Readers of the previous feature will by now be familiar with the Oxford Circuit: an indelible monument to the stress and boredom that compels generations of Oxford students to master the art of essay-writing in crowded pubs.
Executed correctly, the Oxford Circuit's day route will leave participants savoring their pints beneath the twilit skies of Port Meadow. From there, the faint of heart will make their way home to sleep off the day’s endeavor. The rest will pursue the storied wonders of the night route.
Stop 1. Raoul’s Bar & Liquor Store
Wander down Walton Street, through Jericho's characteristically idiosyncratic blend of bohemian and bourgeois aesthetics. Beyond its stylish cocktail bars, vintage record shops, and arthouse cinemas, this neighborhood is famous for its literary associations: it is believed to have inspired Beersheba in Thomas Hardy’s 1895 classic, Jude the Obscure, while its wharves housed the water-dwelling Gyptians of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Relax in one of Jericho’s sleekest bars, where the beers and wines are modestly priced. As for the specialty cocktails, what they lack in affordability, they make up for in sheer production value. This, above anything, explains Raoul’s signature clientele: free-spirited, slightly posh thirty-somethings of the shared opinion that any amount on a drink can be money well spent—provided that drink is on fire for at least part of the time.
Raoul’s has lately been closed due to staffing shortages. For an alternative, try Jude the Obscure, named for the Jericho-based novel.
Stop 2. Chez Mal Brasserie & Bar
Follow Walton Street as it becomes Worcester Street, then turn onto New Road and carry on until you find yourself in the shadow of Oxford Castle and Prison: a menacing relic of Saxon stonework.
In Oxford Castle Corner, duck into Chez Mal. Situated within the former Oxford Prison, this casual establishment offers a wide selection of beers, wines, and cocktails, along with an excellent a-la-carte menu featuring a blend of French and British cuisines.
No known Oxford Circuit-goer has (yet) linked the Castle into their daytime route. Still, it is worth returning during opening hours for a tour, when you can climb its 101 steps for an exquisite view of Oxford’s city center.
Stop 3. The Wheatsheaf
Continue onto High Street, which remains one of Oxford’s liveliest roads well past sundown.
Slip off down the darkened alleyway, through a pair of weather-beaten doors, and into The Wheatsheaf—a gem among all Oxford gems.
A younger cousin to London’s Marquee and Boston’s Rathskeller, despite its relatively recent year of establishment (1999), the Wheatsheaf retains all the barebones brilliance of a classic punk rock venue. Intimate, cacophonic, and wonderfully offbeat, the Wheatsheaf’s live music nights are some of the best that the city has to offer. On all others, its jukebox is prominently featured, open to all, and teeming with rock, punk, and alternative classics.
While on High Street, any Oxford Circuit night route undertakers who forewent the day route should drop in at the nearby Varsity Club, which offers one of the best views in the entire city—day or night.
Stop 4. Sandy’s Piano & Wine Bar
Turn onto King Edward Street from the High Street and into the always-excellent Sandy's.
In addition to its elegant candlelit upstairs, the downstairs of Sandy's doubles as one of the best open mic venues in the city. Infallibly welcoming to professional and amateur musicians alike, Sandy’s is one of the finest spots in Oxford to enjoy excellent cocktails and impeccable sounds.
Stop 5. The Cape of Good Hope
After rejoining High Street, cross Magdalen Bridge and carry on until you reach the roundabout.
You are now in Cowley: Oxford’s liveliest and best-known suburb. With its vibrancy, diversity, and relative lack of austere stonework, Cowley is, in many ways, a city unto itself. Long after every pub in Oxford center closes its shutters, Cowley’s nightlife roars on, often well into the morning.
At the roundabout, stop for a while at the Cape of Good Hope: a popular local pub that serves as a kind of informal terminus between Oxford’s city center and the Cowley suburb.
Stop 6. The Library
Continue down Cowley Road and into the Library—one of the most effortlessly cool pubs in all of Oxford.
Here, a vast selection of beers, wines, and whiskeys is complemented by an eclectic, welcoming ambiance, a wonderful beer garden (complete with firepit), and unbeatable proximity to the O2, one of the city's best nightclubs.
Stop 7. James Street Tavern
Amble back along Cowley Road before turning onto James Street. From the beguiling, slightly ramshackle row of old Victorians before you, pick out the James Street Tavern by its sign.
Enjoy the informal yet naturally refined atmosphere—surprisingly tranquil despite stone’s-throw proximity to one of the city’s liveliest streets—as well as its stylish outdoor patio and brilliant live music events.
Stop 8. The Mad Hatter
Take James Street onto Iffley Road, then step through the looking glass and into a world that is a part speakeasy, part tea house, and all Wonderland.
Named and themed for the works of Oxford University alumnus Lewis Carroll, the Mad Hatter has become vastly popular with locals for its karaoke nights, surrealist, avant-garde décor, and immensely creative cocktails, which you can, and should, order via the landline telephone affixed to your table.
Stop 9. The Half Moon
Continue down Iffley Road until it meets with the now-familiar roundabout, then stop by the Half Moon: a traditional, cash-only Irish pub featuring live music and a wonderful crowd of regulars.
Beloved among locals for its late hours, excellent prices, and vibrant authenticity, the Half Moon is hands-down the best spot in Oxford to drink well into the dawn while listening to a blend of local chatter and Irish jigs.
Stop 10 (OPTIONAL). Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House
Under-sung though it may be, Oxford’s nightlife involves an unavoidable Achille’s heel: practically every pub in the city, even in Cowley, closes by 2:00 AM. The sole exception, sometimes, is Hi-Lo.
What or when, exactly, does “sometimes” entail? It is hard to say. Hi-Lo has no website, no Instagram, and no Twitter. Its Facebook page (last active in autumn of 2021, when it shared an online petition for reducing carbon emissions in Australia, a delightful anti-Brexit meme with no caption, and no information whatsoever regarding its hours of operation) cheerfully declares the place open “til late.”
In other words, Google Maps' Hours Unknown listing is apt, in this case. There really are no hours to know about, here. The Hi-Lo closes neither late nor early, but precisely when it means to. Between this and the fact that many of its best items (especially the jerk chicken!) are off-menu, stepping into Hi-Lo can feel less like entering a restaurant and more like walking into a stranger’s sitting room by mistake.
For an Oxford Circuit-goer, Hi-Lo is the best (and only) place for shotgunning a few Red Stripes, listening to an excellent blend of reggae, trance, and ska, and feeling good about your post-2:00 AM choices. Provided, of course, you are lucky enough to find the place open and below capacity....
Best of all, a really good night at Hi-Lo can start to wind down as late (well, early) as 5:00 AM. This is a perfect time, in the summer months, to return to Oxford’s center by crossing Magdalen Bridge at sunrise.