A week is better, of course. Or a few months. Preferably a whole semester, so you can sink into the city and learn its streets, begin to feel its ancient rhythms in your bones. But if you’re hopping over from London and only have a day, here’s what to do.
Catch an early train from Paddington, or a bus from Victoria Station. The former will deliver you to the Oxford rail station; the latter, to cobblestoned Gloucester Green, where the open market happens on Wednesdays.
Either way, when you arrive, climb down and stretch your legs, and start walking east.
Stop when you hit Cornmarket Street, the bustling, pedestrian-only artery that runs through City Centre. Look up. This is Oxford: modern shops crammed side by side with ancient colleges, plate-glass windows reflecting towers of honey-colored stone.
Walk up Cornmarket (passing by St Michael at the North Gate, the oldest building in Oxford) and turn right on Broad Street, the aptly named showpiece of City Centre. It’s lined on one side with colleges: St John’s, Balliol, Trinity. (You can tour the latter two if you like – the gardens and quads are stunning.)
Farther down is the Sheldonian Theatre, home to the university’s commencement exercises, its annual Christmas carol service and various other events. It, too, is ancient and lovely, and worth touring.
Across the street is Blackwell’s, home to miles (literally miles) of books.
There are four floors’ worth – you could spend a whole day – but since you’re only here for a little while, pop in and spend half an hour browsing. If you need caffeine by now, visit Caffe Nero on the first floor (the second floor to us Americans).
After Blackwell’s, turn left at the end of the Broad and walk up Parks Road to University Parks. The two-block walk will take you past a slew of other university buildings: Wadham College, the Oxford Museum of Natural History, Keble College with its fantastically colored brickwork.
Turn in at one of the iron gates and wander around the Parks to your heart’s content.
When you get hungry from all that walking, come back to the entrance of the Parks and turn right out of the north lodge, onto the busy Banbury Road. Two blocks up is a little street called North Parade, which holds On the Hoof, the best sandwich shop in the world.
All their sandwiches are delicious, but I recommend the Tom’s Le Club or the Sexy Brazilian. (Both are spicy.) You can perch on a barstool to eat your sandwiches, or take them to go as you keep walking.
Head south, retracing your steps back toward City Centre – down the Banbury Road past the Parks, down Parks Road to the end of the Broad.
That massive building next to the Sheldonian is the Bodleian Library – worth touring but also amazing from the outside. Behind the Bod’s main building stands Radcliffe Square: the cobblestoned, beating heart of Oxford.
Stand in the Square and look and look, and feel the life of the city pulsing under your feet. This is Oxford: eight hundred years’ worth of knowledge and learning, books and carvings and ancient stone walls.
When you’ve looked your fill here on the ground, cross the Square to the tall church that stands on its south side: the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.
Go inside and look around, then pay a few pounds to climb the tower. It offers the best views of Oxford, from a narrow ledge on all four sides. Each view is different, and all four are stunning.
Lean on the stone railing and look and look. This is Oxford: dreaming spires, flat-roofed modern buildings, the green handkerchief of South Park unrolling down the hill to the east.
After you come down from the tower, turn left at the church entrance and walk a little way down the High Street. Past the gates of All Souls and Queen’s Colleges sits Queen’s Lane Coffee House.
Tuck yourself in at a small round table, preferably near a window, and order the best cream tea in Oxford: two round, warm scones with jam and clotted cream, and plenty of hot, strong tea.
Sip your tea and munch your scones while looking out the window. Buses, taxis, students on bikes – all of Oxford passes up and down the busy High Street. Here, in the city’s oldest cafe, you can both watch and be part of it all.
Walk back up the High to where it crosses Cornmarket. If you have time, pop into the Covered Market and wander its maze of stalls, which sell everything from clothing and jewelry to art prints and fresh flowers. Grab a Ben’s Cookie for the train ride back, and pop into Whittard for a tin of tea.
From here, it’s up to you. Wander the tangle of streets in City Centre, or walk down St Aldates Street for a look at Christ Church, one of the largest and most famous colleges. Find an Evensong service to attend, or opt for dinner at a cozy pub. (The Eagle and Child is famous for being the haunt of Tolkien and Lewis, but Oxford has dozens of pubs – take your pick.)
When the sun is setting behind the hills to the west and the spires are casting long shadows onto the streets, head back to the train or bus station.
Take a last look around, and make a silent promise you already know you’ll keep: I’ll be back.
For Lawson and Lindsey, who are going to Europe this summer and planning to spend a day in Oxford.