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Hidden Oxford: Must-See Secrets of Britain’s Oldest University Town

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A woman cycles past Balliol College in Oxford. The university’s 38 colleges all have their own distinct personalities. …

Oxford is a city of secrets — some known only to the British, some only to students at the university, and some only to natives of the city herself. As student, tour guide and resident for the past two years, I’m lucky to be able to share some of the best-kept must-see secrets of the university and surrounding town.

Seeing Oxford makes it much easier to understand just how J. K. Rowling came up with the hidden stairways, secret passages and bigger-on-the-inside rooms of Hogwarts. Most entrances to each mini-campus of the 38 independent colleges that together constitute the University of Oxford consist of no more than tiny wooden doors set into stone walls or between shops. Those doors open out onto courtyard upon airy courtyard of palatial buildings, reaching so far back between the surrounding city buildings that it just doesn’t feel as if such a space could exist without magic. (In fact, most of the scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed inside one or more of Oxford’s colleges, and a number of tours can show fans around the places Harry lived.)

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A tour group takes in the Bridge of Sighs over Queen's Lane in Oxford. (Photo by Amelia Gurley)

Nearly all Oxford colleges are accessible to the public for a modest £2 or £3 (about $3-5) fee, which buys visitors a map detailing locations of interest and gives them free access to all public areas including the quads, gardens, chapels and Great Halls where students gather for formal meals and events. Entry is also free at most colleges if you’re with a student or a city resident.

The colleges range in style from the ancient (the oldest educational building in Europe forms part of St Edmund Hall’s central quad) to the modern (anyone dubious about modern postwar architecture need look no further than the soaring clean lines of St. Catherine’s College). Oxford visitors come to their own conclusions about which college is best, but must-see highlights include St. John’s College for its gardens, New College for medieval architecture, Queen’s College for High Gothic architecture, Christ Church for the majority of the Harry Potter film locations, and Magdalen for its chapel, gargoyles and breathtaking buildings.

Every college also comes with its own kebab van: These are food trucks that operate from dusk until dawn, feeding hungry students piping-hot jacket (baked) potatoes, Shawarma, kebabs, burgers, and chips (or French fries to us Yanks). Each college is passionate in defending its own kebab van as the best in Oxford, but having taken an impartial survey I can reliably tell you that the best chips come from Hussein’s, centrally located on St. Aldate’s street next to the Ashmolean Museum. UK chips are traditionally sold with toppings ranging from baked beans and salad to cheese to plain old-fashioned ketchup, and they never taste better than when they’re eaten sizzling hot out of the fryer on a cold nighttime walk home.

Of course, no visit to Oxford is complete without a trip to the city’s two most famous tourist attractions, the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean. The Ashmolean, free to the public, is one of the world’s most famous art and history museums. It boasts a collection of Roman antiquaries and statues as well as some truly glorious exhibits ranging from medieval paintings to contemporary Chinese art. Even most UK natives aren’t aware that visitors to the Ashmolean can also write to the museum via its website up to a week in advance to request a viewing of its original drawings by great masters from Michelangelo and Raphael all the way through to Turner and Blake. Most visitors also don’t know that the best British concerts outside of London happen right next to the Bodleian library, inside the beautiful Sheldonian Theatre, famous as the site of Oxford graduation ceremonies.

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Many of Oxford's most beautiful buildings are hidden from street view. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain …

The list of unknown attractions in Oxford goes on and on. I haven’t even mentioned the impossibly well-hidden Turf Tavern or the gorgeous walks around University Parks, Christ Church Meadow, Port Meadow and the Botanic Gardens. Then there are the famous Summer Eights rowing races, the Pitt Rivers Museum’s collection of shrunken heads, the joys of late-night G&D’s bagels or the prison stories and Norman mysteries of Oxford Castle. You should try to see the May Day concert at dawn on Magdalen Bridge or the mysterious Headington Shark

Apart from everything else, the simple elegance of the city’s High Street — which Oscar Wilde once described as “the most beautiful thing in England” — is itself a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But don’t take my word for it! Visit Oxford. Go wandering down a cobbled street or two. Turn right instead of left, and see what you can discover.

By Amelia Gurley

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