University’s St John’s College, so looks barely changed since Hardy’s days and the price of your drink also goes towards helping fund student bursaries. For more spots to soak up the city’s traditional atmosphere, look no further than the King’s Arms, in Holywell Street next to the Bodleian Library, or the Turf Tavern, tucked away in cobbled lane Bath Place, beyond the Bridge of Sighs near Holywell Street.
These two are favourites of Oxford University staff and students, serving a good range of ales, with the Kings Arms boasting a reputation for having the highest IQ per square foot of anywhere in the world. It’s not just loved by academics either. The Queen Mother, Prince Charles and former US Secretary of State John Kerry have all been in for a drink.
Those who enjoy fish and chips and real ales may also want to try The White Horse in Broad Street. Besides being one of the smallest pubs in Oxford, this 16th-century tavern has been, and still is, a frequent location for filming TV murder mystery series Inspector Morse, Lewis and Endeavour and therefore an essential stop for fans.
During the summer, there is nowhere better to while away long evenings than waterside pub The Head of the River. With its friendly ambience and large beer garden, it makes the perfect end to a stroll through scenic Christ Church Meadow. If you fancy walking further south along the River Thames, don’t miss the Isis Farmhouse at Iffley Lock. This wonderfully rustic pub is only accessible on foot or by bicycle or boat and offers local beers and delicious food in a tranquil setting which seems far away from the bustle of the city centre.
Those hunting for somewhere to buy a drink with a spectacular backdrop should try The Varsity Club, the city’s best rooftop venue. Accessed through the Covered Market entrance in High Street, visitors can go to the terrace and enjoy an eclectic selection of house cocktails while gazing out across the Dreaming Spires. Within short walking distance are several other excellent venues. Across the road is All Bar One, which always bustles with young professionals.
A few minutes walk away in Beaumont Street is The Randolph Hotel’s sophisticated Morse Bar. This is not just the world-famous backdrop to TV series Morse, Lewis and Endeavour but was also the favourite haunt of late Morse author Colin Dexter.
Around the corner is Fever in Magdalen Street, a disco-themed club with a colour-changing dance floor, glitter balls and private booths. And for fans of the Caribbean, dive down nearby Friars Entry to find Turtle Bay. This trendy venue’s tucked-away location hides an oasis of fruity drinks and tasty food.
A favourite with students of Oxford’s two universities is Purple Turtle, an underground bar created from part of the old Oxford Union cellars and found in Frewin Court, a tiny lane off Cornmarket Street. Aside from low-price drinks and thumping music pumped out from a jukebox, ‘PT’ as it is known, has a different ‘shots’ recipe for each of the 38 Oxford colleges.
For a lively but mainstream feel, head to the Four Candles, a JD Wetherspoon pub in George Street. In Oxford’s Castle Quarter, off New Road, you can also find a Slug and Lettuce pub and another Wetherspoon outpost, the Swan and Castle. If it’s glamour you are looking for, make a beeline for the recently revamped Westgate Centre in the centre of the city. A stylish roof terrace with far-reaching views to the less-photographed and more rural side of the city makes the perfect backdrop to relax and enjoy the eclectic mix of street food-style eateries and smart cocktail bars including The Alchemist, which stays open until 1am at weekends.
For those willing to venture out of the city centre, a popular selection of cocktail bars can be found in Jericho. In Little Clarendon Street, you will spot the Duke of Cambridge pub known for its cocktails and Angels bar, which is small but serves tried-and-tested cocktail classics as well as innovative creations. A wander down Walton Street reveals two Oxford institutions, Raoul’s and Freud. Award-winning Raoul’s, which has been around since 1979, has one of the best selections of liquor in the country.
Freud is housed in a converted church, complete with high ceilings and stained-glass windows and often hosts live music and late-night opening. While you’re in Walton Street, pause long enough at the corner with Little Clarendon Street to step into The Oxford Wine Café, a buzzing bar with an impressively international wine menu. More out of the way but worth a visit are Jericho pubs the Rickety Press in Cranham Street, which serves a mouth-watering selection of wood-fired pizzas and the Old Bookbinders (The Bookie) in Canal Street with its French-inspired bistro menu.
Through the looking glass
It is also worth heading out to Park End Street, near Oxford’s main railway station. A cluster of venues include relaxed but trendy bar The Lighthouse, which offers cocktails, tapas and back-to-back soul and jazz classics. Those who mean business on the dancefloor will struggle to find better than Thirst and Atik, also in Park End Street. Both are open until 3am on Fridays and Saturdays, with Thirst providing an outside terrace and Atik capable of hosting 1,200 people across its four music rooms and five bars.
Around the corner is another good-sized club, The Bridge in Hythe Bridge Street, while just down the road is The Oxford Retreat, which has a garden to make the most of its idyllic riverside location. Heading towards Oxford’s East side and next to The Plain roundabout, you are guaranteed a good night at the chain venue Be At One. Here you can enjoy pop and funk on the ground floor – with bar staff flaunting their stuff for set-piece songs – or club hits downstairs.
Most locals would not be able to discuss Oxford’s nightlife without mentioning Cowley Road, which stretches out east from the city centre. There are far too many watering holes to list but highlights include trendy cafe bar Kazbar, local pub The Big Society (The Big Soc), music venue The Bullingdon, rustic-style pub The Cowley Retreat and Moroccan-themed cocktail bar Café Baba.
For those looking to go off the beaten track, the Mad Hatter in Iffley Road offers an eccentric Oxford experience like no other. Open until the early hours on Fridays and Saturdays, there are sofas, top hat-wearing bar staff and ‘teapot’ cocktails made for sharing in line with its Alice Through the Looking Glass (Alice in Wonderland) theme. Make sure you have your thinking cap on though, as you’ll be challenged to answer a riddle before you’re allowed to enter.
Oxford’s live music scene has spawned top rock bands such as Radiohead, Foals, Supergrass and Ride. For a taste of where these acts cut their teeth, try The Wheatsheaf, tucked away off the High Street. Music-lovers also gravitate to the O2 Academy in Cowley Road, the largest live-music venue Oxford has to offer. Throughout the week, it offers live artists and a variety of club nights.
Live performances are also staged every week at the New Theatre in George Street and the Oxford Playhouse in Beaumont Street – near the Randolph. Those into reggae or soul should also check out The Library, in Cowley Road, which hosts regular nights dedicated to these genres.
For anyone who prefers classical music, regular concerts are held at Oxford University’s iconic Sheldonian Theatre in Broad Street and at St John the Evangelist in Iffley Road, which also has the advantage of underfloor heating and comfortable chairs.
It is also worth remembering that although Oxford is the centre of nightlife in the county, surrounding towns should not be overlooked. Witney town centre, a 40-minute bus ride away to the west, has a delightful selection of pubs and a few late-night venues including Fat Lil’s jazz club and Como Lounge, while Bicester, just 15 minutes away by train, is a popular destination for young clubbers. Further north is Banbury, also easily reachable by train, where disco-themed nightclub Fever can be found.
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