I’ve lived on a tight budget in the area for three years now and I think I’ve managed to see all the best bits of Oxford without breaking the bank. Here are my recommendations for the best attractions to visit on a budget.
1. Carfax Tower
Located in the very centre of Oxford, the Carfax tower is one of the best places to get an aerial view of the city. This pretty medieval tower is the last remaining portion of St Martin’s Church and sits on the corner of the intersection between the High Street and Cornmarket, Oxford’s two busiest shopping streets.
The walk to the top is very achievable and there’s a small room half way up with historical facts about the original church that’s perfect for a quick rest if needed! The spiral staircases are tight and certainly not for anyone who struggles with vertigo, but the views are well worth the climb. All the major Oxford landmarks are visible from the top: the Radcliffe Camera to the East, the new Westgate shopping centre to the West and a fantastic view down the High Street.
Entry only costs a couple of pounds, and depending on how long you want to read about the history and spend at the top, the tower will take about twenty to thirty minutes – an excellent way to get a view of the whole city on a budget.
2. Blackwell’s Book Shop
Blackwell’s facade is entirely unremarkable. From the outside, the Prussian blue window frames could easily be mistaken for those of any generic, fairly large bookshop. But this famous bookshop is well worth further exploration.
If you make your way through the fiction section almost to the back of the store, a staircase labelled “The Norrington Room” will lead you down into a sprawling basement you could never imagine existed from outside. This favourite haunt of locals is fondly referred to as “the Tardis Bookshop” and it’s easy to see why!
3. Turf Tavern
The Turf Tavern is the most hidden pub in Oxford. Tucked away down a small alleyway beneath the famed Bridge of Sighs, the Turf may not be the cheapest pub but it’s still well worth a look. On warm summer days, the garden seating area is a great place to enjoy a pint and on chillier, wetter days, the inside is snug and welcoming.
4. Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum is accessed at the very back of the Natural History Museum and, as such, is easily overlooked in favour of towering dinosaur fossils. However, to miss out on this collection would be a mistake – it’s one of the most eclectic and fascinating museums in the United Kingdom.
Initially a collection, donated by Lieutenant-General Pitt-Rivers, of artefacts of anthropological interest picked up during his military service, it has since grown to over 300,000 pieces. The dim room crammed to the brim with all kind of objects from the very mundane to outright bizarre can be quite intimating at first glance. Exploring when you’ve got a bit of time on your hands is highly recommended; it would take weeks if not months to take everything in.
The shrunken heads in a cabinet near the front on the ground floor are a particular highlight.
Admission to both the Natural History Museum and the Pitt-Rivers Collection is free, although do be aware that the Pitt-Rivers Collection closes half an hour before the Natural History Museum.
5. Cherwell Boat House
One of the best ways to experience Oxford is on a traditional punt. The closest boat house to the city centre is located at Magdalen Bridge and punting from there takes you past St Hilda’s College and Christ Church Meadow.
However, if you’re willing to walk for twenty minutes North, the Cherwell boat house is quieter, offers cheaper punting rates and also allows to book out punts for the entire day if you want to (although that does carry a hefty price tag). It also gives you the opportunity to punt past some of Oxford’s more scenic areas with the option of drifting through University Parks or past St Catherine’s College.
Although not a fast mode of transport, punting is good fun and a great way to get up an close to the local wildlife with ducks, swans and geese often coming up to say hello!
6. Magdalen Deer Park
Magdalen is a pretty college about five minutes walk down the High Street. For a small fee, visitors can tour their spectacular grounds including their deer park. The deer are generally not shy and easily spotted from the footpaths around the college.
Due to it’s location slightly out of the main tourist area, Magdalen can sometimes get missed, but if you want to explore inside a classic Oxford University college, Magdalen will certainly deliver.
Admission is £6 for adults with cheaper rates for concessions.
7. College Chapels
Many colleges aren’t open to the general public, especially during exam season, which runs from May to the end of June. However, the chapel services are all free, open to anyone and an excellent way to see some of the most spectacular architecture in Oxford. No matter your religious background, the chapel music usually performed by university students can be appreciated and the services are usually short and not just on Sundays.
Some personal favourites include Worcester, New College and Keble, all of whom have Chapel services most days, usually in the evenings, listed on their respective websites.
Most tourists tend to stick to the central attractions in the city, however a short walk North-West will take you to the charming neighbourhood of Jericho. It’s an area full of restaurants, boutique bars and cafes. Little Clarendon Street is also host to the quietest of Oxford’s famed group of ice-cream parlours: G’n’D’s – this is honestly the best place to get ice-cream and they have new and exciting flavours every month.
If you turn left off Little Clarendon Street you’ll find a small, fenced park – the perfect place to eat your ice-cream!
9. Port Meadow
Another of Oxford’s more Northern delights. Oxford has no shortage of green spaces, even very close to centre such s Christ Church Meadow, University Parks and South Parks, but for really stunning walks down by the river, Port Meadow is the place to be. If you’re willing to make the half-hour track to get there, this piece of public land straddling the River Thames is well worth it.
The perfect place for a summer’s walk, there are two excellent pubs along the river: the Perch and, much further up, the Trout Inn.
Undeniably the best time to visit the meadow is at sunset if you can stand the midges.
10. Harcourt Arboretum
The Botanical Gardens are a well known attraction. Less well known is the offshoot of the gardens – Harcourt Arboretum. Entry is very cheap but it’s a ten minute drive South and if you don’t have a car, you would need to get a taxi. Or go for a very long walk.
If you do make the trek, you’ll be treated to some of the oldest trees in the United Kingdom and some lovely walks through a wide range of flora. The arboretum is a wonderful place to visit in any season, with vibrant colours in autumn, bluebell fields in spring and lush meadows in the summer. There are also some very cute piglets housed in the meadows during the spring and summer months.
A trip to Oxford doesn’t need to be expensive. It would take weeks to fully explore everything the city has to offer and it’s easy to fill any length of trip with exciting things to do.