Oxford and Cambridge – two of the most famous university cities in the world that should be on everyone’s bucket lists to visit. Fortunately, both are around 60 miles from London – an hour’s journey by train – which make them easy to visit in a day trip from the capital and summer is the perfect time to explore them when the students are on their summer break. How do you choose which one if you’ve got just the one day to spare? Here’s a handy guide to help you choose the first to visit…as you plan a return trip to Britain to visit the other!
History & Heritage
Founded in 1096, this prestigious university is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. And, if you have a penchant for literature, it also boasts a strong connection with some of the world’s greatest authors; alumni include luminaries such as JRR Tolkien (Oxford was where he penned Lord of the Rings), CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Phillip Pullman, Graham Greene – the list goes on!
Cambridge is also centuries old…although this esteemed university can claim to be a little younger than Oxford, having been founded in 1209. The university is renowned for its science legends – Charles Darwin studied here (see his notebooks at the city’s Sedgwick Museum), plus it’s famously where scientists Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA, and where World War Two code breaker Alan Turing and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking studied.
The university made up of 38 independent colleges, which are dotted across Oxford, many of which you can visit and explore the college quads, gardens and chapels. They’re all worth a visit but Christ Church is probably one you already recognise – its grand hall was used as the setting for Hogwarts’ Great Hall in the Harry Potter films – and its home to Christ Church Cathedral, which contributes to the reason why Oxford is called the city of ‘dreaming spires’. Elsewhere, New College, which was also used in the Harry Potter films, has a gorgeous garden with the original city wall running around its boundaries and its Chapel is home to art such as a two-metre high sculpture of Lazarus. More stunning architecture can be found at Balliol College.
Cambridge University has 31 colleges, so a little smaller than Oxford but no less spectacular in its architecture and grounds. One of the best examples of gothic architecture can be found at the chapel at King’s College – you’ll discover incredible medieval stained-glass windows here as well as the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world. If you go along for Choral Evensong you’ll be captivated by some of the most beautiful sounds – the choir sings here most days and its free to visit. King’s College was founded by Henry VI, his queen Margaret of Anjou went on to found the equally beautiful Queen’s College, one of the oldest and largest at Cambridge. Trinity College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren (of St Paul’s Cathedral fame), boasts the incredible Wren Library and make sure you stop by the Corpus Clock at Corpus Christi College; this incredible monument doesn’t have hands or digital numbers and was designed to be beautiful yet disconcerting.
Whether you’re in Oxford or Cambridge, a punt on the river is essential! A punt is a flat-bottomed boat, propelled by pushing off the river bed with a long pole. One of the biggest punt stations in Oxford is the Cherwell Boathouse (you can eat at its restaurant too), where you’ll punt down the River Cherwell, underneath low-slung bridges, past the city’s Botanic Gardens and the pretty Magdalen College.
A night at the theatre is also a must; the world-famous Sheldonian Theatre, the university’s official ceremonial venue, is a regular host of classical music performances. Head to the New Theatre Oxford for comedy and West End shows while the Oxford Playhouse is home to everything from family shows, drama, student and amateur shows to comedy, poetry and contemporary dance. And, with Oxford University blessed with so many famous authors among its alumni, it’s only fitting that every year the renowned Oxford Literary Festival takes place (March 30-7 April 2019).
In a city with such a profound history, you’ll also find a museum or two along the way! Everything from contemporary art to Egyptian mummies can be found at The Ashmolean, the university’s museum of art and archaeology, while Oxford Castle and Prison both relates 1,000 years of the murky side of the city’s history and hosts a packed events programme; for eight weeks this summer it’s home to Oxford’s Shakespeare Festival.
Looking for a gift to take home? There are plenty of university themed souvenirs at The University of Oxford Shop or head down to the Oxford Covered Market to browse the cute independent shops, while high-street treats can be found at the large-scale shopping mall Westgate Oxford.
Punting on the River Cam is an excellent way to enjoy the beautiful university colleges – either hire a punt to take out yourself or take a guided tour so you can absorb the city’s history in full along the way. You’ll pass by landmarks such as The Backs (of the colleges), the Bridge of Sighs, Trinity College’s Wren Library and the magnificent King’s College Chapel.
Discover more of the city’s past in its fantastic array of museums. Art and antiquities are on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, modern and contemporary art can be found at the university’s Kettle’s Yard, or take a journey through 4.5 billion years of earth’s existence at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.
Cambridge also boasts significant theatrical and comedic connections – the famous Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe, which spawned great names including John Cleese and Emma Thompson, can be seen performing at the ADC Theatre. Great student theatre, as well as musical events such as free lunchtime concerts, can be found at the Mumford Theatre, the Cambridge Corn Exchange hosts comedy, musicals and concerts, while the Cambridge Arts Theatre offers audiences plays, comedy and musical theatre. And, every summer, al fresco music performances are the order of the day across the city’s green spaces during its Summer in the City event. Come in the autumn and treat yourself to the Cambridge Film Festival (25 October-1 November), which shows everything in the world of film, from shorts to documentaries to a children’s film festival, while its Movies on the Meadows, one of the UK’s largest outdoor cinema experiences, takes place at the end of August.
Shopping is a real pleasure in Cambridge; pick up treats among the stalls on the cobbled streets of Market Square, explore boutique stores and find artisan products and arts and crafts at Saturdays All Saints Garden Art and Craft Market opposite Trinity College. British high-street brands have their home in Grand Arcade and the Lion Yard Shopping Centre, and you can find bohemian-style restaurants and shops along Mill Road.
Film & TV locations
Oxford was one of the film locations for the biggest film franchise in history; Harry Potter. As well as Christ Church College doubling up as the glorious Hogwarts dining hall, the Bodleian Library was also used and the Divinity School became the school’s infirmary in the fourth Potter film.
Detective drama Inspector Morse was set in the city and you can visit its locations on walking tours. Order a pint at the Morse Bar at the Macdonald Randolph Hotel, the place where Morse himself used to enjoy a drink.
Oxford University played an integral role in the story of Brideshead Revisited – it was where Charles Ryder met Lord Sebastian Flyte while they were students – and some of its colleges were used as film locations during the 2008 movie (author of the book, Evelyn Waugh, studied at Oxford). Wander around the cloisters of Magdalen College and the 750-year old Merton College, both used as locations in the film.
Twenty minutes from Oxford lies the magnificent Blenheim Palace, which has featured in so many films (The BFG, Cinderella, James Bond’s SPECTRE and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to name a few,) it has its own film trail.
Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar and a BAFTA for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and much of the film was shot on location in Cambridge, where Hawking studied. You can explore the city’s cobbled streets shown in the film, as well many of the university’s colleges, notably St John’s, which also played a starring role.
Outside the city, the Cambridgeshire countryside is regularly seen on the big and small screen. The Crown used Ely Cathedral (50 minutes from Cambridge) to depict Westminster Abbey, and movies such as The King's Speech, The Other Boleyn Girl and Elizabeth: The Golden Age were filmed on location in the Cambridgeshire countryside.
A brilliant way to experience life as a university student – and a very cost-effective one – is to stay in one of the colleges outside of term time…you can also enjoy breakfast in their grand dining halls.
However, the city does have some fabulous hotels, each with their own unique history. Luxury five-star hotel The Macdonald Randolph boasts glorious gothic architecture and is also a lovely place to enjoy afternoon tea or a drink in its Cartoon Bar. The city is packed with heritage-style hotels; intimate and comfortable, the Bath Place Hotel is set across five 17th-century cottages near the historic Turf Tavern, while the chic 18th-century townhouse The Vanbrugh House Hotel neighbours the buildings of the university’s famous debating society, the Oxford Union. And for something a little quirky, why not summon up the courage to sleep in a converted prison cell at Oxford Castle?
You can stay in a historic Cambridge college outside of term time too – so you can really be in the heart of university life; eat in the college halls and stroll through the college gardens for a student experience without the studying!
There are also plenty of B&Bs and guesthouses dotted around, one of which is boutique B&B The Duke House; this cosy property is only a few minutes’ stroll from all the colleges. Boutique Hotel du Vin blends history with contemporary style. And visit the luxurious Varsity Hotel & Spa for panoramic views of the city from its rooftop restaurant and bar.