I enjoy having strong opinions when it comes to hard itinerary decisions and rating various European destinations. And I enjoy reassessing. Twenty years ago I visited Oxford and Cambridge and got it lodged in my mind that Cambridge was much better to visit than Oxford. Since then, in my lectures, I've made the point that, "If you have less than a month to tour Britain, don't do both great university towns. Do one or the other and save up time for something entirely different (like North Wales or the Cumbrian Lake District). And...Cambridge is better than Oxford." I've spent the last three days enjoying both towns and comparing each -- and I need to change my assessment. Here's how I wrote it up for the next edition of my England guidebook:
England is home to two world-renowned universities: Oxford and Cambridge. Seeing one is enough. And the big question for many is which one? Cambridge is easier and more charming -- with its lovely gardens along the River Cam. Oxford is more substantial with lots more to see and do. If you're choosing between them, consider this: Cambridge feels like a lazy, easygoing small town; Oxford has more urban energy and more stately buildings than its rival. Cambridge is not really on the way to anywhere (and weak in hotels), making it better as a side-trip from London than as a stopover. Oxford can keep you busy sightseeing for a longer time and has plenty of good hotels -- so it's worth a longer stop. Both are convenient to London (with an hour's train ride). And Oxford is in a much more interesting neighborhood as it sits near the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick, and Blenheim Palace. If you can't choose, do both (there's a great bus connection).
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge each consist of many venerable colleges sprinkled through town. And most have a fine central courtyard (called a "court" in Cambridge and a "quad" in Oxford). This is a particularly beautiful quad at Oxford's Magdalen College.
Oxford and Cambridge each use the "collegiate system" where the colleges are mixed throughout the town; there's no sense of an intact campus like you'd expect at many American universities. To explain the fascinating mix of town and gown, each city's tourist board offers fine guided tours (2 hours, £10).
If you haven't read a lot of novels, visiting Oxford and Cambridge can be frustrating. Each city is bursting with literary references and treats its hometown authors like pop stars -- such as C.S. Lewis, E.M. Forster, Lewis Carroll, or J.R.R. Tolkien. If you haven't read their stuff, you won't feel a lot of the excitement. Both college towns have also been featured in hit movies. This dining hall at Oxford's Christ Church College is a huge hit with Harry Potter fans since it was the inspiration for Hogwarts' Great Hall in the films.