Oxford England: A Pub Tour

The Grape, another great pub in Oxford, England.
The Grape, another great pub in Oxford, England.

Oxford: Top Pub Picks in the City of Dreaming Spires

By Helen Whitehead

Keen to discover Oxford’s history and character? The pubs can offer as much as many of the more traditional attractions.

There are few things more satisfying than a good British pub. For me, that means a warm welcome, cozy nooks and crannies to settle into, character and a sense of history, great beers, and tasty food.

St Aldates pub in Oxford, England. Photo: Great Escapes Ltd.
St Aldates Tavern in Oxford, England. Photo: Great Escapes Ltd.

Oxford is blessed with a spectacular array of truly great pubs. I’d go so far as to say that, amongst the many attractions of a trip to Oxford – the stunning university colleges, the magnificent churches, the winding lanes of honey-colored stone – the pubs can hold their own as one of the highlights.

Below is my definitive guide to the best pubs in Oxford. I strongly recommend that you do not leave the city without trying at least one or two.

For cozy nights The Bear

Tucked out of sight down a lane behind the High Street, The Bear claims to be the oldest pub in Oxford, dating from 1242.

The low ceilings, exposed beams, and miniscule rooms are a testament to its age and a roaring fire for colder nights completes the cozy atmosphere.

A good range of Fullers’ ales, as well as a local guest ale, keeps beer lovers happy. The food is of a traditional, hearty variety with a few good seasonal specials thrown in. My only word of warning: the place is tiny so getting a seat at peak times can be a bit of a challenge.

St Aldates Tavern

Managing to get the tricky balance between the traditional and the modern spot-on, this pub has the sort of atmosphere that makes it very hard to leave.

In my experience, the service is consistently excellent and the choice of beers is almost overwhelming: six real ales from British micro-breweries, many local, and a wide range of interesting lagers and bottled beers, as well as a good selection of other drinks.

The food is delicious – upmarket takes on pub classics (don’t miss the scotch egg!) as well as some more ‘gastronomic’ creations. Rarely too busy to find a seat but always busy enough to have a buzz, it is hard to go wrong with this one.

The Turf Tavern

An Oxford institution, the Turf is tucked down a narrow alley in the midst of some of Oxford’s most beautiful buildings. Dating from the thirteenth century, the higgledy-piggledy rooms are always filled with a mixture of students, residents, and tourists enjoying the wide variety of drinks on offer, including many real ales.

The Turf always likes to offer something a bit unusual, whether it is marshmallows to roast on the fire in winter or beer festivals and BBQs in summer.

The outside courtyards are a great if busy, spot on a summer’s day too. Food isn’t the reason to visit the Turf but, if you are hungry while you’re there, they have a decent selection of pub classics and snacks. website

The Grapes

On one of Oxford’s busiest streets, the Grapes is easy to miss and a delight to find set back from the surrounding chain restaurants and bars. Oxford’s only surviving Victorian pub, the interior retains many original features, including classic Victorian ‘privacy screens’ between tables.

The pub is owned by the small Bath Ales brewery and serves a good selection of their beers along with a guest ale, some interesting international options, and a wide variety of other drinks. Their food ethos seems to be good quality, simple dishes at reasonable prices (try the ‘pie and a pint’ for £10 every Tuesday). Website

For sunny days:  The Isis Farmhouse

In an old farmhouse right on the banks of the River Thames (or Isis, as it is known in Oxford), the Isis Farmhouse combines a fantastic location with relaxed, old-world charm.

Whether you want a pint of beer from whichever barrel is sitting up on the bar that day, a traditional cream tea or beans on toast, the huge beer garden on the banks of the river is the perfect place to enjoy it.

The Head of the River Pub in Oxford.
The Head of the River Pub in Oxford.

A scenic 15 or 20-minute walk (or shorter cycle) along the river from the center of town, past the University Boat Houses, brings you to the pub, which cannot be reached by car.

NB: The Isis Farmhouse is only open Thursday to Saturday in summer and even shorter hours in winter. Check before visiting.

The Head of the River

One of the few town center pubs with a large outdoor space, the Head of the River has a lovely spot on the banks of the River Thames, next to Folly Bridge.

Another pub owned by Fullers Brewery, it has a good selection of Fullers’ beers, a guest ale, and other drinks. The food focuses on good quality British pub classics with a few twists.

The pub’s own claim that this is a ‘blissfully relaxed’ place to enjoy a drink is stretching it a bit on a summer’s weekend when the outside area is bursting at the seams, but it is certainly a lively, fun and scenic spot.

The Perch

Up the Thames to the north of town, this seventeenth-century thatched inn is really an upmarket pub-cum-restaurant, which is at its best in the summer months when its wonderful outside area can be enjoyed to the full – although the roaring fire makes it a cozy spot in winter too.

The food here is of excellent quality; using great local produce to create dishes with a French twist. More casual options of tapas or BBQs are offered in the garden on sunny weekends.

The vintage crockery, classic beer tankards, and quirky décor all add to the lovely ambiance. NB: The Perch is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Bookings are required for the restaurant at weekends.

The Fishes

Out of the city center in the village of North Hinksey, with its traditional thatched cottages and open fields, The Fishes feels like a country retreat only a few minutes from town. As well as a comfortable bar area, there is a fantastic restaurant with both inside and outside seating, and a big focus on quality local produce. It is worth the trip to try some of the excellent food.

However, on a sunny day, it is a huge garden that is the real draw. Large trees provide shaded areas, a children’s play area keeps the kids happy and a petanque pitch keeps restless adults entertained! If you don’t fancy a formal meal, picnic baskets are served in the garden.

Disagree with any of these choices or think other places deserve to be in the list? Let me know at the link below.

Helen Whitehead
Helen Whitehead runs Great British Escapes – www.greatbritishescapes.com – a travel company that arranges tailor-made holidays and vacations in Britain and provides information and travel advice.

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