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You’re planning a trip to Oxford? Great choice! Whether it’s a day trip, a weekend trip, or you already live there, this article will give you the 20 best free things to do in Oxford for any itinerary and at any time of year.
Before I moved to Australia at the end of last year, I spent the previous two and a half years living in Oxford where I worked for a publishing company. Before getting that job, I’d never even visited Oxford before, despite living only a 2.5 hour drive from the city. So I made it my mission to see and do as much as possible in Oxford while I lived there.
Is Oxford expensive?
There’s nothing I love more than being a tourist in my own city. While it is possible to travel around the UK on a budget, Oxford is notoriously expensive and is well-known as the most expensive cost of living in England outside of London. But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep your trip to Oxford budget-friendly and I made it my mission to find the best way to see the city on a limited budget.
The 20 free things to do below are all free, but do consider a donation or a small purchase to support local businesses while you’re in the area.
You might also be interested in 24 hours in Oxford: an Oxford Day Trip itinerary
1.Explore the University Buildings around Radcliffe Square
A trip to Oxford wouldn’t be complete without seeing the iconic University buildings! Head to Radcliffe Square just off the High Street to see the iconic Radcliffe Camera, the Bodleian Quad and the University Church of St Mary. Also make sure to peer through the gates of All Souls College, this is a postgraduate college and it isn’t open to visitors like most of the other colleges. As you look through the gates, look up to the left to see the beautiful sundial.
Don’t forget to walk a little further up from Radcliffe Square to New College Lane, where you’ll see the famous Bridge of Sighs.
The Bodleian Quad is free to enter, make sure to check out the shop there too.
If you want to go into the Divinity School (where they filmed parts of Harry Potter) you can do so for a small fee of £2.50. If you would like to go into the Old Bodleian Libraries including the Duke Humphrey’s library, you will need to book on a tour which costs £8 per person. These book up fast so go first thing in the day to book a slot.
2. Free Walking Tour
Anyone who knows me will know I’m a huge fan of Free Walking Tours and I always research the best ones when I’m going somewhere new. It was no exception when I moved to Oxford and it also meant I could learn a lot of facts and stories about my new home to tell my visitors.
This is the free walking tour that I took, but there are several Oxford walking tours to choose from to suit you and your trip. This tour lasts 2-3 hours and all the tours are led by locals Oxford University Students, so you not only learn about the history and culture of Oxford, you’ll also learn local tips, cultural and political influences and the weird and wonderful traditions of Oxford University like Tortoise Racing… I’m not saying any more, you’ll have to go on one of the tours to find out what that involves!
Of course, if you’re familiar with walking tours then you’ll know how they work. While there is no fee to go on the tour and you’re not obliged to pay anything, a donation to the guide if you enjoyed the tour to keep the tours running is always appreciated.
3. Ashmolean Museum - interactive showcases
The Ashmolean Museum of art and archaeology is the first university museum in the world, founded in 1683. It was originally built to house the collection of curiosities of Elias Ashmole.
Now the museum houses objects from as early as 500,000 BC. There are huge Egyptian collections, the biggest in the world outside of Cairo, Anglo-Saxon treasure troves, Middle Eastern and Asian cultural collections and so much more.
You could easily spend a day here and it’s the perfect rainy day activity. But the best part is that it’s free, so you can go back as many times as you like to take it all in. Check their daily time table as they often have small interactive displays or talks by one of their expert staff. When I was there, I got to see, hold and examine an ancient Roman coin collection.
4. The Pitt Rivers Museum
This is a bit of a 2-in-1 free activity because the Pitt Rivers Museum is free and it’s also attached to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which is also free.
Both are worth visiting but I’m recommending the Pitt Rivers Museum because it is such a unique museum, you’ll never visit anything else like it.
It is not only full of weird and wonderful anthropological artifacts, it’s also housed in a beautiful building. When I say weird, I’m talking shrunken heads, mummies, ritualistic objects and ancient objects from centuries old tribes and cultures. The museum is organised by type, rather than chronologically, making it really feel like a cabinet of curiosities. They also have such a huge collection that the contents of cabinets are changed regularly, so you’ll often see different things each time you visit.
This museum is free but it is a charity so if you are able to donate some change, please do.
5. Get free samples of International Cuisine from the Gloucester Green Market
One of my earliest and favourite discoveries in Oxford was this market. Situated just off George Street, right behind the bus station, this traditional market is only open on Thursday - Saturdays.
The market stalls range from fresh produce to household items, fabrics and accessories, cake and delicatessens, to vintage clothing and food stalls.
On Saturdays, there are dozens of food stalls selling cuisines from all over the world, these are often local people with recipes that they’ve perfected over years, think Nepalise meals, Japanese gyoza, Greek souvlaki, Thai curries, you name it, you can find it here and most don’t have a brick and mortar store in Oxford, so this is your change to try some authentic cuisine.
This is a great stop for lunch but if you’re overwhelmed by choice, lots of the stands will offer free samples and they are a treat in themselves! Look out for Japanese takoyaki or gyoza, Indian chapatis and British cheeses.
6. Covered Market
Another market in Oxford that can’t be missed, not just because of the great range of stalls there, but also for its historical significance in Oxford. It is a permanent covered market in the city centre, just off the High Street and built in the 1770s.
The market is full of local businesses, trades and crafts and is worth exploring just to see the unique array of stalls, smell the aromas of different foods and watch some expert crafts, like cake decorating, through the windows.
My favourites are the Souvlaki Brothers for a lunch snack and the Oxford Cheese Company for some really special local cheeses.
Look out for samples of cheese, fudge and more!
7. Oxford History of Science Museum
Another brilliant, and free, museum in Oxford. You know this one is a good one, because it’s the oldest surviving, purpose-built museum in the world.
The museum preserves items of science all the way from the Middle Ages to the early 1900s, so if you have an interest in science at all, seeing the evolution of man’s scientific exploration laid out like this is so interesting!
Again this is a charity, so while you can enter the museum for free, if you are able to make a small donation, it is appreciated.
8. How to get inside Christ Church College for free
Of course, visiting the Colleges is something most visitors to Oxford hope to do, but the cost of entry, particularly to the most famous ones, can be very high. For example, the famous Christ Church College costs £15 per adult to visit and the queue to get in is often long.
But there is a way to visit this college, explore the Tom Quad, the Christ Church Cathedral, and the famous Grand Staircase used in the Harry Potter films, by attending the college evensong.
Several colleges hold evensong in their chapels, Christ Church holds one most evenings at 6pm (see their schedule here . Go to the Tom Tower entrance at 5.45pm on St Aldate’s street and ask the porter to direct you to Evensong. He will direct you through the Grounds to the Cathedral and you can see this beautiful college without the entry fee or the tourist crowds.
9. Visit Oxford Colleges for free with these tips
If you don’t have time to go to an Evensong at Christ Church College, fear not, you can still visit some of the other Oxford Colleges for free with a few tips and tricks.
Several colleges, including New College, will waive their fee for Oxford residents. So if you or a friend, happen to live in the area OX1-OX4, bring along proof of your address and you can visit for free.
A lot of Oxford Colleges are free to visit, use this website to see a full list of which colleges are free.
Some of the colleges that have a fee also have free entry for a couple of hours on weekdays, usually around 2-4pm. Check their individual websites listed here to see their free visiting hours.
10. See views across the city from The Varsity Club rooftop
One of my favourite bars in Oxford is The Varsity Club because it’s right in the centre of the city and has incredible views over the University buildings and city spires.
Although this is a bar and you should probably buy a drink, especially if you’re going at peak time, I’ve taken visitors a few times at off-peak times in the day (around 3-4pm after lunch and before the dinner rush/after work drinks people arrive) and been able to walk up to the rooftop and see the views for free.
The entrance to this bar is slightly tucked away inside one of the High Street entrances to the Covered Market. You’ll then need to go up 4 flights of stairs to the top bar, then up the last set of stairs to the roof.
Of course, if you have time and don’t mind the price of a drink then you can sit and enjoy the view for a while. I recommend their cocktail menu.
11. Visit J R R Tolkien's Grave and C.S Lewis’ Grave
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan or a Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fan, or any kind of literary buff, then this one's for you.
Both of these famous writers are buried in Oxford and you can visit their graves for free.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s grave can be found in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford, where he’s buried in a modest grave alongside his wife.
C.S. Lewis is buried in the Holy Trinity Church graveyard at Headington Quarry.
12. Picnic in Christ Church Meadow
One of my favourite spots to hang out on a sunny weekend in Oxford in Christ Church Meadow. It’s great to hang out with friends, take a picnic and some drinks and watch the punting on the river.
13. Walk or cycle along the River Thames
Did you know the River Thames runs through Oxford? If you’re looking for something a bit more active then the walk along the River Thames. The River Thames is at the bottom of Christ Church Meadow so you can continue your relaxing afternoon with a stroll along the river, taking in all the wildlife, river traffic and the famous Oxford University Boat Houses.
Further along the river, you’ll reach Iffley Meadows, a beautiful nature reserve, which of course is free.
14. Explore and photography the street art and murals on Cowley Road
I spent over a year living just off Cowley Road and this area of the city has a special place in my heart.
It’s a much younger area of the city, with an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants, plenty of gyms and yoga studios, vintage and craft stores. There are also huge street art murals on the end of each terrace row of houses off Cowley Road, so take a wander through this bustling, young part of the city and explore the art work.
Also in the area, check out the Vintage Ballroom, the Library bar and the Rusty Bicycle - the pub I used to live next to with great pizza!
15. Get some fresh air at Port Meadow
Port Meadow is famous and much loved by locals as a place to go for long walks with scenic views, wild flowers and plenty of wildlife.
Go early in the morning or at sunset for beautiful colours and a refreshing way to start or end your day.
16. Visit a Guinness World Record-breaking bookshop and attend a free literary event or author talk
The Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street is a World Record holding bookstore. It was founded in 1879 as a small 12ft square store and has expanded across buildings 48-51 Broad Street.
The Norrington Room holds the Guinness World Record for the largest single room in the world selling books, with over 3 miles of shelving and over 160,000 books.
Blackwell’s was also the first bookshop in the UK to enable customers to purchase books online in 1995.
Whether you’re a book lover or not, this bookshop is incredible to visit and explore its never-ending rooms. They also hold literary events, author talks, panels and signings throughout the year, many of which are free.
17. Alice in Wonderland Trail
For Alice in Wonderland fans, Oxford is the birthplace of this famous book. Lewis Carroll studied at Oxford University and the inspiration for Alice was real-life 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of his Dean at Christ Church College where Lewis Carroll attended.
Visit the College, Alice’s Shop and the Story Museum for the full experience, although tickets to the Story Museum are not free and will cost £5-£8 depending on which experience you visit.
18. The Headington Shark
This is definitely one of the weirdest free things to do in Oxford. But if a shark embedded head-first into the roof of an otherwise normal house sounds like your kind of thing, then you really can’t miss this.
The shark was commissioned by the house owner in the 1980s to mark the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. It is deliberately meant to contrast with the suburban surroundings.
There have been attempts by the council and various local groups to have it removed over the years, but without success. The shark remains and you can visit it at 2 New High Street, Headington.
Think of that interesting Instagram photo!
19. See a free exhibition at the Weston Library
As the Bodleian Library at Oxford University has continued to expand, the Weston Library is its most recent addition, reopened within the former New Bodleian Library in 2015.
There are always exhibitions on show at the Weston Library and entry to them all is free. Currently the Art of Advertising is on show until August 2020 and Sensational Books is also showing until October 2020.
20. Sunset at South Park
My favourite way to finish a day when I lived in Oxford was an evening walk at South Park.
If you walk up the hill from the Headington Road side, you can turn around and see the City of Spires glowing in the sunset.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, here are a few more things you can do almost for free in Oxford!
St Mary’s Church tower view
I’ve already mentioned visiting St. Mary’s Church in Radcliffe Square and while entering the Church itself is free, climbing the tower is a small fee of £5. The view of Radcliffe Square from the top really is spectacular and worth the small fee.
Pub quiz at Rickety Press
With so many pubs in Oxford, it would be wrong to miss out on experiencing one or two of them!
Rickety Press is the sister pub to the Rusty Bicycle and they regularly hold pub quizzes. So grab a group of friends for a fun evening for the price of some drinks and great food.
Tap Social events night - the cost of a drink or a couple of pounds entry
The Tap Social Movement is one of my favourite places in Oxford and I was lucky enough to live right by it in my second year in the city.
Tap Social is Oxford’s only inner city brewery and the owners hire people who have rehabilitated after a prison sentence.
They frequently hold fun events throughout the month such as music nights, open mic, pub quizzes, vintage fairs, beard competitions, local business expos and more. The cost is either a small amount for a ticket or completely free with just the cost of drinks or food you buy there.
Divinity School and Duke Humphrey Library
I’ve already mentioned the Divinity School which you can see for just £2.50. The tickets to see the oldest reading room in the university, in the Duke Humphrey’s Library, are just £8.
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