Two households, both alike in dignity, challenge each other to a magnanimous Boat Race once a year.
The fierce rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge has simmered for centuries, and while it’s officially a university head-to-head, it bleeds over into the cities themselves.
But for all their apparent mutual dislike, these cities have a lot in common – which only makes choosing between them all the more difficult.
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Are you drawn to the stately magnificence of Oxford, or the charming tranquillity of Cambridge?
Find out what separates these famous collegiate towns in this clash of the intellectual titans.
Reasons to Visit Oxford
Oxford is a beautiful city, with plenty of places to explore, charming pubs and a long history.
But so is Cambridge.
Here are a few things that set Oxford apart.
The University of Oxford
Yes, we’re going there. A tale as old as time; which is better, Oxford or Cambridge?
These are two of the finest educational institutions in the world. They’re ancient, prestigious centres that cultivate and encourage original thought and the greatest minds. Which is better is completely subjective – it’s like comparing the virtues of literature against science.
Fortunately, we’re looking at the two from the perspective of a visiting tourist, not a hopeful student. That’s a different question entirely.
Walking around the iconic Radcliffe Camera, joining a tour into the historic Bodleian Library, climbing St Mary’s Tower, stepping under the Bridge of Sighs: you can easily fill an entire day in Oxford without leaving the university. As for the colleges, I would recommend seeing Balliol College, New College and Christ Church College. Magdalen College is a little further out, but exceptionally pretty.
The University of Oxford, founded in the 11th Century, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world (take that, Cambridge). By exploring its colleges and gardens, you are following in the footsteps of many of the greats of English Literature.
J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll all studied at Oxford. Those with sharp eyes should lookout for a stained glass tribute to Alice in Wonderland in Christ Church College.
The Beautiful Architecture
The City of Dreaming Spires is, somewhat unsurprisingly, full of stunning buildings and architectural styles.
The endless spires give Oxford its magnificent skyline, but the city has more to see at ground level. A thousand years of craftsmanship can be seen in Oxford, with architectural styles that cover centuries of time found in a single street. Neoclassical, Palladian and Gothic buildings are all present. The imposing Radcliffe Camera is one of the most recognisable Palladian-style buildings in the world.
Visiting Oxford gives you the chance to admire the detail and artistry of the buildings up close. From the cloisters to the High Street, there’s so much to appreciate and enjoy.
Much of Oxford is built with stone of a similar colour – often Headington stone – which gives the city a fairly uniform, classic look.
There are More ‘Things to Do’
Oxford is a more attractive proposition for people who like to pack their days full of activities.
It’s a slightly bigger city, livelier and packed full of tourist attractions. Besides the colleges themselves, the university has a few world-class museums and one of the oldest Botanic Gardens on Earth.
The Ashmolean Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum are both free to enter. Any history buff – or anyone with the slightest interest – has to visit the Ashmolean while in Oxford. The art and archaeology museum houses work from the likes of Picasso, as well as an impressive collection from Ancient Egypt.
Outside the university complex, Oxford has a castle, a Georgian covered market, great food and coffee culture, and a few other museums and parks to explore.
If you’re in Oxford for longer than a weekend, you could venture into the surrounding area. The city is in a more attractive location than Cambridge, close to the rolling hills and pretty villages of the Cotswolds.
It’s an Unmissable Trip For Harry Potter Fans
For any avid Harry Potter fans, choosing between these cities is a no-brainer. Oxford is home to a number of filming locations from the series, and a few favourite haunts for the cast as well.
You can go on a guided Harry Potter tour around Oxford, but these are usually where they’ll take you:
- Christ Church College – the famous college is home to two memorable Harry Potter locations. The inspiration for the Great Hall of Hogwarts is Christ Church College’s dining hall. Though it was originally intended to be a filming location, the hall was too small to fit four tables – the crew made a larger replica set for filming. The grand stairwell is a genuine filming location; Bodley staircase is the entrance into Hogwarts in the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s where the first years meet McGonagall before entering the Great Hall.
- Bodleian Library – one of the more exclusive locations on this list, the Bodleian Library can only be accessed on a private tour. The Restricted Section in the first film is Bodleian’s very own Duke Humfrey’s Library.
- New College – the Harry Potter crew certainly had their pick of cloisters in Oxford. In Goblet of Fire, they chose to film many of their corridor shots in the cloisters of New College. The courtyard, with its distinctive towering Oak tree, is another filming location – it was used as the setting for the memorable Malfoy-gets-turned-into-a-ferret scene in the same film.
- The Turf Tavern – this was the pub of choice for the cast and crew during filming. It’s a cute historic pub with a fantastic atmosphere, hidden away on a tiny cobbled side-street. If you’re looking for a place for a pint or some traditional pub grub, this is the place to go.
Reasons to Visit Cambridge
Cambridge is the cute, quiet counterpart to Oxford. This is why you should visit:
The University of Cambridge
You can’t mention one without the other, and the universities are practically synonymous with the cities, so we have to compare them.
The younger half of Oxbridge isn’t so young – in the English-speaking world, it is only behind Oxford; it was founded in 1209. Since that time, the various colleges of Cambridge have seen some seriously notable students. Sir Issac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking are only a few of an impressive list of alumni.
You can explore most of the famous colleges, as only a few are not open to the public. The most popular of all is King’s College, which costs £10 for adults to enter (many of the others are free).
It’s the image that comes to mind instantly when we think of Cambridge; the imposing Gothic structure of King’s College Chapel sitting near the banks of the Cam. Listening to the choir of the chapel – especially at Christmas – is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
The Fitzwilliam Museum and Botanic Garden are also part of the university – and both are worth a visit.
Everything in Cambridge feels connected to the university in some way. It’s influence over the town is bigger than Oxford’s; even the nightlife seems almost entirely focused on students.
It’s Easier to Explore in a Day
Oxford isn’t as sprawling as some people make out, but it is bigger than Cambridge. While this extra space does come with more to do, it means it’s a little more work to get around.
The centre of Cambridge is nicely compact, with everything reachable on foot in 20 minutes or less.
You can grab your Chelsea bun from Fitzbillies Restaurant & Bakery and be in front of King’s College in less than 5 minutes. Add on another 5 minutes and you will find the Round Church; it’s not the kind of city break that requires miles upon miles of walking.
You can easily see everything you would want to see in the city in a single day. Check out the colleges, try your hand at punting, or wander around window-shopping – you can do whatever you feel like in the moment, there’s no need to map your route.
Cambridge doesn’t have to be rushed. It can be explored at a gentle, laid-back pace without the nagging worry of missing out on something.
Cambridge is Prettier
While the palatial buildings of Oxford may be more impressive, Cambridge is generally prettier. Not more beautiful, but prettier.
Lush rows of trees, pristine parks, a gently flowing river: Cambridge is in touch with its natural side. There’s so much greenery in this city; it is absolutely resplendent in the spring when the city starts to come to life.
It’s also less imposing than Oxford.
Where Oxford has a more uniform, structured layout, Cambridge is a labyrinth of narrow twisting streets. There’s a diversity to Cambridge’s architecture that Oxford, with its primarily Headington stone buildings, doesn’t have. There’s a charming mix of styles in Cambridge, from the colourful shopfronts of Magdalene Street to the honey-hued Regency-era Rose Crescent.
Classical, Tudor, Victorian, Medieval – Cambridge has a little bit of everything.
Built 900 years ago, the Round Church is one of the finest examples of a medieval round church left in England.
The River Cam
The River Cam winds right through the centre of the city. It’s incredibly picturesque, with a near-constant stream of charming bridges and a magnificent overhanging willow tree.
The Mathematical Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs are the most memorable. The only way to see the Bridge of Sighs without entering university grounds is by punting along the river. It is one of the most breath-taking sights in Cambridge, so don’t miss it!
Think of a scenic location in Cambridge and ‘The Backs’ will probably come to mind. This area of the city, where the medieval colleges of the university overlook the River Cam, is remarkably beautiful.
It Has A Relaxed Atmosphere
Cambridge is the kind of town made for lounging by the river, sipping Pimms and taking it easy.
This is the perfect escape from a busy lifestyle – if you want your trip to be relaxing, choose Cambridge over Oxford. It’s not quite as bustling, the pace of life is slower, and falling off the boat while punting is about as intense as it gets.
You will still find great street food, pubs and nightlife here. It is a student town, after all. But a day out in Cambridge is laid-back and easy-going, both in atmosphere and the ease of getting around. It’s a city break, but one that feels closer to the countryside.
Should I Visit Both If I Can’t Decide Between Cambridge Or Oxford?
This really depends on how much time you have. If your time in England is limited – or even less than a few months – it isn’t worth visiting both since they’re so similar.
Even if you are here long-term, it might only be worth it if you particularly love history or want to see the colleges of various alumni. I really like Cambridge and Oxford, and they do have their differences, but it isn’t essential to see both cities.
Unless you have your heart set on seeing them both, choose the one that appeals to you most. You will find other places to visit in the UK that offer you something a bit different.
A Summary On Whether You Should Visit Oxford or Cambridge
This is ultimately a matter of personal taste. Both Oxford and Cambridge are fantastic cities to visit, with more similarities than differences.
It’s commonly said that Oxford is a city with a university in it, while Cambridge is a university with a city around it – the university is very much the focus of both, but in Cambridge there is little to do outside of it. This is a little unfair on Cambridge, but there is an element of truth to it.
I really love both of these cities, but I think overall Oxford has more to offer.
If you prefer quieter places with a lot of greenery, you will obviously prefer Cambridge. But for most, the imposing colleges and fuller itinerary of a visit to Oxford will be more appealing.
If you’re still torn, I think the seasons and weather forecast can play a big part. On a lovely spring or hazy summer’s day, I would rather be in Cambridge. If the weather is a bit off or you’re visiting at a colder time of the year, Oxford is a much better choice.
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.