Oxford has all the mainstream venues that you’d expect, pulling in the big-name bands, comedians and West End musicals. But what makes this city stand out is the community of musicians, actors and comedians – students and locals alike – prepared to show you the unexpected.
Some of the best West End musicals make the trip up the M40 to Oxford’s major regional theatres, and the student theatre community is as creative as they are active.
Oxford theatres in all their shapes and sizes know how to put on a show.
Alongside Oxford’s most established music venue, the O2 Academy, the New Theatre also brings in crowd favourites, and a variety of smaller venues nurture the prodigious local talent. The Oxford music scene is best known as the home of Radiohead, but if you thought the story ends there, you’re in for a surprise.
The iconic O2 Academy on Cowley Road has been a stalwart defender of Oxford’s music scene since opening in the early 90s. Its history is intertwined with that of Radiohead, the city’s darling band.
Back when the venue first opened, imaginatively named as The Venue, Radiohead wowed audiences with one of their earliest major performances. The footage of their gig went on to become the video for their hit song Creep. The elusive band also partly funded the venue’s rebirth as The Zodiac in 1995. The Academy Music Group took over what was the city’s largest independent venue in 2007 and big-name acts have been guaranteed ever since.
Over the years the O2 Academy has hosted The Strokes, Muse, The Killers, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran to name a few. Rock and pop are the staples here, but expect plenty of urban and electronic artists on the bill too. Nowadays the Academy also hosts comedy and regular club nights as well.
Oxford’s leading independent venue is The Bullingdon, also on the vibrant Cowley Road. Under various names, this venue has been putting on gigs for over two decades, and the cocktail bar there, open from 4pm daily, dates back much further. Recent acts include Fat White Family, Cate le Bon, Pumarosa and Whitney. The regular jazz night on Tuesdays is free and always good value.
Head to George Street in the city centre to see what’s on at New Theatre Oxford and you’re bound to find a crowd-pleaser. Award-winning musicals and top-quality tribute acts are regular features in the 1,800-capacity theatre, but you’re likely to find the odd legend on the list too – upcoming shows include the likes of Burt Bacharach, David Byrne and Joan Armatrading.
If you’d rather spend your evening getting to know the heart and soul of Oxford there are a few independents in the Cowley area that may be more your thing. The Truck Store is Oxford’s chief record store. During the day you can sit down with a coffee while you sample music from local unsigned artists – you never know what you might find. Later on the coffee tables make way for an intimate stage where the young blood find their sound.
Or if you’re in town on a Thursday at 8pm, why not take a chance on the Catweazle Club? This magical weekly gathering at East Oxford Community Centre is a cosy, candlelit affair. Picture blankets and cushions for all, the odd table and sofa hidden somewhere amongst the anticipating crowds sitting on the floor, and an atmosphere filled with incense and electricity. This is perhaps the most interesting open mic night in the country. Artists freely sign up on the night and play whatever they feel. The talent can be astounding and performances beyond definition. Those who attend Catweazle don’t know what they’ll find, but the experience might just be something they never forget.
Oxford pulls in the biggest names in stand-up comedy with several venues providing regular comedy nights. But the comic lifeblood of the city rests with the student troupes that descend upon an unassuming local pub.
Every comedian worth their salt has played at the New Theatre. Oxford’s premier comedy venue has hosted Michael McIntyre, Bill Bailey, Sarah Millican and John Bishop to name a few. The national Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club has a regular slot, bringing four comedians to the New Theatre’s stage on one Saturday every month.
You might recognise some of their comedians from TV shows such as Mock The Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats, or if you’re lucky you might witness the country’s next star before they hit the big time.
Another national comedy collective, The Glee Club, has made The Bullingdon on Cowley Road its home every Saturday night. Four comics hit the stage from 7pm onwards and have included household names such as Jack Whitehall, Shappi Khorsandi and Richard Herring.
Not to be outdone by Cambridge at any turn, Oxford University has its own long standing comic troupes with alumni that are a who’s who of British comedy. Former members of The Oxford Revue include Michael Palin and Terry Jones, Rowan Atkinson, Armando Iannucci, Stewart Lee and more recently, Katy Brand. The current group hold frequent stage shows at Burton Taylor Studio and The Oxford Playhouse. You’ll find them trying out new sketches every fortnight or so at The Wheatsheaf pub, a proper local hidden behind the High Street.
The Wheatsheaf also happens to be the setting for the Oxford Imps, an improvised comedy collective who surprise the crowd and themselves in equal measure. The Imps are an unlikely band of students and locals with a stellar reputation, who play every Monday during term time at 8pm. Tickets cost just a few pounds for two hours of side-splitting action.
Mention Oxford and sports in the same sentence and two words come to mind – boat race. Rowing boats dart along the River Thames all year round, with events during spring and summer. But the city can keep all sports fans entertained with football, rugby and cricket to visit too.
The River Thames runs through the heart of Oxford socially as well as geographically. Join the locals in one of the many riverside pubs and you can watch rowing boats glide back and forth. The City of Oxford Rowing Club hosts competitions between April and September, including the Oxford City Royal Regatta which has been running at Longbridges since 1841.
Oxford United FC call the 12,500-capacity Kassam Stadium their home in Cowley, about a mile away from our Oxford hotel. Since their top-flight heyday in the 80s, culminating in League Cup glory in 1986, Oxford United have become a yo-yo team. In 2006 they became the first English team to have won a major trophy and be relegated to non-League football. They have bounced back in recent years and currently compete in EFL League One.
Oxford University Rugby Football Club set up their sticks at Iffley Road Rugby Football Ground, a 5,500-capacity ground that since the 19th century has hosted illustrious company. Like their varsity contestants Cambridge, Oxford University RFC have produced countless national team players. Oxford have even played against international teams at Iffley Road in the past, including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The Oxford University Cricket Club’s status is no less impressive. With Imran Khan, Douglas Jardine, and M.J.K. Smith among the players to have passed through their ranks, the Blues are capable of first-class cricket. Head to the splendid University Parks during cricket season to watch them play – get a free membership and you can even enjoy the view from The Parks Pavilion.
There are plenty of reasons for visiting Oxford. Whether it's the world-famous university, Westgate shopping sprees, world-class museums, or the waistband-busting food scene, you can take your pick from four wonderful Oxford hotels with parking. Each one is an excellent base for exploring this most-fascinating of cities.
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