The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge goes back over 800 years, so our comparisons are a bit superficial compared to someone more familiar with almost a millennia of competition between these two towns and universities. Nevertheless, we thought we’d share our insights after a year in Cambridge and a day in Oxford.
Scholars fled Oxford in the early 13th century due to disagreements over who had authority to appoint the next Archbishop of Canterbury. They made their way to Cambridge and established arguably the best university in the world (we’re not biased :)). With only a week left in the UK, we figured it was time to carefully venture from Cambridge into Oxfordshire, aka enemy territory, and see “the other place.”
Here is our best attempt at an unbiased comparison between Oxford and Cambridge. Read on to find out our pick for the best English university town, Oxford vs Cambridge.
View from Saint Mary’s
Cambridge’s Great Saint Mary’s church is the official university church. It’s located right in city centre next to the market square. A church has been on this spot since 1205, with the current structure built in the late 15th, early 16th century and the tower completed a bit later in 1608. By climbing up to the tower (cost is £3.90), you have a bird’s eye view of market square, King’s Parade with King’s College Chapel, and the rest of the colleges lining the street.
Oxford’s University Church of St. Mary the Virgin is also in city centre and sports a fabulous view from its tower (£4 to climb). Like Cambridge, you get the view from above of a few of the famous colleges, namely All Souls College and Brasenose College. But straight ahead is the main attraction, the Radcliffe Camera. This round, dome-topped building housing the Radcliffe Science Library is the iconic image of Oxford, and there’s no better view than from the tower of Saint Mary’s.
And the winner is…Oxford. Seeing the town from above is super cool in both towns (and I think always helpful in getting the lay of the land), but the view of the Radcliffe Camera takes the cake.
The tented stalls occupying Cambridge’s market square house vendors like a few produce stands, a Chinese food stall and the Cambridge University apparel shop that’s there every day. There’s also a number that rotate based on the day, like the butcher that’s there two days a week or the Caribbean baked goods stall. The market square is at the very heart of Cambridge, with King’s Parade to the west and the main shopping complex, the Grand Arcade, to the southeast. While I passed through the square almost daily and occasionally purchased produce, it wasn’t a huge draw for me.
Oxford’s covered market is housed within a building and has a much more upscale, permanent feel. The market features your typical produce, flower and meat vendors, but also features a few places selling leather shoes, French soaps and a decent number of food shops. We ordered meat pies from the Pieminister and enjoyed the communal atmosphere of the shop as we munched at tables shared with Oxford students. By the look of relief on their faces and their gown and carnation getups, it seems they had just finished exams.
And the winner is…Oxford on this one. The covered market feels much more like a place I would like to hang out and enjoy a meal while Cambridge’s market is a bit more of bric-a-brac and grab-and-go.
Cambridge has an intimate feel with winding lanes, rows of brick chimneys and pedestrianized streets. It feels like your quintessential English university town, with so much to discover in every turn and tiny passageway. My favorite walks are through Senate House Passage, with the Senate House towering on one side and Gonville and Caius College on the other, Green Street, full of quaint little shops, and Pembroke Street, with its row of tall brick chimneys. The architecture represented spans the centuries (though some of the buildings from the latter half of the 20th century are a bit unfortunate), and there’s so much character, individuality and variety.
Oxford is the bigger town, and the streets show it. The avenues are wider and much less pedestrianized. University buildings are made from Cotswold Limestone, so the buildings look more unified, which I found less charming than the variety of brick and stone used throughout Cambridge. Also a bit ironic, this limestone doesn’t weather the wet very well, so while some building exteriors have been restored, others appear to be melting from the rain. The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library and fairytale-esque timber framed house on Cornmarket Street are standouts among a town of beautiful buildings.
And the winner is…Cambridge. I prefer the variety and quaintness of Cambridge.
The River Cam is central to life in Cambridge. Whether it’s punting, bumps, or cardboard boat races, the river is at the heart of so many events in Cambridge. The river is integrated into the town, and some of the best views of the colleges are when punting down the “Backs,” with stellar shots of the backs of King’s, Queens’, Clare, Trinity and St. John’s College. Punting this direction can turn into a game of bumper boats on a crowded day, with the expert punters leading tours and breezing past, while tourists who’ve rented a punt of their own spin in circles while they learn by trial and lots of error (this was still me on my fourth time punting). For a bit slower pace, start at the Granta Place dock and head the opposite direction towards Grantchester for a serene ride through idyllic English countryside. You can also rent kayaks and canoes on the Grantchester route.
My first experience with the rivers in “the other place” was seeing a few Oxford students jump into the River Isis after being pelted with eggs, flour and confetti as part of a post-exam tradition known as “trashing.” The River Isis is really the Thames, but they stubbornly hold on to their original and very unfortunate name. Google maps smartly ignores this, and labels it the River Thames. It merges with the River Cherwell in the southern part of the city, where you can rent punts at the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse and glide past the Botanic Gardens and a few of the college gardens including Christ Church, St. Hilda’s and Magdalen.
And the winner is…Cambridge. After being spoiled by the beauty of the River Cam, Oxford’s rivers just seemed like a shallow imitation.
The Green Spaces
One of my favourite things about living in Cambridge is the beautiful green spaces all throughout the city. Not only are the colleges full of green grass courts and colorful gardens, but there’s plenty of parks and public spaces that everyone can use. There’s Jesus Green that’s right along the River Cam, with a long walkway shaded by London Plane trees, an outdoor swimming pool, and huge grassy areas; Parker’s Piece, the birthplace of the rules of Association Football; Christ’s Pieces with a rose garden; and a grassy knoll along Granta Place next to the River Cam to list a few. There’s amazingly green, clean, fresh grass to be enjoyed by all everywhere. Just be prepared for a cow encounter!
When we arrived at Oxford, I looked for the parks to find a nice place to picnic. There’s the Botanic Garden, and the Christ Church meadow is expansive, but I didn’t see any public green spaces near city centre.
And the winner is…Cambridge. If you take a trip to Cambridge, I hope it’s sunny out so you can grab a picnic lunch and find a piece of lawn!
I’ll out myself right now and say that there’s no way I can do a fair comparison between the two. I’ve lived in one, dined in several, and visited all 31 colleges of Cambridge. The three most popular are King’s, Trinity and St. John’s, which all have amazing architecture and huge grounds, and are definitely worth a visit though they do charge a fee. The best way to see a college for free or if it’s closed during term time is to attend a chapel service such as evensong. For a college you’re interested in visiting, go to the college website to see service times.
My five favourite are Jesus College (of course), Pembroke, Selwyn, Gonville and Caius, and the fifth tends to change based on the day, and today I’m feeling fond of Sidney Sussex (see here to read more about these five!). The best time to visit is generally spring as almost all of the colleges are open and have beautiful gardens to enjoy.
Oxford has 38 colleges, with the most popular colleges like Balliol and Christ Church charging a nominal fee to enter. There are plenty of colleges you can enjoy for free, and Exeter’s chapel is exquisite. See here for a listing of college opening times and fees. For any Harry Potter fans, here’s a guide to the locations used in the films.
And the winner is… Cambridge. If I had a year to explore Oxford, perhaps I’d change my mind, but I think not. The college courts and gardens are exceptional in Cambridge, and I didn’t see anything in Oxford that felt like its equal.
No proper British town is complete without its pubs. Cambridge sports The Eagle Pub, famous as the site where Francis Crick proclaimed his discovery of the “secret of life” in 1953 after he and James Watson determined the structure of DNA in the Cavendish Laboratory across the street. I appreciated the plaque acknowledging the invaluable contributions made by Rosalind Franklin to this discovery, though it did take until 2013 for this commemorative addition. The pub also includes the RAF bar, with graffiti from World War II airmen covering the walls and ceiling.
While not as historic, The Mill opposite Scudamore’s punting dock on Granta Place is a superb place to grab a drink and enjoy a rare warm and sunny afternoon next to the river.
The Bear is one of Oxford’s oldest pubs, serving up pints to travelers and townsmen since 1242. The Bear also has a claim to fame from the 1950s, when the landlord began snipping off the tie of a patron as payment for a half a pint of beer. The pub now boasts an extensive collection of over 4,500 ties, mostly noting the tie-wearers membership in clubs, sports teams, schools and colleges. If you’re in town on Tuesday, join in on the pub quiz.
Oxford also has its own Eagle, fully named The Eagle and Child, but commonly called by its nickname, The Bird and Baby. This pub has impressive literary ties, with an Oxford writer’s group known as The Inklings holding informal lunch gatherings from the 1930s to the 1960s. Members included C.S. Lewis, who distributed copies of his manuscript of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for feedback in 1950. J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson were also prominent members of the group.
I’m calling a tie on this one. The pubs in both towns are a fun way to experience a bit of history. I wouldn’t rave about the food in either, but there’s a reason British pub food isn’t the King of the culinary scene.
And the winner is…
In my completely fair tally, it looks like Cambridge wins, 4-2 (fancy that!).
Wherever you go, we hope you luck out with pleasant weather. If you’ve been to both, what’s your vote?