Last Updated: 11/29/18 | November 29th, 2018
Oxford, founded sometime during the ninth century, expanded during the Middle Ages as a center for learning—first for theology, then medicine, and then law. Over the centuries, the university has added more departments, and now you can study with the best and brightest in any field.
The small city of Oxford is basically one giant school. Every few feet, a new college springs up on you. The spires, ancient buildings, and courtyards make Oxford a beautiful place to stroll through. I spent three days there hosted by someone from Couchsurfing. Like my previous Couchsurfing experiences, this one was a lot of fun and the host was really welcoming. He hosts a new person every week and loves the experience.
Oxford was beautiful, despite it raining every day I was there. I explored the area during small gaps in the storms, but, since this is England, the rain quickly returned and I quickly turned inside. Not always back home though. Often I went exploring inside the colleges, shops, and museums.
I decided to take a guided tour during my visit, and I learned a lot about the university that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. To sum it all up in a nutshell, the Oxford system is very unique.
The university consists of 38 colleges, and each college is separate and in charge of itself. Each does its own hiring, firing, and admissions. The “university” is just an umbrella group run by the government that hands out the degrees. While you may go to New College or Exeter College, you still get an Oxford degree. There aren’t departments like in other universities around the world. Here, each college teaches all the subjects, though there is a separate science and medicine department. In graduate school, curriculums become more specialized.
When you apply to Oxford, you apply to a college. Each college accepts its own applicants, and since they all teach the same thing, a lot of it is a crap shoot and based on reputation.
Each week, students meet with a tutor who helps with their studies. These tutorials are the foundation of the Oxford system and comprise the bulk of a student’s work.
Another interesting fact about the Oxford system is that there aren’t exams. In most universities, when the term finishes, you take a final exam. At Oxford, you may have little tests here and there, but there is no real semester final. Your degree rests on a final examination you have at the end of your time at Oxford. One test. Sick, huh?
I thought the whole Oxford system was overly complex, but that’s the consequence of people starting their own colleges year after year over many centuries and then not wanting to integrate into one system.
Because of the weather, I didn’t get a chance to go punting, which is when you take a sort of gondola ride down the river while drinking, relaxing, and hoping you don’t fall in when it’s your turn to push that pole (punt). Nevertheless here are my recommended things to see and do on your visit.
What to See and Do in Oxford
1. Take a Free Walking Tour
One of the best ways to start your visit is with a walking tour. They are a great way to get a feel for the city, the culture, and the history. Plus, you get a local expert who will answer any and all of your questions! Two companies I recommend for free walking tours are Footprints and Strawberry Tours. Just make sure to tip your guides!
2. University of Oxford Botanical Gardens
The Gardens are one of Oxford’s most scenic spots to take in the scenery and slower pace of town. They’re also the oldest botanic gardens in the country, having opened back in 1621. It’s a great place for a quiet stroll, home to over 8,000 different types of plants. There’s a walled section, greenhouses, as well as a section along the river. It’s a nice place to bring a book and relax in the warm summer months.
Rose Lane, +44 1865 286690, botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk. Open daily from 9am-4pm. Admission is 5 GBP.
3. Visit the Covered Market
Located in a building that dates back to the 1770s, this historical market is a great place to walk through and taste the local food. It was built as a way to help clean up the streets and add some organization to the mass of stalls that clogged the streets. These days, there are a lot of homemade meals served here, and it’s the best place to do some cheap shopping for groceries in the city.
Market St, oxford-coveredmarket.co.uk. Open Monday-Saturday from 8am-5pm and Sunday from 10am-4pm.
4. Bodleian Library
As the main research library of the University of Oxford, the Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It opened in 1602 and was based on the collection of Thomas Bodley. Presently, it has one of the largest collections of books in the world with over 12 million items in the collection. The architecture of the building is very beautiful, making it definitely worth a visit!
Broad Street, +44 1865 277162, bodleian.ox.ac.uk. Open Monday-Friday from 9am-10pm, Saturday from 10am-4pm, and Sunday from 11am-5pm.
5. Go Punting
During the summer, punting is an ever-popular activity. You can rent a boat or hire someone to take you, and many bring food and wine with them to make for a more interesting day. Rentals cost around 20-25 GBP per hour and can fit up to 5 people. If you’re staying at a hostel or traveling with friends, this is a fun activity to do with a group.
6. Blenheim Palace
This underrated attraction is just eight short miles outside of Oxford. Featured in the movie Hamlet, it’s a magnificent place to check out. Aside from the amazing architecture, the rooms are preserved with their original furniture and the grounds include a beautiful garden and a butterfly house. It was constructed in the English Baroque style, which was a short-lived style that is rare to see these days. It’s also the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill, who lived in the palace as a child.
Woodstock, +44 1993 810530, blenheimpalace.com. Open daily from 9:30am-5pm. Admission is 27 GBP, with discounts available for students, seniors, children, and families.
7. Stroll Around South Park
Located in east Oxford, South Park is the largest park in the city. It offers up a sweeping view of the city, and when the weather is nice, the park is filled with people relaxing, playing sports, or having a picnic. It’s a great place to do some people watching or have your own picnic.
8. Visit the Ashmolean Museum
Founded in 1683, this is actually Britain’s oldest public museum and the world’s first university museum. It’s home to a great collection of Ancient Egyptian art, as well as an impressive Eastern Art collection. Make sure to see the Amarna Princess Fresco as well as the Alfred Jewel before you leave. They’re worth it! They’ve recently opened a new section on 19th-century art, which is also worth checking out!
Beaumont Street, +44 01865 278000, ashmolean.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. Admission is free.
9. Explore Blackwell’s Books
If you’re a bookworm, you’ll want to make a stop at Blackwell’s. It’s a 10,000 square-foot bookstore — which makes it the largest bookstore in Europe — that is home to over 250,000 books. Whether you’re looking for a new book or just want to browse, be sure to make time for a stop!
48-51 Broad Street, +44 01865 792792, bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/bookshop/wellcomeshop. Open Monday, Wednesday-Saturday from 9am-6:30pm; Tuesday from 9:30am-6:30pm; and Sunday from 11am-5pm.
10. Take a Day Trip to Windsor Castle or Stonehenge (or both!)
If you’re looking to get out of the city on a day trip, both Stonehenge and Windsor Castle are within about an hour’s drive from the city. You can easily see both on the same day if you have a car or you can take an organized tour (which usually includes a walking tour of Oxford). Tours will cost around 90 GBP per person, so if you have access to a vehicle it will be much cheaper (and faster) to do a self-drive tour of each.
11. Wander Oxford Castle
This castle dates back to the 13th century when the wooden fort was replaced with stone. When the castle’s military value declined they started to use the castle as a prison, which was the case up until 1996! It was then renovated and used as a hotel, though you can still take tours of the castle and prison areas. In the summer, they host theatrical performances in the courtyard, so be sure to check the website to see what’s on!
+44 01865 260666, oxfordcastleandprison.co.uk. Open daily from 10am-5pm (last tour is at 4:20pm). Admission is 11.50 GBP for adults, with discounts avialable for students, kids, and seniors.
12. Explore the University
The best way to visit the university is to take a walking tour. You can take a themed tour that focuses on popular media like Harry Potter (some of the movies were filmed here) or Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien studied here) or just a regular tour that covers the history of the university itself, which dates all the way back to 1096. It’s generally considered the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and the second oldest in the world.
+44 01865 686441, experienceoxfordshire.org/oxfordshire-tours. Tour days and times vary, as do prices. Expect to pay around 16-25 GBP per person though. Check the website for the most up-to-date information.
13. Visit Pitt Rivers Museum
This quirky anthropological museum is filled with all sorts of weird and wonderful curios, such as shrunken heads and magical charms. Over 500,000 items call the museum home with the displays changing regularly (not everything is displayed all at once). What makes this extra interesting is that the museum is organized by theme, rather than geographical area, so you can examine some of the common anthropological threads throughout human evolution.
South Parks Road, +44 01865 270927, prm.ox.ac.uk. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-4:30pm and Monday from 12pm-4:30pm. Admission is free.
14. Enjoy the Choral Evensong
Every day during the semester, many of the chapels and churches around Oxford will host a choral event that is free and open to the public. They usually happen between 5:15pm-6:45pm and last 45 minutes. The choir songs are beautiful and are open to everyone (you don’t need to be religious to enjoy them). There are some amazing and angelic voices here, making this a really intimate experience.
Budget Tips for Oxford
To help you save some money during your stay, here are a few helpful budget tips:
- Get cheap food – If you’re going to be eating out, head to the student housing areas for food. A taste of local flavor and an affordable meal make this a good budget option.
- See the student theater – If you’re looking for some entertainment, you can buy tickets to see affordable, top-notch student theater for only a couple of pounds. Performances happen during the school year and the take place at the Burton Taylor theater (which is located near the bus station).
- Walk the city – Oxford is on the smaller side, which means you can just walk everyone. Not only will you save yourself some money but you’ll get a much better feel for the city.
- Stay with a local – If you want to save money on accommodation and get some local insight, consider Couchsurfing. It’s a great way to learn more about the city from the people who actually live there. Just make sure to send your requests in advance since there are not a ton of hosts (remember, it’s a small city!).
How to Get to Oxford
Oxford is located 62 miles from London. Trains leave every 5 minutes from London and the trip takes about one hour. Tickets start at around 20 GBP for a return journey and are normally considerably cheaper if booked in advance. If you want to take the bus, expect to pay 6-17 GBP, with the journey taking around 90 minutes.
Oxford is one hour away from London and makes for a good overnight trip out of the city. (If you don’t mind being a little rushed, you can also make it a day trip but I don’t recommend it). There’s a lot of history here. With so much to see and do when you visit Oxford, don’t rush it. Enjoy this classic English university town slowly!
And, while there, make sure you go punting for me!
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Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay are:
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want more travel tips for Oxford?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Oxford for even more planning tips!