Explore local history at the Vanbrugh House Hotel (from $167), opened in 2012 within neighboring 17th- and 18th-century townhouses, across the street from the Oxford Union debating society. Each of the 22 rooms here honors some aspect of the buildings’ or the city’s past: The Wig Room, for example, occupies the space where men and women were once fitted for powdered wigs, while the Vicarage Suite (which boasts a private garden) used to house vicars from St. Michael at the North Gate church. Decorated in one of three unique styles—stately Georgian, cozy Arts and Crafts, or ornate Eclectic—the rooms are done up in a serene palette of grays, beiges, and creams, with elegant furniture handcrafted in England and deep soaking tubs. The onsite brasserie, located in the old vaults, is the perfect spot for traditional afternoon tea, which includes lemon posset with strawberries, finger sandwiches, and house-baked scones with Cornish clotted cream and jam ($27).
Do your time at the 95-room Malmaison Oxford Hotel (from $260), which boasts an odd pedigree: Part of the centuries-old Oxford Castle complex, it was a medieval jail, and eventually a modern prison until 1996. The boutique design experts at Malmaison, known for reinventing historic spaces, transformed the hulking stone edifice into a surprisingly stylish property in 2005, maintaining elements like thick steel doors and exposed-brick walls. The décor skews more contemporary, with sleek furnishings and framed photos of area gargoyles, and rooms are spacious (they’re each cobbled together from three old cells: two for the bedroom, one for the bathroom). Head down to the basement to see an original cell—and while you’re down there, stop at Malbar for cocktails, such as the aptly named “Bad Boy, Good Girl,” made with Champagne, strawberry-rhubarb cordial, lemon, basil, and strawberries ($18).
Take in Oxford’s past and future at the Old Parsonage Hotel (from $327), which reopened this spring after a total redesign. Occupying a 1660s parsonage and remnants of a 13th-century hospital, the property still retains era-appropriate trappings like an iron-studded front door, a wisteria-covered facade, and mullioned windows. But updated amenities are plentiful: There is a brand-new second floor with five additional bedrooms, a peaceful rooftop library, and interior design by London-based art director Sally Conran, who decked out the 35 rooms and suites with all-natural wools, linens, and velvets in rich jewel tones, plus charcoal sketches of iconic area buildings. Order the Stinking Bishop Cheese soufflé ($25) at the onsite restaurant, where owner and art collector Jeremy Mogford has lined the walls with oil paintings of famous British writers and artists.