Once you’re ready to venture beyond London, the next place you’re likely to visit on a trip to England is Oxford. Steeped in generations of history and surrounded by fairytale-perfect countryside, this legendary university town makes for an easy — and affordable visit. Here’s how to see it while minding your budget.
One of the things that makes Oxford such a no-brainer of a side trip from London is its accessibility. It’s easy and inexpensive to reach, and there’s lots to see. You can visit in one very active day trip, or stay overnight for more relaxed sightseeing.
To get to Oxford, take the train from London Paddington or London Marylebone station. Trains run very frequently — up to six times an hour — and take about one hour. Ticket prices can vary significantly, but you’re most likely to get the best price — as low as 5.40 pounds (about $7) each way — if you book in advance on the National Rail web site. Buying same-day tickets at the station will cost more, with the highest prices reserved for customers who buy on the train. There are also numerous bus companies that travel between central London and Oxford daily, and are priced similarly to trains.
To reach Oxford directly from London’s Heathrow airport, a good option is the comfortable, fuss-free Airline bus. It leaves from the Central Bus Station and some buses also stop at Terminal 5. Tickets cost 23 pounds each way (about $30) and the ride takes about 80-90 minutes. You can get a discount on your first ticket purchase by booking on their app, and the line also runs buses from Gatwick Airport.
What to Do
Many of Oxford’s most important sites are free or inexpensive. Free attractions include the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford’s art and archeology museum, as well as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the Pitt Rivers Museum. The Ashmolean is a must for anyone who loves a far-reaching, varied museum collection that includes paintings, drawings, and artifacts from around the world, while the natural history museum — with its dinosaur skeletons and mineral samples — will appeal to kids of all ages. The Pitt Rivers Museum, which is situated right next to the natural history museum and can be entered from there, is an anthropological museum, and it must be seen to be believed. With items big and small crammed into wooden display cases on three floors, it showcases everyday items that have been used over hundreds of years. There are displays of surfboards from the South Pacific and baskets from Africa, playing cards and musical instruments, tattoo needles and baby cradles. Keep an eye out for some of the stranger displays — a case of shrunken heads, for example, or talismans to ward off disease and evil spirits.
Oxford University’s colleges, of which there are 38, are sometimes open to the public, and are either free to enter, or cost just a few pounds to tour. Some of the most beautiful campuses include those at Magdalen College, St. Edmund Hall, Trinity College, and Christ Church. The latter is often crowded; it was a filming location in the Harry Potter films, and its dining hall was the model for the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Check with the individual campuses for visiting hours and to see which sections are open. Note that events on campus and exam schedules can impact opening hours.
Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, which was designed by Christopher Wren, is another unmissable landmark in downtown Oxford. Admission costs 3.50 pounds (about $4.50), with an additional charge for a guided tour. Each spring, the Sheldonian is the home base for the Oxford Literary Festival, an event that gathers authors from around the world for a week of lectures and events. Ticket prices for each presentation vary, but some can be purchased for as little as $10.
Finally, it’s entirely free to snap photos of Oxford’s most picturesque building, the circular Oxford Camera, which is closed to the public but will likely grab the attention of your friends on Instagram or Facebook. The same is true of the Covered Market, which dates back to the 1770s.
Where to Stay
Despite its prominence as an educational and tourism center, Oxford isn’t exactly awash in affordable hotel rooms. Airbnb has some very good offerings — including this one, in a converted church — for around $100 per night. Beyond that, there are a few hotels that offer solid value. For comfort in an incredibly central location, we like the McDonald Randolph. The stately surroundings will make you feel like you’re truly a part of the city fabric, and rooms can cost as little as $150 per night. If you can manage the 30 commute out of town — you’ll need a car, or will need to pay for taxis — Eynsham Hall offers exceptional value. This country-house-turned-hotel offers ultra-affordable rooms on its beautifully manicured grounds (around $100 per night), or stay in the plush main hall for $150-$200 per night. If you’re up for a splurge in town, the Old Bank Hotel offers 42 handsome rooms. If you stay in the off-season (winter and early spring), you may find some rooms for less than $200 per night. In high season, you’ll find rooms for $300 and up.
Where to Eat and Shop
With a population of hungry students, cheap eats are a hallmark of Oxford. Whether you’re craving slices of pizza, sushi, sandwiches, or just a good cup of coffee, you’ll find it here — and much more. Edamame, with its ramen-and-sushi-focused Japanese menu, enjoys a formidable reputation in town for excellence and affordability. Or stop into Buongiorno e Buonasera for quick pizzas, paninis, and flatbreads. Head to The Missing Bean for house-roasted espresso, smoothies, and tea. They also have a selection of sandwiches, and there are good vegetarian options.
To bring home an affordable souvenir, nothing beats Oxford’s book and stationary stores. Blackwells is the city’s gold standard for bookstores. It was founded in 1879 and serves Oxford’s students from a prime location across from the Sheldonian Theater. Look for their “3 for 2” offer, which the store rotates between different kinds of titles. For stationary, library items like clocks and globes, and beautiful writing instruments, stop into picture-perfect Scriptum, a tiny shop that truly feels like it’s lifted from the pages of a Harry Potter book.