36 Hours in Oxford, England

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OXFORD is not a college town -- it is the college town. Its namesake university's 38 colleges are so steeped in scholarly history they make Harvard and Yale seem like baby-faced freshmen. To wit: Oxford's New College was last considered "new" in the 14th century. (Even the obsolete term "New World" is newer.) Students here get into the act, many dressing in tweed coats, sometimes even with elbow patches, and ordering pints of cask ale at pubs that have been in business for nearly four-fifths of a millennium. But Oxford has a modern side, too: night spots blare house and electronic music; restaurants serve modern takes on local food and exotic ethnic cuisine; and comfortable boutique hotels and bed-and- breakfasts beat medieval lodging houses for comfort any day. (Just don't ask for a place to hitch your horse.)

Friday

3 p.m.1. WONDERLAND? HOGWARTS?

It's hard to admire Christ Church college for what it really is -- the hallowed halls of learning where Sir Christopher Wren, John Locke, William Penn and 13 British prime ministers were educated. That's because it's the place that stood in for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in several "Harry Potter" movies. And the place where the math tutor Charles Dodgson concocted the story he would publish under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Following the tourist route through courtyards, gardens and halls costs £8, or $12.30 at $1.54 to the pound (www.chch.ox.ac.uk/visiting), but it's worth it, if for nothing else than to visit the soaring dining hall that served as a model for Hogwarts ... er, where centuries of brilliant students have sought sustenance.

7 p.m.2. A BITTER TOUR

Take a pub crawl through Oxford's most traditional pubs, like the classic student haunts Kings Arms (40 Holywell Street); the ancient, low-ceilinged Turf Tavern (4-5 Bath Place); and the central White Horse (52 Broad Street). You will fit in more (or at least remember them better) by ordering "a half of bitter" instead of a full pint: it's always precisely half the price. (Full pints cost around £4.) When you're ready for dinner, go to C. S. Lewis's and J. R. R. Tolkien's former hangout, the Eagle and Child (49 St. Giles). You'll have to order at the bar, but don't let that deter you: this is a legitimate kitchen operation. The beef rib pie (£9.95) is topped with ultra-flaky pastry, and the sticky toffee pudding (£3.75) is divine. Watch the clock, though -- at some spots the bartenders call "Time!" as early as 11 p.m.

11 p.m.3. ECLECTIC SOUNDS

Sure, pubs in England close at what for Americans is a frightfully early hour, but there are plenty of night-life options. Perhaps the best for live music is the Cellar (Frewin Court, 44-1865-244-761; cellaroxford.co.uk), right off the pedestrian-only Cornmarket Street and (you guessed it) down a flight of stairs. It's a darkish den that attracts eclectic musical acts from house and electronic music to reggae and Balkan brass.

Saturday

10 a.m.4. CANAL PLUS

Rent a bike from Summertown Cycles (44-1865-316-885) for £18 a day (or two days for £24) and set out down the path that runs along the Oxford Canal, a narrow waterway lined with boats and filled with ducks, a popular destination for families out for a stroll. The canal leads out of central Oxford toward a series of picturesque villages with lots of places to stop for a beer or a bite. Wolvercote is one, but skip the pricey pubs and pick up some legitimate fish and chips for £4.20 from, of all places, the Chinese takeout spot Dak Bo (104 Godstow Road; 44-1865-310-439). Bike over to the nearby Thames River and choose a meadow for a picnic. The river will lead you back to town. Though the whole day is an easy ride, it is strongly advised to pretend you're tired and stop on the way back at the Perch, which is well marked, in Binsey (Binsey Lane; 44-1865-728-891; the-perch.co.uk). Have a (relatively) cold ale at the picnic tables outside under the willow tree.

3 p.m.5. THE NEW ASHMOLEAN

If the Ashmolean (Beaumont Street; 44-1865-278-002; ashmolean.org) wasn't Oxford's prize museum before it was largely rebuilt (maintaining only one building from 1845) and reopened, by the queen no less, in December 2009, it is now. There's twice as much display space, much of which is used for the new Galleries of Ancient Egypt and Nubia, which opened just last November. It displays twice as many coffins and mummies, the vital statistic in any pharaoh-related exhibition. Especially curious are the coffins that mesh Roman and Egyptian styles, a sign of the surprising intermixing of cultures. Also notable is the "Crossing Cultures Crossing Time" exhibition, which uses the museum's wide-ranging collection to break displays down by theme (textiles, reading and writing, the human image).

7 p.m.6. PLAY TIME

Oxford is not just a university town, it's a theater town. Among the many choices are the Oxford Playhouse (11-12 Beaumont Street; 44-1865-305-305; oxfordplayhouse.com) for drama and comedy; the 1,800-seat New Theater Oxford (George Street; newtheatreoxford.org.uk) for Broadway-style musicals as well as concerts and ballet; and the cozy Pegasus Theater (Magdalen Road; 44-1865-812-150; pegasustheatre.org.uk), which turns 50 this year and features drama, comedy and dance.

9 p.m.7. A TASTE OF SLOVAKIA

Fish and chips and beef rib pie can only satisfy for so long. Luckily, Oxford is also brimming with international restaurants, including the usual suspects (Lebanese, Thai, curry houses). But for an unusual experience, visit the cheery, whitewashed Moya (97 St. Clements Road; 44-1865-200-111; moya-oxford.co.uk), which serves the cuisine of Slovakia. (It also tries to pass itself off as a fancy cocktail bar, with significantly less success.) Try the "devil's toast" (sourbread toast topped with smoked sausage, vegetables and a shockingly delicious patty of grilled goat cheese), a creamy beef goulash with paprika, and a doughy fruit dumpling with poppy seed sauce for dessert. Dinner for two costs about £50 without drinks.

Sunday

10 a.m.8. PRE-KINDLE COLLECTION

Long before students could carry 300 books around in their electronic readers, Oxford was lucky to have 300 books in its entire university library. That was the size of the original reading room at what would become the Bodleian Library (44-1865-277-224; www.bodley.ox.ac.uk), established in 1488. (The university system now has nine million.) Though there are rotating free exhibitions at the library, the £6.50 guided tour is well worth it to see the gorgeous old reading room, where the dusty (or perhaps regularly dusted) old volumes doubled perfectly for books of magic spells in one "Harry Potter" scene. If you ask to check one of the books out, you'll hear the response King Charles I got when he asked the same question in 1645: No.

Noon9. A RURAL MICHELIN STAR

Take a cab 10 miles out of town to the Nut Tree Inn (44-865-331-253; nuttreeinn.co.uk), a small town spot with a big-time Michelin star. Buried away on what seems like a back road but is in fact Main Street in the village of Murcott, the restaurant is housed in a 15th-century building under a steeply pitched thatched roof. It is billed in faux-modesty as a traditional village pub by the owners, Mike and Imogen North, but traditional pubs don't normally raise their own Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot pigs, bake their own bread and make their own ice cream, or turn out splendid three-course meals like roast diver-caught scallops with apple salad and curry hollandaise, followed by pavé of local venison and a pistachio soufflé with chocolate ice cream. Dinner for two comes to about £90 without drinks.

IF YOU GO

The Malmaison hotel (3 New Road; 44-1865-268-400; malmaison.com) used to be a prison, and many of its rooms are former cells. But no worries, they've been upgraded since then, all the way from penitentiary to boutique. Rooms in former cells start at £185 ($285); other rooms start at £135.

The Burlington House (374 Banbury Road; 44-1865-513-513; burlington-hotel-oxford.co.uk), in the Summertown area of Oxford, is an easy bus ride from downtown. The 12-room inn is comfortable and stylish, and the complimentary made-to-order breakfasts (including a gourmet take on the full English) is one highlight; the other is the utterly attentive host named Nes. Doubles start at £92.

If you can plan your trip when classes are not in session (and they are in session only about half the year), you may be able to land a room in student housing through oxfordrooms.co.uk. Singles start at £30; rooms are available for up to four people.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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