Admittedly, Oxford is a rather expensive city, but it’s not impossible to have a great day out in Oxford on a budget. There are plenty of free things to do in Oxford if you know where to look! So, whether you’re a local or a visitor, here are some exciting and interesting activities that won’t cost you a penny.
1. Discover Oxford University
The city of Oxford is famous around the globe for its university, so you might be surprised to know that many Oxford colleges are actually free to visit. These inspiring hubs of education are both architecturally beautiful and rich with history. Opening times vary between colleges and may change depending on public holidays and university holidays, so be sure to check online before you visit.
2. Marvel at the magnificent Oxford architecture
Oxford was first settled in the 8th century by the Anglo-Saxons, and today the city is densely packed with gorgeous buildings, which span a thousand years of English history. You can see examples of eight major architectural styles in perfect harmony on a short walk around the city centre.
3. Visit one of Oxford’s famous museums
Visiting a museum is certainly one of the best free things to do in Oxford; thanks to its culture of academia, Oxford boasts several brilliant museums that you can visit free of charge, and these museums house some of the most unique and curious artefacts in the world. For example, there is a collection of South American shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Museum of the History of Science is home to a blackboard that Albert Einstein used on a visit to the university!
Alternatively, if you’re looking for something a bit different, head to the lesser-known Bate Collection on St Aldates to see more than one thousand musical instruments. In age, the instruments range from the Renaissance to modern times.
4. Admire some amazing art
Huge collections of Eastern and Western art can be found in the Ashmolean Museum, and when I say art, I’m not just talking about paintings! No, the Ashmolean houses textiles, sculpture, ceramics and more – centuries of artistic creations from around the globe under one roof.
If you’re looking for something a little more modern, check out Oxford Modern Art. They aim to make contemporary art engaging and accessible to everyone, so they don’t charge admission to their exciting exhibitions. They even hold some free arts and crafts workshops, ranging from life drawing to textiles.
5. Browse books in Blackwell’s, Oxford’s famed bookshop
If you like books and bookshops (who doesn’t?), you absolutely have to pay a visit to Blackwell’s. Founded in 1879, Oxford’s largest and most popular bookstore is a must-do when you visit Oxford. In the heart of the city, right on Broad Street, you’ll find not one, not two, but three Blackwell’s stores.
Before you let a good book distract you, don’t forget to stop by the record-breaking 10,000-square-foot Norrington Room. It’s the largest single room selling books in the entire world! Visitors can go inside to take a look for free, but be warned – it is very hard to leave Blackwell’s without buying at least one book.
6. Fall down the rabbit hole… and into Alice’s Shop
This is another essential bookish pit stop and one that proudly celebrates an important part of Oxford’s culture. You’ve probably heard of Alice in Wonderland, but did you know that Lewis Carroll studied at Oxford University? The “real Alice” actually used to come to this shop to buy sweets; it was the inspiration for the Old Sheep Shop in the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Now, you can pay homage to one of the most famous books written in Oxford by visiting this little shop for free. Although, buying a small trinket to remember the trip is more than tempting…
7. Delve into Oxford’s Covered Market
One of the most popular free things to do in Oxford is visiting the historic Covered Market. A sprawling market used to crowd the city centre: fishmongers traded on St Aldates (previously known as Fish Street), and butchers sold meat along Queen Street (Butcher Row). The practice of selling fresh produce outdoors was unsanitary and caused considerable traffic flow problems. In order to clean up the streets, a committee of city and university representatives built the Covered Market to house twenty butchers’ shops. More stores were soon added and the market officially opened in 1774.
Nowadays, the Covered Market is still home to specialist traders and local, independent businesses. There are so many interesting stores that offer unique products; one such store is Oxford Aromatics, which sells amazing cruelty-free products like soaps, candles and essential oils. If the history and heritage of the Covered Market aren’t enough to entice you to come in and explore, its atmosphere and character certainly will.
8. Meander around the meadows
One of my favourite free things to do in Oxford is walking around Christ Church Meadow in nice weather. No matter the time of year, Christ Church Memorial Gardens and Meadow are always lovely. In Spring and Summer, the flowers are in bloom and tall, green-leaved trees line the long avenues; in Autumn, those leaves turn a brilliant golden-yellow, and the vines climbing the south-facing college walls become a radiant ruby-red; even in Winter, the garden boasts many beautiful and unusual plants.
The main pathway leads towards Christ Church Meadows, where you’ll find a small herd of English Longhorn cows; following the footpath around the cows’ grazing area will bring you to the River Thames and the River Cherwell. Why not bring a picnic to eat while you sit on the banks and watch the boats pass by? Just keep an eye out for the geese!
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