England is home to two of the world’s most prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Each university has a rich history, famed alumni, and stunning colleges. Both universities are within an hours train ride from central London, so how do you choose to visit Oxford or Cambridge?
The decision is entirely up personal preference but can be made by deciding what type of experience you want to have. Oxford is located in a bigger city and has a wider variety of things to do—think restaurants, pubs and shopping—than simply touring the colleges. Oxford is also the oldest English speaking university in the world, which adds some serious prestige. On the other hand, Cambridge is a smaller town, which makes it easier to navigate and see all of the colleges. Broken down into categories, here are some differences between the two cities in order to make your decision a bit easier.
Since at least 1096, there has been some sort of teaching instruction at Oxford University. Although this date could be earlier there are simply no definite records to determine the official founding. Gradually, the colleges at Oxford grew in size, particularly during the twelfth century when students were banned from attending the University of Paris. The rapid growth of students caused disagreements between the students and townspeople. These disagreements turned into riots, and many Oxford students and teachers fled to Cambridge where they founded a new university.
By 1209, and officially by a royal charter in 1231, Cambridge University was founded with a similar collegiate structure as Oxford. From the beginning, Cambridge was a university that strongly focused on educating its students on mathematics, and science. This tradition of math and science is a cornerstone for the University paved the way for many scientific breakthroughs at Cambridge. For example, DNA structure was discovered by two scholars at a laboratory within the University.
Both Oxford and Cambridge use the collegiate system, meaning that there are numerous colleges functioning under the same university system. Oxford has thirty-eight colleges, while Cambridge has thirty-one. Each of the colleges have stunning architecture that are representative of the date of their construction, as well as the usage of the building.
Some of the architectural highlights in Oxford include the Bodleian Library in Radcliffe Square, Christ Church College, and the Bridge of Sighs. Cambridge, on the other hand, has King’s College Chapel, the Mathematical Bridge, and St. John’s College.
Oxford is home to the Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum. For only £6 you can visit the oldest botanical garden in the United Kingdom. It was originally founded as a physics garden to study and research the medical uses for plants by Oxford scholars. Owned by the Magdalen College, the botanic garden sits on the edge of the River Cherwell, where visitors can sit alongside the river and watch punters pass by. The garden itself is divided into three parts: the lower garden, the glasshouses, and the walled garden. The gardens themselves are incredibly diverse, and contain plants from all around the globe. Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, the Botanic Garden is also highly informational, particularly in regards to information on medicinal plants within the walled garden. Information is given on the origins and the ancient and contemporary uses of the plant. The garden itself is quite small, so I recommend packing a lunch and eating it alongside the River in order to maximize your time there.
Cambridge, on the other hand, has a magnificent botanical garden as well. Costing £6 and spanning nearly forty acres, the sprawling garden is great for adventurers. Since 1846, the botanic garden at Cambridge has been a site for research. In fact, it was opened by John Stevens Henslow—a professor of Charles Darwin. During the twentieth century, the gardens were used as a site for plant genetics research. The garden itself boasts an exceedingly large collection of plants from all around the globe. Including many greenhouses that have plants from differing environments––such as palms, and succulents. The trails surrounding the gardens are well maintained and make walking around the gardens a joy.
Both Oxford and Cambridge have so much cultural history within their respective histories. Oxford was the birthplace, inspiration, or location of some of the most noteworthy moments in English literature. For example, interested visitors can have a drink (or two!) in The Eagle and Child where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet for their writing group—The Inklings. Those interested in Lewis’ Alice in Wonderland should pop into Magdalen College for a tour, as this is where most of the novel was written. Quite a few scenes of Harry Potter were filmed in Oxford, including several spaces within Christ Church College. The dining hall in Christ Church College wasn’t used for filming, but rather as model for the hall that was actually used in the films.
While Oxford is noted for its famous authors and writers, Cambridge is known for its scientific discoveries. The structure of DNA was discovered in Cambridge. Tourists are able to visit the Cavendish Museum to see important scientific instruments used by scholars. While at the Cavendish Museum, visitors will also be able to learn about the discovery of the electron, which was discovered at Cambridge. Those who love science will love being around so many of the worlds most important scientific discoveries in Cambridge.
Oxford is home to numerous museums ranging from natural history to art. The most prominent of these museums is the Ashmolean Museum, which is the oldest University museum in Oxford. It’s collection focuses on objects and art from around the world. Their most impressive pieces in their collection include drawings from Raphael, and Egyptian sculpture. The Museum of Natural History is also quite popular with Oxford visitors. Inside the museum, visitors can find exhibits on rocks, minerals, taxidermy, and fossils. There are also smaller and more specialized museums in Oxford, such as the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, the Bodleian Library, Modern Art Oxford, and the Story Museum.
Cambridge, too, has many, many museums, with the most prominent being the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Fitzwilliam is famous for its art and antiquities collection that ranges from ancient Egypt to Modern twentieth-century miniatures. The other major museum in Cambridge is the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This museum covers over two million years of human history through one million artifacts in the collection. Beyond the two museums, visitors can visit the Museum of Cambridge, Kettle’s Yard House and Gallery, the Round Church Visitor Centre, and the Cambridge University Library.
Both cities are within an hours train ride from central London. To get to Oxford take a direct train from Paddington Station. Cambridge is accessible by train from Kings Cross Station. Once in the cities themselves, everything is quite walkable—with nothing being more than a fifteen or twenty minutes walk away.
Deciding Between the Two?
When deciding between Oxford or Cambridge, it’s important to remember that both cities offer an incredible cultural history of England, and are worth a visit. However, when time runs short when visiting the U.K., how should visitors decide what city is right for them?
My advice is to choose what part of the cultural history are you most interested in. If literature and film are your biggest interests, perhaps choose Oxford. If you love science and discovery, make the trip to Cambridge instead.