For a city with two universities, the nightlife scene in Oxford isn’t quite what you’d expect. Yes, there are underground clubs where you can dance the night away, but you’re much more likely to find trendy cocktail bars and cosy watering holes, steeped in history.
Nightlife in Oxford
When it comes to bars in Oxford, each district has a different feel. Head to Jericho or the city centre for upmarket cocktail bars. If you prefer your boozers rough and ready, with outdoor seating, take a stroll down Cowley Road.
The first name on many Oxonians’ lips when planning a night out is Raoul’s Bar and Liquor Store in Jericho. This lounge bar has been nominated for ‘best UK bar’ awards in recent years, and we can see why. A cocktail from Raoul’s won’t leave much change from a tenner, but the classics are flawless and the experimental mixes will surprise the most discerning cocktail aficionados. Head to Walton Street before 1am Wednesday to Saturday or midnight Sunday to Tuesday and see what all the fuss is about.
Among the more sophisticated establishments, both on the High Street, are The Varsity Club and Sandy’s Piano & Wine Bar. Boasting excellent views of Oxford’s dreaming spires from its rooftop terrace, The Varsity Club, split over four floors, is the perfect spot to share a bottle of Prosecco among friends – and, yes, the rooftop has its own bar. Sandy’s, however, is a more intimate, neon-lit affair. There’s live music every night and the drinks keep flowing until 3am on weekends. From the jazz bands they book to the resident pianists, the music is always marvellous – you’ll be amazed you got in for free. If you’re looking for a romantic evening in Oxford, trust us, you’ve found it.
Probably the oldest cocktail bar in town, Duke of Cambridge in Little Clarendon Street is royalty in the Oxford nightlife scene. The Duke has been mixing whisky sours since 1981 and is as popular as ever, thanks to the daily happy hour – or should we say, happy hours. During the week, you’ll be sipping a cocktail for less than £5 from 4pm to 9pm, or on Friday and Saturday until 7.30pm.
What starts with T, ends with T, and has tea in it? If you’re not a fan of riddles like this, you might not get through the secret door at The Mad Hatter(just kidding, they’ll give you clues). Duck down Circus Street, off Cowley Road, to find this rabbit hole of a speakeasy. Oxford’s quirkiest bar will mix up your G&T in a teapot (your first clue) and offer music nights from live jazz to karaoke and everything in between.
Also down Cowley Road, not far from Magdalen Bridge, are Kazbar and Café Tarifa. Both bars offer cocktails, tapas and summery bites with a casual Mediterranean decor. When the sun’s out, the doors and windows are flown open and seating spills onto the street, taking their pocket of Oxford on a journey to Cádiz.
St. Aldates Tavern
In a city where everything has a long and interesting history, the taverns are no exception. But Oxford isn’t a one-horse town; there are plenty of modern pubs for craft-beer geeks too.
If you prefer your pubs with low ceilings, creaky floorboards and real ale on tap, you’re in for a treat. Oxford has more venerable alehouses in its city centre than you can shake your pint at. We’ll start ye olde pub crawl at The Bear Inn, just behind the High Street, in Alfred Street, probably the city’s oldest pub. Now a Fuller’s establishment, The Bear Inn has been pulling pints for almost 800 years. The walls and ceiling are covered with 4,500 ties, representing Oxford colleges and clubs over the years, which the pub would trade for a half-pint of beer.
St. Aldates Tavern is a popular, dog-friendly pub, opposite the Museum of Oxford. This traditional coaching inn has all the essentials: Classic pub grub, local ales on tap, family games for all, and live sports on the box. St. Aldates is just a 15-minute taxi ride from our Abingdon hotel.
Nestled in a secluded corner off Holywell Street, Turf Tavern is a popular haunt for students and the university faculty, with New College, Hertford College and the university’s Science Area all nearby. The Grade II listed building, dating back to at least the 18th-century, has a cosy charm and is surrounded by a seated terrace. The Turf has a menu of pub classics with a modern twist, and is priced as such.
On St. Giles, around the corner from the Ashmolean Museum, The Eagle and Child claims to have been the regular of choice for esteemed literary folk, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and more. As with other Nicholson’s watering holes, expect decent ales, gins and classic pub meals. Over the road, however, The Lamb and Flag, is a no-nonsense drinking house. Serving only drinks and the odd snack, The Lamb is proudly free from music, TV and Wi-Fi. Just make sure you turn up with cold, hard cash – your plastic is no good here.
Those who associate pubs with a generous meal after a long walk should wander on to Port Meadow, a beautiful area of common land along the River Thames, a 25-minute walk from the city centre. At the south end in Binsey you’ll find The Perch, with its thatched roof and pleasant garden seating. To the north, in Wolvercote, 20 minutes’ drive from our Witney hotel, The Trout Inn is a charming country pub with an idyllic riverside setting – and a family of resident peacocks! Both establishments have an excellent menu of upscale pub grub.
For all of Oxford’s old-school appeal, it has plenty to offer drinkers more inclined to a craft IPA. Our top choice is Pint Shop, a relatively new addition to Oxford’s pub canon. Their craft beer selection will include drinks you never knew existed, and their menu has all the pub classics with creative licence – even the Scotch eggs are made with fennel!
Just like the bars in Oxford, there are different clubbing scenes in each city district: the centre has the best basement clubs; head west towards the train station for large, commercial clubs; or, if you prefer your late-night DJs to follow live bands, venture south to Cowley Road.
It’d be remiss of us to not start with The Cellar. An alternative, underground club in Frewin Court, amidst the central shopping streets, The Cellar has been a bastion of independent music for years. A standard night features deep bass and a sweaty atmosphere. If The Cellar sounds too much, Purple Turtle Union Bar is another basement club practically next door, popular with students, delivering cheesy pop and jukebox classics all night.
If big, commercial clubs are more your scene, then worry not. Head west from the centre, towards the train station and you’ll find ATIK and The Bridge. ATIK, in Park End Street, has four differently themed dance rooms to cater for most tastes. The Bridge puts more of a focus on R&B and hip-hop, and attracts lots of students on ‘Broke Mondays’ nights.