Nat Geo Young Explorer Emily Ainsworth was born and raised in Oxford, England. After studying at her hometown’s prestigious university, the audacious anthropologist joined the circus in Mexico, performing nightly as a dancer in the ring while producing an award-winning documentary about life backstage. Ainsworth’s work illuminates the experiences of people on the fringes around the world–from Mongolian nomads and Indian gurus to “midget bullfighters” and London royalty. Here are a few of her favorite things about her beloved City of Dreaming Spires.
Oxford is My City
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is to the Turf Tavern, a 13th-century pub hidden amid a maze of narrow alleys. On chilly nights, you can warm yourself in front of the lit braziers in the courtyard; marshmallows and toasting forks are available at the bar.
Early summer is the best time to visit my city because Oxford’s ancient stone towers glow gold in the sunlight, and it’s socially acceptable to live on a diet of strawberries and Pimm’s.
You can see my city best from the top of St. Mary’s gothic church tower. The medieval spiral staircase, with its 127 steps, comes with a health warning, but the panoramic views are worth it.
The Covered Market is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs.
My city’s best museum is the Pitt Rivers. Check out the shrunken heads and the witch that’s supposedly trapped in a bottle (which has never been uncorked, for obvious reasons) on display.
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that it is best seen on two wheels (i.e., rent a bicycle).
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is Port Meadow. The largest stretch of public land in Britain, it is riddled with ancient burial mounds.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they are wearing Wellington boots and talking enthusiastically about Aristotle.
Just outside my city, you can visit the tumbling hills and chocolate-box villages of the Cotswolds.
My city is known for being austere and academic, but it’s really constantly evolving, with a cutting-edge cultural scene.
The best outdoor market in my city is in Gloucester Green (on Thursdays). Check out the vintage couture, taxidermy, and chamber pots on offer.
The Vaults Café is my favorite place to grab breakfast (on sunny days you can sip your Earl Grey in the graveyard, among the tombstones) and HiLo, a Caribbean cafe so laid back that they forget about formalities like closing time, is the best place for late-night eats.
To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Daily Info.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I pretend that the free-admission Ashmolean Museum is my home, and that I have a Titian hanging in my living room.
To escape the crowds, I jog east, along the canal towpath; the communities that live in the houseboats reveal a different side to Oxford.
If my city were a celebrity it’d be Hugh Laurie because it’s utterly establishment yet comically self-depreciating. Plus, he grew up locally.
Christ Church, with its fantastical architecture, courtesy of Christopher Wren, is my favorite building in town. It is so layered with secret histories and magical stories that its doors and corridors seem to lead to other worlds. I was lucky enough to have lived there for three years when I was a student.
The most random thing about my city is that it is home to the oldest ham in the world; it hangs proudly in the window of M. Feller and Sons butchers stall in the Covered Market.
Freud’s Bar, an irreverent drinking spot in a crumbling neoclassical church, is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out the glass dance floor at Baby Love on the Cowley Road.
“Trashings“–when university students leaving their exams are ritually showered with champagne, fish guts, and trifle–could only happen in my city.
In the spring you should chase around the deer park at Magdalen College.
In the summer you should swim in the Thames. Follow the footpath past Godstow’s ruined nunnery to find one of the best “wild-swimming” spots in Britain. Bathing suits are not obligatory.
In the fall you should check out the largest fairground in the country, on St. Giles street. It dates back 900 years.
In the winter you should hit the high notes with world-class choirs at a college carol service.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the Christ Church dining hall, where the Harry Potter movies were filmed.
The best book about my city is The Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman (though J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Lewis Carroll have written pretty good stuff too…).
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is ”No Surprises,” by Radiohead; The band is local.
In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because it’s a place of idiosyncratic charm where bells chime when it isn’t the hour and ancient alleyways lead to nowhere.