Oxford is a charming, historic city located just a short ride from London. The city is famed for its prestigious university, which is one of the oldest in the world (it was founded in the 11th century).
Oxford first earned fame in the Middle Ages as a hub for theological learning. It then expanded into medicine and law. Today, the university is home to over 24,000 students and you can study with the best and brightest in pretty much any field here.
While the city can feel stuffy at times and lacks the cut-loose university town feel that cities like Bristol have, visiting Oxford and seeing the old architecture more than makes up for it.
This Oxford travel guide can help you plan your trip, save money, and ensure you have an amazing visit to the historic city!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Oxford
1. Tour Oxford
2. Visit Balliol College
3. Admire South Park
4. Stroll under Hertford Bridge
5. Visit the Ashmolean Museum
Other Things to See and Do in Oxford
1. Take a free walking tour
One of the first things I do in a new city is take a free walking tour. It’s the best way to get the lay of the land and connect with a local guide. Footprints Tours are run by students and offer a solid introduction to the city. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end!
2. Admire the University of Oxford Botanical Gardens
When it opened in 1621, the botanical gardens here were the first of their kind in the UK. Today, the collection includes traditional English landscape designs and some of the UK’s oldest redwood trees. There are over 5,000 plant species here spread out over 4.5 acres. Admission is 5.45 GBP and pre-booking is highly recommended to guarantee entry.
3. Shop for snacks at the Covered Market
This historic 250-year-old market has dozens of coffee bars, restaurants, traditional butchers, fish merchants, and independent shops. You’ll be able to find everything from artisanal sausage to sushi. 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. In addition to food, there are also lots of local vendors selling handmade wares, including clothing, souvenirs, and jewelry.
4. Browse the Bodleian Library
As the main research library of the University of Oxford, the Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and the second-largest library in the UK (after London’s British Library). Opened in 1602, its English Gothic architecture is gorgeous — so much so that it has served as a set for numerous films, including the first two Harry Potter films (its Divinity School, with its fan-vaulted ceiling and ornate decoration, was used as the Hogwarts hospital wing.) Entry is free and tours are 9 GBP.
5. Go punting
Punting is a quirky and unique summer activity in Oxford. Punting is essentially pushing a small boat around the River Thames or the River Cherwell with a pole. Punting season takes place from mid-March to mid-October when you can rent a boat or hire someone to take you. Rentals cost 25 GBP per hour and can fit up to 5 people.
6. Visit the Museum of Natural History
Established in 1850, this museum holds the University’s scientific collections of zoological, entomological, geological, paleontological, and mineralogical specimens. The exhibits are devoted to the history and diversity of life on Earth. One of their most famous exhibits is the Oxford Dodo. It has the only surviving dodo soft tissue remains in the world as well as a dodo skull. Admission is free.
7. Learn about medieval life at Oxford Castle Prison
Originally built in the 11th century, visiting this Norman castle prison (which was in operation until 1996) is like stepping back in time. You can descend into a 900-year-old crypt and then climb to the top of Saxon St George’s Tower for a 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding area. You’ll also learn about the past residents of the prison and hear stories of their crimes, which range from murder to tyranny to religious rebellion. Admission is by guided tour only and costs 14.45 GBP.
8. Get lost in Blackwell’s Books
For the bookworm, this historic shop is a must. Opened in 1879, it’s home to the Norrington Room, which holds the Guinness Record for the largest bookselling room in the world. Named after Sir Arthur Norrington, a former president of Trinity College, the 10,000 square foot basement is just one of Blackwell’s four floors of books.
9. Take a day trip to Blenheim Palace
This underrated attraction is just eight miles outside of Oxford. Built in the early 18th century, it is the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aside from the amazing Baroque architecture, the rooms are preserved with their original furniture and the grounds include a beautiful garden and a butterfly house. The entire palace is filled with statues, tapestries, priceless furniture and fine china, and huge oil paintings. Highlights include the room in which Winston Churchill was born and the Blenheim Tapestries, which are 10 large tapestries that commemorate the first duke’s conquests. Fun fact: this 17th-century palace is the only non-royal house in the UK that’s still allowed to be referred to as a palace. Admission to the palace, park, and gardens is 29.50 GBP.
10. Have a pint at the student pubs
A lot of Oxford’s energy comes from the huge student population. Around Oxford, you’ll find everything from small, quirky dive bars to romantic cocktail bars. The Eagle and Child pub on St Giles’ street is one of the most famous of Oxford’s pubs. The pub was a popular meeting spot for literary heavyweights like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (it is currently closed for renovations and is set to reopen in 2022).
For more information on other cities in England, check out these guides:
Oxford Travel Costs
Hostel prices – There is currently just one hostel in Oxford and a bed in a dorm with 8 beds costs 22-25 GBP. Free Wi-Fi and self-catering facilities are included.
For those traveling with a tent, camping is available outside the city for 14 GBP per night. This gets you a basic pitch without electricity.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels that include free Wi-Fi and breakfast start at around 80 GBP per night.
There are lots of Airbnb options available in Oxford. A private room costs at least 25-35 GBP per night, while an entire home/apartment averages 60-90 GBP per night.
Avoid visiting during alumni weekend (which takes place in September) and the annual Oxford Boat Race, which draws 250,000 visitors around Easter. The city fills up fast and prices rise!
Food – While British cuisine has evolved in leaps and bounds due to immigration (and colonialism), it’s still very much a meat and potatoes country. Fish and chips remain a popular staple for both lunch and dinner while roasted and stewed meats, sausages, meat pies, and the quintessential Yorkshire pudding are all common options as well. Curry (and other Indian dishes, such as tikka masala), are super popular here too.
You can eat cheaply in Oxford if you stick to the cafes centered close to the university. Most give discounts to students, and whether you pick up a sandwich, salad, or bagel, you won’t pay more than 7 GBP for a meal (even if you aren’t a student).
You’ll find most student restaurants on and around George Street with small takeaway windows and stands selling everything from falafel to burritos. Fast food (think McDonald’s) costs around 6 GBP for a combo meal while a pint at a pub costs around 4 GBP.
A personal pizza can cost as little as 5.55 GBP while Chinese food costs around 8 GBP for a meal.
Expect to pay 12 GBP for a meal at an inexpensive casual restaurant, while a three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant costs 25 GBP per person, including a drink.
If you’re cooking your own food, a week’s worth of groceries costs around 40-50 GBP. The best places to buy cheap groceries are Lidl, Aldi, and Sainsbury’s.
Backpacking Oxford Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Oxford, expect to spend about 60 GBP per day. This budget covers a hostel dorm, public transit, limiting your drinking, cooking your own meals, and doing mostly free attractions like hanging out in the parks and exploring Oxford University. If you plan on drinking, add 5-10 GBP per day to your budget.
A mid-range budget of 125 GBP per day covers staying in a private Airbnb room or private hostel room, eating out for most of your meals, taking the occasional taxi, enjoying a few drinks, and doing some paid activities like a guided tour of Oxford or going punting.
On a “luxury” budget of about 240 GBP or more per day, you can stay in a hotel, eat out anywhere you want, drink more, rent a car or bike to explore, and do as many tours and activities as you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in GBP.
Oxford Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
As one of the UK’s biggest university towns, Oxford has many free and low-cost things to do. With plenty of cheap pubs, student-focused restaurants, and lots of public spaces, cutting your costs and saving money is easy here. Here are my top ways to save money when you visit Oxford:
- Take a free walking tour – One of the best ways to learn about Oxford is with a free walking tour. Footprints Tours runs free walking tours that can introduce you to the city. Just be sure to tip your guide!
- Cook your own food – Like elsewhere in the UK, eating out in Oxford will destroy your budget. Cook as much as you can to save money.
- Eat cheap food – If you do plan on eating out, head out to neighborhoods outside the city center, where most students live. Stick to fast food and take-out joints for the cheapest options.
- Bike or walk everywhere – Oxford is not a large city so you can pretty much walk or bike everywhere. Skip the taxis and public transportation if you can.
- See the student theater – You can see cheap and cutting-edge student theater for a couple of pounds at the Burton Taylor Studio (near the bus station). It’s a small theater, but because it hosts student and independent productions, you can find a good deal on the ticket prices — even for last-minute tickets.
- Stay in an Oxford University dorm – When classes aren’t in session, it’s possible to stay in a dorm on the university campus. Exeter College is located in the center of the city and offers bed-and-breakfast style accommodation in the dormitory. Rooms are only available during the Easter, summer, and winter vacations. (Not currently available due to COVID).
- Stay with a local – If you’re on a budget you’ll definitely want to try Couchsurfing. It’s a great way to cut costs while connecting to the local scene. Many students will be away in the summer, however, so be sure to apply early.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water here is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and reduce your plastic use. LifeStraw is my go-to brand as their bottles have built-in filters to ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where to Stay in Oxford
Oxford currently has just one operational hostel. Fortunately, it’s a good one!
How to Get Around Oxford
The easiest way to get around Oxford, especially if you stick to the central tourist areas, is by walking or cycling. Oxford is a walkable city and compact enough to get around on foot.
Bus – There is an extensive bus network through Oxford to get around if you choose to take public transportation. Three separate bus companies operate public transport in Oxford, with single trip fares as low as 1.20 GBP and day passes costing around 3.90 GBP.
Bicycle – Oxford is very bike-friendly if you stick to the bike paths. Pony Bikes and Donkey Bikes are dockless bike companies operating in Oxford, meaning the bikes can be picked up and left anywhere on the sidewalk. Download and rent directly from their respective apps.
If you’d rather pay for a full day of access, you can rent a bike from Summertown Cycles for as little as 18 GBP for your first day (6 GBP for each following day). Brompton Bike Hire offers folding bikes for 10 GBP per day, which you can pick up from the self-serve bike locker next to Oxford Station.
Taxis – Taxis cost about 2.50 GBP to start and 2.40 GBP per mile, but the price depends on time of day and traffic. For example, a four-mile journey could cost you anywhere from 10-24 GBP. You can also use an app like MyTaxi to order your ride. Given how expensive they are, I wouldn’t take one unless absolutely necessary.
Uber – Uber is available in Oxford, but again, walking or cycling are the easiest way to get around in the compact city so I’d skip them if you can.
Car rental – Car rentals can be found for as little as 20 GBP per day for a multi-day rental. Keep in mind you’ll be driving on the left and that most cars have a manual transmission.
When to Go to Oxford
July and August is peak tourism season in Oxford, and temperatures are the warmest during this time — but rarely do they go above 22°C (72°F). It’s perfect weather for exploring, punting, and relaxing in the many parks.
Spring (May-June) and autumn (September-October) are also fantastic times to visit as the city is abuzz with student life and temperatures are mild. This is my favorite time to visit.
Winter lasts from December through February, and tourism crowds thin out dramatically during this time. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing, and prices are slightly lower as well. The days are cold and grey, however, so I wouldn’t suggest visiting during this time if you can avoid it.
How to Stay Safe in Oxford
Oxford is safe and the risk of violent crime is low. The biggest risk here is petty theft and pickpocketing, especially in the busy student pubs and clubs (however, it’s still quite rare).
If you’re partying in the student pubs, be aware of your surroundings and avoid dimly lit alleys and pathways when heading home. Pickpockets tend to work in teams, so stay alert and keep your valuables tucked away.
When out at the bar, always keep an eye on your drink.
If you experience an emergency, dial 999 for assistance.
If you’re worried about scams, you can read about the most common travel scams to avoid right here.
Always trust your gut instinct. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
As a general rule, if you don’t do something at home, don’t do it in Oxford!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good 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. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Oxford Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Oxford. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and, overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or in their spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can share the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all-around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around England, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- The Man in Seat 61 – This website is the ultimate guide to train travel anywhere in the world. They have the most comprehensive information on routes, times, prices, and train conditions. If you are planning a long train journey or some epic train trip, consult this site.
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B in the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, and boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- BlaBlaCar – BlaBlaCar is a ridesharing website that lets you share rides with vetted local drivers by paying a small fee. You simply request a seat, they approve, and off you go! It’s a cheaper and more interesting way travel than by bus or train!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat a home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Oxford Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Oxford Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson
After spending nearly 20 years living in Great Britain, Bill Bryson decides to return to the United States. (To quote him: “I had recently read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me.”) But before he leaves the UK, he sets out on a tour of his adoptive country, delivering hilarious social commentary on the nation that brought us Shakespeare and zebra crossings.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s most popular novel is one of those classics you read and can’t ever forget about. It’s famous for a reason. When Elizabeth Bennet meets an arrogant bachelor named Fitzwilliam Darcy, she immediately brushes him off as too conceited — and he immediately ignores her good looks and charm. Elizabeth discovers that Darcy has become involved in the disastrous relationship of his friend Bingley and her sister Jane, which further deepens her disdain. What follows is an excellent commentary on England’s snobbish middle-class life, and the dangers of judging someone by first impressions.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
While this is Emily Brontë’s only novel (which was originally published under a male pseudonym), its impact has withstood the test of time. The 19th-century story focuses on Mr. Lockwood, the newest tenant of Thrushcross Grange on the Yorkshire moors, who is forced to seek shelter one evening at Wuthering Heights (the home of his landlord). He soon uncovers a love story between an orphan named Heathcliff and high society’s Catherine Earnshaw. The book is about love and the risks and challenges and pain that often accompany it.
Sorry!: The English and Their Manners, by Henry Hitchings
The Brits are notorious for their polite behavior and the importance of having proper manners. This book by Henry Hitchings is an investigation into that phenomenon. It isn’t just about holding doors open and keeping your elbows off the table, though — there’s a whole system for things like sexual conduct, hospitality, chivalry, online etiquette, and so much more. This is a funny, upbeat read about British manners and what it all says about the English character.
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
An English reading list without Charles Dickens isn’t a reading list at all! The book is about the course of orphan Pip Pirrip’s life as he is transformed from a poor boy begging for soup to the heir of a mysterious inheritance from an unknown person. Dickens takes us through Pirrip’s life as he abandons his apprenticeship to a blacksmith and then takes up a new station as a proper English gentleman. Dickens is a masterful storyteller and this book continually ranks in the greatest novels of all time.
Oxford Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling England and continue planning your trip: