What if we told you that you don’t need to be an academic genius to enjoy Oxford? This charming English city might be known around the world for its prestigious university, but there’s another side to Oxford that’s waiting for you to explore. Think picturesque, historic streets, a thriving arts scene and backpacker-approved nightlife. And the best part? Everyone knows that students = cheap prices, and in this city there’s no shortage of either! With so many unusual and budget-friendly things to do in Oxford, it’s time to add this UK gem to your backpacking bucket list.
The 11 best things to do in Oxford for backpackers
Marvel at the magnificent University of Oxford
You’re hardly gonna visit Oxford and not explore this legend, are you? Its 30 colleges, with their towering spires, vast halls and green gardens, are spread across the city, and every building is absolutely steeped in history. Most are free to explore, but some of the more famous ones have a small entrance fee – like New College, where for £5 you can sashay down the corridors pretending you’re on your way to the Triwizard Tournament. Yep, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was filmed here! You’re free to do your own thing, or sign up to a free university walking tour to get straight to the best bits with an expert guide.
Release your inner bookworm at the Bodleian Library
If you’re wondering what to do in Oxford on a rainy day, look no further. Oxford’s main research library is one of the oldest and largest in the world, with over 12 million books! They offer daily tours as well as regular exhibitions and events, so make sure you check the listings for what’s on when you visit. The buildings that make up the Bodleian Library are some of Oxford’s most iconic, so it’s one of the best photography spots in the city. A unique fact about the Bodleian is that no one is allowed to take books out of the building – all the more reason to find a cosy corner to curl up in and read the afternoon away!
Take a punt
Punting is one of the most quintessential things to do in Oxford – just don’t get sucked into a debate with a Cambridge-dweller over who does it best! For those who don’t know, punting basically involves being taken on a river tour by a guide (AKA punter) who stands on the back of the boat, pushing you along with a massive stick. But don’t worry, if your adventurous spirit refuses to be tamed you can also be your own captain – just make sure you’ve got epic balance!
Punting is usually complemented by a BYO picnic and/or several bottles of wine. It’s a perfect summer activity when the sun is shining, or super cosy in winter, as you’ll be provided with a blanket and comfy cushions. Learning about the city as you cruise down the river with food and booze? You’d be silly to miss this!
Hang out in Oxford’s coolest neighbourhood
Even though it’s not far from the city centre, Jericho, Oxford’s quirkiest neighbourhood, has a totally different feel. Towering churches and cobbled streets are swapped for mismatched pastel-coloured houses, independent boutiques and kitschy coffee shops. The vibe is creative and bohemian thanks to the artsy types who hang out here – you might spot their paintings on the side of buildings or catch their bands in a local pub. In fact, this area has quite the musical heritage. Make sure you visit the Jericho Tavern, where Radiohead played their first ever gig in 1986!
Bag a local bargain
Swerve the high street shops and support local independents instead at Oxford Covered Market, where over 50 businesses set up stalls every day of the week. Each shop is totally unique, with everything from cheese to coffee, flowers to hats and way, way more ready for you to browse. Take your time to wander round and appreciate the local crafts, but no matter what, a milkshake from Moo Moo’s should be on the cards. Just make sure you’re not wearing tight pants!
Party with the students on Cowley Road
One thing you can always count on in a student city is that there’s a place to party every night of the week – enter the eclectic bars of Cowley Road. As this area is where loads of the city’s students choose to live, you can expect a young, lively crowd and seriously cheap drink deals, winner! One of our favourite spots for a pint is Big Society – great music, foosball tables, American-style fast food and plenty of craft beers. For something a little more chilled, check out Café Baba, a Moroccan cocktail bar with a secret leafy garden. Their £4 cocktails will set you up for a night out, especially during happy hour when they’re 2 for 1!
Snap some incredible street art
Oxford might not be the first place you associate with street art, but you might be surprised at how many masterpieces are dotted around the city. Bohemian Jericho and edgy Cowley Road are the best places to spot them. In fact, local organisation Oxford Street Art Collective have transformed Cowley Road in recent years, adding colour to every corner and creating bright murals covering entire sides of buildings, celebrating the area’s diverse population.
No Oxford street art tour would be complete though without checking out the iconic Headington Shark, a 25 foot sculpture that can be seen crashing through the rooftop of a home on an otherwise unassuming residential street. It first appeared in 1986 after being commissioned by the homeowner, and still stands today as something of a local legend!
Channel some flower power
Fancy escaping the city without even leaving? If you’re a flower child at heart then you’ll love setting yourself free in Oxford Botanic Garden, the first of its kind in the UK that’s been bursting with colour since 1621. With several gardens, glasshouses and rooms that are home to over 6,000 species of plants, you’ll want your walking trainers and a fully charged camera to explore the whole thing. There’s even a vintage-style pop-up café inside during the summer, so you can sip coffee in the dreamiest surroundings.
Eat an authentic Indian feast
There’s no shortage of fantastic places to eat in Oxford, but we’re completely obsessed with Mowgli. This highly Instagrammable spot is all about home cooked Indian flavours served up in small dishes for sharing – think Indian tapas! They’ve got a huge menu full of family recipes, most of which are veggie friendly with a massive vegan selection too. Once you’ve visited here you won’t be able to get their yoghurt chat bombs out of your brain ever again. You have been warned!
Refresh your backpack sustainably
If you’ve been carrying around the same five changes of clothes through months of backpacking, it might be time for an update. Everyone knows that second-hand shopping is way kinder to the planet, and vintage shopping in Oxford is next level. Take a lucky dip at Unicorn, a tiny shop that’s so jam-packed with vintage treasures it can be hard to move around – just dive right in! Nothing is priced, so prepare to haggle. Reign Vintage is the spot for top quality pre-loved garms, while The Retro Room will sell on unwanted items from your backpack for a cut of the profit! If you’re in town on the first Saturday of the month, Magdalen Flea Market is well worth a visit for all sorts of vintage gems, plus antiques and artwork to browse too.
Visit a free art gallery
One of the best free things to do in Oxford is to pay a visit to Modern Art Oxford. In the heart of the city centre, this public gallery is dedicated to contemporary visual arts and has an ever-changing roster of interactive exhibitions and events. They showcase work from local and international artists alike, so be sure to check their website to see what’s on when you visit. Seriously upping our culture game without spending a penny? That’s what we’re talking about!
Still think Oxford’s just for braniacs? We hope this list of our favourite things to do in Oxford has inspired you to add this ridiculously charming city to your UK backpacking itinerary. If you’ve got any local tips that our readers should know about, let us know in the comments below. And don’t forget to check out the best hostels in Oxford for your stay!